Today we are pleased to present Conflict and Consensus, a three-part conversation led by author and educator Pablo Wolfe. In this first episode, Pablo explores the term “civics” and offers us a working definition for these conversations. He investigates how it’s interpreted differently from various perspectives, and how teachers who believe in the civic purpose of schools are navigating these turbulent times.
In this first episode, Pablo is joined by follow educator Ylisse Yepez. Ylisse has 36 years of experience in the classroom working with her readers and writers and is passionate about trauma informed practices. In this conversation, Ylisse shares two experiences where she needed to navigate conflict in the classroom from a civics minded perspective, how it resolved, and what she took away from each experience.
Pablo: Hello, colleagues in the education world. Welcome to Conflict and Consensus, three teachers on the pursuit of civic learning. I'm your host, Pablo Wolfe, and I'm here for our first episode with my co-host, Ylisse Yepez.
Ylisse: Hello, nice to be here.
Pablo: Thank you all so much for joining us. So I'm going to do a little table setting and then we're going to dig into the real feast when I pass the mic to Ylisse. Does that sound okay, Ylisse?
Ylisse: That sounds perfect.
Pablo: This series is about a topic that goes by many names, civics, civic education, civic learning. A topic that, like so much in our political landscape right now, comes with a great deal of controversy. And yet, one thing we can agree on is that as a country we're not very good at teaching it. Let me just start quickly with some stats. Only seven states require a full year of civics instruction in high school, 13 states have no requirement at all when it comes to civics. The federal government spends $50 per student on STEM education and only 5 cents per student on civics, which is down 90% since the year 2000. Less than one in four eighth grade students demonstrates proficiency in civics. Only 15% are proficient in history. And less than half of Americans can name all three branches of government. So there's broad agreement across the political spectrum that something has to be done about these deficits.
But what? And how? Right and left can't seem to agree how to define the term civics or civic education. Those on the right would prioritize the founding fathers and the structures of government. And those on the left would argue for greater emphasis on activism, cultural change, and honest accounting of our nation's past. For the purposes of our podcast, we're going to use the term civic learning, which to us is all about showing students how to use a combo of academic skills and knowledge of social systems to build bridges to the world around them and to exert some influence on that world. In our heated political climate, it's no wonder the teachers who are caught in the middle fear stepping into the fray. Many are in right-to-work states and have no union protection. Others fear backlash from parents or hostile school boards. It's a difficult time to be a teacher, especially one who feels a responsibility to prepare their students for active participation in society.
So I thought we could do a show about what it's like to teach with a civic intent in this climate. And rather than me spout out theory on this stuff, I thought it would be best for you to hear from teachers themselves. So we'll have three episodes each with a different teacher in a different corner of the country talking real talk about what it's like teaching with a civic intent right now, and what happens, the good, the bad, and the ugly when you're bold and step into the fray. All right, table set. Let's get to the good stuff. Ylisse, welcome. Can you tell us a little bit about the community that you teach in?
Ylisse: Yes, absolutely. So I am a three decade, veteran ELA teacher, and I've been in this community for a really long time. It's a small rural community and it's nestled between larger cities with diverse populations, but my teaching community is about 96% white, traditional values, fairly conservative. It's a community with hardworking families. Unfortunately, about 7% of our families are living below the poverty line and, like many small communities, it is both supportive of education and critical of it. And within the past few years, I've seen an uptick in groups that challenge and question teachers' practices and curriculum, like so many teachers across the nation.
The group seem to be working with other groups and political forces whose beliefs in align with theirs. And sometimes these advocates don't have children in the districts that they advocate with or for. They'll attend school board meetings with their concerns and their challenges. I've heard from other colleagues across the county that some of the groups have monitored teachers' online activities and scrutinized texts and classroom practices, and we've seen some of that a little closer to home here. And it's been a bit of a balancing act, to be honest.
Pablo: One component that we think of when we think of civic education is the importance of talking about identity, race, class, and all that comes with it, so that we can understand how to talk to each other. You've had experiences around that in your own classroom. Can you talk a little bit about your experiences with talking about race in your class?
Ylisse: Absolutely. So it stands a little bit to reason that with what's been going on in the political climate, some people are a little hesitant or reserved to bring up topics about race or identity, but I have been using similar tasks for many years. And in the fall I usually roll out a unit on identity and we talk about students as readers and writers and as people, I get to know them as who they are as young people and high school students. And part of the unit is reading multiple perspectives and narratives from young people across the nation whose experiences might be a little bit different from my students. And for years I have used the New York Times Learning Network series. It's a series that is called First Encounters with Race and Bias.
And it's really cool because the articles and the narratives are written by young people and they detail their experiences with bias and with race, and the narratives are pretty short and they're easy to read and discuss. And like I said, I've been using them for years, but a couple of years ago, the lesson that I have used for many years turned into a pretty big flashpoint in the community and it brought, what I like to think about, it brought out the worst and the best of my community and it was a couple of weeks of some real reflection and some real difficulties for myself, my family, my colleagues, and my students.
Pablo: How did it impact you? What happened?
Ylisse: So this story is really interesting because the lesson took place early in the day and I repeat the lesson throughout the day. So I was able to pinpoint where the difficulties started and how it began. But the lesson took place early in the day and by afternoon a really kind of misguided version of my lesson and comments were all over Facebook, comments about calling for my resignation, people wanting to hold special school board meetings to determine a form of punishment for me. There were some comments that wanted city council people to get involved to contact me and make me apologize. There were parents who wanted to see my lesson plans and my videos and whatnot.
So it was a week or so of pretty intense challenge. And as I said, it really did bring out a little bit of the best and the worst of my community. So no other texts that I have used from the New York Times or throughout my career have been as scrutinized as this. And it ended up though, it ended up having some really great results, if I can reflect on it and think of it as that. But it really was a first for me in my 30 plus year that it had gone to this level of intensity.
Pablo: And how did you respond to all of these accusations and this heated environment around you? Did you decide to push back? What was your process for responding to all this?
Ylisse: So after the initial shock, the best response came from my students. So I followed their lead. Many students, I mean I have hundreds, literally, of emails from students, former students from 10 years ago, 20 years ago. They really showed their outpouring of support with emails and letters to administration, letters to the newspaper. The support was incredible. Parents sent me letters, they sent me flowers. I heard from community members, the library, just colleagues. It was incredible. It was almost like I had pulled the cork out of a bottle and really good things came from it. People started talking about race and bias, and the local library decided to do a display of books that would inform the community about race and bias. And I had some wonderful brave conversations with parents and students, but I think my fortunate experience is not mirrored by colleagues across the country. I was very lucky that administration supported me 100% and saw the outpouring of support from my former students and from parents. And it ended up being, I think, a learning experience for myself and for my students, and parents, and families.
Pablo: It seems like an incredible example of how a group of citizens, of people can get together to address a challenge within the community. What happened with the Black Lives Matter painting that you had in your classroom? There's a different story there with a different outcome. Can you tell us about that?
Ylisse: Yeah, it was soon after this kind of settled, the dust settled on this first experience. I heard from a former student who wanted to stop by with a gift for me. And I had this student maybe five or six years ago, and she came to my classroom with a painting that she had made of the Black Lives Matter logo. And she wanted to thank me for my courage and for trying to help young people learn about bearing experiences. And she gave me the painting and it was first thing in the morning and I set it on my counter with the other books and other posters and paintings, and I didn't really think anything else about it. By afternoon, I received an email that I needed to remove the painting and with an explanation that I would have a conversation with administration later. But I was very willing to do that.
I have a good relationship with administration. So I questioned though why I had to remove my painting when there were other staff in the entire county who clearly display other mementos and items with statements on them, belief statements on them, why was this particular logo or this particular painting being questioned? But even before I was able to have a conversation about it, so this stretched out a little bit as well, before I was able to have a conversation about it, students came to me again and showed me pictures of other things that they've seen in other classrooms. And I didn't want it to turn into a negative experience for my students or a distraction for them, so I had to make a tough decision about what I really wanted to come out of this. Did I want to-
Pablo: Can I ask you, Ylisse, sorry to interrupt you?
But can I ask you what did they show you pictures of? What else was being displayed in other classrooms?
Ylisse: Oh. No, absolutely. That is a great question. So it wasn't only my classroom, you know kids on social media, they hear from their peers throughout Michigan and the counties and they get going on tapping into different resources and they show me pictures of different types of flags that represent blue lives and flags that show don't tread on me kinds of things, and some other logos that have alternative meanings with the online communities that teachers might not know about. So I really was concerned that it was starting to take the student's attention and distract them and kind of rile them up a bit. And I didn't want to see that happen to them.
So I had to make the decision of what I really wanted there and whether I wanted to dig my heels in and put the painting up or whether I wanted my students to learn the lesson about equity and fairness and about the lives of our Black leaders and Black citizens who have made a difference in our world, and our Black and brown mentors who have been positive role models for teachers and for learners. And so I decided to remove the poster or the painting.
Pablo: That must have been an incredibly difficult decision for you. How would you respond to those who would say that's rolling over, that's giving in, you shouldn't have taken it down?
Ylisse: Yeah, that is a really good question, Pablo, because I did have some of that. I did have some colleagues encourage me, not only put it back up, but to not have taken it down in the first place and put it back up and really fight for it. And also the hardest part was I felt like I turned my back on my few Black and brown students that I actually have. And that was really difficult for me. I felt like I wasn't representing them. And as the only Latina in the community here, as an educator, I was really struggling with how I was turning my back on my students. But I think the larger outcome for me, the longer gain for me, I guess, was that my students would see that I had bigger goals in mind than to create a distraction or to create another flashpoint.
My goal was for them to learn and to respect and to honor diversity, and that was my bigger goal, and to respect each other. And I hope I achieved that by kind of quieting down the fray, as you put it, and kind of bringing things back to some normal balance. But in this process, Pablo, one of my colleagues actually reached out to the ACLU and it was really interesting, the education that I received by just talking with some of the staff there. They did not represent me legally. There was no legal ramifications or anything, but it was really wonderful to know that people were able to have conversations about fairness and equity and whether or not I had the right to display a painting.
Pablo: I mean, it's really interesting, Ylisse, because you're showing us that there are moments where you have a decision to make about whether you are going to go to the mat or whether this is a time where you're going to step back and not invite conflict and sort of play a longer game with your students, as you put it. But are there moments when a student expresses an idea that touches a nerve, maybe it touches an aspect of your identity or an identity of someone in the classroom, or that it borders even on hate speech? Is there a moment like that where you can't equivocate? How have you handled those kinds of moments?
Ylisse: Well, that is exactly like in diversity work we're taught to examine our own biases and to interrogate our own identities and to really reflect on those things. And thankfully I was able to do that. There was a situation that really hit a nerve and it was very difficult. It was a very emotional experience and it was hard for me to distance myself from it. So we had, well, just typical English comess in process and just talking about a text that we were reading and it was kind of a metaphoric or figurative passage. And so I turned to the students and I read it aloud and said, "So what do you think the author wants from us here? What does he want from the reader?" And a boy in the back of the classroom yelled out, "Build the wall." And I was stunned, first of all, because the text had absolutely nothing to do with immigration or anything at all to do, it had nothing to do with that topic.
So at first I felt targeted and then I felt anger and sadness, and it was like everything was in slow motion. And I simply said, "What? Really? You think that's what the author is asking for here? Can you explain that to me?" And he kind of giggled and laughed and looked for some peer support and a couple kids did laugh. And I said, "No, I'm really interested because I don't see that. Where do you see that the author is asking us to build the wall, where do you see that?" And I lowered my voice and I tried to engage him and he stopped and he listened and he waited and I just kept pushing, pressing a little bit, calling him in. And I said, "I don't see it. Can you tell me where you see that?" And he said, "No, I can't." And it was pretty quiet in the room. And I was so tempted to say something else back, but I didn't, I let the silence kind of speak for itself there.
Pablo: What an incredible moment of decision-making for you. I mean, again, you could push back, you could get angry, you could make a speech. What made you handle it the way you handled it?
Ylisse: I think because there were so many students looking at me, waiting for my response, knowing fully that I was locked into this moment with this student and that I am Mexican, I am of the heritage that he was degrading. And I wanted to rise above that in a way that was not embarrassing to him or confrontational. And so I just called him in and I asked him where he saw it and he didn't have a response that was, so he stayed silent. And I think, as I said, the silence just kind of hung there for a little bit. And students were, I think, grateful that I didn't turn it into a bigger conflict.
Pablo: Thank you for sharing that story with us. So is it worth it, Ylisse? I mean, this is an extraordinary amount of struggle and emotional labor that you take on when you have the moment like this and you take the high ground like you did. Is it worth taking that high ground? Is it worth the endurance that this sort of work calls of you?
Ylisse: I definitely think it's worth it, Pablo. It is not easy. It is not a quick fix. There are no quick fixes and there are no checklists, for me anyway. It is a daily process. It takes a lot of reflection and processing with colleagues. And I've been very fortunate to have some wonderful colleagues who I've been able to exchange ideas with. But it is worth it in the long run because I think our students are hungry for balance and they're hungry for information that uplifts them and helps them to be strong and make good decisions and not fall into what they see on social media and in the news where adults fight and argue and degrade one another. And I think they are in need of some of that guidance from us. And I've been doing this for a really long time, so I think I have a little bit of the stamina to hang in there for the long run with helping our students see the best of the possibilities that could come from having some courage with civics in mind.
Pablo: In hanging in for the long run and thinking a little bit about that, can you bring this back to the first story and what happened and how it concluded?
Ylisse: Yes. Oh, well, that is the best of the best. So the first student who started the online campaign against me and created this little whirlwind of negativity, asked to speak with me maybe a month or so after the event. And we had a conversation and the student was very remorseful and very transparent about why they did what they did, and it was really to gain attention and to kind of sabotage the lesson because they were uncomfortable with it. And the student and I had a great conversation. It was a very emotional conversation. We ended with the promise that we would find the good in things, and the student asked for a hug, and I welcomed the opportunity to let the student know that I cared about them as a person. But what they said to me, I probably will not ever forget, they said, "If there was a school board meeting against you and a lot of people showed up, I would be right in the front row there to defend you." And to me, that was the reward of taking the high road and going for the long game instead of the conflict.
Pablo: Thank you so much for sharing your stories and your experiences, Ylisse. I think there's a lot for us to learn from these anecdotes, and I think you've reminded us of the first lesson in any civic learning, which is to hold the ideas close, but hold the people even closer. Thank you for being with us today.
Ylisse: Thank you so much, Pablo. I appreciate the time.
Pablo: And thank you all for joining us. In our next episode, we'll be talking to Rachel Hsieh from Oregon, an elementary teacher and instructional coach, who will give us some practical advice on how to navigate contentious topics. I hope you'll join us for the conversation.
Pablo Wolfe is a Washington DC-based educator who promotes civic education as a means to improve student engagement, celebrate student identity, and embolden the next generation of citizens. He's been a public school administrator, a staff developer with the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project, a teacher, and a parent, and in all of these roles has sought to make school a training ground for civic life. He is the co-author of The Civically Engaged Classroom: Reading, Writing, and Speaking for Change and the Unit of Study: Historical Fiction Book Clubs. His work has also been featured in School Library Journal and Middleweb Blog.
Pablo is the Founder and Executive Director of the Coalition of Civically Engaged Educators, a national K-12 community of practice for civic-minded educators who seek to improve student outcomes and transform schools. Pablo is also a Visiting Fellow at the SNF Agora Institute at Johns Hopkins University.
Whether planning town hall meetings with groups of 7th graders, writing letters to elected officials, or organizing opportunities for service learning, Pablo believes that academic skills are best learned when applied towards addressing injustices. A strong believer in the role of teachers as agents of social change, he strives to thread this idea through his writing, staff development and teaching.
Ylisse joell Yepez is a proud Latinx educator who has spent 36 years reimagining education with her high school writers and readers. She was a member of the teacher education faculty at Siena Heights University for 13 years where she developed the love for mentoring and coaching new teachers. Ylisse is active in the Michigan Council for Teachers of English, the Coalition for Civically Engaged Educators and the National Writing Project. She is passionate about Trauma Informed Practices in the classroom and is currently a curriculum consultant for the University of Michigan's Trauma Informed Programs and Practices for Schools. Her background in DEI and Restorative Practice has strengthened her commitment to helping vulnerable youth find a safe and equitable place to belong. She finds joy in reading, writing, the arts, her pets, and most of all, her daughters.