Teachers under scrutiny for lessons on social justice

by Natalie Quek

Two courses on white privilege, racism, and American society. Two Seattle high school teachers.  One is punished by the Seattle School District; the other is criticized on national media outlets.

In 2013, the Seattle School District pulled Jon Greenberg from his job teaching Citizenship and Social Justice at the Center School and transferred him to Hamilton Middle School after one white student issued a complaint about his class. The curriculum included a unit called Courageous Conversations, which came “from districtwide professional development to increase cultural competency for its 5,000-member staff,” Greenberg wrote in an Op-ed piece for the Seattle Times.

His unwanted transfer was followed up with an additional two-week suspension that delayed his return to the Center School until mid-February of this year. Additionally, the Seattle School District suspended elements of Courageous Conversations that were intended as ‘training for adults’ from the high school curriculum.


Steve Greenberg

“In the Courageous Conversations format, students are asked to speak the truth. What the Greenberg decision tells us is that only certain students can tell the truth,” said Douglas Edelstein, Hale social studies teacher.

Edelstein noted that American history is indeed an awkward and uncomfortable topic, but that everyone’s voice must be heard in order for equality to be reached.

“The Greenberg Decision is not only about a teacher’s right to teach, but also about whether student experiences can be heard in the classroom,” Edelstein said. “Courageous Conversations called for African American students to talk about their experience, which made one white student feel uncomfortable. Black voices and black truth have been silenced in the classroom.”

“Imposing a two-week suspension, on top of already imposing a year-long expulsion from Center School, will not only needlessly impede the learning of Jon’s students, but will confirm our doubts and further discourage educators from bringing issues of race and social justice into educational focus for our students,” the teachers union told new Seattle Schools Superintendent Larry Nyland in a letter.

Almost two years after the original punishment of Greenberg, Moses Rifkin, a physics teacher at Seattle private school University Prep, found himself in a similar situation. His curriculum on white privilege, which Rifkin created as part of his college-level physics class, was criticized on a national broadcast from FOX News. News anchor Elisabeth Hasselbeck and reporter Katherine Timpf from the National Review found Rifkin’s lesson on privilege in the science world to be irrelevant to physics.

In the course syllabus for the unit, Rifkin wrote, “I think these are ideas that cross disciplines. Having an understanding of how people end up doing what they do (and more broadly, how our society functions) is a critical aspect of learning and thinking critically. Senior physics seems to be the class that we share, and so our investigation can begin here. In other words: why not a physics class?”

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Fox News

“We’re consistently behind other developed countries in science and math – maybe it’s because physics teachers aren’t teaching physics,” Timpf said on air.

This notion that the two subjects are mutually exclusive is exactly what Rifkin hopes to disprove with his course.

“I’d argue that physics teaching can and should involve conversations about the culture of physics. I also think that conversations about all forms of privilege are difficult to have in our society, including white privilege, and that there are some who wouldn’t object to me asking the question that guides the unit [Why are there relatively few black physicists, relative to the American demographics?] but who don’t think that the possibility of unearned privilege or disadvantage have anything to do with it,” Rifkin said over email.

His curriculum originally gained publicity after he spoke in a video shown at the annual National Association of Independent Schools’ “People of Color Conference,” and wrote a guest blog post on Delaware private school physics teacher John Burk’s blog.

“I posted my guest blog on Thursday afternoon; it was on ‘National Review’ by the weekend; the Fox News story ran Wednesday. The fact that it all happened over our mid-winter break made everything even more surreal,” he said.

Unlike the district’s actions taken against Greenberg, independent school University Prep is in full support of Rifkin.


University Prep Yearbook

“While I respectfully decline to talk further, University Prep is fully aware of and supports Mr. Rifkin’s work with his students as part of our commitment to provide our students an education that helps them grow into socially responsible, intellectually courageous citizens of the world,” Head of School Matt Levinson said in an email to the National Review Online.

“My understanding of the Greenberg case highlights for me, in part, the privilege that I enjoy as an independent school teacher. Our school gets to set its own mission and agenda…and when the National Review and Fox News attention developed, my administration and community as a whole were unbelievably supportive. It’s not lost on me why Mr. Greenberg didn’t receive that support, and I feel both lucky and inspired to try to talk to other educators, public and private, about the importance of having this conversation in science classes,” Rifkin said.

Students also have shown their support for Rifkin. Before the comments were removed on the National Review’s website, this one from an anonymous former student was posted:

“For those of you stating that a physics class is a place solely for the study of physics and a few hours of class time cannot be ‘wasted,’ I believe you have a gross misunderstanding of the pervasiveness of race and privilege in every school and every classroom in America. These aren’t issues that vanish when you walk through the door of an academic institution, they shape every interaction and each student’s learning experience, for better or worse. Discussing race and privilege in Mr. Rifkin’s class has enlightened an entirely new way of thinking amongst his students.”

KIRO Radio’s Dori Monson Show voiced similar negative opinions toward Rifkin, accusing him of using this class as a way to deal with his own ‘guilt,’ for teaching at an affluent private school instead of at a public school.

“I’m not teaching at a public school because I don’t have a teaching certificate….I don’t know if guilt is quite the right word, but it’s not an unfair one: I do want to make as big a difference in the world as I can, and I think that your average independent school student generally has an advantage in life over your average public school student (though that’s certainly not true for all),” Rifkin wrote. “In a way, Monson’s partially right in that this curriculum grew out of recognizing that, in the setting where I was teaching, I had to be talking about privilege in a way that I might not as much in a public school; my students all have a degree of educational privilege, regardless of their race, that other public school students don’t have access to and I want them to understand what that means.”

“I want to introduce my students to the ideas of racial and gender privilege, to the idea that our society is far from a meritocracy, and to broaden their conception of who does science (racially, gender-wise, etc.) to include a much broader slice of society,” he wrote in his guest blog post.

“I think we’re often not talking about privilege as a society because it stands in direct contrast to the idea that everyone in America gets what they deserve. Learning about privilege necessarily involves a critique of the idea of America as a meritocracy, and that’s a pretty fundamental idea that, I believe, resists questioning.”

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