Teacher Suspended Because He Made Students Think May 17, 2011

Teacher Suspended Because He Made Students Think

Back in high school, my English teacher had us read excerpts from Ecclesiastes. Not because it was religious in nature, but because it was a wonderful piece to analyze and discuss.

With younger students, it’s harder to get them to have serious discussions about literature, so some teachers try to analyze different things. Like song lyrics.

John Orme, an English and History teacher at Gordon Price school in Ontario, Canada, had his kids read and discuss the lyrics to a song from 1986 called “Dear God” by the British band XTC.

If I taught English, I don’t know that I would have chosen the same piece, but if the point is to analyze lyrics and have a conversation about them, does it really matter?

Despite the fact that the lyrics talk about questioning god’s existence, the teacher wasn’t trying to preach atheism. He wanted to have a conversation about why his students believed what they did.

And one parent wants none of that:

[Amanda Griffiths] said [her daughter] Kelsey’s class was asked to explain what the author was trying to convey through the lyrics and what they thought about his message.

According to Griffiths, her daughter wrote that the author was saying he didn’t believe that God exists and that the stories in the Bible are untrue. As for what she thought of the author’s message, the 12-year-old wrote: “I hate this because I believe in God and always will.”

Kelsey Griffiths said Orme later asked her to stretch out her answer and give a better explanation as to why she holds that belief.

“But there’s no real reason why you believe in God,” she said. “It’s just a faith thing. I couldn’t think of anything about why. I just do.”

The girl said she was so upset she stuffed the assignment into her pocket and brought it home to show her mom, instead of handing it in.

The daughter is clearly distraught. Look at how horrified she and her mom look!

Griffiths was upset because the teacher asked her daughter to explain why she held her beliefs…? That’s a great question to ask students! It’s not like Orme was taking off points because Kelsey said she believes in a god. Schools needs to facilitate more conversations like that. Hell, if there’s any truth to what she teaches her daughter, Griffiths should welcome the opportunity for Kelsey to explain her beliefs.

“The whole thing, start to finish, is just wrong on six or seven levels,” said Griffiths, who added that to her knowledge, her daughter has never received an assignment similar to this before.

Probably not. It takes a damn good teacher to be able to moderate that discussion. Most teachers would just shy away from it altogether.

To be clear, I’d be opposed to this if it was trying to preach atheism to kids. But just having that discussion? Asking children whether they agreed or disagreed with the lyrics, and having them back it up? That’s something kids need to learn how to do at a young age.

Zak at Canadian Atheist feels the same way:

… if the teacher was only doing his job and asking tough questions, then this is just another example of religion’s inability to take criticism.

Why are some Christian parents so afraid of their children simply being exposed to different points of views or ways of life?

When I have kids, I hope I have more respect for my children than to think they’re going to change their beliefs/lifestyle in an instant just because they had a conversation about it. If I raise them properly, they’ll be able to explain why they believe what they do.

Meanwhile, Orme has been pulled from the classroom “until the board concludes its investigation into whether the religiously themed assignment was appropriate and consistent with curriculum.”

At least some parents know a good teacher when they see one:

“It has been blown out of proportion,” said Wendy Hine, whose 12-year-old daughter is in the class.

“You have an excellent teacher who really, really has a good connection with the kids,” she said. “This is now affecting their education.”

Hine was also perplexed as to how the concerns of a single parent could lead to a teacher’s removal.

“This one parent and one student spoke for all of us and I don’t think that’s very fair,” she said. “All of the other parents need to be heard.”

Fiona Grant-Pride agreed.

“I think it’s ridiculous,” she said. “That’s why these kids go to school, to learn how to think for themselves.”

Grant-Pride said her daughter Andrea, 12, was so upset over losing her teacher that she and her friends created a poster calling for Orme’s return.



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  • Claudia

    This reminds me of a social studies teacher I had. He was a black-power type who presented himself to us the first day: “Hello, my name is John Doe. But that’s not my real name, that’s my given name, my slave name“.

    I was one of two white kids in class, and he would regularly go off on subjects of race and made no secret he was more Malcolm X than he was MLK. We had to listen to speeches by both men, compare and contrast and give our own reasoned opinion.

    I remember him as a great teacher because he really challenged me to think. Despite his radical positions, I never felt disrespected or unsafe in his class. He would never tolerate bullying in his class and was much happier to hear reasoned disagreement than mindless agreement.

    A teacher who makes you intellectually uneasy, who challenges you to think and justify your opinions and worldview is doing their job right. Of course parents have a right to be vigilant that a teacher doesn’t step over the line into telling a child what to think about religion or making them feel unwelcome or unsafe for their opinions. However if you think that there’s something wrong with having your child exposed to different worldviews in school, you’ve entirely missed the point of what education is for.

  • HumanistDad

    I, too, am a teacher and have tread upon this ground as well. I once put the lyrics to the Canadian anthem up on the board for discussion and most kids felt that the lyrics were not that great. However, if some parents had found out we were critically examining them, they’d go apeshit!

    The issue with this teacher has nothing to do with whose feelings were hurt but whether he followed the rules set by the Board and Education Act. On the face of it, I don’t see an infringement. But, I also don’t think the teacher brought this particular song into the classroom without an agenda to make kids think about their religious beliefs. But, why is that a bad thing?

  • You can just see the massively oversized letters she used to write I HATE THIS. That’s some serious anger there based on having to simply read about someone having a different opinion than her own. Not suffering any negative effects because of her own opinions, or witnessing any atrocities taking place as a result of some distorted worldview with a twisted morality. Just someone who might disagree with her.

    What kind of massive insecurity complex has that poor kid had instilled in her? Great parenting, there.

  • Anonymous

    Au contraire, when “Dear God” came out, it was not controversial. It was a great indie song that no one cried over, AFAIK. This family is just looking for reasons to be offended.

    My English class (a hundred years ago) did a section on “Sympathy for the Devil,” (to explore the theme of evil) and I don’t think anyone was struck by lightning.

  • Perhaps the religious parents would’ve been happier if the teacher explained the nuances of Thick as a Brick by Jethro Tull?

  • As for what she thought of the author’s message, the 12-year-old wrote: “I hate this because I believe in God and always will.”

    My first thought was what does that have to do with the assignment? Then I wondered if that wasn’t the point, to challenege the student to look past their preconceived notions and analyse lyrics objectively.

  • Gabriel

    The most controversial English lesson I remember having, was the one where we had to critically analyse a girlie mag. Of course, the teacher certainly did have an agenda of making us think about what these magazines are putting into our brains, but that’s a good thing.

    Well, maybe it’s not such a good thing for big business and the advertisers. 😉

  • pulled from the classroom “until the board concludes its investigation…”

    I think the area voters need to seriously consider pulling those schoolboard members (who did the pulling) out of their jobs in the next election.

  • MIDVALCRE

    Just to add a correction, when Dear God came out in 1986 it WAS controversial. Many stations refused to play it due to the backlash from many listeners.

  • Kaylya

    Griffiths, a Roman Catholic, notified the west Mountain school’s principal of the assignment after she said her daughter “came home from school in tears.”

    It amuses me that this parent could, if she chose, send her child to a publicly funded school where the curriculum is “infused” with her own religious beliefs; for some reason, she has not, and now she complains when one assignment in one class touches on religion (or lack thereof). In this particular case, the Catholic school is literally right next to the one her daughter attends so location isn’t the reason.

  • Brian

    I taught the “Bible as Literature” for 30 year. I got away with it because I treated it exactly as literature, with god, jesus, moses, balaam as characters in literature, just as I taught, say, Greek mythology.

    Ecclesiastes, of course, delineates a belief which does not include an afterlife. I taught it as an essay.

    I wonder if I could do it in today’s cauldron.

  • Dave Collins

    “I’d be opposed to this if it was trying to preach atheism to kids.”

    So what you’re saying is… teach the controversy? Tut.

  • andrew

    she and her friends created a poster calling for Orme’s return.

    I think we could step that up a notch and get a facebook page to show support for her, just as with Judy Mays

  • Miko

    I fail to see how it’s the job of an English/History teacher to compel students to think about arguments for/against the existence of a deity.

  • JD

    I think this shows it’s the loudest, most obnoxious people that have the most impact. The photo doesn’t make them look obnoxious, but it’s posed because they want to play the victims. If the description is accurate, I don’t think the teacher was out of line. It would be out of line if there was some kind of hostility, but I’m not seeing that.

  • Anonymous

    Do public schools still screen the Zeffirelli Romeo & Juliet?

    http://www.cherrycoloured.com/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2009/03/zeff.jpg

    Or has that become too risky these days?

    In my district, it was shown in Junior High School.

  • I don’t think it has anything to do with arguments for/against the existence of a deity.

    The original questions had to do with “What do you think of this song?” “Explain why you like/dislike this song’s message.” That has less to do with beliefs and more to do with learning to communicate your opinions and why you hold them.

    You don’t have to be an atheist to do this.

    “I didn’t like this song’s message because I believe in God according to the Bible. I was raised in this faith and believe that it’s the right way to live my life. I think that this song is wrong because it says X and the Bible says Y.” is a perfectly acceptable way to approach this kind of discussion. The teacher (according to my information) did not tell her that her belief in God was wrong; he merely asked her to expand on why she didn’t like the song’s lyrics.

    Sooner or later, everyone is going to have to explain something that means a lot to them. It’s probably not going to be to someone who shares their beliefs and values, so they had better start thinking about how to construct a coherent statement now.

  • T-Rex

    Sounds like she needs to send her kid to the local school of superstition instead of public school. The kid obviously hasn’t learned all the canned answers needed to defend her superstitions and requires more programming. *sarcasm

    I feel terrible for this kid. Not because of what she was exposed to at school, but because of what she is exposed to in the home and the local house of superstition.

    Religion sucks.

  • Cyndi

    I’ll never forget Mr. Brunson, my ninth grade English teacher having us break down “Come Together” by the Beatles. We had to analyze it and explain what the frak it meant. It was certainly challenging, especially back in the day when we had no internet to search. We had to use our brains. I’m not sure what my conclusion was but I’m pretty sure it was wrong. However,I got a good grade because I put effort in to my response. That kid, how pathetic that she wasn’t encouraged to think about why she believes. For a Christian this is a great opportunity for a “testimony”. Or if there’s no testimony, an opportunity to indulge in some good ol’ creative writing.
    What a loser parent and a loser school board that would suspend a teacher over doing her job.

  • qwertyuiop

    Well, if this causes parents to go apeshit, might as well go all out next time and play some SLAYER!

    Also, the girl’s answer to the question should have been: because mom brainwashed me from birth, like her mom before her, and so on.

  • molly

    Questioning one’s beliefs in any religion seems to give way to the face, that they know it’s merely faith based and not based on actual facts. If you ask somebody to explain their math homework, they don’t get offended because there are facts to back up your answer. Just another point that religion is bogus.

  • fuzzybunnyslipperz

    I have found that most Christian parents don’t want their children taught or exposed to anything that could cause them to question Christianity. I was in a debate with some Christian parents about would an Atheist parent allow their children to go to bible school/camp/vacation because of course their reasoning was if we (Atheist parents) were so open-minded then we should allow our children to learn about their religion. I turned it around on them and asked would they send their child to a place to learn about Atheisim or even an all together different religion like Paganism or Taoism. 99% of them said no they would not. One parent said they would but would enforce that Christianity is the only “true” religion before sending their children and when they returned.

    So to answer your question, no Christian parents don’t want their children to think. They don’t want them to question what has been taught to them since birth and they certainly don’t want them exposed to anyone or anything that could make that happen.

  • Gibbon

    Hold it a minute. How is the behaviour of this teacher in any way wrong, let alone six or seven ways wrong? This isn’t a matter of someone being asked to consider different points of view, it is simply a case of a request for meta-analysis. The student has been asked what her opinion of the material was, which has been followed up with a request for the student to basically deconstruct and explain (critique) her own opinion. If anything, that is what teachers should be teaching.

  • Michelle

    This behavior by her mother is about control. I’m not sure where her father is or how that works in this family, but he is conspicuously absent from the story. Look at the picture, the way she is holding on with both hands. When parents control this much the child does not learn to think independently. She is far too old to cry about an assignment, but if she has never been put in the position to deal with something like that on her own it is not a surprising response. What is surprising is the entire school board bending over backwards for this woman when she has a religious school option right next door, unless that is exactly why – is it a funding thing?

  • Alt+3

    I love that song. I have it on my phone.

    Also, somebody needs to read 1 Peter 3:15 to this lady.

  • beckster

    The first time a parent complained about my teaching the principal at the time told me if a teacher doesn’t have at least one complaint from a parent, then they aren’t a great teacher because they are not challenging their students.

  • CS aka "Happy Cat"

    I’ve given up trying to question or reason with people about why they believe in god or hold a specific belief regarding religion. One of my temporary roommates believes the Bible completely and never knew an avowed atheist before he met me. He is 54! Adam and Eve, the Flood, etc.? All true as gravity to him. (I didn’t go into the Biblical contradictions). Of course he rejects evolution as “silly”. He also balked when I suggested the majority of Xtians think Creation and the flood are ancient myths.

    When we discussed faith, his example was my “faith” in a light switch working was analogous to his faith in Heaven, god, etc. When I responded that I had “faith” in the light switch because of evidence and science he failed to see any distinction. To help him understand, I offered to show him some Hitchens or Dawkins video clips. He declined harshly because he did not indulge things which questioned his faith. I’m currently looking for a new place to live. Immediately.

    Our nation is doomed.

  • I guess we better ban “Jonathan Livingston Seagull”

  • Natalie Sera

    I have repeatedly tried to get Christians to tell me what leads them to a belief in Jesus, and have never gotten an answer that amounts to more than “just because”. You either have faith or you don’t, but no one I have ever met has had a reason for their faith.

  • CS aka “Happy Cat”

    A p.s. to my last comment:

    The same roommate believes without reservation that anything god orders is “good” and “just”. This includes Biblical genocide, stoning, and any other nastiness the Bible says god mandates. Another reason I am moving.

  • holeydood3

    It looks like she may not believe in god already. She didn’t even capitalize it in her paper >_>

  • Dan

    “Why are some Christian parents so afraid of their children simply being exposed to different points of views or ways of life?”

    You’re kidding me, right? Why are some atheist parents so afraid of their children simply being exposed to different points of view or ways of life?

    If this teacher had picked a song in which the author was saying he DID believe in god, a student disagreed with that, and the teacher asked for an explanation of that student’s (lack of) belief, you would be all over that teacher.

    “Asking children whether they agreed or disagreed with the lyrics, and having them back it up? That’s something kids need to learn how to do at a young age.”

    But could a teacher present the ten commandments (or any passage from any religious text) and ask the kids if they agree or disagree and have them back it up?

    The hypocrisy here boggles the mind!!!

  • Dan

    Perhaps the problem here is that the teacher was asking tough questions about private family interests? If he was asking tough questions about why people write in one style over another, like literal and metaphorical, or if he asked why some choose to write in the form of poetry over a short story…

    But he seemed to take the idea of analyzing words and wrapping it around a sensitive private family topic.

    As an atheist, I think it’s great to have people think about why they believe what they do, children too. But this class just didn’t seem like the place for it.

    Much like Creationism shouldn’t be taught in a science classroom because it’s a religious topic trying to be discussed in a science classroom. Questioning religious beliefs also should not be taught in a literary classroom.

    Save all of that for a religious class – which I’d love for all schools to have where you can open and freely discuss religion in as much detail as you’d like, covering any religion you’d like.

    At MOST, I could see allowing the teacher to have had the students choose which religious book they’d like to write a paper on, and have that paper be on the writing style. He could give them the option of the Bible, Koran, Veda, etc.

  • frizzlefrazzle

    Last Tuesday, John Orme asked his students to evaluate a song titled Dear God. The tune was a controversial hit in 1986 for British band XTC.

    “This would be appropriate for a university tutorial, not Grade 6,” said Amanda Griffiths, whose daughter Kelsey, 12, is in the class.

    Huh, I didn’t think Canadians were that dumb. Teacher, “Evaluate this song.” Student, “but I’m only 12.”

    You know, that amendment in Missouri is looking more and more dangerous to me.

  • Dan said:
    “Questioning religious beliefs also should not be taught in a literary classroom.

    Save all of that for a religious class…”

    By my reading of the story, this situation was more about questioning how information is conveyed than the content of the message.

    The teacher, according to this post, did not question the song’s or the student’s stated beliefs; he merely questioned the structure and presentation of those beliefs.

    One cannot effectively teach English or critical analysis without any content to analyze.

  • Mikey

    Next time, he should use Don’t Stand So Close to Me by The Police.

  • ufd

    Just because they chose to be offended, does not make it offensive.

  • god forbid we ask our students to critically consider a serious issue that effects their lives daily…

  • treedweller

    I once heard my younger sister listening to the radio on Christmas morning, and they played this song. I expressed surprise and she responded that, because the song addresses god, it implies the author might still believe. Which is to say, there’s plenty to talk about besides whether there is or isn’t god. English class is supposed to teach us to convey ideas with words. It’s truly sad that a parent would fail to recognize this, but even sadder that it is so common.

    In TX, we solved this problem by spending all of our students’ time preparing for standardized tests. No time to think, we have to learn to fill in multiple-guess bubble sheets.

  • Jonathan

    HumanistDad@: It’s a bad thing when people learn how to think. Who is it bad for? Follow the money. Who is responsible for the reduction in education funding? Who puts millions into the hands of candidates who want to get rid of public education? Thinking people are dangerous to tyrants, bigots, flim-flam artists and most politicians. The more people can reason and see different points of view, the harder it is to control and fleece them and to get them to accept lies as truth and fantasy as history. Obama is just as guilty as his predecessors, if not more so. The unitary executive is the wave of the future, Big Brother is waking up, and he wants it ALL.

  • Greg

    I wonder what would have happened if it had been a song with Christian lyrics? Would there have been unhappy non-Christians complaining? Would this same girl and mother be complaining if the teacher asked her to expand upon why she believed what she did then?

    It’s strange, because when I was twelve, I, and many kids I knew desperately wanted to be treated like adults, and be given interesting questions like this – and it would have really made my English class far more interesting. I’m left wishing I’d had this guy for a teacher.

    Incidentally, we’re all assuming the teacher is an atheist, but it’s never mentioned in the news story as far as I can see. Wouldn’t it be deliciously ironic if it came out he was a Christian of some sort?

  • mihoda

    The unexamined life…

  • Greg

    Dan (at 10:28 in case it’s two different ‘Dan’s).

    Two things:

    Firstly, you are making the humongous assumption that a student who wrote:

    “I like this song because I don’t believe and never will believe god exists.”

    would not have likewise been asked to expand upon their answer. What the child wrote was not an acceptable answer to the question asked. Any teacher worth their salt would have asked the student to expand – ensuring the student actually put a bit of thought behind it.

    You are secondly making the likewise ridiculously huge assumption that the commentators here would have had a problem with your changed scenario. None of them have said anything even slightly suggestive that they would do so in the comments here.

    To brand the commentators as hypocrites shows that you have already come to your conclusion before seeing the evidence one way or the other, would you not agree? That being the case, you’ll have to understand if no-one takes your opinion on their hypocrisy or lack of it as being worth much.

    Either that, or I suppose it might show a lack of reading comprehension that I’m sure the teacher in question would have been disappointed in from his students!

    (Incidentally, your comparison of a religious text (the 10 Commandments etc.) to a song which may or not be atheistic in nature – I could make what I think is a reasonably strong argument the speaker is actually religious but struggling with their faith – appears rather dishonest. Why didn’t you suggest comparing it to a Christian song? It seems the obvious comparison and the fact that you didn’t, in favour of a comparison which is blatantly invalid*, make it seems intentional in some way.)

    *In case I have to spell it out for you – the two are not comparable because one is doctrine to an entire religion, and the other is one person’s viewpoint about the world put in song format.

  • ORAXX

    Thinking is the root of all atheism. Long live the thinker.

  • Fear. Fear that what you are discussing is so beyond the pale that it might invoke the wrath of the almighty just by discussing it is why a little girl will write, “I HATE THIS” on her paper. It’s one of the major tools that religion has to control thought. It is dangerous and powerful stuff. It’s the reason that people used to burn at the stake for even being brave enough to question. Relatively speaking, it hasn’t been that long since we were doing this to each other. There’s still a whole lot of stragglers left out there being subjected to this kind of mind control. Feel sorry them. Don’t for one minute stop trying to help them see a way out, but still, feel sorry for them.

  • blacksheep

    You’re kidding me, right? Why are some atheist parents so afraid of their children simply being exposed to different points of view or ways of life?

    If this teacher had picked a song in which the author was saying he DID believe in god, a student disagreed with that, and the teacher asked for an explanation of that student’s (lack of) belief, you would be all over that teacher.

    “Asking children whether they agreed or disagreed with the lyrics, and having them back it up? That’s something kids need to learn how to do at a young age.”

    But could a teacher present the ten commandments (or any passage from any religious text) and ask the kids if they agree or disagree and have them back it up?

    The hypocrisy here boggles the mind!!!

    Amen!

    Get used to it on this forum, Dan. I was thinking the same thing. If a Christian teacher asked an atheist kid to back up the reasons for his unbelief, you would see lots of ruffled feathers at FA.

    The question does not bother me. It’s good to ask challenging questions. I would have handled it in a gentler way with kids, maybe say, “OK – one thing I would like you to do is think about why you believe what you do, and we’ll speak about that tomorrow.”
    If you have worked with kids, you know that some of them are sensitive about being put on the spot about anything, not just religion. They need to learn how to be comfortable explaining themselves. So choosing the most personal and sensitive subject to put someone on the spot about is a bit obnoxious. “Give a better explaination as to why you hold this belief…”
    Better for whom?

  • blacksheep

    Fear. Fear that what you are discussing is so beyond the pale that it might invoke the wrath of the almighty just by discussing it is why a little girl will write, “I HATE THIS” on her paper. It’s one of the major tools that religion has to control thought.

    Who is trying to control thoughts?

    The girl is stating how she feels, and you are saying that her feelings are incorrect, that she should be feeling different thoughts.

  • Rob

    I’m going to side with the parent on this one. This song, while excellent both musically and lyrically, is practically an atheist anthem. I don’t think it’s an appropriate topic for a middle school literature class.

    As an atheist, I expect my children to be able to go to school without religious indoctrination. If I were a Christian, I would expect to free from the opposite.

    I understand that the point of the exercise was to make them think, but what is the expected outcome of making a 12-year-old dissect “Dear God”? Surely the teacher had an agenda or is a bit naive.

    Comparative religion in high school is the appropriate place to have this kind of assignment. It gives the parents the opportunity to have their children optionally exposed to religion (or lack thereof).

  • Annie

    I just listened to the song, as I had never heard it before (or at least don’t remember it). It appears that the voice in the song is one of confusion… praying to a god he doesn’t believe in. I think the girl totally missed the boat, and took the typical religious response of “I’m out of my comfort zone, so therefore I will not participate.”

    I wonder what this mom would have thought if her kid was in my mom’s CCD class in the 1970s… she used to have the kids listen to John Lennon’s “Imagine”.

  • Rob

    @Annie – it’s not a matter of whether the child missed out or not. I agree that the response by the parent was closed-minded. The child was only acting in the way that she was raised, so I don’t really blame her.

    The point to me is that religion should not be a topic of debate in the US public schools. There are many more ways to teach argumentative writing in a literature class, particularly to a middle school class.

    As I said in my post, save the religious discussions for a high school comparative religions course or outside of the public schools.

  • Jenny

    I had the opposite happen to me.

    In 10th grade we had an opinion assignment on a book (The Chrysalids, I think). I made some opinion about religion, with quotes from the book to back up my reasoning.

    My teacher marked it all wrong and put in bold text at the bottom “GOD WOULDN’T DO THIS!”
    I was in total shock. I mean, religion doesn’t really belong in public school, so why should I fail my assignment simply because my teacher doesn’t like my views?

    I really wish I had done something about it, but instead I just gave her attitude for the rest of the year….so she graded all my assignments on a whole other scale compared to others in the class. C+ at the end. Ugh.

  • Andrew Clunn

    I’m an atheist, but I’m with the parents on this one. You don’t pick that song to analyze unless the entire point is to plant doubt in a child’s mind. That’s not an English teacher’s job, and certainly not in a public school.

  • Laura

    And I just had the opposite situation with my own 12-year-old daughter. She recently came home from public school with a series of handouts about the Middle Ages that were covered with crosses, referred to the Crusades as the Church’s “Greatest Glory,” and proclaimed about converting “the barbarians” of the countryside to Catholicism. The pages were clearly taken from a Catholic school or possibly homeschool text.

    And yet I, an atheist who was deeply offended by the bias of the materials, said nothing to the teacher or the Principal. I talked to my daughter about the obvious bias of the material and found her some alternate information to use for the assignment, but I left it up to her what to write.

    I still wonder if I should have said something. I also wonder if I was the only parent offended by the material. We live in a pretty progressive and very diverse suburb. A lot of her classmates are Jewish, with a handful of other minority faiths represented. My family are Unitarian Universalists, and there are at least 3 other UUs in her class. Should I have objected more publicly? And what should I have said?

  • Matt H

    Figures. Some moron creationist blatantly emphasizes creationism in biology class and he gets a slap on the wrist when a student quietly complains to their parents.

    English teacher does this, student throws a temper tantrum, and he’s instantly removed.

    Moral of the story: throw temper tantrums to get things done

  • Emma

    It’s worth noting that there must have been other religious kids in the class doing this assignment. None of them seem to be complaining.

    Also, this girl says “there’s no real reason why you believe in God. It’s just a faith thing.” So why couldn’t she just expand on that reason and turn it into her response? Maybe add a few arguments to back it up?

    I’m sure plenty of commenters here would probably disagree with the “it’s a faith thing” argument. But this is a 6th grade homework assignment, not a philosophical treatise. As long as it looks like she put some thought into her response, the teacher probably would have been happy with it.

  • AJ Bird

    Perhaps these Christians should refer to their bible! 1 Peter 3:15 says, “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.”

  • Andromeda

    I’m an Atheist, but I didn’t raise my son to be an an Atheist. I left it up to him to form his own opinion. So when he announced one day that he was an Atheist, I asked him why. I didn’t want him to be an Atheist just because I was. No one else in the family is an Atheist including his father. He didn’t give me a good enough response so I pushed and asked for reasons.

    I don’t think it’s a bad thing to push children to think for themselves. Above all, I want my son to be open-minded. I don’t want my son to feel defensive about what he believes or be insensitive to others about their beliefs.

    I see nothing wrong with challenging someone about faith or their lack of faith, but it can be perceived as having an agenda when the issue is forced. Maybe a class of 12 year olds wasn’t the best forum for this discussion. A high school would have been better. However, public school is not the place unless it is okay with the parents.

    Bringing religion into school opens the door for the zealots and their “hard sell” tactics, religious and non religious. I know this teacher didn’t mean it that way, but it’s kind of all or nothing in the case of religion because of the ones that will try to force their views on our children; again both religious and Atheistic.

    Unfortunately, it’s difficult to have a rational discussion about religion without at least one person feeling attacked or threatened by someone else’s views, as is in this case with the girls parents.

  • Jenea

    It seems to me that we’re applying a double standard here. If my kid came home after her English teacher had his class analyze the lyrics to a song from some Christian rock band, and then asked her to justify her atheist beliefs, I’d be livid and rightfully so.

    Obviously critical thinking should be taught in the schools, but this teacher crossed the line.

    Should he be fired for it? All kinds of hell no.

  • Nick Andrew

    Religion always either folds or lashes out when asked to justify its belief.

  • Drew M.

    @Mikey

    Next time, he should use Don’t Stand So Close to Me by The Police.

    Brilliant!

  • Moose

    I have to share-

    I’ve had many good teachers in my past-but one of the best was a Social Studies teacher from my Senior year. He was unquestionably controversial-and a great lecturer because of his confrontational style.

    Once, when studying non-western cultures we went as far as ignoring the lunch bell and ordering Chinese food. Not a soul left-despite being told they could if they wished. We all chipped in-again, no one was coerced. We wanted to do this.

    He shared his experiences in the Air Force, including the time he discovered carrots are a bad choice if you throw up later from too much booze.

    He also shared a hundred other experiences that would probably make a modern teacher blanch.

    It’s these experiences that will always bring a smile to my face when I remember him…

    All from a man nicknamed “Dolores”.

  • I don’t fault the girl for running home in tears. It is just the way she was brought up. I don’t even fault the mother who made a stink about it. She was just trying to be a good cultural warrior to help Jesus out. It was the way she was brought up. I fault the School-board for over-reacting and removing the teacher from the class.

    I could see removing a teacher from a class if there was a serious accusation of assault or rape. But I think it is irresponsible to remove the teacher from the class while this particular incident is being investigated. Apparently, the girl’s mother has some soul-mates on the school-board. Fellow cultural warriors who will abuse their position to drum out teachers they don’t agree with.

  • The teacher should be reinstated with the horrible mother of this child to do 2 things:

    1) STFU

    2) GTFO

    The reason for that is that if neither her nor her little brat can take critical thinking, then go home and don’t EVER grace daylight again as you are nothing more than a detriment to society!

  • jose

    I expect from an English teacher to make his students think by questioning their grammar and vocabulary, not their faith in God. It’s an English class, right? What has God got to do with English?

  • Sinfanti

    No Jose, there’s more to a good English class than just making sure grammar is correct. It is about being able to convey an opinion clearly in writing. All this teacher did was ask the child to support her opinion. Nothing in the article states the teacher passed any judgement on the opinion itself, only to elaborate what it was based on.

  • Rob

    Jose – part of a good language/arts class, even in middle school, is to teach students how to write argumentative papers.

  • I forget who said it, some famous guy, “Most people would rather die than have to think.”

  • Rob

    My wife teaches language/arts to kids aged 10-11. She read this article with the comments and brought up some good points.

    To teach persuasive writing, you have to be able to find a topic that is not a simple one. Asking a kid what their favorite color is brings nothing interesting to the table.

    The problem in public schools is that politics and religion stir up a hornet’s nest of responses from the parents.

    This year, she gave out a writing assignment to have the kids respond to a specific portion of President Obama’s speech to students about education. A parent refused to have his child even read a quote from the speech about a student’s responsibility for their own education. He said, “I will not have my child read the words of that liar and brain washer.”

    I recently wrote an article on my blog related to this:
    What are we doing to the teachers?

  • Jean

    When I attending a religious college, they banned Prince’s movie “Purple Haze.” I walked all the way across town to the one theater in town that was showing it. I didn’t particularly like Prince. It was the principle of the thing.

  • Unfortunately, when you see a kid with parents who abuse it or when you see a bunch of kids in their teens running around doing mischievous things, you can easily attribute to parenting that behavior. When this girl is an ignorant adult with no ability to put critical thinking first and she and others have to suffer for it, it goes unnoticed most of the time as a product of a very dangerous frame of mind. This is what fundie bombers are made of.

  • Barbara

    The main problem here is that an adult was influencing (weather he meant it or not) young kids with the discussion of a deep subject like Religion. Even when two adults talk about it, sometimes they get to a bitter disagreement.It was worse in this case because this teacher was talking to kids with yet developing minds. He was completely out of place.

  • Lucy

    Have anyone of you read the song lyric imagining you were a 12-year-old believer? I have tried. It´s a sad song because it lists a lot of bad and ugly things and blame the christian god for them. It treats the christian god as ruthless, bad, etc. and, in fact, most of the problems mentioned are caused or can be solved by mankind, and aren´t because we are a mess. For me it´s logical that the girl felt bad.
    About the teacher, I don´t see why at that grade he had to ask philosophical questions. That´s for secondary school. English/History class is for analisyng a text, the shape of it, the vocabulary, the social and historical context and expressing each pupil’s thought but not for questioning their beliefs.
    It is as bad as if the teacher were a priest and, after asking to analyse a Bible fragment, he would question the opinion of an atheist pupil about it (opinion like “I believe that is like a Grimm Brothers’ tale because it sounds fantastic”).
    The teacher chose a sensitive subject and wasn´t subtle and careful and it offended a mother. In the same way some parents don´t want their children be taught with religion influence because they don´t believe, some parents don´t want their children to be questioned in their faith because they believe. Both positions are perfectly respectable.

  • Sven

    Teacher: Hey Billy, your like the Red Sox right?
    Billy: Yes teacher, I love ’em!
    Teacher: Can you tell us why you love the Red Sox?
    Billy: Mooooooooom!!!!!!
    Billy’s Mom: WRONG ON 6 LEVELS!!

  • Greg

    A couple of things from reading these comments:

    Nothing in the article suggests that the teacher was imposing his views on the students. The quotes given only say he asked for the students to give their opinions and back them up. The teacher was not in any way questioning or judging the children’s beliefs – but rather asking them to explain what those beliefs were.

    As an analogy, if a child said they loved a particular sports team, and the teacher asked them “to stretch out their answer, and give a better explanation as to why she” loves that sports team, are they questioning or judging, well, anything? Of course not! (Edit: this was not in any way influenced by Sven’s post as you can guess from the time stamps!)

    If he was imposing his views I am pretty sure no-one here would agree with it.

    To the people claiming kids at that age aren’t able to talk about things like religion:

    Obviously, I’m not Canadian (or American for that matter) – I went to school in Ireland. We had religious studies from primary school through to halfway through secondary school – in primary school it being more Christian studies.

    When I was around twelve, we were introduced to Anselm’s Ontological argument (among others), where not only I but another student were capable of raising objections to it. (Incidentally, at the time, I was still a Christian). I don’t think we were anything particularly special, but at twelve years of age we were able to give (admittedly unrefined) views on one of the big theological arguments. In fact, I still believe the main objection I raised is sound, although I could phrase it better now. Yet you think a child shouldn’t be expected to expand upon their own statement “I believe in God”?

    Indeed, when I was about eleven, in our English class we covered Animal Farm. Now, again, our views weren’t sophisticated, but consider the subject matter of that book – and yes, we were told about communism etc. – and we as kids handled it. Actually, we didn’t even consider any ramifications. When it comes to ideas, kids don’t need to be handled with kid-gloves.

    Just because a child’s views are unsophisticated at that age on big questions doesn’t mean they should be expected to not have any.

    As an outsider looking in, I do wonder if the problem you have with fundamentalism over the pond is largely caused by religion only ever being mentioned in depth to children in churches or other heavily biased situations.

  • truddick

    Andrew Hall–if you’re recommending a Jethro Tull song, “Wind Up” or “My God” would be preferred–

    On the subject as a whole, again we see the utter lack of integrity of school administrators nowadays. Teachers are suspended or dismissed willy-nilly; parents are presumed to know more about education than seasoned professionals; obdurate students must be coddled. Schools would perform better if the faculty were allowed to elect principals and superintendents!

  • Rob

    Greg – I agree with your comment. It’s your last statement that leads to the reason why I find a problem with the assignment. We have a pretty strict wall that separates church and state in the US. I don’t know about Canada (I should), but I think we’re mostly discussing this in the context of the US.

    Due to fundamentalism, we have had to be vigilant to protect our public schools from their proselytizing, particularly in more homogenous communities.

    So, while I agree with your statements, I have to stick with how I would feel as an atheist if this were to somehow happen in reverse.

  • JulietEcho

    During our eight grade (ages 13-14) unit on poetry, my teacher had us analyze several songs along with poems. One of them was “Dust In The Wind” by Kansas, and even in our *very* rural, Christian community, I don’t think there were any complaints. It was clear that when we were asked to evaluate something, we weren’t being told that our opinions were right or wrong.

    Maybe it wasn’t an issue because the song was popular with a more mainstream audience?

    Like it or not, religion impacts and exists in poetry and song. I mean, our national anthem is a religious song! Being asked to parse through what an author means and then being asked to agree or disagree with an author is just a hallmark of any good English class. Responding to “Dust In The Wind” with, “I disagree with the author because I think we’ll live forever in heaven,” is not a good enough answer, just like, “I agree with the author because I think that all we are is dust in the wind after we die,” is a poor answer.

    A good teacher will ask for at least some expansion in such cases.

  • Rob

    Greg – I actually misunderstood your last statement.

    Your last statement, as I understand its implication, is that fundamentalism could be rooted out in the schools. That’s possible, but it is also a protection under church/state separation. If anything, that was probably more the intent of the US framers than protecting a group like atheists. Many of the original colonists had fled Europe in response to religious persecution of their fundamentailsm.

    In addition, most of the teachers in our more fundamentalist regions are themselves fundamentalists.

  • Fred Trellis

    1 Peter 3:15

    But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.

  • jose

    Sinfanti, Rob, thanks for explaining it to me. I get it now.

  • Rob

    truddick – Very true. Teachers are getting the blame for everything wrong with education. Administrators are puppets for the parents and school board. It’s a mess.

  • Mark Robertson

    Miko says
    “I fail to see how it’s the job of an English/History teacher to compel students to think about arguments for/against the existence of a deity.”

    I always thought English was to do with fiction and critical thinking. I think what the teacher attempted to do fits in with that very well.

  • Blacksheep

    It seems to me that we’re applying a double standard here. If my kid came home after her English teacher had his class analyze the lyrics to a song from some Christian rock band, and then asked her to justify her atheist beliefs, I’d be livid and rightfully so.

    Obviously critical thinking should be taught in the schools, but this teacher crossed the line.

    Should he be fired for it? All kinds of hell no.

    Yes! Objectivity! Finally!

  • Keith

    I think that the board is foolish to suspend the teacher, but not nearly as foolish as the teacher was in believing that the lyrics of an 80’s band were worthy of analysis in a classroom setting.

    As for asking a 12-year-old to “expand upon” or in any way justify her religious beliefs? It’s none of his business, and he was way out of line. I’m not religious, but you don’t have to be to recognize that religious beliefs can be very private and not subject to public scrutiny.

    The teacher made some bad choices, and deserves a very long, very boring day in a Sensitivity Class, but not a suspension.

  • Greg

    Rob – I think you misunderstood that last comment twice, actually! 🙂

    I’m not trying to root our fundamentalism exactly: I think everyone has the right to believe whatever they like, and as strongly as they like and the only time you step in is when they make an action which imposes upon other people’s rights (I have the right to find their beliefs hilarious, of course… ;)). I was more making an observation, than anything else to be honest.

    I guess what I was trying to say was that by not providing an education in religion, you are effectively causing fundamentalism. If the only information children get about religion is from their churches, or religious parents, then the only education they are currently having about the subject of religion comes from a very biased source. That being the case, it seems natural to expect increased religiosity (and religious fervour) in such an environment.

    If you want to move from that observation to a course of action, then it wouldn’t have to be about pushing back, but rather allowing them to see that their church’s view isn’t the only one. It would be an attempt to water down the bias by giving information, rather than to insert your own bias.

    If this did cause religiosity to decrease, it would only be in the same way religiosity decreases in relation to education in general. There are studies showing that the better educated someone is, the less likely they are to be religious – but that doesn’t mean that schools and universities are a breach of the separation between Church and State.

    I don’t think it should be impossible to give information about religions without breaking Church-State separation in the US. As I understand it, the only problem would be if the school was favouring one particular viewpoint over another. Correct?

    So religious classes would be entirely constitutional as long as they are comparative religion classes, where the teacher is not preaching one religion over another. If enforcing that would be too difficult, a basic philosophy course would be a good alternative, as even if you steer clear of theology in it, you are still making available different ways of looking at the world.

    The goal of such a class wouldn’t be to make more atheists or less fundamentalists, but rather to impart knowledge of religion (or ethics/philosophies), and allow them to make their choices to do with faith from something other than a position of enforced ignorance.

    Indeed, the one stumbling block I could foresee for this kind of thing would be making sure you appoint teachers for the subject that are able to teach in an unbiased manner. Those people are certainly around, but the vetting process for the position would probably have to be strict with a religious studies class.

  • Rob

    We’re talking in the same general area. Many American high schools have a comparative religions class. As far as I know they’re optional, which probably means no fundamentalist kids. That’s just speculation though.

    To require it could be a potential nightmare, but may have the effect you suggest.

  • R.T.

    To those who think an english class is an inappropriate place to learn critical thinking skills:

    I’d have to argue that any and all humanities is one of the best subjects to learn critical thinking skills as one as a student is going to run into many, many ideas in them, and depending on one’s age, ideas that one has never encountered before. It is greatly important to be able to break down and analyze these ideas just for sake of understanding them for what they are if at least that.

    Considering that in the US society, and many others, that people are inundated by communication which convey all sorts of ideas, having the ability to address them with a critical mind is an absolutely necessary skill which even young students should possess.

  • David

    Where is a link to contact and lobby to get this teacher back in the classroom?

  • Ontario resident

    The Ontario Language curriculum is divided into four strands: Oral Communication, Reading, Writing and Media Literacy. I assume the lesson was developed for the Reading strand. FYI, here are expectations 1.5-1.9 for grade 6, which focus on higher-order/critical thinking skills. I’ll let you draw your own conclusions based on the information in the article and on the expectations below.

    Making Inferences/Interpreting Texts
    1.5 develop interpretations about texts using stated and implied ideas to support their interpretations
    Teacher prompt: “What is the story between the lines … beyond the lines? What clues did the author give that led to your conclusion? Why do you think the author doesn’t state these ideas directly?”

    Extending Understanding
    1.6 extend understanding of texts by connecting, comparing, and contrasting the ideas in them to their own knowledge, experience, and insights, to other familiar texts, and to the world around them
    Teacher prompt: “How does the author’s treatment of this topic compare with treatments of the topic in other sources?”

    Analysing Texts
    1.7 analyse increasingly complex texts and explain how the different elements in them contribute to meaning (e.g., narrative: contribution of characters, setting, and plot to the theme; persuasive argument: the role of the summing-up paragraph in highlighting the most compelling points in the argument)

    Responding to and Evaluating Texts
    1.8 make judgements and draw conclusions about ideas in texts and cite stated or implied evidence from the text to support their views
    Teacher prompts: “What conclusions can you draw from the events or information presented in the text?” “Has the author chosen the most convincing facts to support his or her opinion?”

    Point of View
    1.9 identify the point of view presented in texts; determine whether they can agree with the view, in whole or in part; and suggest some other possible perspectives (e.g., ask questions to identify any biases that are stated or implied in the view presented)
    Teacher prompts: “Who would be most likely to share this point of view? Who would not?” “How would you revise the text to appeal to a different or a wider audience?” “Why do you think stereotypes are used in certain texts?”

    (The Ontario Curriculum Grades 1-8: Language, 2006 – URL: http://www.edu.gov.on.ca/eng/curriculum/elementary/language18currb.pdf)

  • Lisa

    That particular child was obviously too immature to deal with the content. I don’t think the teacher was wrong, but I do think that the class might have been a little young to deal with that subject matter, or at least some of the students might be too emotionally immature to deal with it. It’s a fine line. I don’t at all thing suspension was warranted. That mother was being unreasonable to have him suspended. A conversation between the parent and teacher should have been enough to deal with the matter
    .

  • Britt

    I am really surprised at some of you guys. I took advanced English when I was 12 years old and topics like this were common place. It helped develop the skills I needed to succeed in Debate and in my current job. We were always asked to back up any statement we made with examples from our text, however, as with most literature, there was no wrong or right answer as long as we were able to support our ideas. I was actually a devout Christian at 12 and was to appreciate that my teacher asked us difficult questions about our fundamental beliefs. No one ever voiced issues or concerns about what we were being taught because our parents realized that we were being well-educated.

    Not to mention, to those atheists who would not want their own children’s atheist beliefs questioned, why? If anything, you should be more willing to have your kid answer the question because they can provide logical evidence that isn’t just something they heard someone say at church. Bravo to the teacher for taking a stab at making literature relevant and interesting. Boo on the rest of you sad saps who can’t see how badly we need teachers like this who can challenge students and make them interested. As to the girl’s maturity level, to quote my favorite teacher ever, “We always need someone to work at Mcdonald’s.”

  • Raven

    I have to agree with Rob and Andrew and others on this one. I don’t think the choice of song to analyze was appropriate. I would like for my child’s public school to be a religion free zone – and that includes not having religious 12-year-olds required to question their own religious beliefs in the guise of analyzing this song. There are too many other topics/books/songs the teacher could have used to accomplish the identical lesson without bringing ‘god’ into it.

    And don’t misunderstand… I would love it if every single religious person the world would analyze and question their beliefs. (We’d have a LOT more atheists). I just don’t think that a public middle school teacher should be forcing that analysis any more than a public middle school should be proclaiming the “value” of believing in a god.