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August 22, 2006

Valid Pedagogical Purpose – Poor Pedagogical Methodology

I’m a teacher, and I teach a course that includes a component on the Constitution. We talk about the Bill of Rights extensively, including freedom of speech. I often try something outrageous to provoke my students into thinking. But there are limits – and I believe this teacher crossed the line.

A Stuart Middle School teacher has been removed from the classroom after he burned two American flags in class during a lesson on freedom of speech, Jefferson County Public Schools officials said. Dan Holden, who teaches seventh-grade social studies, burned small flags in two different classes Friday and asked students to write an opinion paper about it, district spokeswoman Lauren Roberts said.

Let’s look at the purpose of the assignment. The goal was to offer a provocative example of free speech to discuss the extent and the limits of the First Amendment. That is perfectly appropriate. The associated assignment is also perfectly appropriate.

But burning a flag – or anything else – in a classroom without proper precautions is reckless because of the possibility of fire. And engaging in such an inflammatory action risks causing a fire of a different sort, one which causes the point of the lesson to be lost.

And that is
what happened.

Pat Summers, whose daughter was in Holden's class, said more than 20 parents showed up at the school Monday, upset over the incident.

I don’t blame them. This is the sort of lesson that you prepare for by contacting the parents in advance in order to have them aware for what you are going to do. Maybe the parents won’t buy-in to your lesson plan, but they will at least be aware of what is happening in the classroom. You also need to have administration support for such a lesson. It appears that olden failed to do either of these things. And one must ask whether a certain course of action will serve the intended purpose and reach the appropriate educational goal.

And that is where I feel that Holden failed. He chose an action which offends most Americans as an instructional tool in a middle school classroom. The kids are not (quite) old enough to deal with the issue in the way he wanted them to. And the parents are rightly offended that an action of this sort took place in their children’s classroom without their being made ready to deal with the fallout.

So what we have here is a critical-thinking assignment that went awry because a teacher failed to think through the implications of his lesson plan. This does not appear to have been an attempt to inspire anti-Americanism. I do not believe that disrespect was intended. And I do no believe that Holden should be fired – just cautioned to use better judgment – and not to play with fire in the future.

And as for the flag-burning issue itself, I’ve long stated my opposition to amending the Constitution to deal with that action. If it is your flag, feel free to burn it, trample it, or wipe your butt with it. But if you are a teacher, I would urge you to keep such actions out of the classroom.





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