PORTLAND, Maine. (CITC) — Fifth-grade students at a Maine elementary school recently participated in "political activism" activities and lessons during the school day, including a Black Lives Matter march.
A video posted by Presumpscot Elementary School shows dozens of students walking with signs and chanting "Black Lives Matter" in early March.
The event was meant to mark the end of Black History Month, according to internal emails obtained by advocacy group Parents Defending Education (PDE).
An email dated Feb. 16 states that the march was "organized and led by the fifth grade civil rights team." A spokesperson for Portland Public Schools (PPS) told Crisis in the Classroom (CITC) that "civil rights teams" are optional and part of a statewide initiative meant to help students "learn, discuss and create projects related to civil rights."
The fifth-grade members of Presumpscot's "civil rights team" were encouraged to wear attire agreed upon during class, such as wearing all black, and help create a "memorial" to display at the end of the march.
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There are many moments as an educator/leader when you are humbled by the students and staff you work with," the caption of the video reads. "Our students are the next leaders of this country and world, and I know because of them it will be a more just place."
However, to PDE investigative fellow Alex Nester, the march is an example of PPS and other districts prioritizing politics over education.
While it's certainly important to teach kids about the civil rights movement and Americans who fought for equality in our country, I think it's wrong to teach that in a way that encourages kids to spend time doing activism instead of actually learning historical facts," Nester told Crisis in the Classroom (CITC) in an interview.
Nester feels that regardless of whether the fifth-graders expressed interest in organizing the march, their teachers "failed" them by using classroom time for "political activism."
Of course kids are going to become interested in politics, and they're going to have different views and that's fantastic," Nester told CITC. "But the adults in their lives should be the ones that are encouraging them to 'hey, you need to know your facts so that maybe one day, you can decide for yourself whether or not you support this different political position."
To PDE, PPS continued that trend by showing students the "Pyramid of Hate." The tool has been described by the Anti-Defamation League as a way to show the impact of "biased behaviors growing in complexity from the bottom to the top."
Examples of "genocide," "bias-motivated violence" and "biased attitudes" are all included in the pyramid.
"The demonstration by Presumpscot students was their expression of what they learned during Black History Month, and is absolutely appropriate for elementary-level students," a PPS spokesperson told CITC in a statement. "Participation in this student organization, like many other types of experiences students have in our schools, helps students learn about themselves and others in order to affirm their own identities and to learn about ways to prevent bias and violence in their community. Students who are able to interact and collaborate with peers across differences are more able to be successful in society and build lifelong skills – as well as friendships."