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Ben Carson, You Made Us Think About Teaching and Learning

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The flurry of reaction to Dr. Ben Carson's comments about the Oregon college shootings and the Holocaust have begun to die down. But, the comments still sit uneasily with us. You will recall he suggested that if the victims had guns or if they had rushed the shooters, things would have played out differently.  He also ruminated about arming kindergarten teachers to heighten school safety.

Dr. Carson's story is well known by now. Even before running for the Republican nomination for POTUS, "Gifted Hands", a movie starring Cuba Gooding Jr., portrayed Carson's life as a young man living in extreme poverty, with a single parent, overcoming behavior issues and learning challenges. Carson has received honors and commendations. But we wonder, how does a student who turned all of that around to become a world famous pediatric neurosurgeon became a man with such an insulting, misguided and reactive position on both mass shootings and the Holocaust?

Cathy Lynn Grossman is a senior national correspondent for Religion News Service, specializing in stories drawn from research and statistics on religion, spirituality and ethics. In her recent article entitled "Ben Carson, Will You Tour the Holocaust Museum With Me?" Ms. Grossman called upon Dr. Carson to consider the realities, the facts of the time.  We also call upon him to consider the survivors and what his cavalier attitude about the facts means to them.

Perhaps Dr. Carson believes that shooters rushing into movie theaters or schools could be stopped by rushing them, or shooting them, because his career was spent in hospital offices and operating rooms with the undiluted clarity of one patient at a time...or two in the case of twins.  But, that is not an educator's life and workspace. As educators, we have always been alert to safety issues regarding our students.  And since Columbine, we have become increasingly vigilant about safety, especially regarding the possibility of an active shooter.  Carson needs to check his facts. Dawn Hochsprung, the former principal of Sandy Hook Elementary School, rushed the active shooter who broke past security and entered her school. She lost her life in that moment and became one of his 26 victims. The same happened to the school psychologist at her side.  For those who do want to stop a shooter, rushing may be a reflex. But it is not a strategy that is preventative nor one that eliminates casualties. So, if the principal and psychologist had been armed would they have been able to kill or take down the shooter...perhaps. But, can't 21st-century Americans think of a better way to keep children safe than put them in the middle of a gun battle in their school?

Let's turn this into Dr. Carson's world. What if that shooter had entered an operating room?  Would Dr. Carson and his staff, dedicated to saving lives, be comfortable reaching under their gowns to draw their guns and shoot?  We do not know the answer to that, but we do know the answer for most educators.  The answer is no.

We Can Teach Perspective
History, certainly, is a combination of fact and of story. While the facts might not have multiple perspectives, the stories certainly do. Does it confuse the truth when teaching multiple perspectives or does it inform and develop one's critical thinking skills? No matter the curriculum followed in years past, textbooks led the way with the single perspective. The relationship between the curriculum and the text was a close one.  Over the years, one perspective remained the chosen one taught.  One example bears this out. Europeans once discovered a "new world," landing in the Americas. We have just completed a celebration of this by honoring Christopher Columbus. But, if the silenced stories of the Native Americans were shared equally, other lessons would be learned. History abounds with stories of winners and loser. When all sides are taught, with empathy and understanding, we not only would be teaching our own history, we would be teaching human history from all sides.  Those who succeed write the history to be told. The other stories go underground but they remain to influence ground water, just as slavery has in our nation's history.

We can change that. We can place students in a position to consider other sides, other outcomes, other people's experiences, other ways of doing things. Changing how we teach also relies on how we assess that learning. A press on the test makers to step back and allow for multiple perspectives to be learned and applied reinforces the ability to teach with completeness.

In addition to "subjects" we teach children how to develop their views about bullying, be more than by-standers, be compassionate, and be mindful. This is our role in establishing and reinforcing the values of our society. We are after all public schools where subject content is taught along with rights and responsibilities and critical thinking and problem solving. Certainly, our responsibility to do this has never been greater.

For the young ones, Yertle the Turtle, who asks his subjects to stand on each others' backs so he can be king of all that he can see, offers teachers the opportunity to have students examine the story from Yertle's perspective, and the perspective of all the other turtles. To Kill a Mockingbird offers teachers opportunity to have students delve into other characters and what may have contributed to their actions. How would the story be different if told by the maid, Calpurnia? 

Perspective takes hold and drives wedges between people. Unless we take advantage of the years we have with future generations, and teach them to understand and care about more than one side of an issue, we will be responsible for more divisiveness. We do not understand Dr. Carson's point of view, and we think arming kindergarten teachers changes radically who is called into the profession and what the work environment becomes. Do we want surgeons who are as expert with a Glock as with a laser? We are greatly saddened that a thoughtful, reflective, and intelligent man cannot see how children will change when guns become as important in their classroom as books and computers. But, it is imperative that we keep our children safe and our educators as well. Ben Carson's shocking perspective and his wake up call words aren't to be ignored. They come as an invitation to look at how we approach teaching and what we can do a better job of helping our students understand perspectives before opinions form. In the meantime, we'll try to do that ourselves as we think about the gifted surgeon's hands holding a gun and taking a life.

"You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view" - Atticus Finch

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