OUSD superintendent warns about pro-Palestinian teach-in

Oakland Unified School District's superintendent on Monday issued a firm warning to teachers planning to hold a pro-Palestinian "teach in," calling the event unsanctioned and not aligned with district educational protocol.

Superintendent  Kyla Johnson-Trammell did not specifically lay out what would happen to teachers if they go forward on Wednesday with the Palestine lessons, which ask elementary school-age children to draw what they think a Zionist leader looks like and what the definition of a massacre is. 

But her words were heartening to many Jewish educators who felt that there could be some form of discipline meted out for teachers who decide to teach the curriculum, despite the teachers' assertion that they have academic freedom to teach what they want. 

"I want to again make clear that our expectation is that all educators, in every classroom across the District, take seriously their responsibility to adhere to principles of education, and to keep their personal beliefs out of the classroom," Johnson-Trammell said in a statement.

She added that the school board expects teachers to exercise "caution and discretion" when deciding whether an issue is suitable for class study. 

And she reminded them that they should not spend class time on any topic which they feel is not suitable for the class or related to the established course of study.

"The Board also expects teachers to ensure that all sides of a controversial issue are impartially presented with adequate and appropriate factual information," she wrote. "Without promoting any partisan point of view, the teacher should help students separate fact from opinion and warn them against drawing conclusions from insufficient data." 

Johnson-Trammell's words came after a YouTube video and curriculum began circulating last week regarding a teach-in for every student during the school day on Wednesday.

In the video, Lincoln Elementary School teacher Jacob Fowler invites teachers to use the Palestine curriculum.

"We're asking that all teachers in the whole city participate in support of the event," said Jacob, who doesn't identify himself fully in the video.

A teach-in, he explained, is an effective use of labor power and also, an important tool to give students "counter narratives." 

Efforts to reach Fowler on Monday were not immediately successful. 

Another teacher in the video explains that, in his opinion, teachers have academic freedom to teach what they want and will have the full support of the Oakland Education Association if an employee is disciplined. 

However, some teachers told KTVU that the teach-in was originally not authorized by the official OEA – they are a small group called "OEA for Palestine." 

However, on Monday afternoon, the OEA took a vote, endorsing the teach-in, teachers told KTVU. 

Last month, the OEA caused a massive rift when they voted on a resolution that put the full blame of the current conflict on Israel, without noting any nuances or the complicated history that Israelis and Palestinians share.

KTVU reviewed the teach-in curriculum.

Some of the curriculum is benign, such as a story called "Farah Rocks: a book series about a strong Palestinian-American girl" and the histories of various Palestinian artists. 

The curriculum also states that the teachers abhor antisemitism and Islamophobia. 

But other teaching materials use WWII-era propaganda graphics, like a British colonizer with octopus arms grabbing all the land and giving it to Israel. 

The materials also imply that Israel is responsible for massacres and that Zionists are colonizing oppressors, terms that the Anti-Defamation League views and other Jews view as antisemitic.

A coloring book for elementary students features a Palestinian character who says, "A group of bullies called Zionists wanted our land so they stole it by force and hurt many people."

One sheet asks students to draw the Zionist leaders of Israel. 

It's also what the curriculum omits that is upsetting to many Jewish groups. 

The materials make no mention of the Holocaust by name. 

For example, this is how the material describes the Holocaust: "During World War II, many Jewish people were killed and mistreated. The world wanted to make sure that never happened again. Unfortunately, the Zionists used it to justify displacing and killing Palestinians."

And the worksheets for third to fifth graders make no mention of the Hamas terrorist attacks in Israel on Oct. 7. 

One worksheet described how Israelis told 1.1 million Palestinians to move, or they would bomb them. 

But the material omits that the Israelis were warning the Palestinians to move south, so they wouldn't get harmed while the IDF was bombing Hamas terrorists and tunnels.  

The materials also focus a lot on the word Zionism, which according to the teaching material means a political goal of creating a country only for Jewish people. 

But being a Zionist to many Jews simply means supporting the state of Israel, or loving the state of Israel. 

And Zionism, to many Jews, does not preclude support for Palestinian self-determination and statehood.

Zahra Billoo, executive director for the Council of American Islamic Relations San Francisco Bay Area, said she's been following what's going on in Oakland and was "sincerely excited" to hear about the teach-in.

She also said she's concerned about how much "blowback" the teach-in is getting.

"It should not be controversial to teach history and current events," she said. "Teachers are doing what they think is best for their students and responding to the realities on the ground."

Billoo interpreted the curriculum as more of a "discussion guide" about subjects that young people don't usually hear about.

What if the situation were reversed and Jewish teachers wanted to teach an Israel-only curriculum in public school? 

"We get a lot of education about Israel and one-sided narratives," Billoo said. "This is a response to an existing gap." 

However, Josh Diamant, who is Jewish and a music teacher at Lincoln Elementary School, strongly disagrees that the material being presented is appropriate or even accurate. 

"These materials misrepresent history," he said. "It misrepresents what Zionism even is. It reduces this incredibly complex conflict to simplistic slogans."

He acknowledged that he is a colleague of Fowler, the teacher who stars in the teach-in video, but that he had yet to approach him. 

As for his other colleagues, Diamant said that most have told him they are not going to participate because they don't think it's appropriate to delve into these issues with third-graders. 

On a personal level, Diamant said he is a very "visible Jewish" teacher on campus, and he fears what will happen if his students approach him and ask him if he is a Zionist.

"It's putting me in the position to set the record straight," he said. "I'm not an expert on the Middle East. I'm a music teacher."