Local English Teacher Suspended

On Monday, October 26, 2009, Southwestern High School's most popular teacher, Dan DeLong, was suspended.  DeLong has taught English at Southwestern for 13 years and is known for his constructivist methods and risqué reading assignments.  After assigning an optional assignment on rhetorical analysis, a parent complained that the content of the assignment was inappropriate for the sophomore level students.

The article was called “The Gay Animal Kingdom,” and was in Seed (June/July  2006), a science journal.  In it, the author, Jonah Lehrer , reviews some of Joan Roughgarden’s recent breakthroughs in biology’s academic.  Roughgarden is a rogue scholar with what Lehrer shows to have quite the academic portfolio of credentials and evidence to make her case, which is tearing down Darwin’s largest claims about sexual selection.    Being an assignment on rhetorical analysis, the students were supposed to research Lehrer and Roughgarden’s portfolios from other sources, compare credibility, check citations, confirm facts with refuting biologists, and other measures of rhetorical analysis.  A parent (or more), however, could not get over the graphic explanations of Roughgarden’s discoveries—the fact that animals have a lot of sex, and it’s not always heterosexual.   In fact, Roughgarden contends that the dichotomy between hetero- and homo- sexuality is largely socially drawn; most species do not draw such rigid sexual preferences.

DeLong was suspended, until a special School Board hearing on his case, the following Monday (November 2).  Students made Facebook groups, one that exceeded 2,000 members, in less than a week; they attracted news throughout the Midwest, and the story even received international coverage in some academic and activist networks.

Within days of his suspension, an article was published in Pscyhology Today (an academic psychology publication) by Elizabeth Meyer, Ph.D. , explaining, “How suspending Mr. DeLong teaches fear and intolerance”.  Professors from every surrounding college and university were in an uproar over academic freedom.  Local LGBT organizations denounced the act as homophobia.  Students, former students, parents, and community members, all, demanded the return of their most beloved teacher.

The night of the hearing, about 150 people showed up at the Southwestern Community School District Office (Piasa, IL) to support Dan DeLong.  After being locked out of the room and having too many people to fit inside, the crowd were forced outside in the cold for a total of 6 hours.

The night of the hearing, about 150 people showed up at the Southwestern Community School District Office (Piasa, IL) to support Dan DeLong.  After being locked out of the room and having too many people to fit inside, the crowd were forced outside in the cold for a total of 6 hours.  After the first five hours, the meeting was reopened to the public, but not everyone could speak.  Only representatives could speak from ambiguous groups present—students, parents, and a reading of a student’s petition.

Then, the crowd was forced back outside to deliberate a verdict and final statement. After midnight, the crowd was allowed back in to hear Dan DeLong deliver a speech that claimed that he does not think the optional assignment was age appropriate for sophomore students, that he had received a “notice of remedial warning,” and that he would resume teaching again.  The students went nuts in applause, but was this a victory?

Certainly, keeping the most challenging and inspiring teacher at a school is a victory, but that wasn’t all for which the students had fought.  In their arguments online, they defended DeLong and repeatedly claimed that he was a successful teacher on the basis that he had them read material that pushed them out of their comfort zone, forcing students to explore ideas and concepts they had never considered or ideas from which they had been sheltered.  DeLong’s speech set a precedence for future content and its “appropriateness” in his classroom. 

DeLong, in his speech, declared that the controversy was never about sexuality or sexual preference.   If it wasn’t, though, why did the majority of his students think that it was?  Did they understand that heterosexual encounters are never discussed at school?

The students are not stupid.  They understood that Darwin’s assumptions and argument about sexual selection contains certain sexual engagements.  They, also, understood that a scientist must counter-pose ample and specific evidence to properly refute a popular thesis.  As students of DeLong’s, they are well-trained thinkers, in this respect.   Their parents, the Administration, and the School Board, on the other hand, have not proved to be as good at critical thinking as the coming generation.

These young people proved incredible organization skills, great use of the Internet (specifically, Facebook), the utmost respect for their mentor, and a stunning amount of participation for high school students.  They offer a glimpse of progress that may be able to push us further in the future—to a world with tolerance, no heterosexism, academic freedom, and rampant use of critical thinking skills.  It will be an interesting contradiction to see them interact with their parents’ generation, many of whom found “The Gay Animal Kingdom” to be inappropriate.

This phenomenon may not be such a clean generational break, though.  Most of the students at the core of the organizational work for DeLong’s defense were former students of his, not current students.  These (generally older) students have developed a passion for challenging the status quo and exploring new ideas—active participation with a base of critical thought.  If this, and not a generational gap, is a major reason for the saving of DeLong’s job, then, it would only speak volumes the potential effects of education and pedagogy.
Even more, the district has some unique internal quirks.  Southwestern has been known (for better, or worse) to be one of the least progressive of surrounding districts, on most social issues; however, the School Board’s hearing produced DeLong’s speech, which declared this to be a misrepresentation of the community.  Regardless, the Administration’s decision to suspend DeLong, encourage firing him, and attempt to charge him for child abuse—all merely for having this optional assignment—invoked surrounding communities to assume that Southwestern’s Administration was behind the times.

Altogether, the hearing left some confusion.  How controversial will DeLong’s future readings be?  Was DeLong’ speech a genuine reconsideration of his decisions, or a conglomeration of negotiated statements hammered out with bureaucrats in a 6 hour meeting?  Was the delay an attempt to dwindle the 150 angry protestors with having them all catch colds, an attempt to postpone the verdict until after the nightly news aired, or the result of belaboring many difficult decisions?  As harsh as it is to say this, the interpretation of many of the community organizers present was that this hearing, along with a victory that kept his job, also, was a loss in other respects.

 Many teachers have discussed feeling hesitance to assign potentially risqué texts.  Colleges and universities are holding more stringent rules on assignments Education students can present in classrooms.  The issue of heterosexism has again been sidelined in another school.  An Administration that overreacted with an incredibly unpopular decision, again, saved its face, while making its subordinate publicly apologize.

The School Board members were the only decision makers that were elected by the public, and even they acted cowardly in these respects.  Perhaps they are so numb to their constituencies that they don’t care to lock them out in the cold for 6 hours, before voting against their will.  Their final decision seems to be one of cowardice politics—afraid to take a stand or have an opinion.

At least the opinions of the Administration and the students were brought in clear, honest contradiction.  The politicians, on the other hand, want to keep their feet in both camps, which is dragging our students behind.  It would be interesting to see if an Administration in Edwardsville would be able to get away with a similar suspension, and if an Edwardsville School Board would be able to be so friendly to such a School Board.  A plausible outcome of this happening in Edwardsville is that the Administration and School Board would not be able to feign social justice, after such blatant heterosexism. 

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