COLUMN: Open dialogue in high school classrooms crucial | Opinion

Arguably, high school includes some of the most meaningful interactions students have during their coming of age period. From their interactions with their peers to interactions with teachers and administration, almost all of it shapes the way adolescents behave once they transition into adulthood.

At this time they should begin forming and solidifying their opinions, as well as thinking critically about the world with its ever-changing socio-political landscape.

Yet, there is still a censorship unique to public schools that seeks to prevent this type of learning, especially in Texas.

High school is the prime time to allow students to interact with each other in a more diverse environment than they had previously been exposed to. This environment opens a genuine discourse and allow students to be educated rather than protected from the “real world.”

However, when I was a junior, my class was challenged to analyze and discuss political rhetoric by one of our school’s AP English language teachers, Mr. Parker. Being the kindest and most intelligent teacher I’ve ever had, it was hard to watch how our class responded to his teaching with such extreme backlash. He had been running his class effectively for years, yet for some reason my peers were offended by his methods.

They had been sheltered from open discourse for so long they were startled when Mr. Parker allowed and encouraged us to share our opinions. In fact, they were horrified when he asked them to use real rhetoric to explain and defend their positions.

He explained to us he believed it was time for us to begin to interact with the world in a positive, intellectual way so we could make informed decisions about the representatives we elect and the ways we choose to spend our time, money and resources as adults.

Unfortunately, many of the people I grew up with did not understand this. They had gone home and told their parents that Mr. Parker was somehow stripping them of their rights by encouraging us to truly think about the political climate and what it would mean for us as young adults going into this type of environment.

The “pushback” they received from him in class was not one of disagreement or judgement. It was of guidance and genuine interest to have his students explain what it was they really meant to say. It was wanting them to inform themselves, to use facts to defend their positions. It was wanting them to be prepared for the pushback they’d certainly receive as adults.

This was an effective teaching method, but not one that was welcomed by students who had never experienced it. If they had experienced it earlier, the parents of these students would understand that the consideration of these topics was all necessary in preparation for adulthood.

Still, my school refused to acknowledge this vital piece of the situation and listened solely to the complaints of parents who honestly had no idea what the syllabus was created to accomplish. They made it known to our principal that they didn’t want their children to be learning “that kind of material.”

The kind of “vulgar” material they were referring to included — and was not limited to — our rhetorical analysis during the controversial presidential election of 2016 and a discussion about the point of view of black Americans in the context of the book Beloved by Toni Morrison.

It was alarming to me that parents were refusing to allow their children to broaden their critical thinking skills and deepen their empathy for others through this type of discourse that Mr. Parker encouraged.

Because of these complaints, the most intellectually stimulating class I’d ever attended faced a catastrophic amount of criticism and censorship. This made the learning environment much more complex for the majority of students who really enjoyed his class and wanted to continue having meaningful discussions.

Separate from Mr. Parker’s personal goals, the class was meant to involve deductive reasoning and rhetorical analysis. It was meant to involve real world topics and current events.

When I say it was meant to involve these things, I mean quite literally. The AP test for that class asked us to analyze speeches given by former presidents and congressmen and write specifically about the intention behind each sentence.  

How some of my peers and their parents expected to step into reality or even pass the AP test at the end of the year without these key components, I’ll never know.

College professors don’t shelter students in the way that public school teachers are constantly forced to. The aforementioned topics are docile compared to many of the realities professors will highlight in their lectures. I can’t imagine how those peers of mine who are still finishing up their senior year of high school will adapt when they get to college next fall. They’ll have to realize that life is not the bubble their parents created for them.

I can honestly say AP language was the most important class I’ve ever taken. It prepared me for college more than many of my other classes. I attribute every word I write in these columns to the open dialogue I encountered throughout my time in that class.

Furthermore, Mr. Parker taught me that high school shouldn’t be a place that shackles students to a desk and forces them to think like the teacher in order to pass the class.

Rather, he taught me that the most applicable lessons are learned when everyone is able to voice their opinion and when everyone is challenged to dictate their reasoning instead of merely regurgitating information.

I truly believe that the best option to make kids less afraid of vocalizing their opinions — the real ones that require them to have evidential support for their claims, not ones they retweet on twitter — is to show them that it’s okay to speak up and discuss their world views with one another as they begin to grow into themselves. It’s not taboo or tacky to discuss things like political rhetoric or the roots racial tensions when it’s a genuine dialogue that is moderated by competent, understanding teachers like Mr. Parker.

I am proud to say I was his student. He continues to stand up for an positive classroom deliberation about real, complex issues that his students will face throughout their lifetimes.

With more teachers defying the norm of censorship and refusing to sugarcoat reality, we will be on a more productive path toward healing, understanding and finding intelligent diplomatic solutions to nearly all of the problems we face today.