Young people of all ages are back to school navigating the new normal of the academic year, social interactions in the age of a lingering pandemic, and a political climate charged with cancel culture and disinformation. At a recent conference, I attended a workshop presented by Sarah Mojarad a lecturer from the University of Southern California (USC) Viterbi School of Engineering on “How to Combat Election Mis-, Dis- and Mal-information.” Disinformation, not to be confused with misinformation, is false information that is manufactured intentionally to appear credible, deceive and confuse, and distort facts. Misinformation as defined by USC is false information that is shared with no motive or deliberate attempt to mislead others.
Over the course of the last year or two, there has been a disinformation campaign against critical race theory (CRT) in school districts throughout Connecticut. Many local school board meetings became the threshing floor for authentic conversations on what critical race theory is and is not and what is actually being taught in K-12 classrooms. It is worth noting that critical race theory – a graduate-level concept – is not being taught in K-12 classrooms. What I believe was actually at the heart of the debate surrounding critical race theory was the fear of alternative narratives. White supremacy culture has been the dominant voice in American history and its retelling, so when the shameful history of systemic racism, inequality, and inequity in this country and in the State of Connecticut is brought to light, fear is an expected response. But if we can’t acknowledge other voices and narratives, how can we change and move toward a more perfect union?
At the center of curricular controversy this school year is social-emotional learning (SEL). While this term means different things to different people, I offer Connecticut’s definition of SEL: The process through which children and adults achieve emotional intelligence through the competencies of self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making (Public Act 19-166). Looking at this definition, it’s hard to imagine that such a concept should come under attack. But in recent spotlights shone on SEL curriculum in schools, some are taking issue with the intentionality of social and self-awareness components within curricula. This introduction of gender identity/awareness, as well as the district’s measures to make schools safer for transgender students, has become the new narrative to fear, as well as the next target of disinformation.
While I believe that it is the function of the family to instill values in their children and have agency as the primary caregivers for their children, there is value in having support and resources from school districts on topics that are more nuanced and complicated, especially when it may lie outside of a family’s knowledge base. Painting SEL initiatives as indoctrination or even a core part of curricula is a deliberate attempt to mislead. In 2021, the Connecticut State Department of Education conducted a landscape analysis of SEL programming in the state and released a report of their findings and recommendations for school districts. As indicated in the executive summary, one of their key recommendations was “to make SEL efforts truly effective, the Connecticut State Department of Education (CSDE) recommends that districts provide detailed information about SEL initiatives and programming on district websites as one way to provide information to families and communities.”
Creating an environment of acceptance and belonging for all students shouldn’t be controversial or something to fear. In this new era of disinformation, one of the best things we can do to ensure that our schools are safe and welcoming is to make concrete and reliable information available to students, their families, and educators.