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The document reads like an outline for the television series “Homeland,” which is about the Central Intelligence Agency. It is a real CIA cable from the island of Cyprus to “Headquarters” in June 1953, and it describes a CIA plan to push elected Iranian Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh out of power.

A copy of the plan was handed out to students at Palo Alto High School as part of the new social justice history class for sophomores. The three-year course spans history and English Language Arts and uses primary sources, such as the CIA document, to fulfill one of several requirements of the new Common Core State Standards.

Schools in Gilroy, Salinas and Pleasanton have incorporated social justice materials into their curriculum. A senior English class at Foothill High School in Pleasanton, for example, is reading material from the anti-discrimination curriculum, Teaching Tolerance, according to teacher Amy Vandagriff.

Many teachers in the past have taught students how to analyze information, debate different points of view and use primary documents to justify their positions. The difference under Common Core is that such standards are now spelled out as essential for students to succeed in college and in life.

History teacher Eric Bloom and English Language Arts teacher Erin Angell created the class at Palo Alto High School specifically to be aligned with the Common Core. But they are taking their students further than the standards encourage. For example, students are investigating and defining what justice and injustice mean to them. Each student will wrap up the three-year commitment by putting their learning into practice by volunteering in the community.

So how is a CIA document leading students on the path of learning about social justice? The answer lies in their reactions to learning about the U.S. intelligence agency’s activities to oust a moderate, democratically elected ruler in another country.

“That’s interesting; are they allowed to do this?” asked one student, after her group read aloud the section advising a $35,000 payment to the CIA’s preferred new leader, General Fazlollah Zahedi. The document also suggests that the American ambassador “assure” the Shah of Iran, who opposed Mossadegh, that the United States and Britain have common goals in order to lessen the Shah’s “pathological fear of British intrigues against him.”

“That’s sneaky and manipulative,” said another student, Nicole Li. “So they want to support the Shah and not Mossadegh, which doesn’t sound very American, because the U.S. is all about democracy,” she added.

The lesson in Bloom’s class asks students to examine government documents, including a 1952 National Security Council report that states that if Mossadegh remained in power, it would likely result in a Soviet Communist expansion into Iran, and the United States losing access to Iran’s oil.

Student groups in the earlier part of the class had hashed out some of the historical underpinnings. “What do you think about Mossadegh?” Ayah Chakamkchi asked her group, then said, “He wanted to nationalize the oil.” She looked at her handout and added, ”Every issue started by outside sources.”

Students also analyzed the installation of the Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979. In answer to a question about what the Ayatollah’s rule represented, Joshua Donelly-Higgins said, “He developed the idea of an Islamic government, similar to ISIS. Islam goes above everything else.”

Bloom is a tall, boisterous man with dark hair who talks with his hands. In keeping with the Common Core, he is more of an outside observer and listener. He moves around the classroom from group to group, volleying questions when there’s a lull in conversation to keep discussion going.

When he sees a student tripped up by a word in the CIA document, Bloom, like a quiz master laying down clues, offers: “Think about Iran’s history; what do they want in place?”

The 30 students who have signed up for the three-year program are committed to attending Bloom’s morning history class and Angell’s afternoon English class six hours a week. During the classes the students talked to a reporter about their courses.

“The idea that I could grow up to do something in the world and that this class could help me was very, very appealing to me,” said Nadia Leinhos, a student in the class.

“I’ve been in group talks before but they’ve never been like this, where we have so much opportunity to show what we think,” said Yotam Ponte, a boy with straight dark hair.

Nadia Leinhos, who has sparkly eyes and a broad smile, said she wanted to be an actress and was eager to become more skilled in public speaking. But she also likes that a high school class could help her develop ways to make a difference in the world. “The idea that I could grow up to do something in the world and that this class could help me was very, very appealing to me,” she says.

After they debate and discuss the questions that came up in Bloom’s class and have lunch, the students file into Angell’s English class. Right away Angell, who responds to student comments with incisive questions, asks them to recount the significance of the work they did in Bloom’s class that day. After that, she shows a segment from “The Daily Show” in which host Jon Stewart recounts the recent release in New York of a man who served 30 years in prison for a murder he didn’t commit.

English Language Arts teacher Erin Angell

Laurie Udesky/EdSource Today

English Language Arts teacher Erin Angell

“How can this happen?“ Stewart asks his guest, Bryan Stevenson, the author of “Just Mercy,” about mass incarceration in the United States. “I think we don’t appreciate that we have to be just in all circumstances; there’s this disconnect,” Stevenson says.

As in Bloom’s class, Angell assigns students exercises where they work out answers in lively group discussions. They’ve studied ancient Greek philosophers and other luminaries. To understand how well they’ve absorbed theories of injustice posited by Plato, Kant and other philosophers, for example, Angell adds a twist: She hands out a narrative by Malcolm X and asks them to ask themselves: “If I were Kant, would I think this is an example of injustice,” she says, pressing her hands together for emphasis.

The narrative is an excerpt from a speech by Malcolm X in which he describes how his school adviser tried to steer him away from pursuing a career as a lawyer because of his race.

The students will spend a lot of time together in classrooms, talking and ferreting out the meaning of justice and injustice. Ultimately, the painstaking inquiry will lead them out into the community.

“If you want to develop kids who are aware of themselves, they have to understand and be able to identify justice,” said Maureen Costello, director of Teaching Tolerance, a program of the Southern Poverty Law Center. “They have to be able to recognize stereotypes and have a sense that injustice comes about because of stereotypes and group identity.”

Palo Alto High School students have logged impressive amounts of community service over the years, but the vast majority of them felt the work was not meaningful, Angell said. She and Bloom thought the social justice program would help them make more of a contribution.

“If you want to develop kids who are aware of themselves, they have to understand and be able to identify justice,” said Maureen Costello, director of Teaching Tolerance, a program of the Montgomery, Alabama-based Southern Poverty Law Center. “They have to be able to recognize stereotypes and have a sense that injustice comes about because of stereotypes and group identity.” The center has developed and disseminated Common Core-aligned social justice curriculum at schools across the nation.

In Angell’s class, students also have been reading the graphic novel “Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood” by Marjane Satrapi. Through the lens of a young girl growing up with leftist parents, it details the rapid changes in Iran after the 1979 revolution, which put religious leaders at the helm of the country. In a recent chapter that students read, the protagonist relates how family friends are released from prison, where they have been tortured.

“And the narrator is a little girl,” said Nadia, “And this is how she thinks about things and often it’s quite shocking. She’ll go over to play with friends and say ‘this is a game we’re going to play and whoever loses gets tortured,'” she said reflectively. “This is what this does to kids.”


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  1. The Sicilian 2 years ago2 years ago

    Great article. It would appear that those in charge of such postings are interested in Truth and Transparency and eventually proper justice. With that stated, how about you use your resources and maybe even begin a new Project for your Students to uncover the Sealed FBI and CIA Files on Martin Luther King. Born Michael King. These files have been sealed and kept from the public eye even before he was assassinated/killed, and have stayed that way … Read More

    Great article. It would appear that those in charge of such postings are interested in Truth and Transparency and eventually proper justice.
    With that stated, how about you use your resources and maybe even begin a new Project for your Students to uncover the Sealed FBI and CIA Files on Martin Luther King. Born Michael King.
    These files have been sealed and kept from the public eye even before he was assassinated/killed, and have stayed that way with an expiration date somewhere around 2027 that will probably be continually stalled until forgotten, just like your article here.
    Please enlighten and present your own documentation on these documented facts and evidence collected publically: http://www.martinlutherking.org/thebeast.html
    More DOCUMENTED FACTs for your group to present or refute: http://www.snopes.com/history/american/mlking.asp
    Thank you
    A concerned American interested in actual truth.

  2. Frances O'Neill Zimmerman 2 years ago2 years ago

    Personally, I think it is interesting to understand the historic involvement of the United States in overtly shaping foreign governments across the globe, going far beyond our own formal "foreign policy." But I have serious reservations about structuring a high school course on analysis of documents snatched from history without any historical context -- in fact, documents taken de novo. I know few university-educated adults who could geographically locate Prime Minister Mossadegh, let alone … Read More

    Personally, I think it is interesting to understand the historic involvement of the United States in overtly shaping foreign governments across the globe, going far beyond our own formal “foreign policy.” But I have serious reservations about structuring a high school course on analysis of documents snatched from history without any historical context — in fact, documents taken de novo. I know few university-educated adults who could geographically locate Prime Minister Mossadegh, let alone the circumstances that led to his ouster. Or indeed, any of a large number of other leaders of other countries who were unseated by clandestine U.S. activity to advance ostensible U.S. interests.

    Anthony Alvarado, a thoughtful educator from New York City whose expertise is childhood literacy, has maintained that you must first know something before you learn something new, that learning is a building process. This shallow program flies in the face of that notion and seems to “teach” something much narrower and much more doctrinal.

  3. Paul Muench 2 years ago2 years ago

    I wonder if these classes were inspired in any way by Michael Sandel's justice class at Harvard. I understand that his justice class is one of the most popular at Harvard. Given the social essence of men I guess this shouldn't be surprising. Sandel has recorded some of his classes and made them available online. I highly recommend watching some. Kudos to EdSource for using just justice in the title. Whenever … Read More

    I wonder if these classes were inspired in any way by Michael Sandel’s justice class at Harvard. I understand that his justice class is one of the most popular at Harvard. Given the social essence of men I guess this shouldn’t be surprising. Sandel has recorded some of his classes and made them available online. I highly recommend watching some.

    Kudos to EdSource for using just justice in the title. Whenever people use “social justice” I wonder “Is there some other kind of justice?”. The word social seems to be an indicator that the discussion is about the justice of resource distribution or about some injustice that someone has committed. The big question is how helpful is skewing the discussion of justice in these directions? I”d love to hear the teachers thoughts on this question.

    Replies

    • Don 2 years ago2 years ago

      Using the political innocence of children to infuse them with any ideology is the tool of the weak and the corrupt. If I pick and choose my facts and exclude others I can make the American Revolution look like a stain on humanity. Teaching of the post-WWII Cold War period in Iran is a complex subject that cannot be easily understood without some background knowledge on the influence of multiple forces including the Tudah Party, … Read More

      Using the political innocence of children to infuse them with any ideology is the tool of the weak and the corrupt. If I pick and choose my facts and exclude others I can make the American Revolution look like a stain on humanity.

      Teaching of the post-WWII Cold War period in Iran is a complex subject that cannot be easily understood without some background knowledge on the influence of multiple forces including the Tudah Party, its relationship to the Mussedegh government and the weakened regime of the Shah at the time, among others. It is easy to elicit a sense of outrage from adolescents over what the British and the CIA did in Iran. While it was wrong and ultimately backfired on us in Iran, historical events should always be studied in the context of their time. It isn’t enough to sunshine the political machinations of the CIA. Understanding how and why US policy developed through the teaching of history’s competing tensions allows students to think independently and to be responsible citizens.

      The report states, “The center has developed and disseminated Common Core-aligned social justice curriculum at schools across the nation.” Why is the Montgomery, Alabama-based Southern Poverty Law Center the source for curriculum for our children?

      • tom 2 years ago2 years ago

        Agree Don, if my kids were at that school district, would sure be concerned about the SPLC as the source of curriculum. They used to be a pretty legitimate organization, but now pretty controversial and one-sided in their political leanings. Palo Alto leans one way too, so maybe consistent with the belief system in the area.

        • Reader 2 years ago2 years ago

          After reviewing the article, it seems as though the quote from the SPLC is actually the reporter’s addition and NOT something that was taught in the classroom.

      • navigio 2 years ago2 years ago

        Probably for the same reason you believe they should not be.

      • FloydThursby1941 2 years ago2 years ago

        As Actor Jeff Daniels said in 'Newsroom', the first step in solving a problem is admitting there is one. The natural tendency of anyone is to claim their country is the best in the world. We have taken this to an extreme. When you analyze quality of nations, you must take a step back and attempt to eliminate bias and be scientific. As he said, we are #1 in defense spending, … Read More

        As Actor Jeff Daniels said in ‘Newsroom’, the first step in solving a problem is admitting there is one. The natural tendency of anyone is to claim their country is the best in the world. We have taken this to an extreme. When you analyze quality of nations, you must take a step back and attempt to eliminate bias and be scientific. As he said, we are #1 in defense spending, spending more than the next 37 countries combined, the percentage of people who believe in angels and the percentage of people incarcerated. We are great at some things without a doubt, sports, startups/entrepreneurship, Hollywood, music, creativity, among others. An argument could certainly be made that we are the best country in the world, but it isn’t obvious and quite a few other countries could come up #1 if anyone looks at it neutrally.

        The attitude that we are somehow special and the only place in the world which is free, which has free speech, and where we are rich is so ingrained, so stubborn, that it will take a generation of this education to get rid of it. It’s idiotic to automatically say your country is #1 like it’s some sports team. We’re less free than many places such as Australia and the Netherlands where women, not the government, own their bodies and drugs are legal or decriminalized. We’re one of the only nations which actually legislates why people can have sex and makes prostitution illegal but casual hookups legal, leading to the ridiculous gray area of sugar daddies/arrangements and multi-billion dollar web sites dedicated to it. Studies show most in Congress have tried drugs, yet we incarcerate people for long periods if they get caught, and alcohol and tobacco are worse for you.

        Don, sure it was complicated, but we pretend to want to help the world and conduct foreign policy in self-interest and kill many people. 30,000 Nicaraguans lost their lives due to Iran Contra, and the World Court ruled we damaged the economy worth a year of GDP, and fined us, but we ignored it. We mined their harbors and spent money on the made-up contras in violation of International and US law and it was a scandal, we’re so sorry, but no one ever went to prison and Oliver North is on Fox News like he is some decent guy not a mass murderer. Not to mention half a million killed in Iraq when we knew they had nothing to do with 9/11, more in Afghanistan and Bin Laden was in Pakistan, and over 3 million in Vietnam. Then add in other nations.

        The attitude that we are #1 is extremely pernicious and makes us feel it’s OK to massacre hundreds of thousands of people but if anyone does it to us, like on 9/11, or even a few people at Benghazi, it’s an outrage which must be screamed about.

        We must do all we can to get rid of this arrogant thought process and admit, we have our faults, we’re just another country and we need to get better, especially in education where Asian immigrants are wiping the floor with the native born.

        • Don 2 years ago2 years ago

          Teaching and learning about justice throughout history ought to take place in the historical context of the times so we can compare the past with the present for the benefit of the future. How that assertion became an opportunity to instruct on the utility of American Exceptionalism I'm not clear, but I'll chalk it up to free speech. Still, there must be something to it given the number of immigrants annually. Pardon me if … Read More

          Teaching and learning about justice throughout history ought to take place in the historical context of the times so we can compare the past with the present for the benefit of the future. How that assertion became an opportunity to instruct on the utility of American Exceptionalism I’m not clear, but I’ll chalk it up to free speech. Still, there must be something to it given the number of immigrants annually.

          Pardon me if I only scanned your comment looking for nonrepetitive words or phrases. You always manage to get a plug in for the immigrant Asian work ethic. There’d be a certain charm to your persistance if it wasn’t so numbingly repetitive.

      • Reader 2 years ago2 years ago

        Are we sure based on a reporter’s one day in these classrooms we can accurately make generalized statements about the entire unit in which this lesson is featured?

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