The image that concerned several members of the Canby School Board and sparked an apparent rift between them and Superintendent Trip Goodall earlier this year came from a seventh-grade lesson about the nature of art, according to emails that were provided to The Canby Current following a public records request.
At the board’s Oct. 1 meeting, directors Dawn Depner, Stefani Carlson and Tom Scott all voiced concerns about overly political language and lessons being shared by some teachers in the virtual learning environment since the academic year resumed late last month.
The three said they had been approached by concerned parents in the Canby School District — some of whom were said to be afraid to approach the teacher or administrator directly out of fear of reprisal for their student — and had proof that politically slanted lessons and speech were happening in the Canby School District.
They did not go into specifics during the meeting — because they had been told they were not allowed to discuss specific teachers or lessons in a public forum, without the educator present — but member Tom Scott acknowledged that their concerns had been reviewed by Goodall and they (the three board members) “disagree.”
Emails provided to the Current this week reveal more about the nature of this disagreement, as well as the lesson that sparked the original concerns.
The lesson in question was by a math and art teacher at Ninety-One School in Hubbard, which is part of the Canby School District. Seventh-grade students were shown a series of images and asked whether or not each one was art, and why.
The lesson concluded with several popular definitions of art and challenged students to think of their own definition.
“The takeaway of the lesson, which I repeated many times and summarized for [the] class, is that art is subjective,” the teacher, whom the Current is not identifying at this time, said in an email to Ninety-One Principal Skyler Rodolph.
“You may not think it is art and you may not agree with the artist, but it’s important to respect everyone’s opinion. The creator is the one who gets to make their own definition of art. This wasn’t directed specifically to the picture in question, but more of an overall theme.”
The image that concerned several community members was the 11th slide, which was a photograph depicting a Black child in what appears to be a school uniform, facing a metal door.
The photo also contains the words, “I worry about people in my family getting shot. My cousin got shot and died. I don’t think anybody should carry a gun… Even the cops. Then nobody would get shot.”
Though parents and school board members refer to the image as an internet meme — which it does appear to be, for those who don’t know the original context — it actually comes from Fourth Grade Project by photographer Judy Gelles.
Fourth Grade Project was the result of Gelles’ interviews with more than 300 9-year-olds from a wide range of economic and cultural backgrounds in China, Dubai, England, India, Israel and other countries, as well as multiple areas of the United States.
She asked the students the same three questions: Who do you live with? What do you wish for? What do you worry about? The image that was used in the Ninety-One School lesson was called Get Shot and featured a student at an unnamed public school in Pennsylvania, according to Gelles’ website.
The complete lesson, provided to the Current pursuant to a public records request:
In her first email to Superintendent Goodall on this issue, dated Sept. 18, school board member Dawn Depner refers to the image as propaganda.
“I use the word ‘agenda’ because this is what I refer to as propaganda and believe no teacher has the right discussing with a student or pushing their personal agenda via a classroom setting,” Depner said. “Additionally it is our 2nd amendment right to bear arms and for this parent, they teach their children their constitutional rights as a US citizen.”
In his response, Goodall pointed out that many modern artists also consider themselves to be “social historians,” and believe their work is intended to provoke a response and prompt discussion.
“We expect our teachers to challenge our students to be critical thinkers, where they are able to articulate an opinion using sound reasoning,” he said. “The photo alone does not seem to condemn the 2nd amendment. The photo does not suggest the teacher is promoting anything political. It is expressing a common concern many children in this country experience and a concern Congress has been openly debating for the last 30 years.”
Depner, however, disagreed that the image is art and said it might be appropriate in an 11th or 12th-grade discussion of political science — but not a junior high art class in the Canby School District.
“I do not think it is a ‘Common Concern’ that kids in Canby are concerned they are going to get shot by a police officer,” Depner said in a follow-up email to Goodall. “This MEME evokes fear into children and does not align with curriculum that values our liberties as citizens of the United States. The narrative here is that guns are bad, cops carry guns, and cops kill black people.”
At the time, Depner had not seen the full lesson and was responding only to the single screenshot and what she had been told by a parent.
“This was not an ‘Art’ lesson, there was no discussion after each picture,” Depner said. “In fact, there were more pictures that this student could not get snaps of, it wasn’t until a few passed by the screen that she was upset and had enough wherewithal to save a ‘meme.’ … If it’s truly ‘Art’ that’s meant to invoke reflection, response and debate I’d ask why no discussion was had.”
She asked for the full context of the lesson — though it was not provided until Oct. 2, the day after the last board meeting — and said her goal was to understand.
“I want to understand more of this class and what the agenda was, what other pictures were shown, what conversation is being planned, and what the hopes of a student should gain from fear based emotional learning,” she said.
Goodall asked Depner if the parent had expressed their concerns to the teacher or Principal Rodolph, which is the district’s prescribed process for such a complaint.
Depner said she wasn’t sure, but “whether or not the parent calls, I’d like to have MY concerns addressed. We cannot let this continue.”
In a message to Chair Angi Dilkes, asking her to add the item to the agenda for the board’s next meeting, Depner said she had “shared this photo with many members of my community and families are very unhappy regarding this.”
“Several have stated this is why they have chosen to homeschool,” she said. “We absolutely have a responsibility to deal with this.”
A screenshot that was included in the Current‘s public records request indicated Depner posted the image in the public Facebook group Oregon, Parents’ Rights in Education on Sept. 18, though it was evidently taken down before this week.
“Question- If your child’s teacher showed them this picture via online distance learning how upset would you be?” Depner said in the post. “This was presented to a local student and I find it outrageous.”
The district or school board members received at least three emails from parents or community members concerned about the image, according to the records provided to the Current. All parents’ and students’ names were redacted before they were released.
“This is very obviously NOT art,” said a Sept. 24 email from one parent, whose children were not enrolled in the art class in question, according to the Canby School District. “What I see is comparative to a political meme chalk-full [sic] of anti-gun, anti-police, BLM rhetoric.”
“I find this picture does not belong in the public education system,” said another email to Rodolph, also dated Sept. 24. “Anything regarding the current political affairs and the division among people should not be taught to our children.”
Rodolph responded that he would be evaluating the parent’s complaint and rendering a decision within 10 days, per district policy. Eight days later, he sent another message, expressing his determination that “there has not been a violation of any school board policy or any teaching standards of practice within this lesson.”
Rodolph also shared a link to the form and process by which they could elevate their complaint if they were not satisfied.
“I was hoping to have gotten a different response,” the parent admitted. “This is a very sad day and times that our small school is ok with this sort of teaching. … This has made our decision very simple. [Redacted] will not be returning to 91 and [redacted] will not be returning to Canby high school if this is the position that you as principle [sic] are taking or allowing and not fighting for the agenda that is being forced among our children.”
Also included in the Current‘s records request were emails from the teacher explaining the purpose of the lesson (quoted earlier in this article), and correspondence between Rodolph and Goodall agreeing that they believe the material to be appropriate for an intro to art lesson.
“I will use this example and advocate for more parents to pull there [sic] children out of the public school system with canby being the example of what is happening in today’s situation,” one parent said in response to Rodolph’s Oct. 2 email. “I hope at some point canby will reconsider there [sic] stance on a very misguided movement.”
Though much of the correspondence concerns the art lesson above, there were several other examples of alleged inappropriate political speech shared by board member Stefani Carlson with her colleagues and district staff.
Two were screenshots referencing the Black Lives Matter movement. One appears to have not originated from a teacher directly, but rather, was a drawing by a student that the teacher praised.
The second was the purported logo of the T-shirts that were given to the staff of the district’s migrant summer school program, which was hosted online this year. It consisted of a clenched fist holding a pencil, with the words “United for peace, equity and justice” in both English and Spanish and the slogan “Black Lives Matter.”
The screenshot was provided to Carlson by a high school teacher, she said, whom she did not identify. He also provided a snapshot of a “Word of the Week.”
It read: “collude (v.): Come to a secret understanding for a harmful purpose; conspire. For example: The Senate investigated whether or not the president colluded with foreign leaders to win the election.”
The teacher reportedly told Carlson that “stuff like this is always posted on bulletin boards,” and that he was “very uncomfortable” about the staff shirt — which he said they were required to wear for pictures.
Carlson also shared a copy of the art lesson screenshot.
“This is probably one of the most concerning piece[s] I’ve seen,” she said. “Kids were asked to give a thumbs up or a thumbs down to the ‘art’ they were shown. A student snapped a picture and said this was tame compared to some ‘art’ that was shown.”
Scott also weighed in on the material, calling it “inappropriate” and “unacceptable” in various messages.
Another board member, Mike Zagyva, who is also a retired Canby School District social studies teacher and former principal, voiced a similar opinion upon seeing the screenshot, saying he “can’t believe” an educator would share such an image in the current political climate.
However, upon seeing the full lesson, he changed his tune.
“I believe the slide was taken totally out of context,” Zagyva said in an Oct. 2 email to Depner. “Looking at it from an educator’s view I can see why the teacher would use it since it would encourage discussion on what is Art and what is propaganda. Granted, it probably was not the best idea to use that picture in today’s climate, but that is a judgment call that needs to be addressed by the building principal not us.”
The school board is scheduled to meet virtually at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 15. The meeting is open to the public and may be attended via Zoom here.
The board also noticed its intent to meet in executive session — which is closed to the public — following the regular meeting, to discuss labor negotiations and “review and evaluate the employment-related performance of the superintendent,” both of which are permitted under Oregon’s open meetings laws.