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The word at Shasta School is ‘learning’
Manteca Unified Director of Facilities Aaron Bowers, left, and Deputy Superintendent Clark Burke inspect courtyard improvements at Shasta School. - photo by HIME ROMERO/The Bulletin

And the use of them can inflict powerful pain. Sometimes so much that it is to the point of being repressive.

As a parent Lesili Sanchez has tried to instill in her children a sense of right and wrong that entails not just casually parroting words students — including those in eighth grade — hear being tossed about daily on social media, in music, and elsewhere

It is why she was a bit disheartened to learn a Shasta School teacher who has helped sharpen the critical thinking skills off her children and their classmates has been the target of a complaint for re-enforcing the need to think before one flings about words.

The social science and language arts teacher didn’t employ the “thou shalt not” method hammered by “drill and kill” regurgitation but encouraged thoughtful conversations on language drawn from the perspective not just of history but of others with different life experiences.

Sanchez makes it clear. She abhors the “N” word. And it’s not just what it infers but how its use deeply hurts others.

“Our children are hearing these words every day,” she said.

It is why she welcomed an assignment her daughter and classmates received April 12. It required researching the use of the word. Not by downloading rap videos or skimming through everything-goes blogs, but by scholarly research.

And what better place for such research to be done than by accessing a museum website established to fight the repressiveness of Jim Crow laws and how they demeaned and treated people of somehow being inferior based solely on their skin by essentially using the history of racism to combat racism.

Some might call it fighting fire with fire.

Shasta School Principal Audrey Greene Parker calls it for what it is: Learning from history to give perspective to words that way too many people sprinkle conversations with as casually as if they were shaking salt onto fries.

A teacher who has a well-established track record for the past four years of challenging students to learn from knowledge instead of simply mimicking it decided to tackle the “N” word.

A complaint was lodged by a parent. From her perspective the assignment was hurtful and not age appropriate.

Principal Parker met with the parent. After an inquiry was completed, it was determined that the assignment was not age appropriate as established by the State of California for K-12 students. That doesn’t mean simply age appropriate for eighth graders and younger but every public school student.

Parents such as Sanchez have found that a bit perplexing because children are being bombarded by such words on a daily basis. So much that they are done so without an inkling of how they can enrage, demean, and chisel open chasms that youth — and many adults for the matter — have no idea they are creating.

And while parents might indeed find such a lesson age appropriate, the district bound by edicts from Sacramento did not. The teacher agreed. The assignment was rescinded. The complaining parent indicated at the time she was pleased with the decision. Case closed.

Well, not exactly.

Five weeks later the parent in question is demanding, through the media, that the teacher be disciplined.

The teacher, who happens to be an African American, has no prior complaints about steering his students through other such challenging assignments.

How, Parker asks, can we have a discussion about racism if there can’t be discussions about its roots and words that trigger or inflame.

That is not a politically correct talking point.

Manteca Unified, while not perfect, in recent years has built a strong history of striving for diversity and inclusion. The effort isn’t superficial. As Parker noted it is accomplished through teaching kids how to think critically.

It has helped students be better listeners. It has taught them the wisdom of researching the views of others. It has made them respect words and not simply toss them apart as worthless pennies while keeping in mind enough cheap words can add up to powerful statements that can tear people apart.

Not that it should matter but a look at the ethnic background of the 24,000 plus Manteca Unified School District gives you an idea of what shapes education policies and prompts teachers such as the one at Shasta School to dedicate themselves to engaging students.

Ready for the numbers?

Some 57 percent of all students classify themselves as Hispanic/Latino. Another 18 percent as white, 16 percent as Asian/Pacific Islander, 7 percent as Black/African American, and 2 percent identify themselves as other.

Sanchez’ daughter, just like her, is Samoan and African American.

Was the assignment in retrospect a little uncomfortable for students?

Sanchez and Parker admit to a degree it was.

But they are interested in the end result.

Getting students to think critically, understand and learn from other viewpoints, do research of well-established and vetted websites and not fly off the handle after clicking on a site that is an extension of preconceived assumptions.

It is a challenging process.

And it’s called learning.


To contact Dennis Wyatt, email