NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — An English teacher with Metro Nashville Public Schools has been placed on leave pending a disciplinary review for a homework some parents considered to be inappropriate. The assignment itself has sparked conversation about race and how to handle tough subjects in the classroom.
The homework in question was assigned to 30 students at Cane Ridge High School in Antioch as they discussed "Fences," a play and film adaptation exploring the topic of race as a father struggles to provide for his family. The handout given to students asked them to write a one-page paper on the derogatory term "n-word" and answer several questions including how the word is racist and how it is used. In the assignment provided by a parent to NewsChannel 5, the term was spelled out. The play uses the language frequently.
The parent, who wanted to remain anonymous, said she was hurt and felt the conversation about race and derogatory terms should be taught by parents and not the school. She wanted more awareness about how sensitive the topic is and preferred prior notification.
The teacher involved has been with MNPS since 2015 and received no disciplinary actions in the past. Spokesperson Sean Braisted of MNPS said the assignment has been retracted and canceled.
In a statement, MNPS Director Dr. Adrienne Battle said, “The homework assignment given out at Cane Ridge High School was offensive, inappropriate, and out-of-line with the standards of MNPS. I sincerely apologize to students, families, and community members who may experience pain or trauma as a result of this incident."
"It's difficult for sure in this particular context if the assignment is appropriate, but based on what I see, those are the kinds of questions we need to engage with our young people," said Cornelius Vanderbilt Distinguished Professor of Education Richard Milner.
Milner said having deep conversations on tough subjects like this is in the classroom is essential and can be beneficial to help young people engage in difficult conversations outside of the classroom. However, he stresses a lot of work is required to communicate the meaning and history behind the word beforehand.
"Thinking about and asking young people to engage with the word without talking and being deliberate about the historical nature of it can do more harm than good," he said.
Milner said while most teachers tend to have really good intentions, sometimes teachers are unprepared to address what might be considered the difficult issues, and should have proper tools.
Since the incident, a student started an online petition showing support for the teacher. So far it has garnered more than 800 virtual signatures. The student said the teacher is "being persecuted for trying to prepare us for the real world by gifting us with the ability to think critically."
Battle said the actions of the teacher will be investigated by Human Resources. The administration is working with the Equity and Diversity team on follow-up actions or training for any other faculty at the school who may have been involved in the decision to approve the assignment.