The stated purpose of the assignment was "To help students understand the goals of terrorist groups and the methods they use to gain support." Students were asked to create a "neat" and "professional" propaganda poster for one of the terrorist groups the class had discussed during instruction, one of which was ISIS.
The project, given by a first-year teacher to ninth graders at Salem Junior High in Salem, Utah, was part of a greater unit of study on the Middle East and terrorism, which included a discussion on the use of propaganda as a recruitment tool, according to a spokesperson for the school district.
The teacher presumably thought it would be a good way to add context to current events. Parents, however, didn't see it that way at all.
The project got the kibosh after four parents called or emailed the school to complain about the assignment, which was given to about 60 students. One father was particularly concerned that his son might be placed on a "federal terrorist watch list" if he used the Internet to look up information on ISIS propaganda.
It's true that tying ISIS into a project like this when addressing terrorism — while extremely relevant in the wake of the Paris attacks — was risky. There is value in applying current events, even gruesome ones, in the classroom. But making a pro-terrorist poster for ISIS while people are still attempting to process the trauma does tend to leave a bad taste in one's mouth.
Still, the lesson could have been modified to exclude ISIS as opposed to it being cancelled altogether.
Yanking the assignment was wholly unnecessary. The teacher responsible seemed to be perfectly cogent of the fact that not everyone would have been OK participating, and even included a sensitive "out" on the assignment sheet — a little footnote that read:
"If you are uncomfortable with this assignment you may speak to me about an alternative assignment."
This little addendum makes it clear that this wasn't a mandatory project, and that students would not be penalized for opting not to make a poster.
Second, this wasn't an assignment that asked kids to sympathize with terrorists. It was one designed to add a real-world component to a textbook lesson. Typically a unit on propaganda will cover how it is a manipulative and exploitative tactic, not a fun art project. In fact, the teacher added a helpful definition, just in case kids got the wrong idea:
"*Definition of Propaganda: information, especially of a biased or misleading nature, used to promote or publicize a particular political cause or point of view."
Finally, there's no reason to assume that this had to be done specifically for ISIS. If that topic is too raw, there are (sadly) tons of other horrible groups in history to choose from.
Terrorists have used propaganda to recruit the disenfranchised, disturbed and fanatical elements of society to their ranks for a long time. If you look at a list of history's baddest bad guys, you'll always find recruitment posters and snappy slogans and xenophobic caricatures. Anyone who has been in a history classroom in the past century can probably recall learning about it. We shouldn't expect teachers to never talk about the fact that it exists and that it works, and we should allow them to teach it as they see fit, as long as the information they are giving is accurate.
It's clear that this teacher was trying to help students learn that pro-terrorist propaganda is bad. The idea behind the project was to get teens to think about why it works and what the appeal is, and the teacher likely felt the best way to assess their understanding of that would be to have them try their hand at it.
It may have been misguided, but it wasn't mandatory. Had cooler heads prevailed, the assignment could have been switched to an essay or the kids who were uncomfortable might have opted out. Instead, people freaked out, so no one had a chance to complete it, even if they might have found value in the exercise.
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