Are you familiar with the Octopus parabolis, or the animal more commonly known as the tree octopus? It can be found in the pacific northwest and while it is not currently on the endangered species list, advocates are pushing for the designation. Oh, you've never hear of it? Frankly I'm not too surprised, especially considering it's completely fake. But, that doesn't mean there isn't a whole website dedicated to this made up creature. I suspect most who stumble upon this site or otherwise examine it with a critical eye are be able to quickly discern the absurdity of this fiction. Perhaps there couldn't be a better example of this phenomenon we have come to call 'fake news'?
Now, maybe we believe a website about a fake octopus is harmless. I mean who does it hurt? And frankly it is so obvious that this is not a real thing, I mean heck: look at the dang website!
But suppose some people do believe it. Further, let's assume they believe this so called 'endangered species' isn't getting the protection it deserves. What if they believe the octopus is endangered because of man made reasons, you know, harvesting trees in the forest and that sort of thing? The group attempts to have their concern heard by those in power. Those who have the ability to write laws that can protect their beloved octopus. But those in power don't want to hear it. They keep saying over and over again: this isn't a real thing. It's totally fake!!!
Yet our octopus activists don't want to hear that. The fact is, they believe with every ounce of their being this species is in real danger. In fact, they have proof. A few fuzzy photos captured of the elusive critter in the wild. Testimonials from like minded friends, neighbors; and they are even able to find an expert with a PhD to take up their cause. Finally, in an effort to curry favor with this small but growing constituency they are able to convince a few policymakers to take up their plight and introduce legislation to protect their beloved cephalopod. But they can't garner enough support for their 'pet project' so their momentum is stalled and they are doomed to fail.
Except of course that failure isn't an option. These folks are passionate and simply won't let it go. Regardless of the fact there is insurmountable evidence the tree octopus isn't real, they are dug in and willing to do whatever it takes to have their voices heard. Their cause is just, righteous, and noble. They will make those in power listen and bend to their will. Violence ensues.
A year ago this would have been pure fantasy. On January 6, 2021 that fantasy became a reality. Claims were propagated online via social media channels, websites, and influencers that were simply not true. No matter how much, and how many times those claims were debunked didn't matter. Many became swept up in the hysteria and people were hurt, even killed. I don't know about you, but as I watched what happened as that day unfolded, I found it very upsetting and unsettling.
In our school district, we addressed this issue cautiously and, frankly with hesitation. Partly due to the political divisiveness that has become so engrained in our culture. Partly because, well, we just didn't know what to say. The Monday following the riot on the Capitol I shared this message with our employees:
How does the saying go? ‘Last week was a long year!’ I think we can all agree that regardless of who we supported in the recent election, what happened on Wednesday at the U.S. Capitol was horrible. Attempts to disrupt the electoral vote confirmation were an attack on our Republic and the U.S. Constitution. Luckily, the guardrails put in place by our framers held. There is no doubt this was difficult to witness and caused many of us a great deal of stress. At the same time, your students may have questions and want to discuss what has happened in class. It is important during this time that we remain calm. Here are a few resources that may help facilitate a dialogue.
In the coming days, additional challenges and civil unrest may rise to the surface. I encourage you to remind our students that we are here to protect them and that they will be safe. Please remain optimistic! A peaceful transition of power is a hallmark of our democracy and has endured for over two centuries! It will this time too.
My attempt in this message of course was to strike just the right balance, because let's face it: When you read my words, sometimes you may wonder if I wear a red jersey or a blue jersey. When we visit with our neighbors, talk on the phone with family members or meet someone at the grocery store we probably wonder and carefully consider the words they choose: which side are you on? You probably do it, and I do it to. But we forget the most important fact, and that is that we are Americans first.
Our public schools have an important role to play in the exchange of ideas and of the preparation of a well informed citizenry. Indeed, our system of public education in this country, for all the push for reform, leaving no child behind, racing to the top (pick your initiative); it is the elixir that binds us together and the cure for the rage in our society.
I began my career over 25 years ago, fresh out of college and thrilled with my first job in a small private Catholic school. For the next 15 years I would stay in that system and loved every minute of it. To this day, those friendships run deep. For sure, it is part of me and who I am. We share the same values, same faith, and for the most part ran in the same social circles. We all believe in the same things. [But] that last sentence was part of the problem and one of the reasons why I thought it so important to return to my public school upbringing. As a product of Iowa public schools, it was so obvious that I was living in an environment that did not represent what Iowa looked like. That my values weren't your values. That your belief system differs from mine. I came to the realization that surrounding ourselves day in and day out with people who were exactly the same and held the same beliefs doesn't help us grow. It does, however harden our position.
Public schools, on the other hand are true melting pots in our communities. We come from a vast array of faith backgrounds. Our public schools are rich with diversity: racial, economic, and ethnic. It is through this interaction that we are able to understand where our fellow citizens come from. It helps us to frame our thinking. It helps us to develop empathy. Where our system of beliefs, values, and faith life come from our families and churches, our public schools help us to understand our way isn't the only way. Our public schools help us to discuss, debate, participate in civil discourse. And above all else: get along with one another.
Then again, our public schools also serve a much more practical purpose. In addition to the reams of curriculum, standards, teaching students to read, write, and 'arithmetic', we also teach these young people to think. Using these critical thinking skills they can separate fact from fiction. And understand with great clarity that yes: a tree octopus is not a real thing.