Dozens of California teachers hold unauthorized 'teach-in' on Palestinian voices amid Israel-Hamas war

OUSD superintendent said she was "disappointed" by the materials circulating.

Dozens of California teachers hold unauthorized 'teach-in' on Palestinian voices amid Israel-Hamas war
STOCK PHOTO/Getty Images
Video byElla Katz
December 7, 2023, 1:55 PM

Several teachers in Oakland, California, held an unauthorized "teach-in" on Wednesday regarding the Israel-Hamas war, they told ABC News -- a move that some school district officials have criticized.

In the wake of the Oct. 7 Hamas terrorist attack on Israel, and Israel's subsequent retaliatory bombing campaign and siege of the neighboring Gaza Strip, Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) officials released guidelines and resources for teachers who plan to facilitate classroom conversations about the conflict.

Organizers of the teach-in told ABC News they felt the resources they were given offered one side of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. They estimated between 75 to 100 K-12 teachers were involved in the teach-in Wednesday, and said those teachers highlighted Palestinian narratives by hosting guest speakers, in-class discussions and other lessons in their classrooms.

An elementary school teacher in Oakland, who requested to remain anonymous for job security reasons, said she and other teachers "realized that the curriculum they were sending us was not the whole story."

"It did not include the Palestinian struggle for freedom and liberation," the teacher, who is Jewish, told ABC News.

Judy Greenspan, a retired math and science middle school teacher who is now a substitute teacher, told ABC News the district-sponsored curriculum was "presented in a very, very one-sided pro-Israeli way."

"There is another side," Greenspan, who is also Jewish, said. "We need to present it all."

High school teacher and teach-in participant Rachel Talasko, who said she has family in Israel, told San Francisco ABC station KGO that to "learn and process through" what she calls a "genocide" of Palestinians in Gaza amid the Israeli siege "is very, very complex. And so, for ourselves and for our students, to model for them what that looks like, I felt it was really important and essential."

In the Oct. 31 letter to educators detailing OUSD guidelines and linking to resources, the district's chief academic officer, Sondra Aguilera, wrote, "OUSD does not tolerate antisemitic, anti-Israeli, Islamophobic, or anti-Palestinian prejudice or discrimination. As a community that steadfastly opposes all forms of racism, we must consider how we can instill and promote these values within our classrooms."

Some teachers, including some members of the Oakland Education Association (OEA) teachers union, said they distributed resources on Wednesday for teachers who want a Palestinian perspective to supplement their conversations on the longstanding Middle Eastern conflict in the region.

Some teachers who are involved also said they held a voluntary virtual panel discussion on Wednesday with experts and organizers about the conflict that teachers could livestream. Other teachers planned to host guest speakers to talk with students and answer questions.

The collection of resources distributed for the teach-in was likened by critics, including some parents, to "indoctrination," a district official told ABC News. It was criticized for excluding or misrepresenting narratives about Zionism and Israel, calling Zionists "bullies" in one worksheet.

OUSD Superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammell criticized the teach-in lessons in advance of the planned action, saying in a statement to parents Monday that "our schools are sanctuaries for learning, and I am deeply disappointed by the harmful and divisive materials being circulated and promoted as factual." A district official told ABC News they "don't think the superintendent is seeking to be punitive," however, one teacher said they anticipate disciplinary measures from the district.

Johnson-Trammell pointed to district rules in place for discussing controversial issues in a classroom setting.

Controversial issues may be discussed in the classroom, per Administrative Regulation 6144, provided the issue is related to course content, provides conflicting points of view, allows for the discussion of alternative views and uses established facts as primary evidence.

Johnson-Trammell said in her statement that "our expectation is that all educators, in every classroom across the District, take seriously their responsibility to adhere to principles of education, and to keep their personal beliefs out of the classroom."

Sam Davis, an Oakland School Board director, told ABC News there's "a lot of fear and anger on both sides" in response to the ongoing classroom debate.

"We're hearing complaints from parents who feel like their children don't feel safe because of their Jewish identity in some classrooms," said Davis, who is Jewish.

"We're hearing from staff members who are Jewish, who feel like there's an antisemitism in the way that this is rolled out. ... Then also to speak to members of the Yemeni community and to hear how scared they feel," Davis said.

Oakland has a large and quickly growing Yemeni and Arab population, according to the OUSD.

The elementary school teacher who spoke to ABC News said she is "a descendant of Holocaust survivors," and understands the fears of the Jewish community.

"This curriculum does not attack Jews," she said. "It makes a space where we can all come together and say we're standing up for and with our Arab and Muslim brothers and sisters right now."

In her statement to parents on Monday, the superintendent reaffirmed the district's commitment against antisemitism as well as anti-Israeli, Islamophobic or anti-Palestinian discrimination.

"We are aware of some recent incidents that may have cast doubt on the district's commitment to this fundamental expectation, and I want to be clear -- we are taking immediate and decisive action within our authority to address these issues," the statement continued.

The OUSD declined to comment further on the teach-in and instead directed ABC News to Johnson-Trammell's Monday statement.

The Oakland school district joins other schools across the United States in facing ongoing challenges in addressing the conflict and subsequent tensions. Federal officials have warned of a sharp rise in antisemitism and Islamophobia amid the Israel-Hamas war.

Davis told ABC News that students "feel really passionately but they also need help from adults to figure out how to express that upset and anger in productive ways. That's our role as educators, to help guide them, and being constructive and not just yelling at the wind."

The OEA also drew criticism for a statement on Instagram, which reportedly said it pledged "unequivocal support for Palestinian liberation" and did not mention the Oct. 7 Hamas terrorist attack, according to San Francisco-based TV station KRON.

The statement was later removed from social media and the group apologized, saying the post did not "accurately represent" the organization's original resolution in response to "student activism around the conflict in Israel and Palestine."

In a later statement, the organization said it mourned "the tragic loss of both Palestinian and Israeli lives these past weeks" and condemned what they call "the 75-year-long illegal military occupation of Palestine," referencing Israel's declaration of independence in 1948 and the subsequent ongoing military action in the region.

The organization has called for a cease-fire and an "end to the occupation."