Commentary: Newport Harbor teaches against hate, and there’s no CRT to be found

Students head to class outside Newport Harbor High School.
(Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times)

I teach English at Newport Harbor High School, and my junior classes just wrapped up a six-week Holocaust unit.

So you can imagine my dismay when I learned that my students had been distracted from this content by the race war I was stoking in my classroom — at least according to the commentary by Wendy Leece, published in the Daily Pilot in April. 

As someone who has dedicated his professional life to public service, I respect Ms. Leece for her years of elected office in our community. She and I are both alarmed at the rise in antisemitic activity across our country, and we both know that schools play a key role in combatting hate. 

However, her central idea that we “must teach more about the Holocaust and not divert class time to CRT indoctrination” contains the false premises: that we are not dedicating enough attention to the Holocaust and we are peddling so-called “critical race theory” to our students. 

Consider this snapshot of the unit we just finished: The main text is Art Spiegelman’s “Maus,” a Pulitzer Prize-winning Holocaust memoir. We also watch Deeyah Khan’s Emmy award-winning documentary, “White Right: Meeting the Enemy,” a deep dive into modern hate groups and the psychology of their members. We supplement these with journalism, nonfiction and a 2019 open letter from Jewish students, among other texts. With our honors-level juniors, we also analyze the poetry of Wislawa Szymborska, whose Nobel Prize-winning works depict life in Nazi-occupied Poland and behind the Iron Curtain during the Cold War. 

Different teachers mix and match these resources to fit their students’ needs, but all Newport Harbor juniors work through this unit, which was designed by our teachers in response to the swastika incident at the center of Leece’s commentary.

The English curriculum dovetails with weeks of Holocaust study in both world history and U.S. history. We cover other genocides in our Global Connect course, and some classes also read “The Boy on the Wooden Box,” another Holocaust memoir. The social science department also arranges our annual field trip to the Museum of Tolerance, which all juniors attend; during distance learning, Holocaust survivors and other guest speakers joined history classes on Zoom to share their stories and perspectives.

The battle to make the world a kinder place is up against a steady increase in hate-related activity, writes columnist Patrice Apodaca.

We understand that the work of fighting antisemitism is never done, but our community can rest assured knowing that our schools offer robust Holocaust education.

What we are not teaching is “CRT.” In fact, the only reason my students know the first thing about it is because I shared last week’s op-ed with them; the first question in four of my five junior classes was, “What’s CRT?” (Incidentally, this was my response to a neighbor last summer who asked me about CRT in schools.)

If we were teaching CRT at Newport Harbor, we’d be doing an atrocious job. In a straw poll, the overwhelming majority of my students claimed to know nothing or very little about it. When I asked them about teachers dividing them by race or shaming them for their race, they mostly looked at me like I was crazy. 

In December, after studying the speeches of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. with my honors-level seniors — along with readings from Ibram X. Kendi and Isabel Wilkerson — I asked them to write about and discuss how our school handles racially sensitive topics. Of my 50 seniors, only seven had anything to say; none of them sensed any political agenda or experienced any divisive content, lessons or assignments.

There are four valedictorians and a host of campus leaders on my senior rosters. These students have no problem expressing their discomfort, displeasure or distaste; they simply weren’t feeling it. In fact, many of them seemed annoyed that we were spending class time discussing the manufactured drama of CRT.

I feel compelled to correct the misrepresentations in Ms. Leece’s commentary because I care about the truth. I also take exception to the notion that my colleagues or I would pursue any program of Marxist indoctrination; that’s a terribly irresponsible thing to claim. If teachers allow such false accusations to stand, we’ll next be labeled “groomers” and “pedophiles.” After all, for folks who are actually pushing a dangerous political agenda, these are the trending talking points.

Matt Armstrong is in his 20th year as an English teacher, 15 of which have been with Newport-Mesa Unified School District.

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