At a school in Englewood, New Jersey, Dana Stangel-Plowe is working to advance civil rights and liberties, and promote a common culture based on fairness, understanding and humanity.
Englewood, New Jersey
June 8, 2021
Dear Joe (copies to Head of School, Board Trustees, & English Department Colleagues),
I became a teacher at Dwight-Englewood because, as a parent, I loved how the school both nurtured and challenged my own children. Today, I am resigning from a job I love because D-E has changed in ways that undermine its mission and prevent me from holding true to my conscience as an educator.
I believe that D-E is failing our students. Over the past few years, the school has embraced an ideology that is damaging to our students’ intellectual and emotional growth and destroying any chance at creating a true community among our diverse population. I reject the hostile culture of conformity and fear that has taken hold of our school.
The school’s ideology requires students to see themselves not as individuals, but as representatives of a group, forcing them to adopt the status of privilege or victimhood. They must locate themselves within the oppressor or oppressed group, or some intersectional middle where they must reckon with being part-oppressor and part-victim. This theory of power hierarchies is only one way of seeing the world, and yet it pervades D-E as the singular way of seeing the world.
As a result, students arrive in my classroom accepting this theory as fact: People born with less melanin in their skin are oppressors, and people born with more melanin in their skin are oppressed. Men are oppressors, women are oppressed, and so on. This is the dominant and divisive ideology that is guiding our adolescent students.
In my classroom, I see up close how this orthodoxy hinders students’ ability to read, write, and think. I teach students who recoil from a poem because it was written by a man. I teach students who approach texts in search of the oppressor. I teach students who see inequities in texts that have nothing to do with power. Students have internalized the message that this is the way we read and think about the world, and as a result, they fixate on power and group identity. This fixation has stunted their ability to observe and engage with the full fabric of human experience in our literature.
In my professional opinion, the school is failing to encourage healthy habits of mind, essential for growth, such as intellectual curiosity, humility, honesty, reason, and the capacity to question ideas and consider multiple perspectives. In our school, the opportunity to hear competing ideas is practically non-existent. How can students, who accept a single ideology as fact, learn to practice intellectual curiosity or humility or consider a competing idea they’ve never encountered? How can students develop higher order thinking if they are limited to seeing the world only through the lens of group identity and power?
Sadly, the school is leading many to become true believers and outspoken purveyors of a regressive and illiberal orthodoxy. Understandably, these students have found comfort in their moral certainty, and so they have become rigid and closed-minded, unable or unwilling to consider alternative perspectives. These young students have no idea that the school has placed ideological blinders on them.
Of course, not all students are true believers. Many pretend to agree because of pressure to conform. I’ve heard from students who want to ask a question but stop for fear of offending someone. I have heard from students who don’t participate in discussions for fear of being ostracized. One student did not want to develop her personal essay — about an experience she had in another country — for fear that it might mean that she was, without even realizing it, racist. In her fear, she actually stopped herself from thinking. This is the very definition of self-censorship.
I care deeply about our students and our school, and so over the years, I have tried to introduce positive and constructive alternative views. My efforts have fallen on deaf ears. In 2019, I shared with you my negative experiences among hostile and doctrinaire colleagues. You expressed dismay, but I did not hear any follow up from you or other administrators. Since then, the stifling conformity has only intensified. Last fall, two administrators informed faculty that certain viewpoints simply would not be tolerated during our new “race explicit” conversations with our new “anti-racist” work. They said that no one would be allowed to question the orthodoxy regarding “systemic racism.” The message was clear, and the faculty went silent in response.
The reality is that fear pervades the faculty. On at least two separate occasions in 2017 and 2018, our Head of School, standing at the front of Hajjar Auditorium, told the entire faculty that he would fire us all if he could so that he could replace us all with people of color. This year, administrators continue to assert D-E’s policy that we are hiring “for diversity.” D-E has become a workplace that is hostile toward educators based solely on their immutable traits.
During a recent faculty meeting, teachers were segregated by skin color. Teachers who had light skin were placed into a “white caucus” group and asked to “remember” that we are “White” and “to take responsibility for [our] power and privilege.” D-E’s racial segregation of educators, aimed at leading us to rethink of ourselves as oppressors, was regressive and demeaning to us as individuals with our own moral compass and human agency. Will the school force racial segregation on our students next?
I reject D-E’s essentialist, racialist thinking about myself, my colleagues, and my students. As a humanist educator, I strive to create an inclusive classroom by embracing the dignity and unique personality of each and every student; I want to empower all students with the skills and habits of mind that they need to fulfill their potential as learners and human beings. Neither the color of my skin nor the“group identity” assigned to me by D-E dictates my humanist beliefs or my work as an educator. Being told that it does is offensive and wrong, and it violates my dignity as a human being. My conscience does not have a color.
D-E claims that we teach students how to think, not what to think. But sadly, that is just no longer true. I hope administrators and board members awaken in time to prevent this misguided and absolutist ideology from hollowing out D-E, as it has already hollowed out so many other institutions.
Upper School English Teacher
P’16, P’19, P’21
“This document shows teacher perspectives from a spring faculty training session. I was shocked by some of what teachers said on the idea board, including the suggestion for ‘a system for bias incident reporting,’ which the Director of Equity and Diversity Engagement supported, and the suggestion for ‘targeted deprogramming / de-radicalization strategy toward identitarian white boys.'”
“This plan is available schoolwide to the community. Some of the new programming mentioned is on pages 4, 5, and 6 — “Developing Upper School Equity Leadership, Student Anti-Racism Initiatives, and Curricular Initiatives” — which outlines how the school will start grooming students to be ‘equity’ leaders, which I have seen in various ‘student-run’ initiatives and activities this year.”
February 21, 2021
Recommendation for Dana Stangel-Plowe
It is a great pleasure to recommend Dana Stangel-Plowe, one of the finest educators I have ever worked with. Over the seven years she has been teaching English at Dwight-Englewood, she has brought tremendous creativity and commitment to all aspects of her work. In many conversations over the years, I have found her to be deeply thoughtful about both pedagogy and curriculum. As department chair, I also observed her teach several times a year; her classroom is a dynamic place where students feel comfortable pushing themselves and taking risks. She has earned the strongest possible recommendation.
I first got to know Dana when she invited me to a children’s theater production of As You Like It that she directed. It was remarkably good, so when she told me she was interested in pursuing a career in education and had been taking courses toward that end, I invited her to teach a lesson on poetry to my ninth grade Honors class. Her class on Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art” was carefully planned, well scaffolded, and student-centered. I thought right away that if we did have an opening, I would want her to be a candidate. As it happened, we needed someone the next year to cover a section of junior/senior electives each semester. Dana taught creative writing and a course called “Deep Poetry” in which she emphasized close examination and thoughtful engagement with the text. The class involved a lot of writing, sometimes graded but often not. Dana wanted the students to engage with the literature and not to be writing for a grade. I found this approach refreshing, as too many teachers place grades at the center of their practice. She also avoided the trap of presenting herself as the expert on whatever poem she was teaching. Her questions were open-ended, creating space for students to think for themselves. I watched several classes in which she patiently worked through a poem, asking questions (“What about this word here?”) and using the students’ own ideas to guide them to a deeper understanding.
Dana soon became a full-time member of the department, teaching ninth grade (College Prep and Honors), creative writing, and a very popular elective on Jewish literature. In all of her work, I have seen the same student-first approach described above. Dana has a particular talent for eliciting the very best from students not previously known for their passion for literature. Her own enthusiasm is obvious, but her work is also characterized by a powerful commitment to a positive classroom culture. Respect is one of our school’s core values, and Dana keeps that ideal at the heart of all her interactions with students. For instance, for creative writing she establishes classroom norms of careful attention and mindful engagement with each other’s work. Building a sense of cohesion in each class is one of the first priorities of any teacher; Dana does this better than just about anyone I’ve seen in twenty years as chair.
Dana has also been a valuable member of the faculty. She is honest, patient, and fully committed to the community, deeply invested in both her own growth and that of the institution as a whole. In preparation for a recent accreditation, we set about revamping our core curriculum in grades 9 and 10. Dana’s contributions to that work had a profound impact. We wrestled with some complicated questions, such as whether to keep Huckleberry Finn in the ninth grade. I felt
Dana’s common sense and wisdom helped us get to the right resolution. I have seen her teach that novel, by the way, and handle in her customary forthright way the problem of the language. Before assigning even the first chapter, she had her students read several short essays by scholars and writers about the novel, and then she had her students discuss how they should proceed. I felt she brought both sensitivity and a commitment to the students’ own voices.
Dana started her career as a lawyer, and I’m sure she was a very good one, but in my view she was born to teach. I am grateful for the years she gave us here at Dwight-Englewood, where her legacy will live on. I plan to teach the Deep Poetry elective next year, inspired by what I saw Dana do with it, but also aware that I can turn to my extensive notes on her classes any time I need a boost. I served as her chair for seven years, but I was also her student.
Chair of English Department