Some Thoughts on Charlottesville and the History Teacher

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This is just a quick reflection as I prepare for the new school year by thinking about lessons, students, and the rage that would drive a man barely out of his teens to step on a gas pedal with enough deliberate force to kill and wound other humans.

It’s difficult to overstate how important it is for middle and high school students to actively work toward an understanding of the historical roots of modern political issues and of the culture within which we live.  And not just the raw content of historical fact, but its interpretive nature and historiographical context as well.

And yet, this is a difficult time for teachers, especially history teachers, to endeavor to help students understand the origins of groups like the Alt-Right, the rise of neo-Nazism in America, and the events that just unfolded in Charlottesville. It sometimes feels nearly impossible to address current issues in the classroom in any substantive way without fear that a student or parent will complain about a teacher showing bias.

And when the opportunity to deeply and critically examine important current issues isn’t provided in the classroom, that leaves students on their own to grapple with ways to make sense of complex issues absent the sort of context and critical guidance that a teacher can provide.

To be clear, I do not proselytize in my classroom, nor do I condone teachers who do. My lessons are structured around the examination of mostly primary and some secondary texts and the classroom format is discussion-based, sometimes run by students themselves and sometimes guided by the teacher. I constantly play devil’s advocate and ask students to respond to and engage with all facets of the ideas we address. Our focus is on sophisticated, critical examination of evidence and an understanding of historiography.

And yet, there are issues that give me pause when designing lessons. The mere mention of certain names or phrases seems to cause intellectual defenses to slam into place as students across the political spectrum stockpile rhetorical projectiles and brace for argument.

There is much talk in education, as well there should be, about making the classroom and the school community as a whole a safe space for students. I’m increasingly struck by how often the classroom can become an unsafe space for teachers.

I can easily and productively work with students on issues such as neo-Nazism, anti-immigration sentiment, political demagoguery, racism, economic exploitation or inequality, gender theory, and all sorts of difficult issues, as long as those issues take place somewhere other than in America, or in a time at least a century in the past. It is an oft-repeated truism that one of the most important functions of education in the humanities is to challenge students’ preconceived ideas and thereby broaden their worldviews. The student sporting the furrowed brow of intrigue, chin resting contemplatively on fist, is an idealized staple of college prospective-student brochures. And yet younger adolescents can be especially prickly about having their emerging sense of themselves and their place in the world challenged. If you barge in through the front door with issues such as privilege, equity, or structural discrimination, the result is often a backlash that serves to entrench rather than broaden existing worldviews.

There are certainly many ways to craft intentional lessons on divisive issues. But even inquiry-based lessons firmly grounded in textual evidence and absent direct instruction can be dangerous waters for the teacher. When ideas seem to threaten the understanding that students have of themselves or the framework of understanding created for them by their parents, they can misinterpret the intent of a lesson or perceive bias or malice where none exists.

Students are generally deeply curious about politics and current issues, but they don’t always enjoy talking about political issues amongst their friends, because the conversations are often shouty and counterproductive. And more troubling, very few students seem to want to pursue careers in politics, which they find to be undignified and pointless. They look to teachers to provide a moderated, informative space in which to explore and make sense of the big issues in their world. Without an ability to create that space for difficult and divergent ideas, we risk graduating students who possess only the most tenuous grasp of the political system in which they live, who lack empathy for those whose worldviews are different from their own, and who have no interest whatsoever in becoming political leaders.

So, what can schools do to support teachers in promoting respectful, informative, balanced discussions of hot-button topics?  Here are some ideas:

  1. Administrators could strive to better understand their classrooms and courses; to know what students are reading, how teachers approach texts and the essential understandings that courses are aiming for.
  2. Developing a school culture in which students are encouraged to discuss current issues both formally and informally, and are provided with ongoing guidance on how to promote respectful and productive discussions.
  3. Promote programs such as debate, model congress, and model United Nations. The ability to sustain a reasoned argument based on sound and well-interpreted data is an excellent skill set to have. It will serve students well whatever their academic and career-based plans.

2 thoughts on “Some Thoughts on Charlottesville and the History Teacher

  1. Thank you for sharing that, Barbara. I think your story beautifully illustrates how important trusting relationships are in the classroom, particularly in discussing contentious issues.

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  2. Let me begin by stating that I am a 61 year old white woman who has been teaching in an urban high school for 28 years. Over those years the population has changed from primarily Black to approximately a 65% Hispanic to 35% Black population. We generally don’t see the Black vs. White issues, although some
    students perceive some of our teachers as racist, and rightfully so. Many students claim to have never experienced racism, yet there are often racially charged comments exchanged between the Hispanic and Black students.

    In English class, this past year, we were reading “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” by: Rebecca Skloot. The reading material lead to a discussion on racial discrimination. I happened to overhear a comment made by a Mexican student stating that he could never date a black girl, well maybe a light skinned one, but never a dark skinned one like “Mike.” This comment hit my very soul. I knew the student who made the comment for several years and the dark skinned student is especially near and dear to me. I’m certain that the mention if a specific name was a trigger for my reaction, yet not the only trigger.

    Initially, I reacted by stating that the comment was extremely hateful and adding that it was unfair to judge each other by the color of their skin. I was unable to maintain my composure and had to step out of the room to compose myself. While in the hallway, one of the girls came out to see if I was alright. I pushed her away indicating that she should go back in the room. I was physically upset and couldn’t get it together until well into the evening. Upon reentering the room, still visibly upset, a couple of the girls instructed the offender to apologize to me. At first the student was reluctant, but he caved under peer pressure and approached me with an apology. I told him he didn’t owe me the apology he owed it to “Mike.”

    In the meantime, “Mike” had heard his name come up but hadn’t heard the accompanying comment, so when the apology was given, he didn’t understand what was going on. Another student interjected, “Man ‘Mike’ she is over here crying for you and you don’t even know what is going on!”

    At that point an explanation was necessary. It was toward the end of the class period and we had no true resolution. Another class was coming into the room. I left and went to my homeroom for my prep period. I could not seem to get it together. “Mike” came to my room to see if I felt better only to find me still very upset. He explained that the comment didn’t bother him and that he had been teased about his complexion all of his life. I believe that was part of the problem for me, knowing about the racism within the race. I informed him that I was not any better and for whatever it counted for that I thought he was beautiful.

    I discussed the incident with several friends of several races in order to figure out how to deal with the experience. I wasn’t sure that I could look at the Mexican student in the same way again. Throughout the evening, three Hispanic girls from the class chatted with me via a group text. One of which was the girl that tried to retrieve me from the hallway. They each informed me of the ways in which their parents talked about Black people in derogatory terms. They were all taught to date within their own races. This is 2017!!!! They informed me that my reaction to the incident made them think about themselves. I told them that the only way this can be fixed is if they teach their children different values. I decided to use the experience as a teachable moment.

    The next day, I pulled the Mexican student aside and we talked. I explained my reaction as best I could and let him know that it took me awhile to analyse the whole thing through a process of talking with several people. I asked about what he was taught at home and shared some of my life experiences growing up during the Civil Rights Movement. I was in Baltimore, at the theater, during the Freddie Gray Riot and shared that experience as well. I asked him if he ever experienced racism toward Mexicans. He shared a story and explained how it made him feel. We both felt much better after our discussion. Afterward we brought the entire class into the discussion. The experience was extremely valuable.

    The reason that racial issues are so difficult to deal with is that we really don’t take the time to talk to each other about how we feel. Assumptions are made, comments are misunderstood, or understood and never dealt with. It took almost a full two hours to dissect this event, with a class full of tenth graders. We did stray from the curriculum, but not really. We became a tighter knit group as a result of the experience. I suppose I needed to share this with you in order to let people know that we can, as teachers, have an impact on our students and help them to become better people. We need to take the time.

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