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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, Peter DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. Former superintendent Michael Nelson is a frequent contributor. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

One Year After Charlottesville, How Should We Talk With Our Students About Hate?

By Jinnie Spiegler — August 05, 2018 6 min read
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Today’s guest blog is written by Jinnie Spiegler, Director of Curriculum at the Anti-Defamation League.

Last August, in a moment when many teachers were setting up their classrooms or enjoying their last days of summer break, Charlottesville happened.

On the weekend of August 11, 2017, in the largest and most violent gathering of white supremacists in decades, “Unite the Right” brought these groups together, including the alt-right, neo-Nazis, and the Ku Klux Klan. Carrying torches, homemade shields, and Confederate flags and brandishing Nazi salutes, hundreds gathered to broadcast their viewpoints and ideology. After continued clashes, a car plowed into a crowd of peaceful counter-protesters, killing one person and injuring 19. Two troopers also died when a helicopter crashed while monitoring the chaos. Virginia’s governor declared a state of emergency.

It was a grim and challenging time for the country; that challenge was magnified for teachers who had just started the school year. At ADL, we heard from many teachers who were mired in confusion, fear, and doubt. Should I talk about Charlottesville? Can I address racism so early in the school year? Will my classroom explode with emotion? While many teachers generally feel responsible to talk with students about important societal happenings, there is also hesitancy and perceived danger. But Charlottesville could not be glossed over or ignored.

Immediately following the events of that weekend, both the National Education Association (NEA) and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT)—the two main unions representing U.S. educators—made strong statements denouncing what happened in Charlottesville and urging teachers to talk with their students about it and the underlying issues of race, hate, white supremacy, and anti-Semitism. Other national education organizations including NCSS, ASCD, NAEYC, NCTE and AERA also offered resources and made statements including the following:

“We encourage all social studies teachers and teacher educators to equip our children and students with the tools to eradicate hate, fear, and violence in our democratic society.” -NCSS

“There is no apolitical classroom. English language arts teachers must examine the ways that racism has personally shaped their beliefs and must examine existing biases that feed systems of oppression.” -NCTE

“The recent events in Charlottesville not only make visible how white supremacy, racism, anti-Semitism, religious persecution, homophobia, and xenophobia continue to permeate our society, but also remind us of the critical importance of studying, analyzing, and broadly communicating about these patterns and structures.” -AERA

Online education publications urged teachers to engage in classroom conversations about what happened in Charlottesville. Ten days after “Unite the Right, I was part of a team along with colleagues at Facing History and Ourselves, Teaching Tolerance and EduColor to offer an AFT-sponsored webinar, When Hate is in the Headlines: Resources for K-12 Educators. More than 4,000 people participated, both live and on demand. This illustrated the deep and expansive interest in bringing these issues into the classroom. Specifically, teachers wanted to learn about the history of hate groups in our country, how to competently navigate these fraught discussions with students at different ages, whether they should talk about race in classrooms with predominately white students, how they should address white supremacy and the alt-right, and much more.

More than anything else, what we heard was: I want to say something. I want to do something. And I need help.

As the school year got underway, many teachers began to have these discussions. Meanwhile, we continued to see a steady stream of hate-inspired incidents take place around the country and, disturbingly, in K-12 schools and on college campuses. These reported incidents included: racial slurs, hung nooses, swastikas and other racist, anti-Semitic and homophobic graffiti scratched and painted on school grounds, images of Confederate flags and KKK references, white supremacist propaganda, vandalism, and physical attacks.

During the 2017-18 school year—the school year proceeding Charlottesville—the appearance of white supremacist propaganda on college campuses nearly doubled. This included the distribution of racist, anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim fliers, stickers, banners and posters. We have seen similar incidents in K-12 schools across the country. Education Week and Pro Publica have partnered to collect these data in a more systematic way so they can be analyzed and used to explore solutions.

As we head into the one-year anniversary of the horrific events in Charlottesville, which intersects with the beginning of school, consider what you can do in your classroom this year. There are a variety of ways you can address these issues, even with our youngest children.

Using children’s and young adult literature is a powerful way to introduce and deepen students’ understanding of identity, race, racism, culture, civil rights history and people’s struggle to overcome injustice. Currents events are excellent openings to talk about what’s happening in the world and help students grapple news events in the context of bias, discrimination, and social justice in social studies, English or advisory.

High school can be an especially appropriate time to discuss Charlottesville, the alt-right and white supremacy. Young people already know about these topics through their social media feeds, but they are not necessarily analyzing them with the rigor and critical thinking that classroom instruction can bring. Teaching moments (from racial “jokes” and stereotypes to xenophobia in the news to a hate incident in school) provide ripe opportunities to dig deeper into the background, motivations, impacts and solutions to issues.

And it is always important to leave young people of all ages with hope and optimism. One way to do this is to explore historical and current-day examples of activism, especially where young people have taken the lead, and engage them in a social action project of their own creation. Lastly, you can teach anti-bias education lessons throughout the school year so that the teaching moments can be integral to your classroom discussions and lessons.

As you plan to bring these topics into the classroom this year, use the considerations below. And remember to prepare yourself emotionally and engage in your own learning--these are complex topics and you don’t have to have all the answers. Again, the implementation of these suggestions will vary by age level.

  • Promote a safe, inclusive and respectful learning environment.
  • Consider and be sensitive to the racial, ethnic and religious composition of your classroom.
  • Accept discomfort and uncertainty, for both you and your students.
  • Create opportunities for students to express and share their feelings.
  • Be intentional in using accurate, inclusive language and terminology.
  • Connect the present to the past.
  • Take advantage of media (including social media) as a resource while also critically analyzing it.
  • Discuss structural racism and other forms of injustice.
  • Foster empathy.
  • Instill hope, allyship, advocacy and activism.

Helping young people grapple with the most important issues in our world today can be scary, but it can be incredibly fulfilling and transformative. Indeed, “education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world” (Nelson Mandela).

Photocredit: Shutterstock

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.