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Tough Talk on Race: Advice for Educators, From Educators

August 23, 2017 10 min read

It’s a question educators have long wrestled with: How can they—or should they—talk to students about issues beyond the classroom, especially those that might be divisive? This question took on a special urgency earlier this month, when hundreds of white supremacists, including Ku Klux Klan members and neo-Nazis, marched at a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Va. A 20-year-old man who reportedly espoused neo-Nazi views was accused of driving a car into a crowd of people protesting the rally on August 12, killing one woman and hurting 19 others.

As teachers and students head back to school now, many educators have expressed apprehension about how they can address the events in Charlottesville, controversial news topics, and more broadly, issues relating to racism, anti-Semitism, politics, and our nation’s history.

In this roundup, K-12 educators, college professors, and historians share their advice for engaging students—even when the conversations aren’t easy.


Teacher Voices Tough Talk article 600px

1. Make Social Justice Part of the Curriculum

The Charlottesville incident should embolden educators of white youths to incorporate social justice into their curricula. As a veteran teacher in Chicago Public Schools, I have taught mainly African-American and Latino students. My students are natives of social justice education; they are critical of systems of oppression and they’ve memorized narratives of the oppressed ahead of Civil War generals. In fact, one would be hard-pressed to find a CPS teacher who doesn’t also consider herself or himself a teacher of social justice.

Beginning research on the effects of including social justice in the curriculum reveals just how far we have to go as a nation. A mandatory social-justice class at a predominantly African-American high school in Maplewood, N.J., profoundly affected the identities and future career choices of students. Many students initially uninterested in careers that would help their communities became educators, social workers, and leaders of organizations that had large impacts on the communities they grew up in.

On the flip side, when Katy Swalwell, a professor at Iowa State University, researched the effect of lessons about social justice in social-studies classes in an affluent, majority-white private school. She found that when white, affluent students had lessons about social justice, they “expressed a genuine concern about inequalities, but connected the problems to individual shortcomings rather than systemic disadvantages.” The white students gained knowledge of the inequalities, but they couldn’t link it to the same systems that gave them privilege.

A crowd of people holds torches at a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Va., on Aug. 11, 2017.

As the school year begins across America, many educators across our nation have been posting sample lessons and urging each other to teach lessons about Charlottesville—lessons about racism, hate, diversity, and tolerance. Without a doubt, these lessons will be taking place in my high school. But a more powerful way that we as a nation can counteract overt acts of white supremacy is if all teachers in white classrooms teach lessons about Charlottesville and infuse social justice into the curricula and school culture.

Especially now, when our nation’s president falters on publicly acknowledging and condemning acts of homegrown terrorism, America’s students, especially our white students, need teachers to guide discussions on systemic racism and create spaces to interact with teens and children of other races. There are ways to counteract the hatred and racism of Charlottesville, and the classroom can be a powerful way to begin.

Gina Caneva has worked in Chicago Public Schools for 14 years. She is currently a teacher-librarian and writing-center director at Lindblom Math and Science Academy in Chicago.


2. Help Students Confront Their Confederate Past

Because hundreds of Confederate monuments remain, the controversy will not go away anytime soon. That allows us—obligates us—to frame for our students, in ways that promote inquiry and reasoned analysis, the debate over what to do with monuments.

As for the Confederate monuments themselves, one proposed way forward is to put existing monuments “in context.” Explanatory signage would convey what the Civil War was about; what roles the men depicted played during the conflict; who erected those shrines of memory, and when, and why. Social studies curricula, augmented by field trips to such places, could then cover the monuments and the emotions that have swirled around them. Of course, new controversies would burst forth over the right to control the content of the interpretive material.

The debate over contextualizing monuments can teach our students an important life lesson: that compromise is not always possible. Many ask, for example, how there can be any legitimate memorialization of a cause that embraced (among other values) slavery and a belief in African-American inferiority. Meanwhile, recent public hearings to consider the future of Richmond’s Monument Avenue revealed that even devotees of the Confederate heritage who are not among the alt-right regard contextualization of the statues as “desecration.”

Students could be asked to examine individual American monuments, whether Confederate or not, and to discuss their genesis and whether they deserve to remain. They could debate whether we should mothball every statue that commemorates a flawed person; however, they would soon realize that this could leave us with no monuments at all. They would also discover that even ownership of slaves, if adopted as a winnowing device, would wipe out much of the American pantheon, disqualifying not only Washington, Jefferson, and Madison, but also John Winthrop and Benjamin Franklin.

Some students might propose an amnesty for slaveholders who eventually opposed the institution or provided for their own bondpeople to go free; that would “winnow back in” Washington and Franklin. But what, a good teacher might then ask, do we do about a person who denounced slavery eloquently and drafted the Declaration of Independence, yet expressed racist views and freed almost no enslaved people?

For the moment, we Americans need to focus our hopes and efforts on preserving human life and safety and on trying to awaken whatever latent capacity for moral leadership may remain in our public sphere. As we move forward, we should also make full use of the many opportunities to talk seriously about race, history, and American values that the controversy over Confederate monuments offers us.

Excerpted from “Facing Our Confederate Past,” August 16, 2017. Read the full essay.

Melvin Patrick Ely is the William R. Kenan Jr. professor of humanities at the College of William & Mary. Previously, he taught in public high schools in Richmond, Va., and in western Massachusetts.


3. Speak Honestly

First and foremost, teachers must equip themselves with sound knowledge on the history of slavery, racism, xenophobia, and the constant quest for equality that many nonwhite groups in this country faced historically and still struggle for today. These topics can be adjusted and modified for age appropriateness, but students need to be given honest accounts about some of the ugly histories of this country and learn about how the United States has not always lived up to its lofty ideals. We are a work in progress.

Second, educators must prepare for the fact that these conversations and lessons will be uncomfortable and do not always end smoothly—not even with children. To that end, teachers must be willing to stand in the gap and facilitate topics; teach students to query sources of information; and realize that there are often no kumbaya moments.

Artist Sam Welty creates a mural of Heather Heyer, who was killed while protesting a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Va., on August 12, 2017.

Third, teachers must be able to help students understand that there is no room for hate in a civil society. When protesting tactics are reminiscent of an earlier and uglier time in our nation’s history, they must be discussed, understood, and condemned. Though not easy, it is what we owe students, the field of education, and our nation if we are to become an ideal democracy. Teachers must be prepared to understand the messy, complex, emotional, cruel, shameful, and often contradictory messages that go along with these subjects. To do this, teachers must seek multiple perspectives, talk to a diversity of people about race-related topics, and also speak their truth, while acknowledging their own biases.

Excerpted from “When We Talk About Race, Let’s Be Honest,” August 18, 2017. Read the full essay.

Tyrone C. Howard is a professor of education and the director of the Black Male Institute at the graduate school of education and information studies of the University of California, Los Angeles.


See Also

“Make sure your students are reading diverse books.” Watch a video with five pieces of advice from teachers on how to best discuss racism and hate crimes in the classroom.

4. Start Dialogue With History

Any discussion concerning Confederate monuments must begin with a solid historical foundation. Students need to understand that the goal of the Confederacy was the creation of a slaveholding republic built on white supremacy. They also need to have some understanding of the history of Confederate monuments, the vast majority of which were erected and dedicated at the height of the Jim Crow era (1890-1930). Segregation and disfranchisement prevented the vast majority of African-Americans from participating in these public discussions.

As a former high school history teacher, I have found that the most effective way of engaging students in this debate on the high school level is to arrange them in small groups where they are much more likely to listen carefully to one another. Ideally, this should be done so that each group reflects the ethnic and racial profile of the community. Primary sources such as photographs, monument fact sheets, and dedication addresses along with short essays and op-eds help to focus their discussion. Questions should engage students directly about what they think should happen in their own communities or elsewhere.

Students can be tasked with deciding whether a monument ought to be removed or relocated. They might also work on a design for a new monument to be added to a particular location to broaden its meaning. Teachers may decide that these questions are best left to the end of a unit on the Civil War and Reconstruction period. With some calling for historical context, students can work on their own wayside markers, which typically run about 300 words and include two or three images. In this exercise, students decide what information is relevant to understand a monument’s history. The word limit forces students to decide what historical information is relevant from both the Civil War era as well as the relevant local history at the time of dedication during the Jim Crow era. Historical images and quotes from dedication speeches help to round out their markers. Traditional poster board or even a computer program such as PowerPoint are ideal for arranging text and images into a coherent story that can then be presented to the class.

History teachers are constantly asked to justify their discipline. Rarely does an opportunity like this present itself. Let’s get to work.

Kevin M. Levin is an historian and educator based in Boston. He previously taught at St. Anne’s-Belfield School in Charlottesville, Va., and at Gann Academy in Waltham, Mass. He is the editor of a forthcoming collection of essays, Interpreting the Civil War at Museums and Historic Sites (Rowman & Littlefield, 2017). His blog Civil War Memory includes resources for the classroom.


5. Don’t Be Afraid to Discuss Race and Politics

Reflect on your personal views and positions on race and society. Your goal is not to indoctrinate students into believing or embracing a particular point of view. The goal is not for teachers to push their own agendas, but rather to explore nuance with students to sharpen their analytic and critical-thinking skills that are transferable to other situations. Offer counterviews to students’ positions as they participate in classroom discussion; expect and encourage students to do the same. By sharing alternative views, relying on publications from across the political spectrum, and inviting guest speakers to share their positions on issues, you can support students as they strengthen their own arguments, perhaps shift perspective, or even understand another point of view.

Excerpted from “Yes, Race and Politics Belong in the Classroom,” August 15, 2017. Read the full essay with 10 tips for discussing difficult issues with students.

H. Richard Milner IV is the Helen Faison professor of urban education at the University of Pittsburgh.


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