Let me begin by answering the question: Yes. Carefully, but yes.
Fifth graders are 10 and 11 years old. They have some reasoning skills and, usually, some language facility. Given sufficient background information, and a proficient teacher-facilitator to keep them on track and help them tease out the moral questions, they can discuss critical issues, all right. They’re at the early developmental stage of holding two contrasting viewpoints in mind, and (again, given some modeling and probing questions) drawing some conclusions about those viewpoints.
How do I know this? Decades of teaching middle schoolers, and asking similar questions.
Will they get to the “right” answer, when the bell rings and the classroom discussion ends? Maybe, maybe not. But they’ll never learn to analyze a political declaration or debunk false assertions unless they see it done around the dinner table, or in their classrooms.
Will these youthful conversations go awry and get muddled? All the time. But that’s the precise reason why we ought to be holding them now, with our young citizens. One of the central purposes of public education is developing core understandings of democracy and hey—no time like the present for that.
You have probably seen the article in the New York Times: South Carolina 5th Graders Are Asked to Explain K.K.K.'s Thinking. There was a lot of (justified) outrage over this:
You are a member of the K.K.K.," the 5th-grade homework assignment read. "Why do you think your treatment of African-Americans is justified?"
Given recent remarks from the White House about “some fine people” marching with tiki torches, the worksheet, as a standalone student task, is incendiary. The NYT originally published a Facebook link to a photo of the assignment, posted by the uncle of a student who came home distraught over this particular homework question. The link has since been taken down, but the worksheet had the look and feel of something used by more than one teacher, perhaps commercially produced.
In fact, a spokesperson for the district said this:
South Carolina standards for 5th grade require lessons on Reconstruction and discriminatory groups, including the K.K.K. We must teach the standard, but we are taking steps to ensure this particular assignment will never be used again in District Five schools."
Predictably, there was a lot of muttering about the teacher (who was named)—and how she needed to be suspended, and worse. If she merely sent the worksheet home, without context, that does represent a huge instructional failure, almost as large as the worksheet’s failed instructional design. Justifying cruelty to human beings in an answer box, just for the mental exercise? Wrong, wrong, wrong.
But I keep going back to the SC Standards’ inclusion of the topics of the Reconstruction and discriminatory groups. If 5th graders in South Carolina are learning about American History or South Carolina History, then it seems to me that those two topics are exactly the kinds of historical events and value-loaded beliefs students should be studying and discussing.
An understanding of the ugly roots of the Ku Klux Klan is just as important now as it was a century ago—even more so, as it’s increasingly apparent that we’re experiencing a dangerous resurgence of racism and hatred. Public schools need to serve as safe places for children to learn about how prejudice develops; it needs to be part of the curriculum from the very beginning. It’s not “politically correct” to do so—it’s morally correct, and perhaps the only way to save the democracy.
But. I know how schools operate. The prevailing principle is Don’t Rock the Boat.
When something goes very wrong, point to the standards.
Plaudits to the boy and his uncle who shared the assignment—pointing out why it was disturbingly wrong is a good thing. But I hope that this doesn’t become an excuse to keep difficult and controversial topics out of the classroom. We all need to face our own history.
The opinions expressed in Teacher in a Strange Land 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.