Social Studies

As Confederate Monuments Come Down, Teachers Wrestle With Class Discussion

By Stephen Sawchuk — June 21, 2017 2 min read
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Thanks to the efforts of black activists in New Orleans, statues commemorating Confederate heroes in the United States are being removed; other activism has put the spotlight on monuments as far away as Arizona.

On the face value of things, this seems like a great way for teachers to connect a crucial topic in American history—the Civil War and Reconstruction—to current events. But what do you do to steer constructive conversations about an emotional, painful issue tied up in the legacy of racism and questions of identity? What if you’re in a school with a large population of black students? Or if you’re teaching a student whose mom chairs the local chapter of the Daughters of the Confederacy?

That’s the theme of a story I wrote for this week’s edition of Education Week, which explores the potentials and the pitfalls of addressing the topic in class.

Here’s a condensed version of some of the lessons I learned in my reporting:

Know the history: Most of the statues and monuments went up not during the Reconstruction, but in the decades after Reconstruction ended in 1877. Those decades were when Southern states introduced black codes restricting former slaves’ newfound freedoms, Jim Crow, and other forms of oppression. The monuments can be a way for students to explore visible symbols of that legacy, but they require teachers to take an unflinching view of the Civil War, uncolored by “Lost Cause” mythology that minimizes or omits the role of slavery.

Focus on the texts: Putting students in the position of debating this topic without anything to underpin those discussions can be a recipe for disaster, my sources said. Instead, teachers should focus on having students investigate primary- and secondary-source texts, such as New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s speech upon the removal of the Robert E. Lee memorial, pictured above.

Connect lessons to the present: The vestiges of “Lost Cause” mythology are everywhere. (Think of the number of Confederate statutes that are located in states that weren’t part of the Confederacy or didn’t exist during the Civil War.) And when I spoke to high school social studies teacher Hayley Breden, she noted that a mosaic of the school’s former mascot, “Johnny Rebel,” greeted students in the entry hallway for decades until it was covered in carpet and finally removed in 2009. This was in Denver, no less. So there are opportunities to make connections: black residents walking past Lee Circle in New Orleans; students walking into a school in Denver.

Finally, there are some great teaching resources available from Facing History And Ourselves, a nonprofit that helps students wrestle with difficult issues of history and memory, and from the Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility, which promotes social-emotional learning. See their websites for some ideas of primary source texts and discussion prompts and other curriculum ideas. And here’s a lesson plan from the Anti-Defamation league.

In the meantime, educators, please let us know whether you plan to address this in class, and any teaching tips you’ve picked up for handling sensitive topics in general.

Photo: A statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee is removed on May 19 from Lee Circle in New Orleans. —Scott Threlkeld/AP

For more on Civil War issues:

A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.