The toppling of monuments is a tricky subject to bring into a classroom. But it’s also a powerful opportunity to analyze institutional racism, the First Amendment, and American history.
Last week, protesters at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill pulled down “Silent Sam.” The statue of the Confederate soldier was erected in 1913 with donations from the Daughters of the Confederacy to commemorate “the sons of the university who died for their beloved Southland 1861-65,” according to the university’s website.
The monument sparked controversy for decades, but protests against the statue intensified following last year’s violence in Charlottesville, Va. As Silent Sam’s fall made national headlines, counterprotesters, advocating for the statue to be reinstalled, joined protesters on campus. Police donned riot gear and made arrests. I worried about students’ safety, but also thought about ways to incorporate the events into my own lessons.
I brought the topic of Confederate monuments into my freshman high school English class for the first time last year. After protesters toppled a Confederate statue in downtown Durham, my students and I considered its symbolism. We had just finished Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.” In the play’s final scene, after learning of the two lovers’ sad demise, the Montague and Capulet families agree to build statues of each other’s children. Their monuments would mark the end of the families’ long-running feud and be symbols of peace in the city of Verona.
Build trust with your students before tackling social issues."
The play gave us an opportunity to consider symbolism and monuments in our own community. We began with easily recognizable images that represented both itself and something else, like an American Flag, a halo, and Nike’s Jordan “Jumpman” logo. But when an image of the Confederate flag appeared on my projector, the conversation stopped.
“Racist!” one student called out, but no one followed his lead. I sensed discomfort, so I backed up.
“Like our first example,” I said, “this is a flag. What country did it represent?”
A couple more students volunteered historical facts about the Civil War. They noted that it was a war between the northern and southern United States. The Confederate flag was a symbol for the South, but because the North wanted to end slavery and the South wanted to keep it, the flag was a symbol of slavery, too.
“True,” I said, “But the Civil War ended over 100 years ago. Slavery’s been gone for a long time. Why, then, is this symbol still such a big deal?”
Students acknowledged that the flag also symbolized Southern heritage and pride and not all who displayed it on their hats, clothes, and cars were racist. We were getting somewhere, but many students were still reluctant to talk about it.
The next day I showed them images of famous monuments like Mount Rushmore in South Dakota and the Martin Luther King Memorial in Washington. We talked about why countries and communities build them and what they symbolize. Then, we read about monuments around the world that protesters had pulled down.
Finally, I put up an image of Durham’s fallen Confederate statue. I asked them what the city should do about its statue. Should it go back up, go away completely, or move to another location? Should a new monument replace it? If so, who or what should it be?
I gave students two ways to express their conclusions. Some designed a new monument, complete with a nameplate and brief description of what it symbolized. Others wrote letters to members of the county commission who really did have to decide what to do next. Many believed the statue symbolized values that our community no longer held. Two weeks later, a student representative even spoke at a county commission meeting and shared recommendations from our class.
As I consider how to build Silent Sam and other cultural controversies into my instruction this fall, I’ll keep a few principles in mind:
1. Consider the timing. Although the Silent Sam statue fell in August, I will wait a few weeks to understand my students, establish a safe classroom environment, and have them practice speaking and listening. Students know that it’s my job to teach them reading and writing, not American history and institutional racism. Build trust with your students before tackling social issues.
2. Keep the conversation closely tied to the curriculum. Without a close connection to the course content, students won’t understand why they’re studying it. Scaffolding instruction to make it clear why and how students are studying a particular issue will help them contextualize it. In an English/language arts setting, the topic could be an extension of a literary unit, an opportunity to demonstrate their writing skills, or a speaking and listening activity focused on rhetoric skills.
3. Keep it student-centered. Do not aim to reach consensus–it’s about deepening the discussion, not winning an argument. Provide accurate information that will, in turn, inform students’ decisions about what should happen next. Adding real-world consequence to their decisions, such as offering them the opportunity to share their ideas with audiences outside of the classroom, enhances their experience even more. But always remember that the experience is about them.
4. Reflect on how it goes. It may feel sloppy at times, and not everyone will feel passionately about the topic. Last year my students’ writing and illustrations were excellent, but our discussions never took off. I should have shown examples of other monuments earlier and let them bring up Durham’s Confederate monument themselves. Perhaps a more organic transition would have inspired more students to contribute.
Looking back, the aftermath of Charlottesville was a scary time, and I was uncomfortable approaching the topic in class. But the opportunity to learn, reflect, and take action was too good to pass up. School is one of few places where students can hear different viewpoints. If teachers develop a process that invites a variety of perspectives, models appropriate reactions, empowers students to make a decision, and later consider its impact, they can make any current event or controversy a teachable moment.