When tragedies occur — whether they take place nearby or thousands of miles away — educators’ thoughts tend to turn to how they will approach the topic with their students, especially when the incidents involve hatred, racism or other forms of discrimination.
The violent Unite the Right protests that took place in Charlottesville, VA, over the weekend, leaving one dead and many injured, were no exception.
For Rita Platt, a teacher-librarian at St. Croix Falls Elementary School in northwest Wisconsin, school is not in session yet, so she immediately used her blog to offer suggestions on how educators can use books and other resources to educate themselves and their students about the past, as well as what they might see in today’s news.
“When I heard about the racist gathering in Charlottesville, I thought, this isn't right,” Platt says. “We all need to speak up. For me, writing is a way to speak up, so that's what I did.”
Facing History and Ourselves — which provides curriculum materials that help teachers connect historical events, particularly the Holocaust, to today’s issues — is valued by educators across the country. When incidents such as the Charlottesville protests take place, the organization’s regional offices see increases in calls for resources. But for Valerie Linson, the director of communications for the Brookline, MA-based organization, the need for their lessons became especially real Monday night when a 17-year-old destroyed part of a glass Holocaust memorial in downtown Boston.
Last year, during the presidential campaign, the organization began developing what Linson calls "just-in-time" content to help educators respond to a "diminished level of civic discourse" in society. The organization distributes resources such as "Preparing Students for Difficult Conversations" through its large social media following and through bi-weekly digests to its regional offices.
Teaching Tolerance, part of the Southern Poverty Law Center, also took quick action to point educators toward curriculum resources and forums where they could share ideas.
"What I’m sensing is that educators are upset, passionate and concerned, and that those feelings are mixed with a lot of trepidation," Maureen Costello, the director of Teaching Tolerance, says, adding that following last year's divisive election, many educators want to start out this year on a positive note. "Last year was bruising and we’ve heard from educators that they are determined to work on rebuilding school climate this year. So they’ve been looking for best practices about being culturally responsive, resolving conflict, promoting dialogue, elevating student voice."
Mentioning the ‘big things’
Educators often wonder whether to wait for children to ask questions about disturbing incidents or whether to initiate conversations or lessons that take current headlines into consideration. Regarding Charlottesville, some educators have been urging teachers to bring up the topic as soon as they can.
“I think that when teachers don't mention the big things that are happening outside the classroom walls, students get the idea that they are not important. I think we should start the year talking about it,” Platt says, adding that administrators can support teachers by pointing them to curriculum resources about racism and social justice and saying “loud and clear, ‘We confront racism head on at this school.’"
But Costello notes that because it is the beginning of the year, teachers will just be getting to know their students and that a more cautious approach might make sense.
"One of the maxims of teaching is that you can’t teach students you don’t know. And for many teachers, the first few weeks of school are all about getting to know students," she says. "It’s daunting to think about launching into a thorny and complicated topic like this without knowing who’s in your room and what experiences they bring to the table."
Costello also recommends that administrators provide support and professional development to staff members on how to address the topics with students. She says that her organization often hears from teachers who were warned against talking about the election last year.
"It’s vitally important that administrators give permission, provide guidance, hold meetings so teachers can learn from each other and practice their skills, and communicate the school community’s values to parents, the larger community and other stakeholders," she says. "They need to have teachers’ backs, but also prepare them."
While most educators watched the Charlottesville events on the news, viewing racist or anti-Semitic demonstrations taking place across the country is obviously much different than when such behavior is displayed in one’s own school community. But Rollin Dickinson, the principal of Lake Oswego High School in Oregon, knows firsthand that difficult circumstances can lead to something positive.
“Problems can be opportunities if they are framed in a way that builds trust, defines reality, and generates energy toward a new way forward,” he says.
Last fall, a comment in the school’s 2017 graduating class Facebook page suggested that seniors create a “Ku Klux Klub” and commit acts of violence against black students. At the school, Dickinson brought in outside speakers, created seminars for students, took them to films, held book groups, and did all he knew to do to confront racism in the student body. At the district level, administrators also participated in equity training and reflection about school climate and curriculum.
“For all of that,” he says, “it feels like the work is only beginning, that the work of learning and creating community and pursuing justice in an honest and open way is the work of a lifetime and more.”
‘A community endeavor’
Kevin Levin, a historian who specializes in the Civil War and a former teacher who now provides staff development for schools, says the Charlottesville incident is a perfect example of why schools should increase their focus on history. History teachers, he says, are “the ones who are suited to respond to this.” But he adds that it’s important to make sure administrators and department chairs are “on board” when educators are opening up a dialogue around controversial topics in the classroom.
He says it’s also important to give students opportunities to have a say in how communities should handle issues such as Confederate monuments. “These are the people who are going to have to live with these decisions,” he says. “These kids need to be made to feel that this is their community, how we remember our history is a community endeavor.”
Students, he says, often suggest adding to existing monuments as a way to tell more sides of the story, such as placing a statue of a black Union solder next to one of General Lee.
“Just taking students to these sites can sometimes be a very powerful experience,” says Levin, who has had students write poems or other responses about the monuments. “Bringing up their creative side is helpful.”
“Teachers,” she writes, “we have a powerful role to play in keeping the heart of America clean of hate by making anti-racism a focus in our classrooms.”