It seems at least once a month we read a news story about dubious education practices that spawn national outrage. This week’s news featured pages from a geography textbook that identified Africans forced into the horrific transatlantic slave trade as “workers” and “immigrants.”
Here’s the story: 15-year-old Coby Burren took a picture of a fishy page from the textbook and sent it to his mother, a former teacher and current Ph.D. student, with a text message: “[W]e was real hard workers, wasn’t we ☹.” Roni Dean-Burren, his social media-savvy mom, made a video of herself flipping through offending pages, and it went viral.
Before talking about all that is wrong here, I’d like to point out two aspects of this story that should hearten us all.
First, it shows that speaking up sometimes can effect change. You don’t have to storm the barricades. As the Dalai Lama is reputed to have said, “If you think you’re too small to make a difference, try sleeping with a mosquito.”
Second, Dean-Burren raised her son right.
As for the problems here, they’re complex and deep, and they go far beyond the Texas suburb where Coby attends school, and beyond McGraw-Hill, the company that publishes the textbook. What we face, especially in education, is an aversion to confronting our history. The textbook in question is simply the latest example of national denial, or what Coby’s mom called “erasing history.”
Last March, Teaching Tolerance released a classroom film called Selma: The Bridge to the Ballot. Designed for students in grades 6 through 12, it tells the story of the voting rights movement from the point of view of the high school students who were the movement’s backbone. The students endured verbal and physical abuse daily, and the abusers often used the n-word.
We included the recorded use of that word in the film. It’s part of the story, and it shows how the word was used to support white supremacy. It’s what really happened.
Several teachers objected strongly to that decision. One wrote, “Our board policy is to educate about the word, but not to use it in the classroom, as it draws attention to students of African descent.” OK, I understand not wanting to tokenize students, but how exactly do you educate about something if it can’t be used in the classroom, even in a context that shows it’s repugnant?
Another teacher wrote that she would not use the film because she does not allow racial slurs in her classroom, as “they cause discomfort to many students.” Another wrote, perhaps more honestly, “I do not feel comfortable about the use of the n-word … [T]hough I know it’s historical, I think the message can be made without offensive vocabulary.”
No wonder Dean-Burren worries about erasing history. Forget the textbooks. The problem, dear teachers, lies in ourselves.
Consider the case of the Confederate flag. In Michigan, a place where few students have Confederate ancestors, a group of high school students has appropriated the flag to show that they are “rebels,” like James Dean.
If that is truly how these students interpret the term “rebel” in the Confederate context, their education failed them.
There is no simple solution when it comes to teaching about painful—and shameful—history. Teachers care about their students. They want to build their self-esteem, give them positive messages and set them on a bright path to the future. They’re also aware that, as one teacher wrote to us, “some students and families are very sensitive about the use of that word.”
I wonder, though, who’s really uncomfortable in those classrooms? Let’s review the demographics of U.S. education: Over half of students in public schools are kids of color, while about 80 percent of their teachers are white.
Maybe the discomfort sits not with the students but with the teachers who truly don’t know how to square their concern for students’ well-being with the ugly scars of our nation’s history. What we need is some truth before we can have reconciliation.
As Coby showed us, it’s not like African-American kids don’t know what really happened.
Costello is the director of Teaching Tolerance.
"In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue. He had three ships. He left from Spain. He sailed through sunlight, wind and rain."
Columbus Day is the wrong story, a story that injures all of us with its focus on a disoriented European. A better story—and better point of focus—is one that celebrates indigenous peoples who not only pre-date Columbus, but who persist and excel in an often hostile U.S. social and political environment.
Teachers have the power to change the practice of celebrating Columbus to a practice of celebrating indigenous peoples’ presence, endurance and accomplishments. Seattle, Minneapolis, Berkeley and the entire states of South Dakota and Hawaii now celebrate some version of “Indigenous Peoples Day” instead of Columbus Day. There’s even a Wikipedia page describing the holiday designation.
While many schools in 23 states will be closed on Monday, October 12, for the federally recognized honoring of Columbus, 16 states do not recognize this day as a holiday.
It’s clear that the story of the indigenous peoples affected by Columbus—and the colonizers who followed him—is gaining traction in local and state governments, as it should. But teachers also play a crucial role in highlighting that story in a deeper way. Regardless of where your school is located, consider engaging your students in a different story leading up to Columbus Day with one of the following activities:
- Read the story of Columbus from indigenous and Western perspectives to help students understand that historical events have more than one side. Possible Native-authored texts include the comic book The 500 Years of Resistance by Gord Hill (grades 9-12) and Rethinking Schools’ Rethinking Columbus: The Next 500 Years, which includes lesson ideas that can be adapted for any grade level, historical documents and creative works. These resources all help replace the “murky legends” with a celebration of indigenous survival.
- Read about indigenous experiences related to colonization beyond the arrival of Columbus. “Connected to Everything” is great for elementary students. You can find middle and high school readings in the text anthology of TT’s anti-bias curriculum, Perspectives for a Diverse America. “The First Americans,” “Sure You Can Ask Me a Personal Question” and “Proclamation: To the Great White Father (November, 1969)” are a few examples.
- Conduct a mock trial of Columbus. “You Are There: The Mock Trial of Christopher Columbus,” accessible through the Education Resources Information Center (ERIC) database, “asks students in grades 6-12 to evaluate statements drawn from primary and secondary sources to determine whether or not Columbus should be found guilty of crimes against humanity.”
- For grades 2-5, read Jane Yolen’s Encounter, a picture book about Columbus’ arrival from a Taino boy’s perspective. He warns his community against welcoming this man, and later in the story, he looks back as an old man at the destruction of his people.
- Have students write letters to the town council or mayor detailing their concerns about honoring Columbus and considerations for honoring the cultures and contributions of indigenous communities in your region. The Persuasive Letters (grades 3-5) and Truth to Power: Writing Letters for Change (grades 6-12) activities in Perspectives are excellent ways to connect class readings and discussions with action.
- Introduce older students to contemporary indigenous practitioners and perspectives such as Drezus, the comedy troupe The 1491s, the documentary Moccasins and Microphones: Modern Native Storytelling through Performance Poetry and Adrienne Keene’s blog, “Native Appropriations.” You can even ask students to tweet on October 12 to these practitioners (or tweet references to their work) as a public antidote to the celebration of Columbus.
Thomas King writes in The Truth About Stories that “stories are medicine” and have the power to injure or heal. Observing a holiday in honor of Columbus and his exploits sends the wrong message. More important, it hurts Native Americans by reinforcing their absence from our national consciousness and hurts those who aren’t Native by lauding the arrival of a European instead of the more impressive healing story of indigenous survival. The indigenous story is more accurate, and it’s a story that students deserve to hear.
If stories are medicine, then the doctor is in. The prescription: Write and speak a healing narrative that honors Native peoples.
*Note: Although the website associated with the “Reconsider Columbus Day” video no longer exists, the video and its message remain powerful and persuasive.
Morris teaches writing and Native American/Indigenous Rhetorics at Kutztown University of Pennsylvania.
Every day, in every school, adults face the dilemma of how to respond to student behavior. What should a principal do about the student whose clothing violates the dress code? How should a teacher handle verbal disrespect? What can a counselor say to a student whose chronic lateness sparks confrontations with teachers? And how should a school resource officer respond to an incident of aggressive behavior?
Most educators would agree with middle school teacher Lauren Porosoff, who wrote in the Fall issue of Teaching Tolerance magazine, “Every disciplinary incident I’ve seen in 15 years of teaching was much more complex than a bad kid doing a bad thing.” Yet zero-tolerance policies and check-the-box discipline codes produce a chain of events that too often leads to suspension and loss of instructional time.
But what can be done about it? How can adults in the school break free from the limits of zero-tolerance discipline and develop responses that support the learning and success of all children?
We think it’s possible. And it begins with the adults. Our latest guide, Code of Conduct: A Guide for Responsive Discipline, points to ways that teachers, counselors, building and district leaders and school resource officers can shift their behaviors to keep more students in the classroom. It invites those in charge to critically examine their “codes of conduct” when reacting to students’ behavior.
This publication builds on our work in school discipline reform and responsive discipline by guiding reflection in a number of different scenarios and prompting readers to ask themselves the question: How does my conduct affect this student’s behavior and opportunities? This reflection process helps each group identify how they can best support keeping students in school through culturally responsive practices, student-centered instruction and responsive discipline—all of which support student success.
Key features of Code of Conduct include:
- A school climate survey that individuals, as well as the entire faculty and staff, can use to assess whether their disciplinary approaches criminalize student behavior or seek to assign appropriate consequences that fit the misbehavior and restore the school climate.
- Scenarios and reflection prompts that present teachers, counselors, principals, school district personnel and school resource officers, respectively, with typical school scenarios and questions aimed at identifying and changing the policies, practices and procedures that mirror and reinforce the criminal justice system for some students.
- Additional recommendations that offer a blueprint for making responsive shifts at the classroom, school and district levels.
Want to learn more about Code of Conduct? Read the full publication here, and mark your calendars for a free webinar with teaching and learning specialists, including Code of Conduct’s lead writer, June Cara Christian. The webinar will broadcast live on October 13 at 4:30 pm CDT. If you can’t make this webinar, we encourage you to register anyway—we’ll send you a link to the on-demand recording.
Income inequality in the United States has reached levels not seen since the Gilded Age. While most public school teachers come from a middle-class background, the same is not true for their students. This school year, more than half of students in U.S. public schools come from families with low incomes. I reached out to University of Georgia Professor Stephanie Jones to ask her about strategies teachers can use to build awareness of the many ways socioeconomic status impacts students and to develop what she calls “class-sensitive pedagogy.” Jones has published widely on the importance of class-sensitive pedagogy and has trained thousands of teachers to reflect on the impact of classism in schools.
You've written a lot about the impact of social class in schools. Can you tell me a little bit about why you became interested in this field?
Because I grew up in a working-poor family, I have been thinking about these issues my whole life. I lived in a trailer park that was like an amazing childhood paradise for me. When I started to see how outsiders perceived trailer parks, it surprised me. As I started my teaching career, I became interested in how social class, class discrimination and class privilege manifested in schools. Now, as a researcher, I look into theories of social class and the history of class in our country and across the globe.
What are some of the most common assumptions we make about social class in this country?
One is that the “rags to riches” fairy tale is possible for anyone who's willing to work hard. We know that upward mobility is just not happening right now for the majority of people. In fact, a lot of people are experiencing downward mobility. Also, we assume that upward mobility is always a positive experience. Many who have moved across class boundaries deal with mixed emotions and complicated experiences in their upward mobility. One example is a deep sense of guilt about being the only one in a family to have more economic security. Some feel isolated living in a world where class privilege is assumed.
It is also common to assume that people who have more money are smarter than people who have less money, or that people who work with their hands or their bodies are less intelligent than people who work sitting at a desk or a cleaner environment. Another assumption is that charity is a way to alleviate and end poverty. That's the backend way of trying to fix a symptom of a major systemic problem. You really have to look at the front end of what creates class inequality and poverty at the beginning.
What are some of the major ways that class manifests in schools?
Attendance zones are critical, as they determine who is in which schools to begin with, and we have a lot of social-class segregation as a result. Then there’s the fact that public schools aren’t free. Whether it’s a $50-$200 supply list at the beginning of the year, field trip payments or fundraisers that are used as competitions, there is always payment for full participation in schools. Competitions often reproduce the unequal social networks that kids [experience] outside of school. Who's winning the pizza parties or the bikes at the end of the fundraising project? Usually these are not kids who live in places where people are just managing to keep their lights on.
Even food drives are problematic. I was visiting a child's grandmother in her kitchen where she was cooking, and I just happened to see a really big bag of rice and beans on the floor. The grandmother noticed me looking and said: “I picked up extra food at the food pantry because Kylie is having a food drive competition at her school and she really wants her class to win the pizza party." The food drive is supposed to be supporting people who have food insecurity, but the emphasis becomes a competition and prize rather than curricular investigations into who experiences food insecurity and why.
You've talked about the need for a "class-sensitive pedagogy." Would you describe what that might look like?
We educators have to begin with reflections about how and when social class—as well as race, gender, sexuality and dis/ability—has impacted our lives. When we think about broader systems and practices and the personal effects they have on us and others, we can start seeing, hearing and responding to the ways that class and classism play a role in schools. A child may say, for example, "I want to be a waitress when I grow up.” In education, it’s so ingrained in educators to push kids [toward] upward mobility and to not promote work with hands or bodies. If we’ve thought about class, we might realize that we have to have waitresses. Therefore, the response “You can do better” doesn’t make sense, but talking about this kind of work and its importance does. Then we can address the social context, the low wages that most waitresses make, and encourage students to think about why someone who is so important to society is paid below minimum wage. And, crucially, what do we do about that?
What advice would you give to educators who want to work on their own class-sensitivity? And how might a single teacher change her classroom practice?
First, teachers and administrators should take a serious look at how students are assigned to different groups. We may think assignments are based on “ability,” but we need to step back and ask ourselves if groups also align with social-class hierarchies. If they do, groupings need to change. The danger is that the kids with the most resources get the most resources, and the kids with the least resources then get the least opportunity. Tracking is a social experiment. We think it’s about academics, but grouping risks reproducing social groups based on class.
We also need to think about the texts we use and the people we bring in to speak. If you read a lot of children's literature, you might think that everyone lives in a 2,000-square-foot home with a mom and dad and a white picket fence. We have to learn to ask the right questions: “Where are the workers who made this life possible? What kind of work are they doing?”
Another very specific idea has to do with the way we teach about slavery. If we think of the history of the United States as a pursuit of cheap and free labor, it is easier to understand the enslavement of Africans as one part of a troubling narrative. Teachers can think about class in everything they teach. We can step back and ask, "How is social class or economics involved in this particular theme or this particular unit?" Then we create space for inquiry and conversation.
Do you want to learn more about the topics raised in this Q&A? Jones recommends these resources:
Class Lives: Stories From Across the Economic Divide edited by Chuck Collins, Jennifer Ladd, Maynard Seider and Felice Yeskel (Cornell University Press).
Girls, Social Class and Literacy: What Teachers Can Do to Make a Difference by Stephanie Jones (Heinemann).
Reaching and Teaching Students in Poverty: Strategies for Erasing the Opportunity Gap by Paul Gorski (Teachers College Press).
Where We Stand: Class Matters by bell hooks (Routledge).
Shuster is an independent education researcher and evaluator who has worked on multiple studies assessing curricular and co-curricular reforms.
American Indians in Children's Literature: "In a comment to his post about weeding books, Roger Sutton said that Horn Book just received the 25th anniversary edition of Amazing Grace and that the page on which Grace is shown playing Indian is gone (she's pretending to be Longfellow's Hiawatha)."
Boston Globe: "I had been taught you don’t see race. You don’t talk about race. You just ignore it. Then you’re a teacher and you have all of these kids of different backgrounds, and it doesn’t make sense."
neaToday: "'It’s clear to me that books that fall outside the white, straight, abled mainstream are challenged more often than books that do not destabilize the status quo,' wrote Lo on the Diversity in YA website. 'The message this sends is loud and clear: diversity is actually under attack. Minority perspectives are being silenced every year.'"
neaToday: “This agreement signals a new era in bargaining in public education. We’ve negotiated a pro-student, pro-parent, pro-educator agreement. We really appreciate the strong support from parents and students.”
Noodle: "Homophobia is rampant in our nation's schools today, despite the widespread adoption of anti-bullying and harassment policies that have been implemented in most districts.”
Oregon Live: "For years, Soell had lived a double life. At home in Southeast Portland, friends knew Soell was transgender and used the gender-neutral pronoun 'they.' At work in Gresham, coworkers called the 26-year-old 'she.' But after treatment, Soell was ready to be known as 'Leo' and 'they' at school, too."
The New York Times Magazine: "[W]hat cannot be disputed is how profoundly we exist in one another’s imaginations. And what conversations about appropriation make clear is that our imaginations are unruly kingdoms governed by fears and fantasies. They are never neutral."
If you come across a current article or blog you think other educators should read, please send it to firstname.lastname@example.org , and put "What We’re Reading This Week" in the subject line.