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Resist Telling a Simple Story When Teaching About Civil Rights

“Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign. But stories can also be used to empower, and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people. But stories can also repair that broken dignity.” 

―Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

“Real education should consist of drawing the goodness and the best out of our own students. What better books can there be than the book of humanity?”

— César Chavez

Lincoln High School is located in Walla Walla, Washington, a short distance from Whitman College, where I am an undergraduate student. Lincoln is Walla Walla’s alternative high school. With fewer than 200 students, Lincoln serves the teenagers in the community who are most in need, those who would have fallen through the cracks at the traditional high school. I visited Lincoln with eleven other Whitman students to teach a one-hour lesson entitled Viva La Causa as part of the Whitman Teaches the Movement program. The Viva La Causa lesson teaches the history of César Chavez and the United Farm Workers.

I was never told the story of César Chavez in my high school, middle school or elementary school history lessons. Every year on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, starting in kindergarten, our school would listen to “I Have a Dream” play over the loudspeakers. We performed skits about Rosa Parks and read books about Ruby Bridges. The civil rights stories we were told reverberated with ideas and ideals: Justice. Tolerance. Civil disobedience. Love. Freedom.

Everything about the civil rights movement seemed heroic, and distant, not only in time but in miles. We didn’t have segregation where I’m from, I assumed. Seattle never saw lynchings, I thought. Washingtonians never owned slaves, we reminded ourselves. A white middle class kid from the Seattle suburbs, my world was seemingly unplagued by racial and economic injustice. Poverty belonged to older generations and to faraway nations. Racism belonged in Birmingham and in the words spoken by a few elderly folks who “didn’t know any better—they’d grown up in a different world after all—it’s not their fault really—who can blame them.

This was the single story of the civil rights movement I heard in school. The story left us feeling good about ourselves. Freedom triumphed. The boycotts and sit-ins succeeded. The legislation was passed. “We know better now. We’re equal now.”

We need to teach the history of MLK and Rosa Parks and Ruby Bridges. But when this is the only story of civil rights we tell, we foreclose the path to progress.

When Jim Crow is the only history of racism we learn, we systematically ignore the many histories of violence, oppression and prejudice from our own hometowns. White Seattleites might not have killed Emmitt Till. But when we face our own history, when we ask our Chinese or Japanese or Native American friends the stories of their parents’ or grandparents’ or great grandparents’ lives in Washington State, we can no longer feel so distant from racism and racial violence.

If I had heard the many undocumented students in my high school tell their stories, I would have realized that freedom has not yet triumphed, despite what we learned in history class.

Civil rights is not a single story. It is not a single man or woman, a single race or a single speech. “I have a dream!” has been shouted and sung by many Americans. There are DREAMers today shouting those words, students who are struggling to be heard and seen, fighting for the right to an equal education, a reflection of everything Ruby Bridges stood for.

Telling only one story of civil rights marginalizes the voices we ignore. It also prevents us from doing exactly what the story of civil rights is supposed to teach us to do―fight for justice in our own communities as those before us did.

Because how can we fight against injustice when we don’t even acknowledge its existence? How can we fight racism when we think it’s something our parents took care of? How can we fight poverty when we only see it as their problem, not our problem? How can we fight discrimination when we don’t call it that if the victim doesn’t have papers?

By teaching Viva La Causa at Lincoln High, we acknowledge that racism is not and never was just in the South, and that black is not the only color of civil rights. Walla Walla is an agricultural town in Eastern Washington. Much of the labor in our fields is undertaken by migrant farmworkers, most of whom are Latino, and many of whom are undocumented. The struggles of Mexican-American farmworkers in California in the 1960s is a story that in many ways is close to home, even if it takes place far away.

The Lincoln High School students heard one story that day we visited. But there are many stories they didn’t hear. They heard little about the heroines of the United Farm Workers. They did not hear how Dolores Huerta’s arrests and leadership brought women into the farm labor movement, or how Helen Chavez was the one who persuaded César to become a full-time organizer.

They didn’t hear the stories of farmworkers still fighting for their civil rights today.

Telling a story is an act of shaping reality. Whether or not the Lincoln students learned the proverbial lesson that day, I hope they at least remember the story. But more importantly, I hope their own stories are never ignored.

For more information on teaching the civil rights movement, check out The March Continues: Five Essential Practices for Teaching the Movement.

Angell is a senior in politics and environmental studies at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington. Her academic career has focused on the intersections of social justice and the environment. While at Whitman, she has conducted research on social exclusions in urban space and the racialized rhetoric of environmental food movements. Angell is also a news writer for The Whitman Pioneer. She is passionate about the power of education and storytelling.

Teachers Supporting Teachers

In studies on job satisfaction and burnout, teachers often cite “lack of supportive work environment” as a main cause of attrition. I know my colleagues and I have all felt the stress of increased workloads due to resource limitations, the pressure of performance evaluations and lack of autonomy in the classroom. These factors can contribute to an environment antithetical to the art and science of teaching. The good news is researchers have also found that positive relationships with colleagues mitigate negativity, and that these supportive relationships flourish in supportive environments.

What is challenging about these findings is that the nature of the educator relationships depends greatly on the culture of a school. Teachers in the same building or department may have radically different backgrounds, personalities, belief systems, values and ideas about students and education. As educators who value difference, we sometimes mistakenly assume everyone appreciates a marketplace of multiple viewpoints. Many of us have witnessed or experienced the uncomfortable gossip-filled teacher lounges and political power plays, which are two of the most obvious symptoms when differences are not tolerated on a school staff.

In divisive departments where toxic behaviors seem entrenched, the question of how to create change confounds those who desire it. One investigation I read about burnout in the classroom led researchers to conclude that training educators to develop their own social and emotional competencies (SECs) is an absolute necessity. Similar programs promoting mindfulness in the classroom have concluded that teachers must attend to and develop their own social emotional awareness before they can elicit transformative change in their students.

Here are a few suggestions from my reading and experience about how to better support our colleagues and create a more just and welcoming environment across the entire school.

Get to Know Each Other Personally: We know that building personal relationships with students and families enhances both classroom climate and academic learning. This same principle applies to building relationships with colleagues. The more we know about each other’s backgrounds, interests, strengths and passions, the more empathy we build for one another. No one wants to hear their colleagues share overly personal information, but taking genuine interest in the lives and well being of those we teach with goes a long way toward building community and compassion.

Focus on the Positive: We can support our colleagues and ourselves by resisting the temptation to use the teacher’s lounge as the complaining station. Talking through problems is a key social emotional skill, but so is stopping when the conversation ceases to be solution-focused. Try a change in direction when “venting” turns into either gossip or railing about students’ inadequacies.

One of the most inspiring stories I’ve heard in my career involved a teacher stopping lounge gossip and slander. A veteran teacher overheard two teachers degrading another openly gay teacher in the district. This veteran teacher directly confronted the offenders on the spot, addressing them as professionals and friends responsible for creating a more tolerant, just school and community. The two teachers, because of their respect for the veteran teacher and his conviction for speaking up, apologized and corrected their behavior.

Keep an Open Mind: Exchanging ideas and thinking critically about our daily procedures and educational choices inevitably opens up opportunities for conflict of opinion and ideology. Even though these conflicts are not personal, being in conflict at all can be uncomfortable for people whose cultural or familial background discourage open argument. Try setting ground rules for discussion to help the group be mindful that how we disagree—the words we use, our tone of voice, whether or not we focus on solutions—can be the difference between colleagues feeling personally attacked or being willing to engage in open communication.

One of the most exciting movements in education concerns the development of mind-body awareness in teachers and students. Programs and classes all over the country are aimed at helping teachers recognize when feelings of embarrassment, frustration or fear threaten to hijack professional conversations. I’ve found that practicing this mindful awareness has helped me and my colleagues to act instead of react to potential stressors and to be more creative in our approaches to potentially explosive situations.

Work to Change the Bigger Picture: The Dali Lama co-wrote a book titled The Art of Happiness at Work. In situations where colleagues cannot or will not adopt a supportive role, he suggests working to change larger injustices that conspire against others, causing them to reproduce negativity by contributing to a hostile work environment. Redirecting anger and frustration toward more constructive activities can help diffuse the hopelessness and disengagement that a difficult work environment engenders.

Hostile, unjust work environments do exist, and in some cases, the most emotionally healthy response is to leave. Research has found, however, that teachers who experience more positive emotions at work are more resilient and creative in their own classroom management. By improving our social emotional behaviors as staff members, we make our schools better places. This research also advocates for buildings and districts to adopt a broader idea of professional development, one that builds in social emotional learning supports for everyone in the school.

As social beings, we need each other. And if we want to usher in a more empathetic, open-minded society, we have to be the change we wish to see.

Ricket is a high school English teacher in Ohio.

The N-Word: Connected Through Historical Disconnect?

In the last twelve plus months, I have done dozens of public lectures on "Straight Talk About the N-word" on my university campus and at other colleges, high schools, churches and other organizations. I have spoken to segregated audiences, integrated audiences and intergenerational audiences. Over the year of having these conversations, one thing has become clear to me: Folks across the country want thoughtful, informed and critical conversation about the troublesome n-word that goes beyond the surface.

What is also clear to me after these many talks is that those who claim pronunciation, spelling and tonal variations of the n-word as an alleged act of “taking it back” and making it a “term of endearment” acknowledge a disconnect from the spiritually lethal label. More often than not, this younger generation of primarily black males uses this word’s variant “nigga/niggah” as a reclaiming of or legitimizing of their strong, black heteronormative masculinity. It’s primarily a “black male thing” to meet and greet with a casual “Whassup, my nigga?!”

When asked why this greeting is used so often instead of “brotha,” or “man,” or “homey”—which n-word users allege as its equivalent—they contend that they have “flipped the word” so that it doesn’t have that same historical sting associated with turbulent American race relations witnessed by their parents, grandparents and even teachers as manifested in the cruelties of American slavery, lynching and Jim Crow segregation.

While I do not approach my talks, publications or interviews with the expressed purpose of convincing folks not to use any form of the n-word, I do intentionally challenge the notion that how the word is pronounced, intoned or spelled somehow changes its meaning from derogatory to endearing. It does not. Indeed, the word “nigger” and all other variations in spelling appear in 19th-century American minstrel songs that are now popular Disney tunes—“Jimmy Crack Corn,” “Polly Wolly Doodle,” “Oh Susanna” and “Shew Fly.” It’s the second and third verses that commit the unpardonable sin of naming without apology.

Rapper Common, in his preface to the February 2014 ESPN “Special Report on the N-Word,” offers this historical connection and disconnect among those who do not know what needs to be known, understood and passed along:

The n-word is a euphemism to shield us from the shame of our past. … It is a polite code for the slur, but the slur itself—Nigger—that looks like a Sunday morning in Alabama when five black girls went into the bathroom of their church, and only one came out.

Once I demonstrate the n-word’s attachment to a past and present American history of violence, pain, misrepresentation, death and mockery associated with black and brown bodies, some lights of awareness flicker. When I ask them how they came to their decisions to use or not use it, they admit that they often don’t think about what they say, or insist, “It’s just a word!”

When we all cease to think about the words we use, we are not thinking critically or responsibly about how best to name our realities and our circumstances. Language is powerful. And as U.S. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. posits, “A word is … the skin of a living thought.”

Perhaps even more disturbing about the disconnect between using the n-word word and the peculiar American history that created it is that so many young folks—blacks, whites, Latino, Asian and others—really believe that racism no longer exists. This disconnect is especially disturbing to hear from a generation who has just lived through Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis and James Craig Anderson; the racist utterances of pop-culture icons Paula Deen, Michael Richards, John Mayer, Dog the Bounty Hunter and Dr. Laura Schlessinger; the controversies surrounding Stop and Frisk and Stand Your Ground. These are just a few of the countless cultural moments from the recent past that should remind us that we are not in a post-racial America—even if that were some desired social end.

A fitting, albeit unfortunate, illustration of this fact occurred when I was working with a local Arizona college team that invited me to do a Black History talk on the n-word, and the non-black graphic designer chose to name the saved marketing poster document “nigposter.jpg.” I and others were decidedly offended. Nowhere in any posters of my many talks locally and nationally have we spelled out the n-word. That adult staff member is now being held accountable.

Was this naming meant to be a “term of endearment,” a microaggression or an indication of sheer ignorance? As the one doing the naming, this designer is the one who holds the definition of this file name, not me. In the profound words of author Toni Morrison, “Definitions belong to the definers, not to the defined.” 

Lester is Foundation Professor of English and Director of Project Humanities at Arizona State University.

Using Orphan Train to Teach History and Tolerance

Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline (2013) is a woven story of two protagonists, 17-year-old Molly who is a Penobscot Indian in foster care, and Vivian, a 91-year-old widow who was orphaned at age 9 and sent to the Midwest through the Children’s Aid Society via an “orphan train.” It’s also a story about the things we take with us, the things we leave behind and the ghosts that walk along beside us—the way the memories of people who’ve gone from our lives remain etched in who we are.

Young readers of Orphan Train learn to understand these unlikely friends through their stories. Vivian grew up Irish during a time period when Irish-Americans were despised. She survived negligence and abuse, lived through the Great Depression and every war since World War II. She’s seen people come and go, and learned early on to be wary of others—a part of her background that allows her to empathize with young Molly, whose experiences in the foster care system echo her own.

In the classroom, this book can be used to illustrate discrimination against the Irish in the U.S. in the early part of the 20th century, and to reveal the complexity of a period of midcentury history that is often overlooked. The book can also be used to teach about why understanding the past is relevant—and necessary—to understanding the present.

This engaging book can be used in several different ways in either language arts or social studies classrooms. Students could be asked to:

  • Analyze the dynamics of the relationship that develops between Molly and Vivian, and determine if this is a relationship of tolerance, a grandmother-granddaughter relationship, a mentorship or something else. Ask students to focus on the way understanding develops between Vivian and Molly and the role of story telling in their relationship.
  • Identify parallels between the story Vivian tells and other historical American events, such as the effects of the Great Depression or World War II on the lives of average Americans.
  • Research the ways in which the Irish, or other minorities, were or are discriminated against, and identify tropes in this discrimination. Ask students to consider ongoing discriminatory practices against American Indians or to consider the narratives about “welfare queens” that are commonly used to discredit poor people.
  • Conduct their own oral history projects similar to the one Molly is asked to do (for example, her assignment included the questions: What did you choose to bring with you to the next place? What did you leave behind? What insights did you gain about what’s important?).
  • Research the “orphan trains,” and use this research to build an understanding of how the definition of “childhood” has evolved through laws and regulations meant to protect children. Ask students to consider whether the concept of childhood applies equally to all children and to point to examples of instances where it does not.

Orphan Train is appropriate for high school students (although they should be warned it contains a sexual assault scene). It can be used to illuminate not only an underdocumented portion of history but also offer insight into Irish immigration in the early part of the 20th century. Additionally, it offers two strong female protagonists who forge their own ways despite the odds stacked against them. Orphan Train is ripe with opportunities for discussion, further research and developing the complex thinking necessary to draw historical parallels.

Clift works in an after-school program for youth and is the communications intern for the Colorado Coalition Against Sexual Assault.

Intervene With Mean - Part Three

This post is part three of a three-part blog series that explores how to help students transform bullying behavior. The series mirrors the three levels of intervention outlined in Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS). Level One applies to the 80 percent of students who are responsive when explicitly taught about acceptable behavior. Level Two addresses the 15 percent of students who need social skills training and tools to help them stop bullying. Level Three (the focus of this blog) addresses interventions for the 5 percent of students with persistent bullying problems who need intensive supports.

I hope that someday we will learn the terrible cost we all pay when we ignore or mismanage those people in society who most need our help.”

--The Honourable Judge Sandra Ann Hamilton, Provincial Court of Alberta, Calgary, Canada

Damon Smith was suspended more than 15 times for bullying. “You start thinking it’s cool,” he said. “You think you’re going to come back to school and catch up, but unless you’re a genius, you won’t. That made me want to mess up even more.”

This blog offers suggestions for how to help the 5 percent (PBIS Level Three) of youth who, like Damon, have serious, recurrent problems with bullying. Nearly 60 percent of boys classified as bullies in grades six through nine were convicted of at least one crime by the age of 24. Forty percent of them had three or more convictions by age 24. Clearly, these students need behavioral support—and these supports can positively affect both victims and perpetrators. By helping aggressive individuals change their patterns, we not only improve their lives—we prevent harm to others.

Transformation—Not for the Faint of Heart

Once a serious pattern of bullying has begun, the process of transformation is slow and requires a long-term commitment. Involve the family, school counselors and everyone who works with the student. Take time to review all documentation of the student’s bullying incidents, and get to know the student both by talking with and observing him. Are there patterns to the behavior? What antecedents and triggers do the student or staff notice before an incident occurs?

There is no one strategy that works for all students. Each strategy requires consistency and patience to find positive qualities in the student and to give the student a voice, helping her learn accountability without shaming her. But all effective strategies require planning and the belief that young people can change their behavior.

Effective Models for Change

Below are two different models designed to provide intensive and ongoing support for chronically aggressive students. Unlike many of the suggestions offered in Parts I and II, implementing these strategies requires training or even bringing in specialized staff members. It also requires significant time and coordination, often occurring in combination with weekly or biweekly meetings with a counselor and small-group, skill-building sessions coordinated with teachers.

1. Functional Behavioral Analysis (FBA) is a tool often used to gather relevant data about students who have chronic behavioral problems. The process includes observations, interviews and referral to school records to gather detailed data regarding notable triggers for student behavior, antecedents, reaction patterns and consequences for the behavior. The FBA also incorporates data on the student’s strengths, skills and past behaviors, and the effectiveness of previous interventions. This analysis is often done in collaboration with counselors, behaviorists and special education staff. The information is used to develop a Behavior Intervention Plan that is continually monitored and updated. This intensive model not only helps students stop unwanted behaviors but offers positive replacement behaviors.

The Functional Behavior Assessment Checklist is a template for organizing this complex data. It includes the specific information that needs to be gathered and an explanation of how to complete the plan. Because this process is complex, specialized training is necessary to implement it.

If your school doesn’t currently offer FBA as a means to intervene with youth who bully repeatedly, you can introduce the tool to your administration by sharing the complete process overview, as described by PBIS. The overview includes information about when and how to use an FBA.

2. Ross Greene’s book, Lost at School: Why Our Kids with Behavioral Challenges Are Falling Through the Cracks and How We Can Help Them, outlines a process of Collaborative Problem Solving, a model written for schools to use with the most difficult pupils. Collaborative Problem Solving for schools adapts a model that has been effectively used in inpatient psychiatric units, residence facilities and juvenile detention centers. Greene’s approach involves very intensive work by a trained teacher or counselor working with the student over time to identify what he calls “lagging skills” and finding solutions and alternate ways of behaving. Lagging skills refer to behavioral weakness in very specific situations, such as difficulty handling unpredictable events and adopting inflexible or distorted interpretations of an incident (“everyone is out to get me,” “you always blame me”). In this model, the student is taught to identify which of the lagging skills is most significant and provided intensive support to help him change it. Once success is achieved with one skill, the support team tackles another, relying on the belief that success breeds more success. Greene encourages educators to remember, “Kids do well if they can.” 

Working with some of our most challenging students is likely to cause intense frustration, even for highly trained staff members. But the most powerful thing we can do is to help those who have the hardest time, and bringing evidence-based models like Functional Behavioral Analysis and Collaborative Problem Solving to your school is an important first step. Offering these services lets students know we have not given up on them. Building meaningful relationships with these students—not only when an incident occurs, but before, after and in between incidents—helps us find their positive qualities. The message these interventions send is, “I believe in you and I know you can do better, and I will be there to stand with you as you work through this.”

Cohn-Vargas is director of Not in Our School and coauthor of Identity Safe Classrooms: Places to Belong and Learn.

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