Twenty-eight teachers in my master’s level class silently moved en masse to the right side of the room to signify that they would teach the civil rights movement to their elementary students.
In fact, most considered it negligent to ignore this historic movement that brought about the end of segregation in our country.
Familiar stories were shared about Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, the March on Washington, “I Have a Dream,” Ruby Bridges and peaceful protests and demonstrations. Each educator felt comfortable with this discussion and seemed well versed on how to approach the topic in the classroom.
The unanimous feeling in the room was that the civil rights movement was a good thing. Children should be taught about it.
Several questions were couched within the framework of social justice.
Then came the next test.
“Would you teach about the Holocaust?”
Most of the teachers stayed where they were but several moved to the center of the room to indicate that they were not sure. Those who were uncertain worried about the age of their students. Everyone agreed that it should be taught.
When to teach it was the more challenging question. How would one approach this subject with younger children? Would students understand this heavy topic? Would it frighten them too much?
One teacher offered up the book Terrible Things: An Allegory of the Holocaust by Eve Bunting as a way to start this conversation with first- and second-graders. In the end, everyone agreed that it was a subject that could be tackled in elementary school and one that should be started early.
And finally, I asked, “Would you teach about gay marriage?”
There was a great deal of movement in response to this question. For the first time, a group of teachers moved to the far side of the room to express that they would not teach about gay marriage.
In New York gay marriage is legal. But teaching this law becomes a sensitive topic because some teachers equate teaching about equal rights for LGBT people with support of the law or with uncomfortable discussions that might arise about sex between couples of the same gender. The topic of gay marriage and gay rights in the classroom should never be about sex. It is about equal rights and perhaps about love. Love is generally the reason two people want to get married in the first place.
As the teachers in my class shared the reasons behind their reluctance it became apparent that, for them, equal rights were not the main focus.
One woman stated that she teaches at a Catholic school and is not allowed to talk about gay marriage or gay rights issues. Another teacher said that even if she were allowed to teach the subject, she would not because it goes against her personal beliefs.
And a young man said that he would teach about it but would not know how to approach it. All of them expressed concerns regarding parental outrage and personal choice. It was deemed simply too controversial to address in our schools.
Throughout this discussion I couldn’t help but imagine how this conversation might have echoed a similar one heard 40 years ago in regards to the civil right movement. There will always be sensitive topics to address in a fight towards social justice, equality and tolerance. The question then becomes, who will stand up and make a difference?
Wellbrock is an early elementary teacher working with both deaf and hearing students in New York City.