As a historian, I promote the value of historical study, but I’m never surprised when my students reveal an absence of historical knowledge and awareness. It’s one reason I tirelessly advocate for more funding and programs that emphasize history.
I also promote the study of history because the very future of our society is in danger if we do not understand our past. This danger is more than evident in the racist events that occurred recently at the University of Mississippi and Phillipsburg High School in New Jersey—events that remind us we do not live in a “post-racial society” (despite protests to the contrary). As a nation, we don’t just have a legacy of racism; we have a present that is founded on—and perpetuates—racist institutions and practices. Racism is not just symbolized by a noose; racism is the noose that will strangle our collective progress unless we dramatically reconsider how we teach about race and racism.
The incidents in Mississippi and New Jersey both involved nooses.
- On Sunday, February 16, two men were seen shouting racial epithets as they draped a noose and flag with a Confederate symbol on the statue of James Meredith at the University of Mississippi. Meredith was the courageous African-American student who integrated the university in 1962. University Chancellor Daniel W. Jones responded to the offensive act by stating, “Their ideas have no place here.” The FBI joined the investigation to find the perpetrators, and three freshman students quickly emerged as suspects. The students’ identities were turned over to the FBI by the national office of their fraternity, Sigma Phi Epsilon, which also expelled them from the fraternity and suspended the university’s chapter. The students now face disciplinary action from the university and an array of potential charges for both local and federal crimes.
- An all-white group of wrestlers at Phillipsburg High School in New Jersey were suspended from a tournament last week by the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association following the discovery of a photograph of the group surrounding a wrestling dummy wearing a rival team’s jersey and hanging by a noose. The dummy, owned by the high school, is made of dark brown leather, and the photograph resembles a lynching photo. According to the NJSIAA, the wrestlers were guilty of violating the organization’s sportsmanship rule; NJSIAA Executive Director Steven J. Timko said that the photo was disrespectful and depicts “violent imagery that has no place in high school sports.” However, many view the photo as not only an indication of unsportsmanlike behavior, but also evidence of racist ideology. The group’s lawyer, speaking for the students, said, “We did not give any thought to the physical appearance of the dummy as anything other than an unidentified, generic wrestler… and our poses were not premeditated but, rather, spontaneous gestures without any forethought.”
Sadly, I do think it’s possible that at least some of the wrestlers acted without forethought because I have continually been faced with evidence that we as educators have not done enough to teach students about our country’s violent white supremacist history. It’s almost as if we are afraid to expose our students to the hatred, violence and graphic evidence of racism. Maybe we’re afraid of getting in over our heads in classroom discussions that have no easy resolutions, of unintentionally hurting or inflaming student feelings, or of tangling with parents and school boards that might object to teaching such “adult” topics.
Yet these are not adult topics. They are human topics. If we don’t address this history (in age-appropriate ways, of course), we risk our students growing up lacking knowledge, empathy and tolerance—like those who defaced the statue of James Meredith. Those wrestling students got a swift lesson in what happens when you don’t know about the legacy of racism and, in particular, the violent role that lynching played in perpetuating white supremacy. If those students had been exposed, for example, to the history of lynching, they would have known that their actions were inappropriate, and perhaps wouldn’t have evoked these painful images of anti-black terrorism.
Teachers need support to adequately address these topics and—ideally—prevent these outcomes. Luckily, history education gives us excellent tools. Here are some suggestions for ways to do that at every grade level:
- Teaching Tolerance’s Responding to Hate and Bias is a guide for administrators to help prevent incidents of hate and to respond appropriately if they occur.
- “Tongue-Tied,” an article that appeared in Teaching Tolerance magazine, addresses the challenges of teaching about slavery, a critical topic many teachers are shy to address in depth. “Tongue-Tied” and the accompanying toolkit provide concrete ideas for creating a safe environment as well as key content to highlight.
- Teaching Tolerance also provides classroom resources on the topics of race and ethnicity and the civil rights movement—a treasure trove for K-12 teachers dedicated to discussing the history of race in America.
- High school students would benefit from researching the history of racial violence in America. The online Musarium exhibit Without Sanctuary provides an archive of lynching photographs that drives home the horror of racial violence. Similarly, the Uncovering New Chicago Archives Project (UNCAP) includes a rich collection of documents related to the fight against racism, including those by anti-lynching crusader Ida B. Wells and issues of the Chicago Defender newspaper.
- The Leadership Conference provides comprehensive resources for teachers and parents to help them discuss racism with younger children. It identifies ages 5 to 8 as a “critical period” in which “children are old enough to begin to think about social issues and young enough to remain flexible in their beliefs.” The site offers downloadable resources and sample answers to common childhood questions about racial issues, including ways to help students cope when they are the victims of racist language or incidents.
- Teaching for Change is an organization dedicated to “building social justice starting in the classroom” and offers advice on how to create anti-bias educational experiences and resources including book lists, articles, and DVDs for teachers and parents. Its “Tellin’ Stories” parent organizing program explains ways to build community through cultural sharing and consciousness-raising activities.
- Keep your eyes on tolerance.org this month for the release of The March Continues: Five Essential Practices for Teaching the Civil Rights Movement. This Teaching Tolerance guide provides concrete guidance for educators committed to excellence in civil rights education.
Incidents like what happened at Ole Miss and Phillipsburg High School should concern everyone who thinks about what it means to be American and what we want for the future of our society. It’s time that we took some responsibility for the actions of the students who committed these racist acts by recognizing that, somewhere along the line, we failed to teach them to be tolerant. Given that the state of Georgia just approved a new license plate boasting a Confederate flag, it is absolutely crucial that we educators fervently take up this cause—because who else will?
Silos-Rooney is an assistant professor of history at MassBay Community College.
Jordan walked in on the first day of school full of slouchy teenage mojo. As I surveyed the class, matching names to seventh-grade faces, I took a longer second look at Jordan. Eighties throwback skinny jeans, oversized black hoodie, sneakers created for skateboarding, and side-swept, chin-length hair—nothing about Jordan’s appearance marked an “obvious” gender identity.
For weeks I danced verbally around Jordan because I didn’t want to use the wrong pronoun.
I was so awkward. I overly used Jordan’s name: “Jordan, you’ll be the leader of your group, and Megan, you’ll also be with Jordan. Jordan will lead discussions by showing Jordan’s think-alouds about the text.” I made a special effort to get to know Jordan and Jordan’s friends, hoping to hear one of them utter a pronoun in reference to Jordan so I would know which direction to point my speech. I had no idea how to have a conversation about gender identity with Jordan.
I am a member of the LGBT community. I volunteer my summers in my community’s LGBT activist center, and I work diligently alongside colleagues to bring LGBT issues into classrooms. But I had no idea how to address the fact that, eventually, I’d have to find out which pronoun to use for Jordan.
Three weeks into school, hypervigilance of my pronoun usage failed me, and I called Jordan “him.” I was wrong. I embarrassed Jordan. I felt the full weight my failure fall on me in a matter of moments.
Gender is a social construct. A person may identify with a gender different from his or her biological sex or may express his or her gender in a manner that does not fit with society’s expectation of what a boy or a girl should look and act like. Because gender is so fluid, queer theorists tells us that it’s not only acceptable but also necessary to ask students what pronoun they’d like us to use. Taking the time to do this with Jordan would have saved me—and her—considerable embarrassment.
Further, queer theory offers pronoun usage beyond “him” and “her.” One gender-neutral pronoun becoming more widely accepted when referring to a person in singular form is “they.” A second option is using pronouns that completely depart from traditional usage, such as the gender-neutral “ze” (pronounced “zee”) or “hir” (pronounced “here”).
The problem with these gender-neutral pronouns is that—because they are still not mainstream—using them inevitably draws attention to the person they reference. Students not previously exposed to gender construction, expression and fluidity may be hostile to these ideas; using alternative pronouns could worsen the situation for a transgender or gender-queer student. Creating an inclusive environment for transgender and gender-fluid students means taking the time to have those tough conversations and changing the way we approach gender in the classroom—steps that can pave the way for using gender-neutral pronouns safely if that’s what a student prefers.
In 2010, the LGBT advocacy group GLSEN released a study and a set of recommended practices for creating safe classrooms. The study cited as the most critical steps the need for inclusive language; availability of supportive staff members; curricular resources that include representation of LGBT people; and anti-harassment polices needed to create a safe school environment for LGBT students. The study went on to include important special considerations for trans students. The researchers recommend that teachers must “explicitly address issues and experiences specific to transgender students.” Discussing gender identity, gender expression and society’s narratives about gender roles in the classroom creates a space where students can not only critically examine the construct of gender, but also become more accepting of others’ gender identities.
Additionally, Campus Pride provides resources to help colleges and universities become more inclusive of the gender spectrum. Some of these policies and talking points can be applied in middle and high schools, and the site also links to other organizations that promote best practices for gender inclusivity.
Big strides have been made by and for transgender and gender-fluid students. The group Privacy for All Students has helped the “bathroom law” gain real momentum in California. Facebook recently made a widely publicized shift to add multiple gender identity choices to its profile settings. In our efforts to honor, respect and validate transgender and gender-fluid students and others, we must promote these successes as we work through our own ignorance and mistakes. We must hold each other accountable but also with the utmost compassion as we work toward a more inclusive reality for all of us.
Ricket is a high school English teacher in Ohio.
Editor’s note: Today, Teaching Tolerance releases Teaching the Movement 2014, a report detailing the state of civil rights education in each of the 50 states and the District of Columbia. This post is an excerpt from the introduction, written by Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
Want to have a conversation about race?
“The right of every American to first-class citizenship is the most important issue of our time,” baseball’s first black major leaguer once said. Really, it is the most important issue of every time. Not only is citizenship in a democracy a status one inherits or receives, it is a history each must carry forward to shape the future, a right that withers without constant vigilance and renewal.
Few understood this better than Jackie Robinson, the son of Georgia sharecroppers who, after lettering in four sports at U.C.L.A. and a court-martial trial prompted by his refusal to sit in the back of an army bus, stepped onto the field as a Brooklyn Dodger in April 1947 as a symbol of African Americans’ centuries-old quest to be regarded as citizens of equal rank.
“In order for America to be 100 percent strong—economically, defensively, and morally,” Robinson said, “we cannot afford the waste of having second- and third-class citizens.” The mission he had undertaken, what for decades members of the civil rights movement signed up for, was not simply an African-American or regional concern, but a model of resistance worthy of the nation’s founding ideals, too long subsumed. “Negroes aren’t seeking anything which is not good for the nation as well as ourselves,” Robinson explained. He was a true American hero.
Yet, despite the fact that his is the only number retired by every professional baseball team, Jackie Robinson is, at present, required teaching in only nine U.S. states, which, when it comes to preparing students in history, are in charge of what is and what is not covered. As surprising a fact as this is, Robinson fares better than other game-changing pioneers of the civil rights movement.
Two years ago, the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Teaching Tolerance project sounded the alarm over the pervasive neglect of this history with its one-of-a-kind report card measuring state education standards. In that initial study, 35 states received a failing grade of F. Now, the SPLC has done it again, with improved benchmarking and greater state involvement. Yet, while there has been noteworthy progress since 2011, there are still 20 F’s out there, with twelve states requiring no teaching of the civil rights movement at all. To be commended are the three A’s in the group—Georgia, Louisiana and South Carolina—as well as California, which jumped from F to B under the SPLC’s updated evaluation system. Remarkably, however, when you add up all the A’s and B’s, seven out of 11 are former Confederate states, only reinforcing the dangerous misperception that black history is regional or only necessary where large pockets of African Americans reside.
Even more disturbing to me: Fewer than half of U.S. states today include in their major curriculum documents any information on Jim Crow laws, which, for a century, divided citizens by color according to the paradoxical formula, “separate but equal.” If students don’t understand these laws, or how they impacted the course of history, how will they ever be able to grasp the century of delay following emancipation that Dr. King pivoted from in the spontaneous “Dream” section of his iconic speech at the March on Washington in 1963? Or what the lawyers in Brown were up against? Or why the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965 were and remain necessary manifestations of the 14th Amendment’s guarantee of “equal protection of the laws”?
Want to have a meaningful “conversation about race”? That conversation, to be effective and to last, to become part of the fabric of the national American narrative, must start in elementary school, and continue all the way through graduation from high school. Teaching naturalizes history; the content that is taught in our schools makes knowledge second nature. And until the contributions of African Americans become second-nature to all American school children, desperate calls for one more “conversation about race” are destined to repeat themselves—in an endless cycle—following the next race-based hate crime.
Want to honor the people who gave their lives and risked so much during the movement? Ask your school leaders to improve their design for teaching the history of the civil rights movement and for interweaving the sweep of African-American history into your child’s social studies curriculum. It must be taught. It must be nurtured. It must be sustained.
Gates is an Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and founding director of The Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University.
February and March present a special problem for social justice educators. While everyone from administrators to advertisers are promoting Black History Month contests and Women’s History Month programming, you find yourself annoyed by this co-optation of content that you take seriously all year long. But this is also the time of year when more folks turn to our community—and to you—for ideas and perspectives on how to integrate diversity into their curriculum.
Within the TT community, to say that educators should do more than celebrate heroes and holidays is to state the obvious. But, however problematic Black and Women’s History Months may feel, staying home from the party on principle doesn’t quite jibe with the spirit of inclusive education either. No matter how we feel about it, February and March are when many civic organizations and the television, film and publishing industries choose to promote films, seminars, exhibits, news features and other programming about the topics we all so deeply care about. In other words, they are opportunities to make your point about yearlong inclusions while people are listening.
Here are some suggestions if you’re ready to tell folks outside “the choir” why and how they should teach black and women’s history all year long:
Explain the problem
There are likely teachers in your building who think the activities they plan for Black History Month are a fine solution to the underrepresentation of African Americans in the other nine months of curriculum they deliver. Try to be patient and non-judgmental. Acknowledge their attempts and then share the scholarship about multicultural and anti-racist education. In their seminal works, both James Banks (1993) and Peggy McIntosh (2000) place the reductionist and trivializing messages students receive from heroes and holidays lessons near the bottom of a pedagogical food chain—distinctly above a D.W.E.M (dead white European males)-centered curriculum but far from the goal of socially transformative teaching and learning. Paul Gorski at EdChange provides a helpful synthesis of their work and of how the heroes and holidays approach falls short.
It’s not a stretch to connect multicultural education to the instructional best practices your colleagues already know to be effective. Here are two:
Multicultural curriculum mapping. A problem with the heroes and holidays approach reinforced by heritage months is that it places non-dominant groups in silos outside of the standard curriculum, thus perpetuating marginalization. Take the Wikipedia-esque biographies and factoids about famous women and African Americans off of the bulletin board. Leaving them there fails to teach students about people, groups, events, experiences and accomplishments in authentic context, an important historical thinking skill.
Here are some examples of less trivial and more intentional places to teach February’s famous figures, across disciplines and any time of year:
- Social studies: Nazi Germany (Jesse Owens and the 1936 Berlin Olympics); segregation (Jackie Robinson and the Negro leagues), the Vietnam War (Muhammad Ali and conscientious objection).
- Science: Physics (Mae Jemison’s experiments on weightlessness in outer space); biology (George Washington Carver and biotechnology); electricity (Lewis Latimer and Granville Woods).
- English: Symbolism (Richard Wright’s Native Son); dystopia (Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower); flashback (Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God); author’s purpose (Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave).
Anti-bias essential questions. Another problem that emerges during “the months” is the focus on a few successful individuals from a particular identity group rather than an examination of the larger systems that impact the lived experiences of an entire group.
To help students think about the “big picture,” pose critical essential questions that transcend the single story. Such questions invite student voices and perspectives into the curriculum and can teach them to adopt multiple lenses as they view the world.
Consider how the following anti-bias EQs could be used to integrate women’s history, and gender studies in general, across disciplines and any time of year.
- Identity: How do gender and society’s attitudes about gender influence who we become?
- Diversity: How are the lived experiences of women around the world different and similar?
- Justice: What bias and injustice have women experienced because of their gender?
- Action: What actions have individuals and groups taken to challenge gender inequality?
Teachers across disciplines can use EQs to co-plan lessons. For example, along with these questions a math and social studies teacher could co-plan a lesson related to unequal pay and the underrepresentation of women in government.
“The months” are when multicultural and anti-bias educators are most needed to engage that teacher next door, contribute to staff development, and draw students in to authentic discourse that hopefully continues all year. The conversations we have in February and March will shape the ones we’re having in April and beyond. Seize the opportunity—don’t be silent.
Chiariello is a teaching and learning specialist for Teaching Tolerance.
I am invisible, understand, simply
because people refuse to see me.
--Ralph Ellison, Prologue to Invisible Man, 1952
How does a piece of literature become a “classic”? How is the “very best” of any culture determined, and by whom? Is there a checklist? Who creates it? What values are inherently connected with any kind of “best” list?
The story of American and Western literature is a story about historical absence, invisibility or marginalization of women, LGBT individuals and people of color. This is also the case with children’s literature, and nowhere is the concept better demonstrated than in Amanda Scherker’s February 2014 essay, “9 Life Lessons Everyone Can Learn From These Beloved Classic Children’s Books,” which seems to teach its own lesson—one about invisibility relative to authors and characters of color.
Scherker alleges her purpose for the listing is to show how children’s books have given “us” valuable lessons about living and life. “… the very best children’s books also helped us understand the world around us,” she writes (emphasis mine). “Over the years, they shaped our imaginations, our aspirations and our sense of right and wrong.”
Scherker’s list includes:
- Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are
- Dr. Seuss’ Horton Hears A Who!
- Judith Viorst’s Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day
- Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince
- Lois Lowry’s The Giver
- E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web
- Frances Hodgson’s The Secret Garden
- Roald Dahl’s Matilda
- Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with this list. However, the sense that this is some kind of universal list with which everyone can or should identify is problematic.
These books may be “classics,” but when offered as “the best that ‘our’ culture has to offer,” such a list upholds white privilege and clearly values some “life lessons” over others. Scherker relies on lessons that are alleged “universals” in a world where in which there probably are no real universals.
From the 1930s through the 1970s, early readers introduced generations of children to the “universal” world of Father, Mother, Dick and Jane. This world, which shaped the culture of alphabet literacy in the United States, was not racially or ethnically integrated until the 1970s when Pam and her family moved into the neighborhood (and that brown assimilationist family was “just like Dick and Jane’s family”). This world taught young readers not only how to make sense of letters on a page, but implicit and explicit lessons about family, gender, race, sexual identity and class. Writes Billy Collins in his poem “First Reader”: “I can see them standing politely on the wide pages/that I was still learning to turn, Jane in a blue jumper, Dick with his crayon-brown hair,/playing with a ball or exploring the cosmos/of the backyard, unaware that they are the first characters,/the boy and girl who begin fiction.” Like Scherker’s list, the fiction of Dick and Jane taught readers as much through absence as through what appeared on the page.
How do “we” measure progress if we continually harken back to “classics” that perpetuate invisibility and marginalization through these absences? If we are to construct lists like Scherker’s, why not create multiple lists that represent multiple cultural experiences, rather than assuming that life experiences match across the board? They do not. In fact, let us not assume that there are any absolute lessons that “everyone” learns, as Scherker asserts.
Cannot valuable life lessons be derived from Mary Hoffman’s Amazing Grace (1991), in which a little African-American girl challenges the notion that she cannot play Peter Pan in her elementary school play because she’s black and female? Might The Brownies’ Book be added to this list of classics? Published monthly for two years (January 1920–December 1921), this magazine for children included contributions by famed adult authors Jessie Redmon Fauset, Langston Hughes and W.E.B. DuBois, who imparted important life lessons across multiple cultures. We might include Bill Cosby’s Little Bill series, whose stories offer life lessons but are more inclusive in character representations; HBO's Happily Ever After: Fairy Tales for Every Child series; The Book of Mean People, Toni Morrison's book about keeping our spirits intact by dealing constructively and imaginatively with everyday meanness and mean people; Nappy Hair, Carolivia Herron’s book about achieving self-acceptance when the world tells us that we are not OK as we are; and any children’s books by poets Maya Angelou and Nikki Giovanni.
To be clear, I am not suggesting that readers across cultures can only connect with stories about people like themselves and experiences like their own. Humans have the capacity to empathize, to imagine, and to understand experiences that we have not lived; literature can provide both windows and mirrors. Nevertheless, with lists of the “best,” “greatest,” “sexiest,” and “most beautiful” becoming increasingly popular, critical observers will be challenged to explore the who, why and how of these assessments and proclamations. When alleged universals are colorized as whiteness, whiteness is perpetually presumed to be the norm of experience, language, beauty and excellence.
Editor’s Note: Want to learn more about diversifying your classroom library? Read “Picture Imperfect” in the spring 2014 issue of Teaching Tolerance. You can also learn more about multicultural titles for children up to age 12 and for young adults through the world of Dr. James Blasingame of Arizona State University, or download a list of additional resources here.
Dr. Neal A. Lester is a Foundation Professor of English and Director of Project Humanities at Arizona State University.