My elementary school mainstreamed children living with disabilities, and I remember interacting with these children each year of my elementary school life. In my fifth-grade class, we had a girl with Down syndrome (we’ll call her Abbey) who was picked on a lot. I don’t remember the things we said or did to her, but we taunted her because she loved everyone, and we couldn’t believe how she could so easily like the kids who were mean to her and be glad to see us the next day. I often felt thankful it was her, not me, who was being picked on (I was also bullied at school frequently), and I wasn’t confident enough to speak up on her behalf.
One day, after a week in which we’d been particularly mean to this girl, her older brother—a middle schooler at the time—came in and spoke to us. He talked about his own struggles growing up with a sibling whom the world saw as “special,” and also the joys that came with it. He talked about ways he’d learned to interact with her, and how it made him feel to see her come home from school sad so many days. I don’t know why he, rather than a parent or school psychologist, had been selected to talk to us about his sister. Maybe the adults thought we’d relate to him better than to yet another adult telling us how to behave. Maybe he volunteered himself.
I do know that, after this talk, we were nicer to Abbey. We’d been given tools to understand how to help her, how to be kinder to her, how to understand the way she functioned in the world. We’d been sat down as a community and asked to support her—in other words, given the opportunity to make our own decisions about how to conduct ourselves after being advised on what tools worked best.
I think about Abbey from time to time, and the service her family provided—to her and to us—by sending her brother in to speak to us. His presentation was a form of disclosure meeting, a communication designed to nurture our compassion by informing us and helping us connect with the emotional pain Abbey felt when we bullied her. It was appropriate for our developmental space.
As an educator in nontraditional environments, I work with students of varying abilities. Sometimes families disclose to me their children’s needs and abilities, but I also see parents, guardians and siblings who are in denial that their children are different or who want their children to be treated like everyone else (for better or worse) so that they aren’t called out for being “different.”
I do what I can to build relationships with all families because, as with Abbey, the more I know about how my students’ differing abilities affect them and what circumstances trigger strong emotions, the more compassionate and effective I can be as their teacher. Often it’s a matter of observing and asking questions again and again. “I’ve noticed your child works well with one-on-one attention.” “How do you de-escalate your child when he’s beginning to threaten other youth?” “Your child seems to like to move around a lot while learning. Are there particular physical activities that help her refocus when she get upset?”
These questions, so far, have shown families that I want to see their children succeed. I’m fortunate to work in an environment where my co-workers and I can disclose information to one another about the youth we work with, where we can come together to provide the resources and skills we each have to help our students, and one another, succeed.
Clift works in an after-school program for youth and is the communications intern for the Colorado Coalition Against Sexual Assault.
The nefarious practice of blackface reared its ugly head again this past Halloween in startlingly high-profile incidents. Dancing with the Stars alumna Julianne Hough created an ill-advised costume tribute to a character on Netflix's Orange Is the New Black, complete with blackface. Two coaches at a California high school attended an event dressed as the Jamaican bobsled team. And from across the country, photos of students showing up to parties in blackface popped up all over blogs and other social media outlets.
Clearly, we’re not doing such a great job educating today’s students, or society in general, about the problems inherent in this practice; we’ve got egg on our collective blackface.
My own experience with blackface goes back to 1985, at my all-white high school. My freshman year, a group of seniors dressed as Rick James and his band, singing “Super Freak” down the hallways, and a group of students dressed as the Fat Albert Gang my senior year. Both groups had smeared dark makeup all over themselves; some wore Afro or dreadlock wigs.
I distinctly remember feeling uncomfortable with these incidents and wondering whether they were appropriate. Today, when I discuss these and other examples with my students, I often hear both white and black students argue that it’s all in good fun, that those who wear blackface are just playing “characters” or paying tribute to performers they respect.
But the simple fact is that blackface cannot be a tribute because it is a caricature, a demeaning representation of one racial identity, and by definition a reduction of a whole people’s identity down only to their skin color. The ramifications of this for social equality in the United States can be very damaging. As Manthia Diawara, chair of the Africana Studies Department at New York University, writes:
“In the blackface myth, there is a white fantasy which posits whiteness as the norm. What is absent in the blackface stereotype is as important as what is present: every black face is a statement of social imperfection, inferiority, and mimicry that is placed in isolation with an absent whiteness as its ideal opposite.”
The best way we can get students to understand this issue is to explain the historical context in which blackface emerged. Students need to know the history of minstrelsy, a performance practice used to demean African Americans, promote a concept of whiteness that reassured immigrants and others at the bottom of the economic ladder that their status was at least higher than blacks and exploit black culture for white profit. Without understanding this history, it is impossible for young people to see contemporary incidents as part of a longer continuum of degradation and racist constructions.
I’ve taught about the history of blackface and minstrelsy many times; in the beginning, I felt uncomfortable showing such horridly racist imagery to my students, worried that they might either be offended by the image or actually enjoy clips of The Amos ‘n Andy Show or Al Jolson. But I quickly realized that students approach the subject with the appropriate seriousness and often make connections between minstrelsy and contemporary pop culture that expand my own knowledge as well.
Many resources are available to help educators build lesson plans about the problem of blackface, including some excellent histories of minstrelsy, blackface and other racial/ethnic stereotypes. It’s time we confronted this issue more directly. In that way, perhaps we can help prevent further careless and insensitive incidents of blackface in our society.
Alvarez, Natalie and Stephen Johnson. “Minstrels in the Classroom: Teaching, Race, and Blackface.” Canadian Theatre Review, 147 (Summer 2011): 31-37. doi: 10.3138/ctr.147.31.
Bogle, Donald. Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, and Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Films, Fourth Edition. New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2001.
Lhamon, Jr., W.T. Raising Cain: Blackface Performance from Jim Crow to Hip Hop. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000.
Lott, Eric. Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.
Mahar, William. J. Behind the Burnt Cork Mask: Early Blackface Minstrelsy and Antebellum American Popular Culture. Urbana and Chicago, Il: University of Illinois Press, 1999.
Silos-Rooney is an assistant professor of history at MassBay Community College.
December 10, 2013, marks the 65th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). Drafted over the course of two years by a committee composed of chairwoman Eleanor Roosevelt and eighteen other members representing diverse nationalities and beliefs, this document represented the world’s commitment—in the wake of World War II—to the protection of individual human rights.
Although my teaching career has led me to two states and two continents, many of the curricular requirements I encountered were the same. For example, I was expected to use The Diary of Anne Frank and other Holocaust literature with my eighth-graders.
Every English or social studies teacher who has taught the European Holocaust knows what a range of texts is available on this topic, including memoirs, autobiographies, picture books, news clippings, photographs and historical documents. Where would I start? What would I include? I knew I didn’t want to encourage the “I feel so bad for them” syndrome that can result from studying this content. I wanted to provide varying perspectives of the stories told and sufficient context to encourage my students to connect these stories to present-day struggles—without minimizing the tragedies of war—and to foster students’ desire to work toward a just society.
I decided to start with the end. I asked myself, “What do I want my students to know and do?” This led to questions like these:
- What does it mean to survive?
- How can an individual make a difference during wartime?
- Is it ever OK to make another person suffer?
- What is required to stand up for another person?
- When is it OK to stand up to authority?
These are enduring questions that don’t rely on a specific text or time period; they can be discussed for years to come. I posted these questions around the room, and they drove my planning.
I investigated the literature in the same way—beginning with the end. Instead of diving into the range of literature available, we started with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a document created as a consequence of the atrocities committed by Nazi Germany during World War II.
My students and I closely read the preamble together and identified and defined some of the difficult vocabulary found in the UDHR: tyranny, oppression, jurisdiction, inalienable, dignity, equity. We split the 30 articles of the UDHR among groups of two or three students. The groups were tasked with understanding the assigned articles and preparing a one-minute explanation for the rest of us. Some groups acted out the assigned articles; others enjoyed the opportunity to lead the class in lecture. I circulated and facilitated the small group discussions, guiding students to closely read each article in an effort to fully comprehend the text. I also recorded student comments.
After closely reading and investigating the UDHR and revisiting our big questions, I asked students to create their own big questions, using what they had learned. They came up with questions like these:
- What are rights?
- How are rights decided?
- Who makes sure governments respect the articles of the UDHR?
- Are all 30 articles of the UDHR being met in our community?
We posted these questions around the room.
Then we dove into the texts. We read The Diary of Anne Frank by Anne Frank, Milkweed by Jerry Spinelli, The Devil’s Arithmetic by Jane Yolen, Anne Frank: The Biography by Melissa Müller, Night by Elie Wiesel and Soldier Boys by Dean Hughes, as well as poetry, magazine and newspaper articles, films and photographs from World War II.
We examined each text through the UDHR lens and asked:
- Are human rights violated in this work? How?
- Are human rights defended in this work? How?
- What does this text say about individual responsibility for human rights?
- What action is taken in this work to uphold human rights?
- Which characters do not act to defend human rights? Why not?
In larger class discussions about these texts, we identified how compassion, teamwork, privilege, empathy, collaboration and silence hindered or helped to uphold human rights. Throughout the remainder of the year, we added to our bank of big questions related to the UDHR, applying them to the texts we read and to our own community.
Closely reading the UDHR and applying our learning through the lens of the big questions allowed students to arrive at their own nuanced understanding about human rights. They took ownership of the ideas inherent in the document, and that ownership drove their learning. My students may not remember every detail of what they read about World War II, but they practiced linking the primary concepts across multiple types of writing and disciplines, and that practice reinforced not only their knowledge but also their critical reading and thinking skills. By starting at the end, I was able to give my students the keys they needed to unlock one of the most painful and complex periods in recent history.
Wicht is senior manager for teaching and learning for Teaching Tolerance.
“Forty-six times?” my middle school students breathed, sitting back in their chairs. “You’ve been arrested 46 times?” They hadn’t been expecting the 60-something-year-old African-American man to give that answer when asked if he’d ever been to jail.
They were surprised to find that he was proud of the statistic. The gentleman, a child of the civil rights movement, was one of several activists who visited our Boston classroom last spring as part of a filmmaking unit on courage and social change.
My students were originally interested in the filmmaking portion of the project; little did they know that the interviewing process would be far more memorable. They were hooked. Better yet, they were deeply engaged in expanding their own historical understanding as our visitor explained that he’d been arrested for his activism in cities around the world. His history of nonviolent protest included standing against apartheid in South Africa and standing up for gay rights in France.
And, yet, while I know my students were inspired by the gentleman’s story, I was mistaken when I assumed that they would connect it to their own lives. I neglected the fact that my students had limited knowledge of social history, almost nothing beyond mainstream facts of the civil rights movement. They, therefore, needed a historical context to properly connect their own lives to this gentleman’s actions.
This fact became apparent in a follow-up conversation during which students shared that they would never have made the sacrifices he and other activists made years ago.
“If I was alive at that time, they would’ve been in trouble,” one young man said. “Because there’s no way I’m going to jail for someone else.”
His statement intrigued me. Through a series of subsequent discussions about this sentiment, my students and I came to some conclusions:
- Laws were unjust decades ago, especially for people of color and women.
- People who did not have voting rights needed other methods to make their voices heard.
- If no one stood up to unjust laws, they never would have changed.
By contextualizing the gentleman’s activism, students were able to better understand his actions. But they still called it “adult stuff,” questioning the role of children.
“You do know that children and teenagers played a huge role in the civil rights movement?” I asked.
Come to find out, they did not. We’d arrived at the root of the situation: Students thought of history and social change in terms of iconic figures, heroes and heroines, instead of common folk. They didn’t know about the leaders behind the scenes, such as Ella Baker, Fannie Lou Hamer, Septima Poinsette Clark, Bayard Rustin, or the hundreds of child activists in the Children’s Crusade in Birmingham, Ala., in 1963.
The coming weeks in my class included more reading and discussion of young, unacknowledged change agents. I used Ellen Levine’s Freedom’s Children and Elizabeth Partridge’s Marching for Freedom, both nonfiction books about young people’s involvement in the civil rights movement. Students read the story of Claudette Colvin, the 15-year-old girl who refused to give up her seat in Montgomery, Ala., nine months before Rosa Parks did the same thing.
My goal was to explode conventional ideas about who makes history and why. I wanted my students to know that we all make history, even if our names don’t make it into history books. And that these activists were people who made mistakes, had doubts, worried about skin color and their looks and had other experiences to which my students could relate.
Certainly, not all my students walked away with the same content knowledge or with neatly constructed understandings of the 1950s and ‘60s. But they all learned that studying history is difficult, complicated and dependent on the storyteller’s point of view. And they discovered that the great change agents of the past (many of whom were young people) were not so different from those of us living in the present.
As they worked to focus their social justice films on a certain activist or issue, I saw students struggle to articulate what activism means in the context of the social issues that touch their lives. They had to work with their partners and think through what they really believed, what evidence supports their beliefs and how to best communicate those beliefs to others. This struggle, I believe, is where learning truly lives.
Knight teaches at Boston Arts Academy, a public school for the visual and performing arts.
As teachers, we often focus (rightly) on what it is we’re teaching. I might specialize in mathematics for traumatized youth, while your gift is in conveying your enthusiasm and respect for science or literature. But from time to time, I am reminded that there are many spaces where education can happen, some of them entirely separated from what we actually teach.
I have a student, Delia, with extremely well-developed avoidance tendencies. Each day holds a new crisis, a new scheduling conflict, another reason not to come to class or, when she does come to class, not to remain there for the full session. I often feel (naturally, I think) very frustrated by this. I used to respond by emphasizing timeliness and respect for class schedules and by trying to foster in her a desire for improving her attendance.
Over time, however, I began to feel worn down. I was here to help her get her GED certificate, after all, to teach her the content that would be assessed on the exam. Still, I did my best to meet her where she was in order to keep her engaged. When she would ask what time class started, instead of repeating the obvious—“on the hour”—I began to say instead, “Whenever you can come. Class is always open for you.” Sometimes she would come and stay for a bit, but more often, she would not.
I did not consider this whole series of interactions a success at the time; on the contrary, I felt that I had not been able to spend any real time teaching Delia anything at all. Her tests showed no marked improvement, and she was no closer to reaching her goal of obtaining a GED certificate. She was, however, more often in the building and seemed more cheerful when we spoke.
I wasn’t thinking of it at the time, but what I was practicing was something along the lines of risk management or harm reduction. These concepts shift our attention as educators from hitting benchmarks and meeting standards, focusing us instead on the work we can do to gently bend the arc of our students’ lives—toward less dangerous behavior, decreased street involvement and a greater openness to behavior change and educational growth. In Delia’s case, that meant maintaining a relationship grounded in building healthy attachment and meeting her where she was.
One afternoon, on learning that I would be changing positions and would no longer be teaching the classes she (only occasionally) attended, Delia became visibly upset. “Who’s going to teach me?” she said, “You’re such a good teacher!” That’s when it occurred to me that I had been wrong to think I never taught her anything, despite the fact I had never had the chance to convey content or impart knowledge through regular, formal lesson delivery.
To some extent, all educators know that the way we relate to our students communicates as powerfully as our words. But those of us—and our numbers are growing—who work with students from damaged homes, wounded communities and abusive relationships see especially keenly how we educate through attachment repair. The environments we create, the tone we take and the presence we hold can unlock lessons within our students that are more effective than the best we could ever create at our desks.
I can’t say today that I know exactly what Delia believes I have taught her; it’s probably true that none of us ever really knows what we teach to one another. But if what she gained from me was only the fact that I showed up even when she was struggling to show up herself, it was a thing of great value to her. And like much of what teachers truly teach, it occurred in the space between lessons, in that relational gray area where we must not forget that learning also happens.
Swoveland works with high-risk students in Massachusetts, primarily preparing them for the GED certificate exam. He also leads enrichment and engagement programs in writing, photography and art.