Episode 4, Season 2
For elementary teachers approaching the topic of slavery, it can be tempting to focus only on heroes and avoid explaining oppression. But teachers’ omissions speak as loudly as what they choose to include. And what children learn in the early grades has broad consequences for the rest of their education. Dr. Kate Shuster guides us through the new Teaching Hard History K–5 framework from Teaching Tolerance. We also learn how four elementary teachers are beginning to use it in their classrooms.
Resources and Readings
- Teaching Tolerance magazine, "We Are Our Ancestors' Wildest Dreams"
- James Madison's Montpelier, The Mere Distinction of Colour (exhibition)
- Teaching Tolerance articles
- Teaching Tolerance, Teaching the Movement
- Teaching Hard History, K-5 Framework: Essential Knowledge
Fifth grade, Raleigh, North Carolina, Teaching Tolerance Advisory Board
- Teaching Hard History, K-5 Framework: Essential Knowledge #1
- Beyoncé, Freedom feat. Kendrick Lamar (video)
- Glenn E. Singleton, Courageous Conversations About Race: A Field Guide for Achieving Equity in Schools
- Teaching Tolerance, My Multicultural Self
Third grade, Berkeley, California, Teaching Tolerance Advisory Board
- Teaching Tolerance, Remembering My Four Friends 50 Years Later
- Teaching Hard History, K-5 Framework: Essential Knowledge #5
- Teaching Tolerance, The Story of César Chávez, Dolores Huerta and a Great Movement for Social Justice
- Teaching Hard History, K-5 Framework: Essential Knowledge #7
- English Language Arts (ELA) Standards
- Teaching Tolerance: Lesson, The Little Rock Battle for School Integration
- Sharon Draper, Fire from the Rock
- Teaching Tolerance: Feature, Beyond the Little Rock Nine
- Langston Hughes
- Maya Angelou
Fifth grade, Boston, Massachusetts, Teaching Tolerance Advisory Board
- Teaching Hard History, K-5 Framework: Essential Knowledge #12
- Teaching Hard History, K-5 Framework: Essential Knowledge #14
- Teaching Tolerance, Poster Warning Blacks in Boston: Kidnappers
Fourth grade, Teaching Tolerance Advisory Board
- Teaching Hard History, K-5 Framework: Essential Knowledge #15
- The New York Times: Nikole Hannah-Jones, The 1619 Project
- U.S. Supreme Court, Dred Scott v. Sandford
- PBS/WGBH, Africans in America: The Middle Passage
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Montpelier is the former home of James Madison, the fourth president of the United States, the father of the Constitution and the architect of the Bill of Rights. Montpelier is also a former slave labor camp. James Madison held more than 100 African Americans in bondage at Montpelier. Never freeing a single soul, not even upon his death. Historic preservationists have been busy at Montpelier, telling the story of slavery and freedom. They have reconstructed portions of the enslaved quarter, rebuilt the cabin of the freedman George Gilmore and re-created a Jim Crow‒era railroad station.
Meanwhile, archeologists have conducted ongoing digs at the property that have uncovered remarkable remnants of the material culture of the enslaved people who lived there. Two years ago, museum curators unveiled a permanent exhibition about slavery at Madison’s plantation and beyond called “The Mere Distinction of Colour.” In 2018, I took 10 Ohio State students to Montpelier to explore the evolution of the color line from the nation’s founding through the present. For four days, we absorbed all that Montpelier had to offer.
We even spent an evening in Charlottesville with a community activist who shared her personal account of the tragic events of the summer before, when white nationalists descended on the city intent on terrorizing African Americans, Jews and Muslims. Before all that, we began our Montpelier experience with a tour of Madison’s mansion. The high point of the Montpelier house tour is Madison’s library. When standing in Madison’s library, it is easy to imagine him sitting at his desk, gazing out of the window that faces the front yard of the mansion, taking in the sweeping view of the rich, verdant, rolling hills, made productive and profitable by the people he enslaved, while he crafted the core elements of the Constitution.
We completed the house tour by walking the grounds surrounding the mansion. This part of the tour was especially significant as the docent discussed the architecture of the house. She noted that the bricks used to construct the building were all made by hand, on-site by enslaved African Americans. “If you look closely,” she said, “in some of the bricks, you can see the handprints left by the enslaved people who made them.”
I urged the students to move closer, to get a good look at the handprints. I also encouraged them to reach out and touch them. As they did, they noticed something odd. The handprints were much smaller than theirs are. That’s because the handprints were those of children. On James Madison’s plantation, the bricks used to build his mansion were made by the African American children he enslaved. In a couple of weeks, I’m taking a second group of Ohio State students to Montpelier. I want them to visit Madison’s library to see where American history happened.
I want them to touch the bricks made by the children Madison enslaved, to see how American history happened. You see, the students need to understand that the library in which Madison conceived of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights rests on a foundation of bricks made by the African American children he enslaved. Teaching hard history means helping students understand that Americans don’t just stand on the shoulders of mythological giants like those who wrote the U.S. Constitution. They also stand on the shoulders of enslaved African American children.
Because these children were among those who made it possible for enslavers to construct the nation we live in today. This process of helping students understand the hard history of American slavery has to begin in the elementary grades. Young learners need to be inoculated against the myths about American history—myths that perpetuate falsehoods about the past and the present. This is no easy task, but it is doable. It is also necessary. I’m Hasan Kwame Jeffries and this is Teaching Hard History: American Slavery. A special series from Teaching Tolerance, a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center.
This podcast provides a detailed look at how to teach important aspects of the history of American slavery. In each episode, we explore a different topic, walking you through historical concepts, raising questions for discussion, suggesting useful source material and offering practical classroom exercises. In our second season, we are expanding our focus to better support elementary school educators to spend more time with teachers who are doing this work in the classroom. To understand the often-hidden history of the enslavement of Indigenous people in what would become the United States.
Talking with students about slavery can be emotional and complex. This podcast is a resource for navigating those challenges so teachers and students can develop a deeper understanding of the history and legacy of American slavery. Teaching about slavery is challenging, especially in elementary school classrooms. Children encounter slavery in one form or another as soon as they begin school. It can be tempting to focus only on heroes and avoid explaining oppression. Our omissions speak as loudly as what we choose to include. What children learn in the early grades has broad consequences for the rest of their education.
We’ve been thinking a lot about how to do a better job. In this episode, we’re going to take a closer look at a first-of-its-kind framework that Teaching Tolerance has created to introduce slavery to elementary students. Kate Shuster is the project director for the Teaching Hard History initiative. She’s going to explain what’s in the new framework for K‒5 educators, including useful source materials. We’re also going to hear from four elementary school teachers about how and why they’re beginning to use the framework in their classrooms. I’ll see you on the other side. Enjoy.
I’m really excited to welcome to the podcast, Kate Shuster. Kate, how are you doing?
Kate Shuster: I’m great, Hasan. I’m a long-time listener, first-time caller.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Much more than that. We actually get to pull the curtain back on the Teaching Hard History: American Slavery podcast. What’s revealed behind the curtain is Kate. Kate is really a magician. She is the one that has done so much work in leading this team and putting not just the podcast together but the framework and the material and the resources. We don’t have any of this stuff without you, Kate. It’s good to have the mic in front of you so everybody gets to hear about your wisdom and knowledge.
Kate Shuster: It’s really great to be here. I always like when I get to have a chat with you about anything. Thanks for having me.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Of course. Tell us about the new K‒5 framework for teaching American slavery.
Kate Shuster: Okay. It is a project that was about 18 months in the making. I had the honor of leading the framework-construction process. There were dozens and dozens of sets of eyes of reviewers and educators and people that we consulted from across the education spectrum to try to build an architecture for teachers that they could use to teach about slavery in meaningful ways that would be appropriately structured throughout the K–5 ecosystem. I was the lead author, but there are several other authors that I just want to mention. Our listeners will hear from all of these folks this season on the podcast.
There’s you, Meredith McCoy, who’s your co-host. Margaret Newell, Sarah Shear, Christina Snyder and Ebony Thomas are all folks that worked very hard on this document. The process really was beginning by asking teachers at different grade levels throughout K–5 what they did, what they wanted to see and what would help them to support instruction. There were a lot of challenges there. The idea of the framework was to create a diversity of access points for teachers. The elementary education system is very different from the way that we teach history in secondary grades.
Elementary teachers, they have a diverse skillset; they teach all of the subjects usually. They will have a classroom where they can easily integrate literature as well as history instruction, math and science. In many ways, they have these opportunities as educators to weave subjects in seamlessly but it also means that sometimes, they don’t have dedicated time or strategies for specific content. The idea of what we wanted to do was create something that would go with lessons that teachers already had.
It wasn’t like we were trying to have a giant footprint in their classrooms and crowd out valuable time for all the other stuff that young students need. Also, to meet students where they are in age-appropriate and culturally sustaining ways and to have diversities of situations where teachers could begin to integrate instruction about slavery into the classroom. The framework, the way that it’s structured, what we settled on was a set of 20 Essential Knowledge items. There’s 10 for each grade band. In elementary education, we talk about the K–2 grade band and then the 3–5 grade band.
Each of those grade bands in the framework has we’ve identified 10 items of Essential Knowledge that are roughly chronological but more so conceptual. Beginning with talking about the nature of freedom and power and moving through a history sequence so that by the time they get to the end of fifth grade, they’re really talking about the Civil War and beginning to talk about the aftermath of the Civil War. We’re trying to create a way for teachers to set up this history education that will easily transition students into a secondary history context.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: There was an incredible amount of work that I know went into crafting the framework. A lot of thought went into how to structure it; what Essential Knowledge points go into which of the bands. I’m really intrigued by what teachers will be saying not only about what they wanted to use from the framework, what they wanted to take out of the frameworks. Let me repeat that part. I’m really interested and intrigued by what teachers will have to say about the framework when we put it in their hands. I know we’ve already shared it with a small handful of teachers who teach slavery and want to teach slavery.
We’re going to hear from them in this episode. Can you say a little bit about what they thought or are going to talk about that we’ll hear here?
Kate Shuster: Yeah. We had started taping the teachers before school had started because we wanted to catch them and get their input. We knew that sometimes, once school started, it’s more difficult and challenging to schedule teachers for recording. What we did is we found some elementary school teachers who wanted to participate. We asked them some questions about the framework. We asked them to identify an Essential Knowledge area that really spoke to them. We asked them what they would do in their classroom to use it. We asked them why they really thought that it was important to cover that material with their students.
We also asked them to talk about the challenges they thought they might face and what strategies they would use to overcome those.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Kate, you explained that the framework contains and consists of these Essential Knowledge points: 10 for each of the two grade bands. Could you describe for us what is contained within or how each of these Essential Knowledge points are structured?
Kate Shuster: Yeah, definitely. Each Essential Knowledge point is an entryway for a teacher to explore the content. For example, Essential Knowledge 1 starts with saying that “Students should be encouraged to think and talk about the meaning of freedom.” That’s really a learning goal for a teacher to have in their classroom. There’s much more in the framework than just those declarative sentences. When a teacher opens the framework and looks at Essential Knowledge 1, what they’ll see is first, is a section that says, “What else should my students know?” There are several items underneath Essential Knowledge 1 that support that instruction.
For example, “Being free means being able to choose what your life looks like without interference from others.” There are several details under there that are things that students should know in support of comprehension of these main Essential Knowledge topics. If you think of an Essential Knowledge, it’s like a topic sentence. There are supporting details under there that will help teachers get students to understand the Essential Knowledge item itself. Under those details, there’s a whole other section for each of the Essential Knowledge items that says, “How can I teach this?”
In there, there are strategies for teachers to use in their classrooms. Sometimes, we are recommending specific texts that are grade-appropriate. Sometimes, we’re recommending strategies for teachers to group students and discussion strategies. Sometimes, we’re recommending activities for the classroom that will all support that specific Essential Knowledge item. The Essential Knowledge is a gateway. Teachers, once they enter the gateway, will find selected suite of resources and strategies that will allow them to accomplish that learning goal.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Wow.
Kate Shuster: Under the “How can I teach this?” part, which is attached to each Essential Knowledge item, there are strategies and examples for teachers. For example, in EK1, we suggest that teachers begin with examples from their classroom, families and communities to have students examine how power is gained and used and explained. They should describe what it means to have power and identify ways that people can use power to help, harm and influence situations. What that is is a fairly specific advice or guidance for teachers. Another example in there is that we’re encouraging students to contrast equity and equality.
Think about current problems where there’s a need to fight for equity and equality. Also, in that Essential Knowledge, we’re encouraging teachers to use many books, including those books that they might otherwise just be using to teach reading as springboards for these conversations. Emphasizing that teachers don’t need to have texts that are specific to slavery to begin the discussion about these underlying ideas but freedom, power, equity, equality and choice with young students.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Kate, as you know, teaching American slavery to young children, to elementary school students, is extremely challenging. But this framework is really exciting. Are there elements within it that really have you excited about the potential for this in the classroom?
Kate Shuster: Yeah, definitely. The big idea that I’m really excited about is the idea of giving tools to teachers to help students think like historians. Critically examining the way that history is often presented and looking for hidden histories that sometimes won’t be in the text or they encounter or the stories that they read. I’m also really excited that the framework has a broad and inclusive approach. Really hoping that teachers will be inspired to work on their own practice and find new ways to teach history in their classrooms moving beyond, for example, British colony centric story of American history.
Talking about connecting the dots between the theft of Indigenous land and the growth of the plantation system. Thinking about incorporating histories of Native nations more extensively into the story that they’re telling about American history. I hope that educators will look at this framework and see opportunity to tell new and exciting and engaging stories in their classrooms.
That’s really what we’ve tried to do here is collect interesting, engaging, solid history together in one place so that teachers won’t have to do so much work themselves and instead can enjoy the vocation of teaching, which is why they do it. I don’t think they do it for the money, is my suspicion.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: I don’t think you would get too much disagreement on that last point in particular. I’m excited to hear what the teachers who have already seen the framework have to think about it. First, we’re going to hear from Bria Wright. Bria is a fifth-grade teacher in Wake County, North Carolina. She’s going to talk a little bit about why she’s trying to incorporate Essential Knowledge Number 1 into her lessons, which is that students should be encouraged to think and talk about the meaning of freedom.
Bria Wright: This Essential Knowledge really spoke to me personally because I think freedom means different things to different people depending on who you are, your background, what you believe in. Freedom can look differently for different people. Especially for children, they have come in with us with all these different ideas of what freedom looks like. What being free looks like based on their backgrounds and their beliefs. It’s really cool to be able to talk about that and see what kids think are their different ideas of what freedom is. This is really important because in the news, we see lots of different issues of freedom.
We think specifically like the border crisis. Who’s getting freedom? Who’s not able to have freedom? Who’s able to freely be in this country? Who’s not, just based off of where they were born? Is that okay? Absolutely, it’s not okay. You should be able to go somewhere and live somewhere and be able to be free. To love and to get a job and support your family. That piece of what freedom looks like and what it means really just means something different to different people. That’s what really spoke to me about it.
Something that also really spoke to me was thinking about how has freedom historically not been afforded to people of color. We go all the way back before even the slave trade if we think about Native Americans that were here first. This was their land. We were on stolen land. How come they had people come over from Europe and had their land taken away from them? Some of them were then enslaved and so they had their freedoms taken away but this was their space. Then we think about moving on in history. We think about the Africans folks that were brought over and then taken to be enslaved. How are they limited to freedom?
We still see these things over and over as we continue on in history. As we continue on in life, we still see these things today. How come people of color still have these limited freedoms? That’s really why it spoke to me because it’s not just like this happened in our history. It’s still reoccurring to this day. When we think about education, who is passing standardized tests? Who is able to live wherever they want? Who is not able to live wherever they want?
Who is caught up in the criminal justice system and can’t access freedoms because of historically oppressive rules, laws and things that are keeping people from being the best they can be? That’s really what spoke to me because I think about how freedoms have been limited and how that history continues to come up today. When I think about how to actually teach freedom and making this really abstract concept concrete for fifth graders, it can be overwhelming. Also, it can be really empowering for us to think about and explore together. The first place that I would start would be for them to explore their own definition of freedom.
What does that mean to you? What does that mean in different spaces? What does freedom look like as a student? What does it look like as a child? What does it look like on a sports team or whatever you’re a part of? Just different parts of their identity but what does that actually look like? Having them to interview their family, their peers and their friends to really figure out what does freedom look like to them so that they can come up with their own definition before we, as a group talk about freedom and what it looks like. Of course, we’d have to be mindful that that will be very abstract for some students.
Being able to specifically give them concrete ideas of, Does freedom look like this? Yes or no? They can get their own definitions but having that scaffold will help to figure out what does freedom look like. We have to be mindful that students will also need to be instructed of what it looks like to not have freedoms. When we think about the border crisis I had mentioned earlier, these people are trying to come to our country and to have a better life. They’re being stopped from doing so. They’re being stopped from having a freedom. That is a problem. How can we help solve that?
Other lack of freedom that we’ve seen historically whether we’ve seen it in our country or other countries. How has freedom been taken away or stopped or how people not been able to access freedom. These are all things that we should help students understand so that they can see. Not everybody has been afforded freedom. Not everybody still is free. How can we help that as we move forward? When we think specifically about with American enslavement, what freedoms were withheld from folks that were enslaved? How does that continue to manifest today?
All of these things will be questions that I would definitely pose to students but they would be grounded in reading. They’d be grounded in some type of nonfiction texts that we’ve read together and we dissected together so they have a basis to go off of. I don’t want them just to pull, “My mom said this. My dad said this.” Let’s ground what we’re saying in the actual facts and the texts. This all comes from carefully selecting texts. As teachers, we have to be critical about what kind of resources we bring into the classroom, which is why I really like the Teaching Tolerance resources because I know they already have been highly vetted.
They’re going to make the students think critically. They’re not going to be part of this problematic text that we schools use. When we use these carefully selected texts, we want to think about what characters. If we think about fiction texts, can we find texts that people are experiencing freedoms or having their freedoms taken away so that kids can think about, “Okay. How are their freedoms being taken away? What systems are stopping people from being free?” We know that racism is systems put in place to stop folks of color from advancing. How can we have the kids to think about how these systems work together?
Typically, systems are made up of people. How are these people stopping others from being free? Another way to think about teaching this would be thinking about specifically an essential question for a unit could be, What freedoms were withheld from enslaved Africans? How does that still continue and manifest today? When I think about things, freedoms that were withheld, specifically land ownership, education and wealth development or wealth accumulation. These things were all withheld. We still see these things manifesting today. When we think about education, where is our achievement gap?
It’s between our black students and our white students. Enslaved folks, it was illegal for them to even learn how to read. That’s horrible. We still see these things manifesting today. What I think is important to note, too on that note even though that freedom was withheld, there were still enslaved folks that were still like, “Nope. Still going to do it.” They were fighting that resistance. They were still out here actively trying to learn to read, which I think is a very great counternarrative to what education has written for black folks. Saying that black folks don’t care about education.
They don’t care about learning. I love that counternarrative when we learn about different folks that were enslaved. They were like, “No. We’re still going to learn to read.” Of course, not everybody was able to learn to read. You had to have someone that could read to teach you to read. Again, that was a freedom. That was an obstacle to overcome. Not everybody was able to overcome that. Land ownership. Enslaved folks were counted as pieces of property and land. The folks that owned the enslaved people, they had plenty of land. Of course, that’s why: they had folks that were enslaved to do the labor for them.
The folks that were enslaved, were they able to get land? No. We all know that after slavery ended, folks were promised 40 acres and a mule and that was not 100 percent upheld. Again, we have a huge gap. Okay. We can free those that were enslaved. Now, you are “free” but you have no land or nothing to go off of. The white people that had land were already a step ahead: people take care of your land. Generationally, that land goes down the line generations. We still see a gap between black landowners and white landowners. Again, another way that manifests and then wealth. Who has money and who doesn’t?
Who’s able to come to neighborhoods that are predominantly black? Who’s able to come in and buy out whole entire areas and then push black folks out? The issues of things or how it’s still maintained today, we can see these if we just look at the news. You can see lots of information about gentrification. You can find any kind of data that shows the different gaps between land ownership and the wealth gap. That’s a great way to tie in social studies and math. You can look at the gaps. You can look analyze the data and see. Wow. That’s a huge gap. That’s a great way just for the kids to be able to visually see. Okay.
How much land do white people own versus black people then, and then even still now? Of course, it has continued to rise. Black folks have accumulated wealth and gained land but is it at the same rate that their white peers are able to have land and able to accumulate wealth? The biggest things I want my kids to walk away after they leave my classroom in fifth grade is to know that systems are made of people. People can change. People are malleable. We can help people understand. We can help people make changes and think about doing things differently from an equity lens.
Sometimes, I think my kids get caught up in thinking that, “Oh, systems are just machines. They just run and they run and run because the way they’ve been doing it for forever. That’s how they run.” I’m like, “No.” These are made of people. We know that people can be changed so why not just get in those systems and we can be part of those systems to help change? I tell my kids. I’m like, “That’s why it’s so important that you make sure you vote.” When they’re of age, of course. Make sure that their family votes and make sure that the people they care about vote. They know that when they’re of age, you can be part of this political system.
You can really disrupt some stuff. You can really get in there and change. This is how things have been forever, but why can’t we change? Why can’t we do things different? Because, again, systems are made of people. That’s my biggest thing I want kids to know. These systems aren’t just there and just floating in outer space and just keep going because of nothing. No. They continue because we’re maintaining the status quo. These systems maintain the status quo. It’s our job to disrupt it. My biggest thing is I want my kids to know that systems are made of people but it’s up to us to really challenge the status quo.
I believe it’s important for us to introduce our kids to the concept of freedom and its relationship to equity and equality. Because we have to understand that power is tied up into all of this. We can’t be free if there are systems not in place to help people be free. We can’t help people be free if people don’t have the access. When we think about power, when we think about racism, racism is made of systems. These systems are not equitable, and we know that. If those in power are not willing to take a step back or to adjust these systems, we’re never going to achieve freedom.
We have to think about who’s in power. Are the people that are in power… do they reflect the ideals of those they are representing? If not, then we’re not going to ever see freedom for all people because these systems are going to continue to maintain and manifest. Until these systems are really broken up, we’re not going to see freedom. Not everybody is going to achieve complete freedom because, again, the systems are made up of people. If the people don’t want to give up that power, then we’re not going to be able to see any progress to move forward.
Any time as a teacher, you’re going to start engaging in conversations about anything to do with American enslavement, anything to do with identities or to challenge the status quo, there’s always going to be pushback. What I’ve encountered is there’s sometimes pushback from parents or from district officials about teaching these things because we want to make sure we’re not attacking anybody’s identity. If I ever receive that feedback, I’m always very open.
Say, “Well, you know, we’re not challenging anybody’s specific identities, but we’re thinking about how these different systems have played out over time. How can we change it?” I like to overcome this with common language and understanding. We start off with using protocol. I use the “Courageous Conversations” protocol. Glenn Singleton wrote a really great book about having courageous conversations about race. That’s a starting place for me. We have common language. We know that it’s okay saying that someone is black is not a curse word. That’s not a mean thing to say.
We’re just identifying identities. Saying someone’s white is not racist either. It’s okay. It’s identifying identities but setting up the protocol really sets up the four corners of the room and sets up the walls for the room to be able to have these conversations. Whenever I receive the pushback, any time I’ve had a conversation with someone that’s pushed back like, “I don’t know. I don’t know if fifth-graders are ready for that.” I’m like, “Well, they’re experiencing the world around us. They’re ready for it. They’re experiencing these microaggressions, macroaggressions.”
They’re experiencing racism. They’re seeing these things.” It’s part of our curriculum in North Carolina to teach about American history. We need to teach these things. We need to also make sure we’re being critical about it and making sure we are developing students that can think critically about it. Think about how they can help make the world even better. The hard part, even as a teacher, is it’s hard for me to teach sometimes because some of these things are really triggering for me to think about American enslavement. My ancestors were subjected to this horrible treatment.
What also empowers me is to continue to do this work so we don’t go back to a place like that — so we can make sure we’re continuing to always move forward. It can also be hard for students to understand that these systems are continuing to manifest. I’ve had pushback sometimes where people are like, “Well, we are post-racial society.” I’m like, “Unfortunately, that’s not true. I can tell you specifically as a black woman, that’s 100 percent not true.” Those obstacles are hard but I always like to overcome them by helping parents or whoever understand we’re doing this to help students move forward.
I’m not presenting them information to say, “You need to vote for a certain candidate. Make sure you think like this.” Giving the kids the facts on the table and then they can then make their own decisions moving forward, of course. I think this is really important work because I call this “heart work” because a lot of what we’re doing, we think about freedom. We think about American enslavement or those who have not experienced freedom. It makes us reflect on who we are and are we experiencing freedoms ourself? Have we stopped others from being free? As a teacher, ourselves, that’s the beginning of the school year.
We have lots of rules posted. We print all these rules out and these beautiful posters and post it up for the kids get there without even having their voice of what freedom looks like in our classroom space. Yes. It’s hard to have these conversations about freedom with kids. It’s hard to talk about American enslavement. Just because something is hard doesn’t mean we got to not do it. We definitely still have to do it because this is how we move the work forward. We move this work forward by engaging and leaning into those tough conversations so that we can continue to progress as a society.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: It’s really obvious to me that Bria Wright is taking seriously not only enslaved people as thinkers about the life condition in which they find themselves but that she’s taking her students seriously about thinkers, about the life condition in which they find themselves. That allows, I think, and I think she’s right here, for her to guide the students in really substantive conversation about what freedom means. Drawing not only on their own life experiences but then circling it back to how that would apply to the past so that they could better understand the experience of enslaved people. Really remarkable.
Kate Shuster: Yeah. I think there’s some really great stuff going on there. I’m really impressed by her approach. One thing that really stands out to me is the way that she’s explicitly figuring out how to talk to her students about systemic racism and systemic oppression. I think that a lot of times, having students come into classrooms and so do adults come into life with this idea that racism, for example, is about bad people behaving badly. There certainly are a lot of bad people who behave badly. That does not explain the existence and perpetuation of systems of oppression.
Kate Shuster: We have to start that instruction early with students and help to guide them to that understanding. Otherwise, it becomes very difficult for them to understand the trajectory of history and why it is that oppression continues in polyvalent ways for all kinds of people throughout history and in the present day. I think that it’s really important that she’s embedding that instruction in the early grades.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Yeah. No. You’re right. It’s so critical to move beyond individual behavior, to look at systems and structures and the way they operate and have operated in the past so that they can, even at this young age, can see how they operate in the present. You can do that. I think that’s one of the great values of talking about how slavery operated. Not just one or two bad people who chose to participate in this heinous activity but the way in which the entire system was to benefit individuals and to build a nation. When she added those key terms in there, not only talk about freedom but power and systems.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: That was really a good way, I think, to build off of this key point of Essential Knowledge.
Kate Shuster: Yeah. One last thing is just to circle back from where you started, which is this question of agency. The reason that this framework starts with freedom is because we want to center agency of people and too often, when we talk about slavery, for example, we don’t center the humanity of people who were enslaved. If we start with freedom instead of starting with oppression, I think it really encourages us to see enslaved people as humans, which is something we need to start with young.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Start with young because it’s something that traditionally, we don’t do. You’re absolutely right. Every opportunity that we can to highlight, underscore, point to the humanity of the people who are being held in bondage, we absolutely need to do that. Because that will help, I think, students, as they move through the grades, keep that focus and attention, especially when the emphasis might shift to depersonalizing as well as dehumanizing the institution as a whole.
Kate Shuster: Yeah. Yeah. I think you’re right about that.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Bria Wright talked to us about Essential Knowledge Point Number 1. Now, we’re going to hear from Marvin Reed. What does he focus on?
Kate Shuster: He is a third-grade teacher in Berkeley, California. He’s going to be talking about Essential Knowledge Number 7, which is still in that K–2 grade band. That Essential Knowledge reads like this: “Students should know that enslavers exploited the many types of highly skilled labor of enslaved people for their own profit.”
Marvin Reed: The power of representation in the classroom matters. It matters because our students of color need to see that they are successful. They need to see that they’re just not getting killed on the TV or in prisons. Our people of color have done great things. But the representation―as far as in the literature, the history, the media―it’s not where it should be. And this is why I teach the way that I teach. Because if I can change this master narrative in my classroom, my students can be scientists. They can go out in the world and make a difference. But students can’t be it if they don’t see it, which means that I, and all of us educators, need to make sure that we are doing our jobs to provide those students that vision.
Something I really enjoy doing in my classroom are “gallery walks,” whether it be in math or it be in ELA, but gallery walks in history. I’ll take pictures, images, sometimes videos. And I’ll have those in a gallery walk setting. So with a gallery walk, you could have different stations. And at every station, there’s a different activity. So at one station, you would have a piece of butcher paper and maybe glue or staple a picture to there. And I’ve done this for Black History Month. I laid out a bunch of photos of African Americans. So I’m holding achievements. I had me in there graduating from school. And then within their group, you’d say, “All right, I want you to write down whatever comes to your mind, whether it can be words, pictures.” So that way you’re giving students different opportunities and different ways to show their learning, whether it’s to writing or drawing. “Well how does this make you feel? What do you see here?” So that would be one station.
Then to station two: I had “Mother to Son,” the Langston Hughes poem, playing. And I gave… the lyrics were there. So I’m using different forms of media for them to be able to listen to this poem by Langston Hughes, the great poet. And I had the students write down, “What words are sticking out to you? What do you think those words mean?”
The third station I had the students go to was a research corner. And in the research corner, it was a bunch of literature, whether from Frederick Douglass to Little Rock Nine, Fire from the Rock by Sharon Draper. I had a whole bunch of literature [and] I had sticky-noted certain parts of them that I wanted to see and find common patterns, like, “What do you notice within all these books? What’s the common thing that you’re seeing?” Some students wrote, “Oh, I see signs. I see no blacks, only whites. I’m seeing people being treated bad.” Okay. So you’re seeing that for that station.
And the last station was my most powerful station. I took a newspaper from the bombing of Birmingham. And it said, “Four girls killed in church bombing.” And I had them write on this butcher paper, “What do you see here? How does this make you feel?” So now I’m teaching the kids empathy. “How does it make you feel knowing that kids your age, about your age, were killed? And they didn’t do anything wrong?” And having them think, like, “Wow, like that’s not right. And what can we do different?”
So then, after we’ve collected all that data, I come back, and I pretty much plug in common themes about what they noticed. “So group four, what did you notice?” “We noticed this. Uh, we heard this in the video. Um, we saw this.” “Okay. Group three, what did you notice from your station?”
So I’m having students collaborate. I’m having them getting up and moving around the room. And I’m also collecting data for me to gauge my instruction. Okay, so my students don’t know who Harriet Tubman is; my students don’t know who Dolores Huerta is. So, I need to go back and amp up my history and make sure that it’s also developmentally appropriate. And then for the whole month, I just plan out, “Okay. We’re gonna cover achievements of people of color. We’re gonna talk about the bombing of Birmingham, but I’m going to make it developmentally appropriate. We’re going to learn about Langston Hughes. We’re going to learn about Maya Angelou poetry. So all of this, it’s all tied together with the ELA/ELD standards. But you got to be creative with it. Just really reflect and think, “Looking at all of this, what’s going to help the students?”
And I want my students to understand that people of color did a lot for this country. But a lot of times, we don’t get credit for it. So, I had to do more research and connect with my librarian to bring in more books, especially books like biographies and books that highlighted people of color and their achievements. I mean, honestly, I didn’t even know George Washington Carver worked with paint or any other agricultural kind of things. I just knew him for peanut butter. And so, when I was able to bring in these books and share them with my students, a lot of their other parents didn’t know! So now, I’m also building relations with my parents through strengthening and providing my students more knowledge on their history. And so after we’ve done this little gallery walk, from there, I think I would do something where “Okay, I want this person to do research.” And I would say, “Okay, you’re in charge of researching this person. You’re in charge of researching this person, and give each person a figure for them to research. And then present on it. So now you’re tying in biographies, which is another genre of writing the students should know. So it’s a lot of just embedding, in a creative way, to make sure that students are engaged in their history.
A lot of times within, especially the third-grade curriculum, we talk a lot about the missions and Indigenous people, and we don’t hear so much about, you know, what happened if somebody resisted at a mission and what happened to these people. It was just more like, “Oh, this was a great place. And they learned language. They met new people. And they were...” It was all of this happy times, when in reality, missions were not a happy place for people.
So, when we were learning about Indigenous people, and we had gotten to about mid-part of the unit, I decided to use one of the mid-unit little quizzes. They’re quick and easy to print, and they test the kids on vocabulary. So I was like, “Okay, I’ll use it.” And they’re going through the questions. So, as we were reviewing them, one of the questions had asked the students, “Missions were (blank).” And their answers were, “A) A good place for Indigenous people to be, and it supported community; B) A place where they learned language, and how to be a citizen”; or something like that. And then, “C) A place where they were mistreated, and it was a horrible place to be.” Or, ”D) None of the above.”
So when I asked, “Okay. Clap if you think the answer is A.” People started to clap. I was like, “Okay. Clap if you think the answer is B.” Had some claps here and there. “Clap for C.” One or two. And D, no one clapped for that one, so I was like, “Interesting.” I was like, “You know what, class? The answer says that it’s A. But I’m going to tell you, it really... It’s C, like, it wasn’t a good place for them to be. And I... I want you to understand this as I’m talking to you that history — it’s told a lot of times from... from one side. And this story right now, it’s only being told from one side. And I want you to understand that this land that we’re on, you know, do you think that this belonged to us?”
A perfect example, we’re in Berkeley. We’re on a lot of Ohlone land. U.C. Berkeley is right down the street from my school. And in the book, the chapter was “In our backyard.” And it was like, “The Ohlone people, they paved this land, and they grew lots of crops.” And then all of a sudden, the next paragraph was, “U.C. Berkeley is now on Ohlone land.” And I asked them, I was like, “I want you to think about that phrase. Do you think that the Ohlone people gave up their land? What we’re on now? Or do you think it was taken away? What do you think?” And they were like, “Well, I thought that they gave the land, but now I don’t think they did anymore, Mr. Reed.”
I’m like, “Would you want to give up your land if you worked hard for that and your family was there?” And, [they’re] like, “No! I wouldn’t!” I was like, “Exactly. These people didn’t want to give up their land. It was taken from them. And I want you to understand that. The missions weren’t a good place. People were mistreated there. And land was not just surrendered. It wasn’t just given, you know. “Here you go.” It was taken.
I then changed up my instruction. I went back to the framework, and the Essential Knowledge that stuck out to me was Essential Knowledge Number Five. And it says, “Students should know that enslaved people hated being enslaved and resisted bondage in many ways.” So now with this framework, you’re not just hitting the Common Core State Standards, you’re hitting ELD, you’re supporting all students. And you’re differentiating throughout the whole lessons.
We are a school community and we got to make sure that we know our students before we can serve them. And I can’t stress that enough. What intrigues them? What history do they need to know? Then going forward, communication. What are you teaching? How are you teaching it? Talking to your principal, talking to your colleagues. That’s the only way that we’re going to change this system of misrepresentation and the master narrative.
How are you teaching César Chávez and the Latinx month? How are you teaching about Hmong students or Asian Pacific Islanders? We gotta get on the same page. And it may not necessarily be within your chapters, but if you had a unit on “Who’s in my community and symbols,” talk about symbols from different cultures. “What do you think those mean?” Expose your students to that. That’s the only way that they’re going to grow and be those lifelong learners with those 21st-century learning skills: critically thinking, collaborating, cooperating and critically thinking about what they’re learning in history.
And using the resources that Teaching Tolerance has to offer. And there’s so much that goes to that framework. There’s lesson plans on there. You can modify them and make them yours. So it’s already there, and if you want to differentiate it, all you have to do is click on third grade, or if you’re going to second grade, making sure that no student’s left... no student left behind ... or no students left out of this opportunity to learn about this history; that it’s all of our history. But we have to go forward and make sure that we don’t repeat those negative traumatic experiences. It really starts with a teacher. It starts with you doing your research to make sure that you are doing justice to the history.
Kate Shuster: Marvin’s doing a lot there. I really like that he’s modeling the gallery walk, which is something the teachers do a lot in their classrooms, and talking about the specific connections that he’s wanting students to make. I like that he’s mixing up Essential Knowledge 7 and Essential Knowledge 5, which is about resistance to enslavement. Making those connections to California history with the mission system. It feels to me that he’s really taking seriously the idea that students should be making connections across historical periods while still digging deep into the details of history.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: One of the things that really stuck out to me was how he was moving through time with the students and making these connections. He was also allowing them to make judgments based on historical evidence, which I think is really critical. Not just simply telling them how they should assess these historical phenomena but allowing them to make their own assessments. Those assessments, as he was pointing out with the example of the missions, often differ from the usual narrative that is told about race and power and enslavement in America.
Kate Shuster: One of the things that Marvin is really illustrating is how interdisciplinary thinking can be effective at weaving content and across the curriculum. For many teachers, that will actually lighten their load so you’re not trying to carve out a bunch of new time for new subject so much as bringing it in across the curriculum.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Next, we’re going to hear from Alice Mitchell. She teaches fifth grade in Boston, Massachusetts. She’s working on incorporating Essential Knowledge Point Number 12, which is “Slavery in all the places that are now the United States began with the enslavement of Indigenous people.” Here’s Alice Mitchell.
Alice Mitchell: I’m going to be really vulnerable here. My scope and understanding of the history of Indigenous people is very, very limited, which is sad because I went to school in the United States. College, graduate school in the United States and I have never received any formal education around the enslavement of Native people. I learned a lot about enslavement of African people, not a lot. I learned about the enslavement of African people and when I got old enough to seek on my own resources, I sought out more information. My understanding of what this same history looks like for the First Peoples in this nation was nonexistent.
This is something that my kids deserve to know. It’s part of their history, especially living in Massachusetts. That was where I made the decision that I was bringing in some history of Native people even though it wasn’t in my mandated curriculum. The first time I decided to try an activity with my class, I decided to use our morning meeting time. It was the Tuesday before we’re going off for Thanksgiving break. Usually, our morning meetings, we greet each other and we play a game. They share about what they’re going to do over the weekend.
I was like, “Hey, everyone. We’re going to do something a little different today. You know, we’re not going to be at school for the rest of the week because it’s Thanksgiving break. I’ve really been reflecting on what Thanksgiving means.” I asked them, “Why do we have Thanksgiving? What is it supposed to celebrate?” A lot of them had ideas because they did a unit on Native Americans and pilgrims, your traditional unit in third grade. I think they talked a little bit about it in fourth grade. We live in Boston so we’re pretty close to Plymouth Rock and everything.
They’re like, “The pilgrims came over and they had a meal with Native Americans and that turned into Thanksgiving.” The traditional answer that I’m sure if you ask your kids, a lot of them are going to say. I was like, “You know, that’s really interesting. Let’s just do a quick Google search.” I’m really, really, really lucky because I work at a school that’s one-to-one so everybody in my classroom has access to their own Chrome Books. I think you can do this activity if there’s just one computer. They can look on to the projector.
I was like, “Okay. Everybody on your computers, type in ‘white people.’ Turn to the person next to you and talk to them about what you see.” I also typed in “white people” on my computer. My computer is projected and they were looking over at each other’s computers and just sharing what they noticed. For this part, I did let them just talk to each other. I was circulating and eavesdropping and listening to their responses. I heard some pairs say like, “Oh, there’s a lot of people in business suits.” Somebody was like, “Oh, there’s Taylor Swift.” I was like, “Okay. What did we notice when we put in ‘white people’”?
They shared, “Oh, you know there was a lot of pictures. The people looked really professional.” They also said there were a lot of men in the pictures. While they were talking, I wrote all of that down. I was like, “Okay. Let’s put in a search for ‘black people.’” I circulated, paying attention to the things they were noticing. If I remember correctly, there was athletes. There was musicians. Beyonce was one of the options. When I brought them back together, basically their observations, when they put in “black people,” we can summarize it into photographs of athletes, entertainers and Barrack Obama.
I jotted down their responses to that. The last one we put in was Native American. Being transparent with my students about my journey and my level of understanding is really important. I wanted them to know that I’m still trying to figure out the best identifiers to use for this community. It’s still something that I’m learning about and so I wanted them to know. I knew that putting in “Native American” would bring in more Google images. I also talked to the kids about using “Indigenous people” when speaking about them. I told them we’re going to use “Native American” just because I think we’ll get more images.
Anyway, I put in “Native American.” They put in “Native American.” The mood of the class ... How do I say this? Their excitement change more to confusion and curiosity. Because there was a clear shift in what images had been presented. This time, the kids were saying, “Oh, there’s not as many photographs. The only color there is is from a painting.” A lot of groups are like, “These pictures are so old.” When I brought them back together, I wrote down what they said like “old” in all caps because pretty much every group was like, “These are old images.” I wrote down “a lot of paintings.”
Prior to this conversation, we have been talking a lot about how authors are very intentional about the words that they use and the sentences that they use to portray a certain message. Authors craft, that’s one of the fifth-grade ELA standards. We had a little Snapchat situation. We started talking about how technology can also portray a message. We looked at the three chart and I was like, “Okay. Just so we talk about authors, they make intentional choices about the words and the sentences that they use to portray a message. What do these images tell us about the history of people in our country?”
The conversation led to kids saying, “When we put in ‘Native American,’ they were all old pictures.” One student was like, “Well, if we didn’t know any better, we would think they weren’t any left in the United States.” That was the key point I wanted my kids to get. That a lot of people still think that the Native people, the Indigenous population, is no longer thriving, is no longer part of the fabric of the United States, which is just not true. We look at the Google images, based on just what’s presented, you would think that this is ancient history. That’s how I launched the conversation.
We just saw that there were two Native congresswomen who were elected. This is a population that’s still thriving, that’s still part of modern, present-day United States of America. We have to educate ourselves to make sure that we’re not spreading these stereotypes. This I did not plan. I’m not going to take credit. This was all the kids. Fifth-graders are very passionate. The conversation turned into a debate between should we still celebrate Thanksgiving or should we not if this holiday isn’t fully recognizing the true history of Native peoples and is not truly recognizing that they’re still a thriving community today? Yeah.
They had a very spirited debate about that. A lot of kids were very concerned with the food. One student was like, “I have to tell my brother,” and his brother was four. “Because I don't want him to get to fifth grade and think that all the Native Americans were killed and they’re not alive anymore because that’s what I thought.” That was really satisfying for me — just some questioning, “Is this something we should celebrate? Why haven’t we learned anything about this up until this point?” Just that curiosity in them being piqued, I was very excited about.
Now, in this upcoming school year, using that as my foundation, I really want to build on their background knowledge from the enslavement of African people to connect it to a whole history of the enslavement of Indigenous people and how they’re connected. How the effect of some Indigenous slavery we’re still seeing today, especially in that community and be more intentional about starting it earlier in the year and keeping it, not just a Thanksgiving conversation. Another thing that I was thinking of doing was I really want to figure out how I can connect with people from different Indigenous communities close to our home.
We already started school. I did a land acknowledgment with my grade-level team. Because I just thought it was so powerful just to ground us in the work that we do. I think doing some sort of acknowledging of the tribal nations with my classroom would be an excellent way just to bring that “past history” — make it alive and make it something that they see as current and modern. I just want to make sure that I’m not offending and I’m not overstepping my bounds. I know that’s a fear that a lot of us have in teaching. We’re trying to learn and grapple with new information.
How can we act on it? How can we share it and teach about it without making mistakes? I always think it’s so funny because we tell our kids, “It’s okay to make mistakes. It’s okay to be messy.” We don’t give ourselves that grace as teachers. I think for me, I’ve tried to reach out to a lot of people; do a lot of reading. Try to come up with understanding before I present it to my kids. Even though I know it’s going to be messy and I know I’m afraid of offending, I still don’t let that keep me from doing what I know is right.
Alice Mitchell: I just found this resource. It’s called tribal.nation.ca. It is a resource that helps you identify what tribal nations are on the land that you are currently on. I just really appreciate this resource because it helps bring what we view as the past. It helps bring it to the present. It just changed my perspective. There’s just so much history with Native peoples in Boston and Massachusetts. When I found out what tribal nations are on the land that we are currently on, talk about relevancy and talk about making connections. I was like, “This is definitely something I want my students to know.”
Connect it to the Google searches, a lot of them are like, “Oh, this is ancient history. This isn’t anything we have to think about.” Just grounding them in knowing these are people who lived and thrived on the land we’re currently walking on that’s been completely stolen and transformed. I really want them to understand that their neighborhoods, as beautiful and unique as they are, not losing sight of the land and the people that came before us. This is going to help change the perspective of my students, which they’re the ones who are going to go out into the world and make these changes.
One thing that I especially want to work on this year is how can I make this relevant? How can I take whatever we learned about in class and charge my students so they feel empowered to take it into their communities? Teach somebody else about it and actually do something. When they hear about injustices or oppression or unfairness, innately, kids they want to do something. Like my one student who was like, “I’m going to tell my brother because he needs to know.”
Something as small as just telling somebody the new information you learned and spreading more of the truth, I think is a great way for me to encourage my students to go home and tell your parents, your families, whoever their caregivers are. Ask them what they learned when they’re growing up and teach them about what you’ve learned. Spreading that new information with them at home. I plan on reaching out to the tribal nation that was originally on the land that we’re currently on. I really want to connect with people in this community and ask what their needs and desires are.
Instead of me assuming this is what we can do to help. Having a way to get that information from them and so, I think one way we can do that is through letters and email. Just having the kids ask, creating a letter campaign because knowing them, after we talk about this, they’re going to say, “What can we do? How can we change this?” I think helping them see when you do want to help out a group, it’s not your responsibility to decide what that group needs but figuring out the tools and the methods you can use to reach out and get their voice and hear from them directly. So they can do something about this.
We’re not just sitting around talking but we’re actually engaging in action. That’s also coupled with not just doing what I think is best and what I think is appropriate, but teaching kids to ask what people need and then supporting them that way. I think that would help bring home the point of what I’m trying to teach them: that this is a thriving modern community and so, their voices are still growing and loud and government and all different entities in bringing them in will help people see that more.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: One of the things that really leapt out at me about what Alice just said was the situation that she found herself in as a teacher when thinking about how to go about teaching this history. That is, it’s history that she herself was not taught. She has to do some deep diving and preparation in order to bring this material to the classroom. It’s one of the things that I think is really helpful about the framework and the resources that are provided is that it helps teachers learn this material as well. So that they can bring it to their students in an informed way.
Kate Shuster: Yeah. I think that we have to “support and scaffold,” as we would say in education, teachers’ learning in the same way that we support and scaffold student learning. The reality is that there is very little if any coverage of the enslavement of Indigenous people and the emerging scholarship on this is really shocking that the scope, extent and duration of enslavement of Indigenous people. I know it’s something that is frankly not just going to be in a lot of textbooks. Teachers shouldn’t feel blamed or shamed that they themselves don’t have this knowledge.
I think Alice is exactly modeling what we hope that other teachers will do is say, “Okay. Here are some resources that Teaching Tolerance is giving us.” Bringing their students into that conversation. The other thing I want to lift up about Alice’s approach and what her students found is an illustration of this idea of the vanishing Indian that is a very common myth. It’s a real problem that Indigenous people are often discussed in the past tense and portrayed in the past tense, as Alice’s students found out. I think this is a good and useful approach to contrast those representations for students.
We’ll be talking more about how to counter the vanishing Indian myth in future episodes. One more thing that Alice is doing that I think is great and other teachers should do is to try to figure out whose land they’re on. Reach out to Native nations and leaders, communities that are around them. I think that she will find, as many teachers do, that the leadership in Native nations and their cultural and interpretative institutions are very welcoming and interested in talking to folks and helping understand their rich cultural and historical traditions as well as contemporary practices.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: I think that’s a great way to make the past, present. Next, we’re going to hear from Marian Dingle, who teaches fourth grade in Atlanta, Georgia. She’s working on incorporating two Essential Knowledge points within her classroom instruction. Knowledge Point 15, which states that “In every place and time, enslaved people sought freedom.” Essential Knowledge 14 that “Enslavers adopted and spread false beliefs about racial inferiority, including many that still impact us today.” Here’s Marian Dingle.
Marian Dingle: When it comes to slavery, I think the story of resistance and resilience is the one that doesn’t get told. I think that’s the story that impacts our kids the most. When kids start to see themselves in ways that are powerful and they see themselves as intelligent and capable of resisting and capable of thinking their way out of problems, they begin to see their world and their circumstances differently. They begin to see themselves differently. I think many black kids have internalized shame around slavery. I don’t think that is their fault.
I think it’s just the way in which we are socialized because there’s so many historical facts that we don’t know. We don’t know the insidiousness and the planning that went into slavery and all the things that were done to us. We naturally, I think, internalize maybe there was something wrong with us. Maybe there’s a reason why we were enslaved for so long. Maybe it’s something that we didn’t do, something that we didn’t know. I think that shame for a lot of students will manifest itself in different ways. Sometimes, that shame may look like a behavior problem.
A lot of times, it may look like anger. For children, especially at this age, they have a lot of feelings that they can’t quite articulate. Talking to them about this is extremely important. I think from what I’ve seen in children, that once we start peeling back those layers and they start learning about themselves, that those feelings start to change. Once students know their history and they start knowing little pieces and you see that “aha moment,” then you see their chest punch out with pride. You can see it. I see this in my kids every day. I also know that deeply because it’s exactly how I felt.
I felt this newfound pride that I had in myself and in my family and my ancestors because I knew that I was a survivor. I was one of the ones that was fortunate enough, yes, to survive the horrors but also smart enough and resilient enough. I resisted enough so that I could be here. This is my 21st year as an educator. I think a lot of what drives me is that I’m trying to right the wrongs of how I was taught myself. I want them to have textbook knowledge, evidence upon evidence upon evidence that what they have been through, through their history of their ancestry and who they are, matters.
That they are absolutely a huge part of the fabric of this country because of what their ancestors have given through being enslaved. That part is what I didn’t get. That’s what I’m trying to pass on now. I should say, too, it’s not just that it’s important for black kids learn about slavery. I think all kids need to understand what actually happened. Because as I learn more and more, I’m realizing that almost every facet of our lives now have everything to do with what happened in slavery. I’ve been thinking a lot about how exactly I’m going to incorporate this history into our curriculum, thinking especially about resistance.
Resistance can take many different forms and on the face, it may not look like resistance at all. One of the ways I want to teach the story of resistance and resilience is through music. I remember my parents always teaching me that. There were a lot of codes and messages that were embedded in Negro spirituals. I remember one, in particular, that spoke to me because I think maybe I had seen it as a child. Maybe I was watching Roots or something. It’s “Wade in the Water.”
The message that my parents told me was that enslaved people would tell themselves or remember to remind each other that if you are in fact, trying to escape, that the moment that you see water, you should always go through it. You should wade in the water. That is your ticket to your liberation. Because when you go through the water, your scent can’t be tracked by dogs. That just still sends goosebumps through me. It’s little things like that. The resistance, the intellectual power that the enslaved people had, those things aren’t really brought to the forefront.
I think that’s also very much tied to that Essential Knowledge about how enslavers adopted false beliefs. Because we are taught in textbooks that enslaved people weren’t very smart. That they were docile. They may even be lazy and they were forced to work. When in fact, the opposite is true. It’s important to teach about the misrepresentation of black people throughout history. Another important source that I’m going to use is The 1619 Project. One thing that I discovered from The 1619 Project was that when enslavers would come to the auction block, some of the enslaved people were marketed as coming from a certain region.
That was because the enslavers knew that Africans coming from certain regions had certain knowledge that they would need to make their plantations profitable, to make their businesses profitable. There was this knowledge that enslaved people were in fact intelligent, on one hand. On the other hand, there’s this marketing that actually the opposite is true. I’m thinking about how to talk about that duality, that hypocrisy, with my students. How to show them that this is, in fact, gaslighting. Meaning, a practice in which people try to persuade you that what you see, the reality that you know to be true, is, in fact, not true at all.
That that has happened historically and is still happening. I’m also thinking about current events and other stories of resistance and how to talk about those daily. Perhaps in morning meeting and how to connect the dots between how some of the things that are happening now are manifestations of things that happened historically in slavery. For example, my students are now in fourth grade but in third grade, in our state, they study Harriet Tubman. I’m thinking of taking a deeper dive into her life. It wasn’t just that she decided one day that she was going to help 400 or so enslaved people escape.
There was actually planning involved. Another example is that Harriet had a blow to the head when she was a child. That that resulted in her having seizures throughout her life. She was able to plan out and help people escape while doing this around the seizures that she knew that she would have. I think that speaks to a lot of kids that may have physical disabilities or physical shortcomings, that they can do great things. Because even now, even though we probably don’t know the whole story about Harriet, we’re still celebrating that part.
We still know that she’s responsible for hundreds and hundreds of enslaved people receiving their freedom and convincing them that they actually should escape and they should trust her and having this incredible mind that was able to have all these maps in her head and to have a knowledge of all these different plantations and landscapes and how to actually pull this off. I think that part is also important. Still another example is of course, Dred Scott. Dred Scott decided to actually sue the government because of the displacement of their children. He, at the time, was living in a free state.
At the encouragement and probably, much more than encouragement, maybe nagging of his wife, he decided to sue. Because she knew that the future is in the family. If they didn’t sue, they didn’t pursue this, that their family could likely be separated, which happened to many, many enslaved people. I just think it’s fascinating. It’s just absolutely fascinating to me that families were still intact. That families even though they were torn apart, ripped apart, I think about the Middle Passage and how enslaved people were packed into slave ships.
They were intentionally put with people that were not from their villages on purpose so they couldn’t communicate with each other. All these things were done, and still we have a very strong communal spirit. We have this commitment to family. You just see so many different examples of that throughout history. I think that’s the part that kids need to know. That’s the part that I needed to know as a child. When I think about adding these new things into my curriculum, I want to be mindful about what types of challenges I may face and how I can be proactive in addressing those.
I realize that there may be a lot of educators out there that are hesitant to engage in this. Maybe there is a bit of fear about what may happen to them, any resistance they may face. What I think is important to do really early, as early as possible, is not just to jump in this with students but to engage your parents and your families, the caregivers of your students because once you have them on board, you’ll get so much more out of it. Honestly, it’s not just the students that need to learn this; it’s the families as well.
The dinner table conversations and the things that happen at home are going to reinforce what you do in the classroom in the first place. For example, when I decided that this is what I was going to do in my classroom, I invited parents to a parent meeting at the beginning of the school year where we can actually talk about what it is that I’m planning to do. I just put it out there. I gave my reasons for doing this. I cited different things that were happening in history and how, in my opinion, they were affecting their children. The things that I saw and I addressed fears that my parents had. We got pretty vulnerable.
Parents were honest. They said that they hadn’t had conversations at home because they didn’t know what to say. They didn’t know how to address it, how far to go, what to say, what not to say. These were from parents of different racial groups that had the same fears. I think just having the conversation and acknowledging to each other that this was difficult was pretty transformative. From the beginning, it felt like not just my agenda but it felt like a co-creation.
That I, as the educator and the caregivers that were responsible for these children’s well-being, we were coming together and finding a solution of how we were going to enlighten them. Because in the end, we all agree that this was important for them to know. Parents also were pretty honest about saying that there was a lot about this history that they didn’t know either. They welcomed the information and I think they appreciated that we were having this conversation and that there was going to be a thoughtful approach to how we did this.
We started doing it in morning meeting and students would say, “Oh, Mrs. Dingle, we talked about this last night. This is what my family is saying.” So that the parents knew that we had a morning meeting every day. They knew that it would come up. Students felt comfortable enough to bring home into the classroom. It was really obvious that what was happening in the classroom was also getting into the home. I love teaching. I love mathematics. Anybody that knows me knows that. This, having the experience that this history, this hard history was getting home and it was coming back to the classroom — like I said, it was absolutely transformative.
I would suggest to any educator who’s feeling a little hesitant: talk to your parents about it. Ask them how they would like to participate. There’s a lot of different ways to get this done. I think what we absolutely shouldn’t do is continue to be silent. We’ve got to at least try. I know it’s cliché, but as they say, the children are the future. If we aspire to a better world, we’ve got to be able to trust the children with the truth.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Marian really touches on a critical point that speaks directly to our students in the classroom and particularly, the students of color and how they have been socialized in this world. How they have been taught and why there is often a pushback when we introduce the subject of slavery. Because it’s so often taught in such a way, as she points out, that induces shame, which is unfortunate, which is wrong, which shouldn’t be the case. Which also is why we have to teach resistance.
Because as she points out, resistance really lets students and young people, especially students of color and African American children, see not only enslaved people in a different light but also see themselves in a different light. That is one of the great advantages of teaching this history in a way that is accurate and truthful.
Kate Shuster: Yeah, absolutely agreed. Teachers should be teaching resistance; that it wasn’t just one rebellion that people who were enslaved were constantly thinking about and trying to get freedom. It was very difficult to get freedom, but it’s something that every enslaved person wanted and was constantly thinking about. I think as we started this episode, embed this idea of agency early and often. I think it’s very touching to hear that this idea of teaching can be itself an active reparation.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: That is so true. I couldn’t agree more. Even framed like that and it’s not teaching a false history. It’s actually just teaching the truth. Teaching what we are supposed to be teaching all along. That really is a wonderful way of thinking of it.
Kate Shuster: One thing she’s doing that is really important is engaging families early and often in knowing and being active participants in their children’s education so that these conversations can happen at home. I’ve heard you talk before about how teachers really need to know their community in order to teach hard history.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Yeah. That’s a critical point because communities and the families and the members of the communities have a history with teaching this history of slavery very poorly. It is really important for teachers to reach out to community members to share with community members not only the subject matter but how they are approaching it. What they are approaching specifically and what their expected outcomes are so that you get community buy-in and support.
That happens not only with what is going on in the classroom but then that carries beyond the classroom, as she points out, into people’s homes, into people’s living rooms, into the dining room, across the kitchen table so that family members can have these discussions which reinforce the importance of studying this history. Which then adds extra encouragement for students to sit, listen and learn.
Kate, it was so good to have you on this episode. I’m so glad that we are continuing to partner on this project. I’m so glad that you’re doing this wonderful work with teachers themselves. We’re making a real difference here and I’m looking forward to continuing to do it with you going forward.
Kate Shuster: Thanks for having me, Hasan. It’s such a pleasure to be able to work with you, and it’s a real joy to listen to these teachers bringing the stuff to life in their classrooms.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: All right.
Kate Shuster: All right.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Thanks a lot.
Kate Shuster: Thank you.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Bria Wright has been a teacher in the Wake County, North Carolina Public Schools system for four years. She currently teaches fifth grade, her favorite grade.
Marvin Reed teachers third grade at the Thousand Oaks Elementary School in Berkeley, California. This is his second year teaching in the Bay Area. He is also the Equity Teacher Leader at his school.
Alice Mitchell is a fifth-grade teacher in Boston, Massachusetts. This is her seventh year as a teacher. She is also on the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee at her school.
Marian Dingle is a proud daughter of an educator and has been an elementary educator herself for 21 years. She currently teaches fourth grade in Atlanta, Georgia, and is passionate about both social justice and mathematics. We’re proud to say that all of the teachers who participated in this episode serve on the Teaching Tolerance Advisory Board.
Kate Shuster is an education researcher and author based in Montgomery, Alabama. She is the project director for the Teaching Hard History initiative. Dr. Shuster is also the author of Teaching Tolerance’s “Teaching the Movement” report, evaluating the state of national education about the civil rights movement.
Teaching Hard History is a podcast from Teaching Tolerance, a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center. Helping teachers and schools prepare their students to be active participants in a diverse democracy. Teaching Tolerance offers free resources to educators who work with children from kindergarten through high school. You can find these online at tolerance.org. Most students leave high school without an adequate understanding of the role slavery played in the development of what would become the United States or how its legacy still influences us today.
Now, in our second season, this podcast is part of an effort to provide comprehensive tools for learning and teaching this critical topic. Teaching Tolerance provides free materials that include over 100 texts, sample inquiries and a detailed K‒12 framework for teaching the history of American slavery. You can also find these online at tolerance.org/hardhistory. Thanks to Ms. Wright, Mr. Reed, Ms. Mitchell, Ms. Dingle and Dr. Shuster for sharing their insights with us. This podcast was produced by Shea Shackelford with production assistance from Russell Gragg and content support from Gabriel Smith.
Of course, Kate Shuster is our executive producer. Our theme song is “Different Heroes” by A Tribe Called Red featuring Northern Voice, who graciously let us use it for this series. Additional music is by Chris Zabriskie. If you like what we’re doing, please let your friends and colleagues know. Tell us what you think on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. We always appreciate the feedback. I’m Dr. Hasan Kwame Jeffries, Associate Professor of History at The Ohio State University. I’m your host for Teaching Hard History: American Slavery.