Back to School: Post-Charlottesville

Back when I was teaching, the back to school season meant supply shopping at Target, freshly laminated nametags, and the excitement of welcoming the new group of children in my care, along with their families. This year, teachers are faced not just with a new class list and curriculum, but the urgent need to respond to the bold resurgence of the white nationalist movement, made so terrifyingly apparent by the “Unite the Right” rally and subsequent attack on protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Ignoring current events because they are too “politically charged” for student consumption or deeming conversations about bigotry to be developmentally inappropriate are unsound and dangerous practices. It is the basic work of education to denounce and challenge hate and protect our students’ right to learn. Your role comes with the moral and legal responsibility to provide for full participation in school for all children, free from harassment and discrimination.  To quote educator Jamilah Pitts, “I am in this work because I am a teacher.”

I don’t have a classroom this year, so I’m using this platform to give elementary educators some first-day and beyond tools to effectively address hatred in America with their students in a way that ensures that all children feel safe, welcome, and respected in schools across the nation.

1)Start with a read aloud.

Picture books are a great entry point for potentially difficult topics. They can jump-start conversations and provide students with windows into the lives of those who are different from them, building a foundation of empathy. There are dozens of lists of books with diverse perspectives, including those provided by Welcoming Schools, Teaching Tolerance, and A Mighty Girl. Given the current political and social climate, I suggest Jacqueline Woodson’s The Other Side. It’s the story of two little girls who dare to be friends despite the literal and figurative fences keeping them apart.

2)Use the phrase “in this school.”

When discussing differences, children may push back with comments like, “In my family, we believe…” or “I heard President Trump say…” We do not want to put kids in the position of having their family’s beliefs attacked or ridiculed, but they can and should understand that sometimes home and school are different. It is completely acceptable to respond that different people believe different things, but here in this school, we respect everyone.

 3)Address stereotypes.

Our students are frequently exposed to stereotypes about people: in the media, in the community, and even at home. We can help counteract negative messaging with accurate information in school. In addition to the quality books and lesson plans that are available to this end, there are also excellent multimedia options. For our youngest learners, I recommend Sesame Street. From a character with autism to segments like “I Love My Hair” and “Dress Me Up Club,” Elmo and company have a long history of celebrating and educating about difference. Older students can benefit from the New York Times collection of 25 mini-films on race, bias, and identity.

 4)Explicitly teach civics and history.

In the era of accountability, it seems that the social sciences have taken a back seat to “the basics.” It will be to our own detriment, however, if we fail to take advantage of teachable moments around high-profile current events. For lower grades, we can use age-appropriate language to name and identify what’s happening while affirming the values of respect and tolerance. Older students, however, may have questions about the Confederacy, Nazism, and the KKK, and educators must be prepared to answer. Teachers can educate their students and themselves with resources available at Teaching Tolerance, the Anti-Defamation League, and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum or by searching #CharlottesvilleCurriculum.

5)Plant the seeds of allyship.

As Mr. Rogers said, “Look for the helpers.” Remind students of those who did good, and empower them to do the same. It’s important to teach our students that there are many ways to be an ally. So often, we explain that it means standing up for someone. Kids need to know that can also be an ally by refusing to take part in name-calling, comforting the targets of bullying, seeking help from an adult, and learning to appreciate differences.

In the days following Charlottesville, my newsfeed was inundated with articles, images, memes, and cartoons in response to the events there. There is one that is burned into my memory banks. It is a photograph of Jewish women and children, naked and awaiting their murder. One is pregnant. One has a baby. One holds her toddler in her arms, the very image of the precious child I tuck into bed every night. I was overwhelmed by feelings of how it could ever have happened. And yet it did and it does, from Bosnia to Darfur to Syria to right here in the U.S., where people feel emboldened to fly the swastika and a white mother calls for genocide as she holds her two children in her lap.

History (the distant and the not so) tells us that evil prevails when good people do nothing. Teachers, I know you are good people, and I call upon you to be on the front lines of the fight for social justice. Education is the first line of defense for our democracy. So as you sharpen those pencils in anticipation of the arrival of your learners, make plans to do the deeper work of education — raising young people who will value and protect the diversity that strengthens us and makes us great.