Middle School Life: Race and classroom conversation

Kevin Hodgson wrote a this thought provoking post about discussing race in his sixth grade classroom, which addressed so many of the issues I struggle with as well. Like Kevin, I teach in a school that is overwhelmingly white, when I do have African American students, he or she will be the only on in my class.  Teaching about Slavery and it’s role in America history and the Civil War has always been difficult – it is my obligation to teach the truth of history, but my sixth graders are children still, and I need to temper the violence of that truth so that they understand its essence without my having to be explicit about aspects of its brutality.

My kids are sophisticated enough to get the underlying meaning behind things – when they read that Frederick Douglass’ white father was his slave mother’s master, and they have learned about the slavery and the Southern power structure in class, they are wise enough to put two and two together. We don’t say the word “rape”, but they know.  When they read about Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, they get what is alluded to in their grade appropriate readings. When they read through primary source documents (slave bills of sale, pro and anti abolition readings) the “n-word” sometimes shows up – and there is disquiet, and also curiosity about this loaded word and its modern usage.  Some have seen “Twelve Years A Slave” and wish to bring aspects of it into our class.  And all bring what they have learned and overheard at home, in the playground, on the news.

All of this just adds to our cauldron of knowledge –  what is known, and appropriate – and how it can be stirred up in unsettling ways.  Isn’t the point of teaching about the role of slavery in American

I have been thinking about this all the more because we have just completed our unit on slavery and are diving into the causes of the Civil War at the moment.  Kevin’s post was a relief to read because I could hear him thinking through the same knotty questions about race as I have.  I believe that the events of Ferguson, Trayvon Martin, and so many others, have made it even more critical that we talk honestly and openly about race in our classrooms.

Kevin is right, we need to educate ourselves in ways to bring these discussions into our classrooms in creative and meaningful ways – ways that challenge our kids to upend stereotypes, and open pathways of thinking that can lead to a better, most just society.

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2 thoughts on “Middle School Life: Race and classroom conversation

  1. Thanks, Tara, for taking the conversation one step further. Like you, it sort of a relief to know I am not alone in trying to figure out the balance between teaching the truth (as we see it) of history and racial strife, and keeping the age and maturity level in mind, too.
    Kevin

  2. When I read Kevin’s post and now yours, I’m struck by how much more difficult it is to have these conversations with younger students. I worry sometimes that I’m treading into dangerous territory, but navigating race is far too important to sideline.

    Adding to “our cauldron of knowledge” is the next step. Thank you for such a reflective post.

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