Classrooms and race: “What about the children?” - SanTan Sun News SanTan Sun News

Classrooms and race: “What about the children?”

May 16th, 2019 development
Classrooms and race: “What about the children?”

By Neal A. Lester
Guest Writer

As an African-American born and raised in the Deep South, I do not fully understand the rationale and popularity of adult dramatic reenactments of the Civil War moments and the antebellum South.

I can half understand this tradition only within the historical context of romanticizing the “good old days on the plantation” —  the Disney ‘classic’ “Song of the South” (1946), the tune “Dixie,” and myriad American minstrel shows and songs that constructed and glorified “happy slaves” as benevolently-owned human property.

My befuddlement has skyrocketed in recent years, months and weeks as related practices have gained a foothold in the classroom. I read about and hear from parents of color around the country who are dismayed, frustrated and angry about what their young elementary, middle or high school students are experiencing in American classrooms every day, somewhere across the United States.

Unfortunately, the listings that follow are not exhaustive, but underscore far too many local and national instances of educator insensitivity or ignorance.

While an incident of cultural insensitivity here and there might get a pass from me as a teacher and scholar of American race relations, the frequency and gravity of these incidents is overwhelming and profoundly disturbing.

These headlines alone speak volumes about this pressing issue: “Teacher Suspended for Racist Comments about Obama” (2008), “Kentucky Teacher Calls Student the N-word” (2011), “White Teacher Sues to Use the N-word” (2012).

Disturbingly, racial unawareness by mostly white educators goes beyond instances of racial slurs and the N-word.

Classroom reenactments of slavery, American slavery simulation games, minstrel masks worn during an assembly, a play with high school students wearing KKK costumes and walking through a theater audience and reenactments of the Civil Rights Movement reveal one of several things about our students’ teachers: blatant cultural incompetence, absence of critical thinking, lack of empathy, ignorance of American history or  discomfort with talking openly and honestly about American race relations — past and present.

Teaching sensitive moments in our American history is to be applauded as long as lessons are age-appropriate for the students.

Given the prevalence of these poor teacher choices, I can only imagine the negative impact on students and their parents directly and indirectly: “Phoenix ASU Prep School Students Dress as Ku Klux Klan for High School Play” (2018), “Class Lesson on Civil Rights Flies Off the Rails as White Students Take the Opportunity to Spew the N-word: ‘They Took It for a Joke’” (2019), “Phoenix Mom Outraged Over History Lesson” (2019) and “Parents Lash Out after Video Shows Fifth-graders Singing and Picking Cotton on Field Trip” (2019).

From these many instances at schools, I am left baffled by who is approving these lessons and how these particular teaching strategies amount to classroom “best practices.”

I also question what critical resources these teachers are using to equip themselves for culturally responsive pedagogy. It is likely that too many of these white educators — and likely others — are not adequately trained to teach competently about America’s history of race relations.

Teaching the obligatory American history lessons – especially those that underscore ongoing generational trauma, comes with additional research and training on how to teach these lessons, simulations and reenactments with sensitivity and awareness. Perhaps these pedagogical “missteps” speak to educators’ own white privilege and unconscious bias.

Although I am not a public school teacher, I have a degree in secondary education and have worked extensively across the country with pre- and in-service teachers and administrators on diversity issues for over thirty years. These classroom “missteps” are not the actions or poor judgement of all teachers and are not necessarily malicious.

Good intentions, however, do not cancel out the real and potential negative impact on students and parents, both those who experience these instances directly as well as those to witness these unfortunate “lessons.”

And while “The Nation’s Teaching Force Is Still Mostly White and Female” (Education Week, 2017), many white teachers and administrators are keenly aware of what and how to present effectively and respectfully lessons on sensitive topics about race, gender, sexuality or class.

My advice to all teachers when considering these kinds of  American history simulations specifically is to understand fully what the potential negative ramifications might be and how the lessons will resonate with all students in a classroom.

I would also ask teachers to self-reflect on their racial positionality as it relates to a subject and topic not about them racially or ethnically. Good teachers do and can without incident. This clearly does not mean that effective teachers can’t, or shouldn’t, teach subjects or topics not about themselves ethnically or racially.

Though two pieces of advice from the reputable k-12 educators’ resource, Teaching Tolerance, come immediately to mind for any teacher contemplating classroom simulations of American history:  “Classroom Simulations: Proceed with Caution” (Drake, 2008) and ”Slavery Simulations:  Just Don’t” (Bell, 2019).

As for the infamous n-word in classroom content material, I ask that white teachers not fetishize this word in their lessons but rather acknowledge their own personal relationship with and understanding of this word, what it represents historically, and how this acknowledgment might impact their classroom actions and attitudes: “Sticks and Stones: When Kids Use the N-word” (Trimble, 2014).

No student, parent, or marginalized community should have to endure yet another teacher’s bad pedagogical judgement and hear yet another school district’s subsequent feeble justifications.

-Dr. Neal A. Lester is a Foundation Professor of English and founding director of Project Humanities at Arizona State University.