Hard History in Hard Times - Talking With Teachers

Episode 14, Season 2

In this special call-in episode, listeners share their stories and questions from throughout season 2—including teaching remotely, working with families and stakeholders, and incorporating social justice into subjects like math and science. As educators, we’re strongest when we support each other. And you’ll hear great suggestions from fellow teachers, like these resources we discuss from Fairfax County Public Schools in Virginia.


Subscribe for automatic downloads using:

Apple Podcasts | Google Music | SpotifyRSS | Help

Resources from Fairfax County Public Schools


Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Teaching is a creative profession. And as one of our guests for today noted, sometimes we have to “MacGyver” our classrooms. Even in the best of times, when we’re not trying to learn how to teach remotely on the fly, every day in the classroom is an adventure. Education is, at its core, improvisational; teachers are constantly dealing with different situations, a range of student personalities, and unfolding current events.

Meredith McCoy: That is so true. And as part of our work on the Hard History advisory board, we get to see the many ways teachers use our materials out in the world as they adapt to their classrooms. And we know there are so many more ways that teachers are using these resources that we don’t even know about. It’s encouraging and exciting to see all the ways teachers are taking this material and running with it, especially while we’re teaching long distance.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: And today, we’re going to get to share some of those stories with you.

Meredith McCoy: I'm Meredith McCoy.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: I’m Hasan Kwame Jeffries. And this is Teaching Hard History: American Slavery.

Meredith McCoy: 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.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: During our second season, we expanded our focus to better support elementary school educators and to understand the often-hidden history of the enslavement of Indigenous people in what is currently the United States.

Meredith McCoy: And as this season draws to a close, we’re excited to turn our attention to you—the educators in our audience—to talk about how we're navigating those challenges, so teachers and students can develop a deeper understanding of the history and legacy of American slavery.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: We want to thank everyone who participated. We received a lot of calls, and in the end, we tried to pick some questions and stories that would resonate the most with you. We’ll see you on the other side.

Meredith McCoy: Hey Hasan, we’re just gonna go straight into it.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Ah, my bad. My bad. What is it that you say? We’re so glad you can join us!

Meredith McCoy: Yes we are. Our first call today is with Erin Green, a fifth grade teacher in Texas who just started a unit on enslavement with her students distance learning. Erin, welcome. Could you start by telling us a bit about your classroom and your question?

Erin Green: Yeah. Thanks so much for having me. I teach 18 kids and I have those same kids all day and teach all the subject areas. But I work on a team of four teachers, and my job is to create the lesson plans for social studies and English language arts. And so I have a unit on slavery and abolition that I've taught for the last few years and kind of worked with and tweaked. And I feel pretty good about it. And then with this whole work from home distance learning situation, I just couldn't wrap my mind around how to teach such a hard part of our history from a distance. So yeah, that's kind of how I landed at the question. And I'm really grateful that you guys jumped on it and everyone's so willing to talk to me.

Meredith McCoy: You know Erin, I know that your original post generated a lot of thoughts, and this is something that really resonated with me. I teach histories of Indigenous education. And this week, I'm doing a unit with my students on the federal Indian boarding schools.

Erin Green: Mm-hmm.

Meredith McCoy: And I was similarly struggling with how do I teach such sensitive and potentially traumatizing content with my college students when I can't see them, and I don't know how they're responding to the content.

Erin Green: Yeah.

Meredith McCoy: As I was looking through the responses to your original question, I noticed that there was one teacher who had a lot of great ideas, and that teacher was Deborah March. So I asked her to join us. Deborah March is the multicultural studies curricular resource teacher for Fairfax County Public Schools. Deborah, could you start by telling us a bit about your work, and particularly the materials you've been working on around enslavement?

Deborah March: So my position was conceived as a position focused on identifying and addressing bias in the curriculum as written. Although I serve across the disciplines, you can imagine that one major priority is the social studies curriculum. It shapes how students feel about themselves as learners and as human beings in our classrooms.

Meredith McCoy: Erin, what strategies seem to be working with your students so far?

Erin Green: From a distance, I didn't know how I could possibly show the photographs that I might show otherwise or look at those primary sources that reveal that brutality. So what I kind of did this past week, I focused a lot on abolitionists. Really looking at empowering positions of people who were enslaved and fought to end slavery. A lot of kids and adults come into the understandings of like, well, Abraham Lincoln ended slavery. And so really pushing back on that idea and looking at who really ended slavery, and how this took a coalition of hundreds of thousands of people to end something like this.

Meredith McCoy: I'm so glad to hear that. And you mentioned that one of Deborah's original comments on the social media page was about thinking really carefully about what images we choose to show for our students right now while we're in distance learning. Deborah, I wonder if you could talk a bit more about some of the strategies and resources that you're recommending for teachers to think about right now while they're teaching enslavement via distance learning.

Deborah March: A lot of Erin's insights here even in just talking about her focus on abolitionists and empowerment are aligned with some of the guiding principles that have informed my work, alongside my team in revising the social studies curriculum. One of those principles is affirming human dignity. And this means teaching about a dehumanizing institution without reenacting that dehumanization through our pedagogy. A small question like, "Who gets to be an individual with a name and a face in our curriculum?" You know, disproportionately it's white, wealthy men who are named as individuals, and folks with marginalized identities tend to show up as groups, right? And are treated as a monolith.

Deborah March: It also, I think, a question like, "When do we start the story?" I notice in the fourth grade standards for Virginia that the first-time students encounter Africans is as slaves, right? To me, that stands in stark contrast to decisions that curators at the National Museum of African-American History and Culture made to start the history concourse in the 12th century, so that visitors encounter diverse African civilizations and the many individuals who made contributions to those civilizations over hundreds of years before encountering the middle passage. It's really about centering the perspectives and experiences of people who were enslaved, as well as other people who were harmed by the institution of slavery, such as free African Americans. To me, this is as much about what we teach as it is about the lens that we use to frame the content. You know, when kids are encountering events or figures in history, whose perspectives are framing those events? When we teach about George Washington as, you know, the quote, "Father of our nation," or when we teach about Thomas Jefferson as a champion of liberty, are we teaching hard history but avoiding the hard parts when we talk about our founding fathers, our so-called founding fathers?

Deborah March: And then third—and I feel like Erin touches on this so beautifully in her learning experience around abolitionists, this goal of empowering students as change agents who recognize and address injustice. You know, some of the texts that I've seen that address slavery for young learners either minimize or rationalize this system of injustice. I've seen too many resources that say the South's agrarian economy required cheap labor, right? A sentence like that justifies an unjust and brutalizing institution of slavery on economic grounds. So we have this slavery without enslavers. Calling attention to injustice and empowering kids to notice injustice, it helps students believe that a central part of learning our history is about imagining better and more just and more free ways of being with each other in the world. Better systems, right? And I think a small way to empower students is just to make space for their questions. Why does it have to be that way? What if it were different?

Meredith McCoy: Those are such important and wonderful guiding principles. Erin, I'm wondering how you're thinking about applying those in your classroom.

Erin Green: Yeah, I love that you brought up George Washington, because one of the resources that you shared even on that thread was just a graphic of the people who lived at Mount Vernon. And you can tell that it's overwhelming that the population at Mount Vernon was people who were enslaved by the Washingtons. Something that I was going to do when we were still planning for a typical school year is we were going to do a book study on Never Caught, the story Ona Judge, a woman who was enslaved by George Washington. In this nonfiction narrative, it talks about his relentless pursuit to get this woman back onto his plantation. And I've been looking at some different resources online to really center her story, and then to also look at Thomas Jefferson, and look at these contrasting narratives we have of what even do are our learning standards say about them? Because our learning standards in Texas are pretty bad for social studies. So looking at how are we supposed to learn about Thomas Jefferson and George Washington and these men we call our founding fathers, and what are these other histories that we should also know about them?

Meredith McCoy: Hasan, how is all of this resonating with you?

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Well, I love the core principles, the guiding principles, Deborah, that you outlined, because they really speak to the practice that Erin, that you are trying to implement in the classroom itself: this idea of humanizing the enslaved people, affirming human dignity, centering those who often get marginalized. That's critical. It's difficult under normal circumstances. It's even more challenging now, in part because it's hard to read the students. There's so much in this material that can be misinterpreted, because it has been wrongly interpreted for so long. The response, the hesitancy, the concern is well guided. It's so critical to what they are going to learn going forward, it's so critical really to understanding what they're seeing, the disparate impact on so many people of color. This history is so important to them. We don't have a choice to skip it. We just got to figure out how to do it accurately and effectively in these circumstances. Deborah, did you have one or two things that teachers can do right now that you might want to share?

Deborah March: Yes, I thought it might be helpful to talk a little bit about one of the resources I shared with Erin, the perspectives chart.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Deborah, I just want to jump in and tell our listeners if you want to see the resources she's describing, we've put a link to them in the show notes for this episode.

Deborah March: So if you imagine an infographic with, like, five or six columns. In each of those columns imagine a portrait of a person, the name of that person and, you know, a two- to three-sentence blurb about that person. And these are people that students would not usually find opportunities to encounter or learn about in typical textbooks. Portraits of a People is a really good example of a book that visualizes the history of African Americans in the 19th century. But each of these blurbs and each of these historical figures is represented on this perspectives chart. So I've seen teachers use these perspective charts in a variety of ways. One is just to present kids with a chart and a couple of simple provocations. What do you notice? What do you wonder? We typically have found that Project Zero's thinking routines have been really powerful tools for supporting developmentally-appropriate inquiry among students, and these so-called thinking routines are available for free online to all teachers. Allowing students to engage in a thinking routine like that with the perspectives chart in a small chat room or virtually in a Google doc or another format can add a layer allowing kids to kind of collaboratively construct an understanding of the past. And I would also emphasize they are the wonder portion, giving kids some time to ask questions.

Deborah March: Another great example of how you might use this perspectives chart is alongside the study of any event or important document or historical figure that you might be teaching about in American history. So it's one thing to present Thomas Jefferson's words in the Declaration of Independence, but to present them alongside a perspectives chart that visualizes profiles of actual enslaved African Americans who were living during the time and inviting kids to think, "How might that person make sense of Thomas Jefferson's words here? What might that person think about, feel about or care about as that person encounters these words?" This is a way to really shift the lens and reframe the narrative and think about whose lives and perspectives are valuable in interpreting American history.

Deborah March: One of the majorly important interventions that a perspective chart like this makes into the study of American history for young kids is it names individuals who typically are not named in our textbooks, who typically are not named in our curriculum resources, and indeed in the mainstream narrative of American history tend not to be deemed worthy of formal study. So it helps kids see more lives, more experiences, and it really enriches their opportunity to navigate the complexity of American history.

Deborah March: I so far have been talking about an emphasis on individual lives, but I also wanted to think about ways to empower students to see the system. If we're talking about the history of slavery, it's crucially important to affirm human dignity by lifting up and honoring the lives of individuals who were enslaved or who were harmed by the institution of slavery. But too much focus on individuals might cause students to lack a perspective on the institution of slavery more broadly. We really need to foster sensitivity to how systems are designed, so that we can help students see themselves as participants in systems and also agents within those systems who might change in the service of justice.

Deborah March: So I think a lot about data visualizations here. I thought it might be useful to follow up to Erin's point about the data from Mount Vernon. George Washington's Mount Vernon has recently, over the past few years, really done a lot of important work in trying to shift the history that visitors encounter when they visit George Washington's former residence, away from centering the Washington family and toward honoring the lives of the many enslaved people who lived there and worked there and made life possible for that family there. One of the resources that they give to teachers is a set of stick figures representing individual human beings who lived at Mount Vernon in 1799. These stick figures are color coded. Green stick figures represent enslaved people of all ages. Red stick figures represent free workers, and yellow stick figures represent members of the Washington family. There is no other information on this sheet of paper, and so it's presented really without comment. Pairing that with a thinking routine like See, Think, Wonder, has yielded really powerful student thinking about the complexity of slavery in relation to our nation's first president.

Deborah March: I've seen students pose questions in chalk talks or virtual settings around why? Why did slavery exist, right? So big questions all the way down to small questions about the data itself. They're counting the stick figures and noticing how few people were free, how few people were enslaved, and wondering why that was the case. And so the pairing of data visualization with a very open-ended question and just seeing what kids do with it, can be a powerful way for students to begin to make sense of the system more broadly.

Deborah March: There are many really powerful data visualizations related to the history of slavery, but one is an interactive visualization of the Atlantic slave trade. Picture a world map, and it's a time-lapsed video of individual slave ships leaving West Africa for both South and North America. Over the course of 150 years, you can see the individual slave ships and where they land, and you can see over the course of time the magnitude as the Atlantic slave trade increases, the number of ships leaving and where they're going.

Deborah March: There are a few other approaches that I'd love to discuss. One is the use of primary source artifacts. Many museums have made their collections digitally available to educators, and the National Museum of African-American History and Culture in particular has incredible resources digitally that I've seen teachers use with powerful results. Joseph Trammell's freedom papers are digitally available. These are the freedom papers that an African-American man carried around in Loudon County. You can see the box that he preserved these papers in. You can see the ways in which the papers are carefully folded and stowed away. 1852 is the date that the papers are marked. Using an artifact like Joseph Trammell's freedom papers alongside other artifacts such as, you know, a cowrie shell found at Monticello dating back to the late-18th century, with just a couple of sentences of the ways in which cowrie shells were featured in the clothing, the jewelry, the practices of many sub-Saharan African and South Asian cultures for thousands of years, right? But the fact that this cowrie shell was found at Monticello during America's colonial period.

Deborah March: And then, you know, a third artifact, a good example might be Jesse Burke's violin, which is also digitally available through the Smithsonian. This is a violin that an enslaved person played during the 1850s and 1860s. And there is an accompanying quote from his descendant who remembered her father's skill, but also her memory of the impact of enslavement on the family's lineage. And so a simple image of the artifact, a name associated with a person whose life that artifact touched or was part of. And most importantly from my view, also choice, right? By offering three or four artifacts, it gives kids an opportunity to decide, what am I drawn to? What am I interested in? Also, what am I ready for? What do I have space for in my mind right now to kind of dig more deeply into?

Deborah March: And so a thinking routine like Connect, Extend, Challenge, can pair really well with this assortment of artifacts. How does this connect to what you already know about slavery and freedom? How does this extend your thinking about slavery and freedom? What challenges or puzzles does this create for you? You can imagine this taking place in a variety of digital formats, synchronous or asynchronous, to kind of find a way into the history of enslavement through these artifacts and try to imagine the ways in which these artifacts were part of the system, but also part of people's lives, speaking to their humanity and their resilience.

Deborah March: And a final approach that I'd love to talk about, so far we've talked a lot about kind of individuals, systems and the artifacts that speak to their everyday experience. What we haven't talked about is resistance. And I know that many scholars of the history of enslavement in the United States point out that a major gap is in trying to imagine enslaved people having agency, that that's part of affirming their humanity. You know, there's a learning experience that we offer teachers and we've actually done it with some teachers where we have individual index cards. You can imagine doing this digitally with individual boxes that have each word or phrase in it. And each of these boxes identify a different form of resistance. Some are violent, right? Revolts, uprising. Some are escape, self-emancipation. Some are about individual nonviolent resistance. Some are about everyday resistance: breaking tools, slowing the pace of work, faking illness. Some are about the ways in which culture might be a part of resistance and resilience. You know, maintaining African cultures and languages, religion, cooking, music and dance. There are also collective forms of resistance, like teaching other enslaved people to read. And so anyway, if you imagine all of these as separate separate cards or separate boxes, what we invite learners to do is to group them according to a grouping that makes sense in the learner's mind. How do these things go together? We've seen, you know, learners—adults and children—group them as, you know, violent or nonviolent, group versus individual. Adults use language like "overt or covert," "organized or day to day," you know? Pre-planned. Confrontation or culture. And students have, you know, developmentally-appropriate language to name some of the same things. Really, the opportunity here is in giving kids a chance to notice the many different ways that enslaved people resisted and preserved their own cultures through this brutal history.

Deborah March: And I would say, regardless of the approach that the individual educator chooses, I feel like it's important to emphasize backwards social emotional planning. What do we want students to be feeling by the end of this? There's an equity thought leader named Beverly Daniel Tatum that has been really important to guiding our work in cultural responsiveness. And I'd love to just read this quote from her. She says, "Learning to recognize cultural and institutional racism and other forms of inequity without also learning strategies to respond to them is a prescription for despair." And so, you know, of course, as educators, we neither want students to feel complacent or good about this history of injustice, of course, but we don't want to leave them despairing either. So where do we want them to be? And I think, you know, imagining one possible goal as empowering students as potential and current agents of social change, empowering them as actors in their communities and in their world, is a good starting point for thinking about where we want students to be by the end of their learning about the history of enslavement.

Meredith McCoy: Deborah, these are such phenomenal resources. And this idea of helping our students to both wrestle with hard history and also find ways out that are hopeful and action-driven, I can see so many of these tools being applicable in my own classroom, thinking about perspectives and systems, about artifacts, primary source materials. I'm particularly excited about this attention to resistance, and think that it's so important that we engage our students in thinking about ways of resistance that apply to the past and are also so relevant to our present moment. Erin, in thinking about the different tools that Deborah has offered to us, which resources or tools can you see being useful to you in your own teaching with your students online?

Erin Green: The first thing that I think I really want to make sure my kids get out of this is just language. Teaching our kids why we say "enslaved people" instead of "slaves," which for us who are in these conversations all the time seems so basic. To kids and to their parents who maybe are not engaged in these conversations, I think that's huge. To just start with language, and how do we talk about this hard history. And I think that is a—just the initial building block towards affirming human dignity. And then with that, I've also really been thinking about this idea of the system and also individuals and giving both of those stories and both of those realities a lot of weight. In my own classroom, I would love to do this, specifically looking at Ona Judge, who was enslaved by the Washingtons. Pairing that with the infographic that Deborah shared, it just seems like a beautiful way for my young students to be able to see this is a story of a person, and this is also a story of a system. And just that infographic in this distance-learning atmosphere, I feel okay as a teacher giving my students that to look at in a space where they might be at home by themselves, and they might not have an adult there who's going to walk through this with them.

Erin Green: Because I think I mentioned this earlier, but a lot of what I'm doing right now is asynchronous learning. Like, we're not all logged in at the same time. And then I think continuing the conversation afterwards to empower students as change agents, and to harp on this idea of resistance today. I think that looking at the idea of reparations, like, what does this look like today in the sense of reparations? And this is where it's hard because I'm not physically in the classroom with them, because usually it would be such a larger conversation of, you know, slavery didn't end at the end of the Civil War. How has slavery transformed and evolved? That's the conversation that I would want to have in the classroom, and I'm grappling still with how to have that conversation from a distance. But I do think that talking about what's happening today, what's needed to be done today, and how can we engage in that resistance in that fight today in 2020 is something that I would want to end this unit on and to have my students walk away with this understanding that there's still work to be done to fight the system.

Meredith McCoy: Erin and Deborah, thank you both so much for allowing us to learn from you as you're learning from each other.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: That was awesome.

Meredith McCoy: It was awesome, yeah.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: That was great.

Erin Green: Thank you so much.

Deborah March: Thank you.

Meredith McCoy: Erin, I look forward to hearing about your students' response to the unit once it's done. And Deborah, thank you so much for your work developing those materials and sharing them with us today.

Deborah March: Take care.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Thanks.

Erin Green: Bye.

Meredith McCoy: Thanks y'all.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: I'm so glad Erin asked that question, but of course, not everybody who is interested and wants to teach these difficult subjects and wants to teach hard history and wants to talk about slavery in the classroom is a social studies teacher. We received a call from Justin Aion in western Pennsylvania, and Justin teaches math to middle and high school students outside of Pittsburgh, PA. And here's what he wanted to know.

Justin Aion: As a math teacher, not a history or English teacher, I try to incorporate as much social justice into my math class as I can, but it's incredibly easy for teachers and administrators to talk about how mathematics is not a political subject. It is a political subject from the way that we decide which topics we're going to teach and which kinds of mathematics history we're looking at. I was wondering if you could address how non-social studies, literature, English teachers could tackle some of these topics in their classrooms as well, especially when we're told simply to teach to the standards which do not include social justice or slavery. Thank you so much.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: We thought this was a great question and reached out to Justin. So he's joining us here now. Justin, how you doing, man?

Justin Aion: I'm doing very well, sir. And how about you?

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: I'm making things happen. We're here, we're excited. We're really thankful for your question and the work that you do. How are your students? How are you doing right now under these new conditions?

Justin Aion: The district that I'm working for recently is an adjudicated residential school. So at the moment we are all laid off. So my teaching has been really helping with my own kids as they try to navigate this landscape through distance learning for elementary.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Man, I'm really sorry to hear that. And hopefully the district, as many other districts, especially for that population, will realize we have we cannot lay off teachers. But you know, let me ask you this: What ways have you tried in the past to incorporate hard history with your students and in your classrooms?

Justin Aion: So there are a lot of aspects of social justice that I've been able to pull into my classroom. The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics has set out a whole bunch of guidelines and ways to advise on how to incorporate those into class, and that's been really helpful as sort of a guide for moving forward. In my own class, we have a tendency to talk about specifically things like media literacy. When a graph pops up in the news, when statistics pop up in the news, we talk about what informs the decisions that were made to create that study. What kinds of inherent biases might already be there?

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: You know Justin, when we received your initial question and now hearing what you're wrestling with in terms of teaching media literacy, I immediately thought of a wonderful teacher and a friend, Liz Kleinrock, and reached out to her because I know she has some wonderful insights into this very issue. Liz, of course, is an anti-bias anti-racism educator and consultant based out in L.A., California. Liz was in the classroom for 10 years and now works with educators across the country. I had the chance to meet Liz in 2018 when she received the Teaching Tolerance Award for Excellence in Teaching. And Liz over the years has developed some really wonderful resources, techniques and practices for addressing equity and inclusion, talking and teaching about social justice across grades and subject areas. So we're really glad that Liz was available and made some time to join us on this episode. Liz, welcome. How are you doing?

Liz Kleinrock: Hey, I'm doing okay. Every day is a little bit different, but happy to be here today and happy to be talking to all of you. Thanks for having me.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: No. Thanks so much for joining. And you're absolutely right, it's crazy because on the one hand, every day seems like the same, but every day is so different, especially when you just think about just what life was like a few weeks ago.

Liz Kleinrock: Right? It's pretty wild.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: No, it is. You heard Justin, and Justin was talking about ways to incorporate teaching about social justice and social justice issues in the classroom for teachers who are not teaching social studies. What advice and what experiences have you had and developed that might be helpful for Justin and others who are facing the same issue?

Liz Kleinrock: This is actually a really common question, thinking about weaving in social justice issues or teaching from an anti-bias, anti-racist perspective might seem a little bit more manageable than if you're just responsible for a subject like math or science that have been deemed to be more objective or neutral. But that really isn't the case at all. But what I try to break down for educators is that this is like a lens through which you teach. It's a pedagogy. It's not a particular strategy. It's not one specific lesson or unit. And the way that I try to explain it is you have your how you're teaching, your pedagogy, and then you also have what you're teaching. So looking at your content. But both of these things need to be working in alignment.

Liz Kleinrock: One of the earliest activities I'll do with my kids is ask them to draw a picture of what they think a mathematician looks like. And it's really interesting to see some of the depictions that they come up with that typically look very, like, Albert Einstein-esque, and talking about why that is and where we get those ideas from. I think a lot about how I can incorporate culturally-responsive practices and that lens, and thinking about assumptions that I have been taught or have learned and need to unlearn about how my Black students do in math, Asian students, boys, girls, students with disabilities, emerging bilingual students, and also being just very aware of how those biases might impact the way that I communicate with them and interact with them in a math classroom. So like, in an elementary school classroom, one example that I have shared in the past is in fourth grade, we have a lot of standards around multi-digit multiplication. So I wanted my students to look at the cost of living in a very expensive city like Los Angeles, look at base like minimum wage rates and average rents, and have them figure out how do you calculate a budget, and what does it actually mean for a person to be able to afford to live in a place like this? So, yeah, just some examples to get started. Different ways to incorporate things like averages or graphing and fractions by looking at topics like voting rights or food deserts, about like gender and racial inequality of pay scales.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: I love this idea of connecting and being purposeful in thinking about how you are teaching and aligning that with what you are teaching. And as I was listening to you, two things really leaped out. And Justin, I would love to get your response to it. One, how purposeful you, Liz, are in terms of thinking about who your students are, where they're coming from and what their life experiences are. But then also what the context of the world is in which they are living. In other words, using examples to teach that reflect the end goal of equity and inclusion. So not just about sort of the insular lives perhaps, but about the broader life experiences of those whose lives may look different from them. Justin, what do you think? How might that play out in your classroom with your students?

Justin Aion: Well, so I think that's a really important idea. And for myself as a teacher, I am much less concerned about the content than I am about the relationships that I build with my students. So going back to what was said about how you teach, in addition to what you teach, I love the idea of using fractions to talk about voting rights, to talk about food deserts and access to voting, things along those lines, but also just sort of figuring out how to interact with students who have had vastly different life experiences than my own.

Meredith McCoy: Liz, I'm wondering if you have any other specific examples that teachers can look to or engage in their own practice, especially right now that so many teachers are having to pivot to online learning.

Liz Kleinrock: Yeah, absolutely. Justin mentioned NCTM providing a lot of resources right now for educators in this state of distance teaching that's going on. I know educators José Vilson and Marian Dingle just did a webinar that's recorded on their website about equity in mathematics during this time. I also really love the website Radical Math, which is mainly geared towards, like, middle and high school. So Justin, like, that would probably be, like, an interesting fit for you. And the organization Rethinking Schools has a text called “Rethinking Mathematics,” where actually, I got a lot of ideas about how to be able to implement this type of mathematics in my classroom.

Meredith McCoy: Yeah, I think so much of the kind of culturally-responsive or culturally-sustaining pedagogies that both of you were talking about has to do with relationship building. So how do you continue to build those kind of meaningful relationships, looking ahead to the start of a new school year with a new group of students, when you aren't getting that kind of one-on-one face time with your kids?

Justin Aion: I think for me, ideally what I would like to do is to set up one-on-one time with those kids, or even in small groups. So this idea of, you know, every week for this 15-minute group, you can keep that in your schedule. This is when we're going to have our small group meeting so that we can have those face-to-face discussions, we can build at least some semblance of a relationship. And it's not overtaxing if a student is unable to make that time, then being flexible with the timeframe where they can attend. Trying to integrate those standards while still being aware of the drastically different lives that our students have to be having right now, as opposed to the traditional schooling model, which even then didn't work for many of our kids.

Meredith McCoy: Yeah. I mean, I think in some ways, the coronavirus and the global pandemic situation is forcing us as educators to walk the walk of this social justice-oriented teaching that we've always said that we're doing and that many of us practice in our classrooms. And it's both an opportunity and a requirement in this time that we attend to our students' whole lives and find ways to support them in their full selves. We can't just think that, oh, we're going to drop in and do this teaching hard history and then log off of our computers at the end of the day. And I know as a former middle school teacher that our job doesn't stop at 5:00. Our job never stops at the end of the day. We're always thinking about our kids. And I think in this time, that we are so in tune with all of the facets of our kids' lives that need supporting at this moment. Liz, I wonder if you could speak to that, about how to think about the sort of holistic needs of supporting our students during the coronavirus?

Liz Kleinrock: Yeah. I mean, relationship building has been brought up a couple of times, and I really think that any foundation of teaching, whether it's distance learning or if you're physically in the same place, really comes back to knowing your students, allowing them to know you as a human, getting to know them, getting to know how they see themselves. And thinking about even in terms of teaching mathematics, one of the earliest questions I'll always ask my students is just how do you feel about math? How do you feel about any particular subject? What are things that you're really proud of being able to accomplish on your own, and what are things that you still need a little bit more support? I hope that people can look at this opportunity as a chance to kind of redefine what normal is, and understand and recognize that a lot of the traditional aspects of how math was taught and the way that we approached teaching certain subjects with our students wasn't working when we were all in the same place and certainly isn't working when we're physically distant from each other. So hopefully we can take this opportunity to rewrite some of that.

Meredith McCoy: So as we think about teaching STEM in the time of the coronavirus, it's also really important to think about how we are helping our students continue to learn science. And one resource that I've been pointing people towards is Learning in Places, which is a resource from Anishnabe educator Megan Bang. And Learning in Places offers lesson plans for teachers and families to think about how to ground students in place, learning in place ecologically and learning in place historically. So thinking about the significance of place. And this is coming from an Indigenous way of knowing and Anishnabe etymologies, these lesson plans are available and applicable to non-native students as well. Liz, how are you thinking about science in this time of distance learning?

Liz Kleinrock: In my practice, I've thought a lot about how both science and math have been used as weapons to uphold pillars of white supremacy, to uphold beliefs of racial superiority, and trying to also, like, reclaim those tools to show students how we can begin to push back and dismantle them using science and math. Ways that I've incorporated this in the past is just being very intentional about whose knowledge has been validated. If you look at the discoveries of European scientists or explorers, knowing that they actually weren't the first people in certain places, were not the first to quote-unquote "discover" anything, but why did they also receive the credit, and why is history written from that perspective? Why are science textbooks written from that perspective?

Liz Kleinrock: I've also used science to tackle aspects of environmentalism and climate justice. In my classroom, my students and I learned about, like, the Standing Rock protests, you know, water in Flint, Michigan, looking at the proximity of communities of Black and brown folks to toxic waste sites, places that are hazardous to one's health. And really showing them how science and racial justice are very, very strongly interconnected.

Justin Aion: If we have the time, I'd like to maybe sort of address the other half of my question, which was looking at convincing colleagues and administration that this is a topic that needs to be addressed not just in social studies and English, but also in math and science, in art, in all of the other subjects as well.

Meredith McCoy: Liz, do you have some thoughts about how teachers working in the STEM fields might be able to engage in conversation with their colleagues and administrators about the importance of this topic?

Liz Kleinrock: Sure. I think that there's kind of this ridiculous myth that anti-bias, anti-racist teaching or teaching from, like, a culturally-responsive perspective is somehow only benefiting students of the global majority. But really, this type of work benefits everybody. And I don't think of it as a zero-sum game. It's possible to handle your standards, it's possible to do the things that you need to do within your classroom or within your curriculum, but still teach from this perspective. I think that in any situation, there are going to be people who are going to be onboard and they're going to be people who aren't. And quite frankly, we do not have the time to wait around for everybody to buy into this and understand its importance. If you are working with a school administrator who might be particularly resistant, I think sitting down and having the conversation about why they're resistant is going to be hopefully the most productive first step that you can take. Show them a lesson plan, show them resources and texts, invite them into watch you teach and show the engagement of your students.

Liz Kleinrock: But I think also just being able to recognize what is under your control versus what you can't and that teachers in their own classrooms, even if you're working with an administration that is really resistant, there are small decisions that you can make every day. These, like, micro-disruptions. My friend Tamara Russell uses that term a lot in thinking about how you can kind of reclaim that sense of autonomy in your classroom, if it's the text that you're teaching or the topic that you're engaging your students on, but still having the standard on your wall. So if your administrator comes into the classroom, you're able to point out and say, "This is what we're working on today. This is the means of how we're achieving that."

Meredith McCoy: Justin, any final thoughts or resources that you would like to share?

Justin Aion: Yeah, absolutely. I really appreciate being able to have this discussion about content beyond social studies and English. Specifically for math teachers, I would also like to throw out there Catalyzing Change in High School Mathematics. It is a book from NCTM on initiating critical conversations. It has been an incredible resource on how to start those discussions, not just with your students, but also with colleagues and administrators. And being able to see the importance of it and how to have those discussions in a meaningful and sustainable way.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Justin, thank you so much, man. I really appreciate you sharing your question and your experiences. And Liz, thanks so much for jumping on and sharing your insights, observations and expertise. I always learn so much any time I'm in your presence.

Meredith McCoy: Yeah. Really excellent insights, Liz, And thank you, Justin, so much for your question. Awesome. Thank you both so much for the work that you're doing, and for taking some time to hang out with us today. We really appreciate you.

Justin Aion: Thank you so much for having us. I really appreciate it.

Liz Kleinrock: Yeah, thank you.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Bye-bye. Be safe. Be well, everyone.

Meredith McCoy: Take care.

Justin Aion: You too.

Liz Kleinrock: Bye.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Let's listen to some of the other voicemails we received from teachers. This message is from Yolanda Fintak. Yolanda is a violence prevention specialist who works with middle school students.

Yolanda Fintak: I teach social skills and skills that help students understand how to get along without using or resorting to violence. We do specifically talk about subject matter around race, and how it relates to their conversations and their communication and their interaction with one another. The question that I guess I would have is, what is the best way to introduce this kind of hard teaching to sixth-grade students that may not have the background of history coming from elementary to middle school. I want to kind of start there and then see where we can go with moving up through grade sevens and eighth grade. Thank you.

Meredith McCoy: Laying a good foundation for new middle schoolers is such a good question. While students may not have a strong background in history itself, they do have their lived experiences. And so thinking about the way the world works today might be a great way to help them start thinking about the past, as you make direct connections between the long history of enslavement and contemporary ramifications for marginalized communities.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: It's also important to recognize that students, even at this age, certainly and younger even, have a sense of fairness, have a sense of right and wrong, have a sense of justice and injustice. And so, talking about those core human principles and societal principles, I think is also a way to begin to develop a framework for understanding the injustice that is connected to this long era of American history.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: We also heard from teachers who were nervous because hard history was already controversial in their school. And now that their lessons are on video, they feel even more vulnerable. And they want to know what they can do, especially since they also can't really rely on textbooks which tend to offer a traditional narrative of the American past.

Meredith McCoy: And so I reached out to social studies scholars Sarah Shear and Noreen Rodriguez. They suggested having students critically engage the textbook and engage in an inquiry lesson about whose perspectives are being represented in the text? Whose perspectives are missing and should be included to help us better understand the issue? And then students can do their own research online to find those voices that are missing from the text, that speak to different experiences. And then students can create their own questions and engage in inquiry together to answer them. They might ask, "Who wrote the textbook?" And what that says about why certain voices are represented. And where else could you find more information, and why is that additional finding of information so important? They're able to pursue answers in a way that is student-derived, rather than having to come explicitly from teachers.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: There is an opportunity and real value in just letting the history speak for itself.

Meredith McCoy: Mm-hmm.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: And you allow the students, you create an opportunity for them to do research and you let the primary sources do the teaching. And that shifts the burden of criticism and critique off of you as the teacher. I didn't say I wasn't a big fan of George Washington, the people he was enslaving said that.

Meredith McCoy: Right. And, you know, we also had a few callers who asked about supporting and engaging parents and family members who are now during the pandemic involved in helping their students learn about hard history. So here's a message that we got from Christie, who teaches sixth-grade social studies.

Christie Nold: As many of us know, a lot of the young people in our lives are surrounded by caring adults, trying to help navigate their curriculum alongside them. What resources exist for the adults in our students' lives that can help as they navigate hard history, in a way they—the adults—might not have learned it themselves? Thanks.

Meredith McCoy: And now let's listen to Marley who called us from Birmingham, Alabama.

Marley Davis: Hi. I am looking for some resources to talk to my little brother about the history of slavery that explains how the history of enslavement continues to impact our present in a way that he can understand and also explore for himself. Thank you.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Unlike any time before, parents and family members and caregivers are thrust into this more central role in the education of students, of young people, of children. And when it comes to teaching difficult histories, difficult subjects, hard history, you know, what do you do and how do you do it? Thankfully, Teaching Tolerance has been doing some work around this very issue.

Meredith McCoy: Yeah, Hasan, you know, I think about the frameworks as a really good place to start here, because they do offer so many supplementary resources: books and videos and things that parents and students can engage with together. It's okay to tell our younger siblings and nieces and nephews and children that we don't always have all the answers. So saying things like, "You know, I wasn't taught this, but let's go learn about it together," can model some of that knowledge-seeking behavior that we want students to develop as they become life-long learners themselves.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: What I would actually start with are the key concept videos that are based on the framework. There's about 10 of them. They're only a couple minutes long each. Key issues to touch upon when thinking and talking to children and teaching children and ourselves about the history of American slavery. That really is, I think, a great place to begin.

Meredith McCoy: I also want us to all just take a breath and think about what is actually possible, and what we should actually be spending all of our attention and energy on. So there was an article this week from Dr. Rachel Mahmood in the Teaching Tolerance magazine. And in her article, she says, "Instead of expecting caregivers to become teachers, educators can complement family engagement by partnering with caregivers to address childrens' social and emotional needs. For families, educators can be the person who checks in on their child." So as we think about the relationship between caregivers and teachers at this moment, part of this is about reworking what each of our roles are and how we work together to make sure that our young students are taken care of holistically.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Here you have to, if possible, be even more engaged at a different and deeper level than before. I love this idea of this is looking at the upside as an opportunity to model a shared kind of learning that, in many instances many parents haven't had time to do before.

Meredith McCoy: We know also that some parents are stretched to the breaking point already. And the idea of taking this on, this additional role of co-learning with their kids may feel just untenable. And so I just want to emphasize that this is not adding anything on; the same time that you're already spending with the children in your household, figuring out how to get them to do their assignments, this is just a different way of approaching it. So instead of putting the pressure on yourself to already have all the answers, just be open that we don't all have all the answers all the time, and sometimes we have to find ways of finding those answers together.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: I love this idea of what you were talking about with the modeling sort of shared learning. And for me it's not sort of deep social studies, because I can talk to my nine-year-old daughter Asha, who's in the fourth grade about slavery, and we're doing these side readings on the African-American experience and social justice, but I'm also trying to do fourth-grade math. And I'm bumping up against this, "All right. I don't know, how do we do this again? And why are they assigning this now?" And so I've seen being able to confess that, to be somewhat empowering to my daughter once she got past that sort of quizzical like, "Wait, you really don't?" I mean, she literally told me, "But this is the fourth grade!" And I was like, "Yes, I know it's the fourth grade, and I'm no longer in the fourth grade. Work with me. We'll figure it out." And so—but we sort of smiled and laughed about it. She came to this realization, and then we figured it out. It's not easy by any stretch, and we have to get comfortable with doing things that we are uncomfortable doing, but that's the whole project that we've undertaken here in the realm of hard history. And so it's an extension of the same. And this too shall pass. We'll get through it, and I'll gladly hand them back to their teachers at some point with more than a wink and a nod, but a big hug and saying, "Thank you for doing what you do." But in the interim, I think it is about taking cues from those who do it so well, and just trying to hang in there and using it as an opportunity to model a different kind of learning.

Meredith McCoy: So to all of the teachers and caregivers who are supporting our young learners from long distance or inside your own home, know that we see you and you're doing a great job. We know it's hard right now, but we can do this together. Thank you so much to all of the educators who left us messages and participated in this episode. We have all benefited from your questions, your experiences and your expertise. So hang in there, take care of yourselves and take care of each other.

Meredith McCoy: 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.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: And to find resources mentioned during this episode, visit Tolerance.org/podcasts. This podcast is produced by Shea Shackelford. Russell Gragg is our associate producer, with additional support from Barrett Golding. Gabriel Smith provides content guidance. And Kate Shuster is our executive producer.

Meredith McCoy: Our theme music 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.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: I’m Dr. Hasan Kwame Jeffries, associate professor of history at The Ohio State University.

Meredith McCoy: I’m Dr. Meredith McCoy, assistant professor of American studies and history at Carleton College.

Meredith McCoy and Hasan Kwame Jeffries: And we’re your hosts for Teaching Hard History: American Slavery.


Return to Episode Listing

Teaching Tolerance collage of images

Welcome to Learning for Justice—Formerly Teaching Tolerance!

Our work has evolved in the last 30 years, from reducing prejudice to tackling systemic injustice. So we’ve chosen a new name that better reflects that evolution: Learning for Justice.

Learn More