We all have the images in our minds. The torch-lit faces of white supremacists out in the open for all the world to see. The bravery and commitment of protesters seeking to disrupt a rally based on hatred and exclusion. And the horror of bodies thrown in all directions by a vehicle seeking to destroy human life – and succeeding.
As humans, we all understand the tragedy that took place in Charlottesville, Virginia, over the weekend. But as educators, how should we respond?
Unfortunately, national events that happen over the summer can be easy to ignore at the start of the school year. Teachers seek to create a “positive culture” as students return, and that can encourage them to avoid topics that seem difficult.
But make no mistake, as a school district with a majority non-white population, Philadelphia public school students deal with the impact of racism every day.
What does that look and sound like? Ideas such as the following help perpetuate white supremacy in our city:
- We live in a post-racial America because we had a black president.
- Black Lives Matter and other civil rights organizations are racist because they don’t care about white people.
- Gentrification always does good things for neighborhoods.
- If a student ends up in prison right out of high school, that’s their fault.
- What’s the achievement gap? Doesn’t standardized testing help close that gap?
- White privilege isn’t real – it’s just reverse racism.
- Christianity is the true American religion.
- All Arabs are Muslim, and all Muslims are terrorists.
- If you work hard enough, you can achieve anything in America, no matter your race or status.
Whether you know it or not, your students have heard these statements before. So to avoid any discussion of racial inequality and the systems that perpetuate it would tell our non-white students that their struggle does not matter – and would tell our white students that ignoring the struggle of others is OK.
When it comes to tragedy, it can also be all too easy to fall into generic statements about the need for peace and understanding among Americans. Certainly, it is the job of teachers to promote these values in our students. But relying solely on the language of reconciliation glosses over the violence and inequality that people of color have been subjected to since the inception of this country.
It is our responsibility to educate about the roots of racial conflict in the United States – from the advent of slavery to the inequality that continues to plague our social systems. We also have a responsibility to teach our students about the role our government has played in creating and perpetuating systems of oppression from our nation’s founding documents to current policies on housing, education, and voter rights. If we don’t center our discussion in this history, it will be hard for anyone to understand the reality that many of our students face.
Challenging these norms is not easy, but remember that classroom culture cannot be created by denying that which makes us uncomfortable. It only comes by creating a space that affirms the experiences of all of our students, and that includes talking about systems of oppression.
The Caucus of Working Educators has been working for years to provide educators with the resources and tools they need to successfully broach these topics with their students. If you are unsure where to begin, take a look at the resources shared below for lesson plans and suggestions.
To be surprised by the events in Charlottesville only reveals that we have kept ourselves in the dark about the realities of race in the United States for far too long. We invite you to dive into the following resources alongside your students when school starts in September. It is the single best thing that you, as educators, can do to help prevent the tragedy of Charlottesville from happening in Philadelphia.
Local events and resources
“Dismantling White Supremacy” – A collaborative session hosted by Teacher Action Group on Wednesday, Sept. 13, from 5 to 7 p.m. at the U School, 2000 N. Seventh St.
The Philadelphia Black History Collaborative works to create a more comprehensive, forward-thinking African American history curriculum for the School District of Philadelphia. Check out their resources and attend an upcoming meeting.
The Racial Justice Committee of the Caucus of Working Educators has a statement with guiding principles.
University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education has links about how to confront hate speech in school.
News coverage and reactions
“7 Ways Teachers Can Respond to the Evil of Charlottesville, Starting Now” – A clear how-to list from Chicago teacher Xian Franzinger Barrett.
A collection of lesson ideas and links from The Washington Post.
This post was penned by Fatim Byrd, Keziah Ridgeway and Tyra Washington, Philly teacher leaders and members of the Caucus of Working Educators.
Sharif El-Mekki is the principal of Mastery Charter School–Shoemaker Campus, a neighborhood public charter school in Philadelphia that serves 750 students in grades 7-12. From 2013-2015, he was one of three principal ambassador fellows working on issues of education policy and practice with U.S. Department of Education under Secretary Arne Duncan.