What Happens to Empathy Deferred?

NAIS Blog

As an alumnus of an independent school, I have enjoyed reading about the increasing emphasis on teaching cooperation, teamwork, mindfulness, and empathy. As independent schools become more globally and racially diverse, the need for greater reflection, for awareness of one’s own thinking and biases, and for curiosity about the perspectives of others also grows.  The ability to empathize may be the most critical need in this century, and some research suggests that mindfulness can help cultivate empathy.

The importance of the ability to see the world from the perspective of others became apparent to me when I was a somewhat lonely, out-of-place freshman at my New England boarding school. At 14, I quickly began to see and understand that I was different from most of my peers. My views and perspectives were different as a result of being a black urban kid from the often unforgiving south side of Chicago. Over the years, I learned that my approach to many issues, assignments, and problems was vastly different from those of my white friends. As a black person living in a white world, I learned to understand the white perspective, and it was strange and frustrating that white people rarely, if ever, bothered to learn or even inquire about how I saw the world.
This was most apparent in 1995 when, as a senior, I was reviled by my classmates and, more shockingly, by my teachers, dorm parents, and coaches for celebrating the O.J. Simpson verdict. While I knew that my white classmates wouldn’t understand why the black students, like most of black America, felt jubilation that day, I was disappointed that educated adults, some of whom had seen me grow and mature since my freshman year, could not be open-minded enough to look at this national issue from my point of view.  As usual of course, I was supposed to see the issue from their point of view.
I had the same experience a couple of weeks later with the Million Man March on the National Mall. Why did the people with whom I interacted daily and who cared about me lack the desire to empathize with my thoughts and feelings about issues that had directly affected me, my loved ones, and other people who looked like me?

Why the Differences Matter

Although I learned a lot and have an abiding affection for the four years I spent at my independent school, I wish some things had been different. Had my school focused on mindfulness and empathy back then and incorporated them into the curriculum, my experience and those of the other black students probably would have been different. I think that it would have been more equal, more fair. My experiences would have been more like those of my white classmates: My school trials would have been limited to in-the-classroom and on-the-field challenges.
Instead, we students of color frequently were forced to address, on our own, micro-aggressions and problems that the majority of our classmates didn’t even realize existed. As a result, I felt out of place on the very campus where I lived most days over four years. I frequently felt unsupported and misunderstood because there were very few adults who truly understood my everyday challenges. My ideas were often dismissed or met with indifference. I felt like a bull living among a campus full of horses.

New Generation and New Opportunities

Today, I am not bitter; I am hopeful. My goal is to offer this perspective on the importance of sparing future generations of students of color my experience by supporting the growing movement to develop in students nonacademic abilities like mindfulness and empathy.
According to NAIS data, independent schools are heavily populated by students who increasingly come from different backgrounds and who, consequently, see the world very differently. Education experts stress that in order to offer the most substantive and meaningful education, we must embrace and teach skills that promote mutual understanding, cooperation, and respect. I couldn’t agree more. It’s a view I’ve held since the 1990s, when I realized that my own perspective-taking ability and understanding of how people operate would be critical to my success. Thanks to my school’s student diversity, I learned to expand my understanding of people who weren’t like me. Where else would a 15-year-old black kid from Chicago get to room with a Japanese student and learn Japanese customs? Where else could a hip-hop loving, urban basketball-junkie teenager find his voice and a true passion to advocate for racial understanding and multiculturalism?
Today, developing reciprocal understanding, mutual respect, and empathy among diverse populations remains our greatest challenge. The need has perhaps never been more obvious. In the last two years alone, Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Freddie Gray, to name just a few, have focused national attention on racial inequality and social injustice. We have heard “I Can’t Breathe” chants and seen “Black Lives Matter” signs and hashtags that raise awareness of and express dissatisfaction with the status quo. Independent schools claim to embrace missions that promise to lead the way — to create a healthier culture of cooperation and understanding. Consequently, independent schools must actively work to ensure that those missions aren’t empty abstractions.
What I have learned is that creating a culture of empathy requires a level playing field.  Young people need guidance from adults who understand them, who share their background and experiences. Understanding others is more likely to occur if people first understand themselves — if they understand who they are, what they think, and why they think it. White students in independent schools have the white mentors and role models they need in order to develop this sort of self-confidence and understanding — the base from which, with further guidance, they can become increasingly understanding of others. Black and Latino students in independent schools lack sufficient numbers of black and Latino mentors.

Diversity Issues still in Deferment

I’ve recently met directly with students of color who attend independent schools. They unanimously agree that what they need most are adults who look like them and have walked the paths that they stumble along each day. Theirs is an old wish not yet realized  not yet addressed.
These students need mentors and educators of color to demonstrate to them and, equally important, to white students, that the biggest brains on campus aren’t just white teachers. Black and Latino students need teachers of color to empathize with them about issues that only they can understand because they have lived them: what it’s like to be the object of racial bigotry; what it feels like not to meet the American standard of beauty; what it’s like to carry the weight of negative stereotypes on your teenage shoulders; what it’s like to have to be courageous enough to speak out and risk either becoming a social outcast or feeling ashamed for failing to speak; even what it’s like when the hair and hygiene products you use are not available at local drugstores. Students of color need adult role models who respond thoughtfully to their ideas about current events, instead of dismissing them as “immature, idealistic, or ignorant.” That’s what I needed when I was a student, and that’s what students of color need today.

Turning the Corner with Meaningful Solutions

Creating the conditions for a more mindful, empathetic culture begins with faculty diversity. If independent schools are to truly provide a full, substantive, and meaningful education to all of their students, each institution must staff itself with educators who can provide all students firsthand experience and perspective. Schools must understand that educators of color absolutely have a critical role to play. It is they who, working with their white colleagues, will help develop empathy and understanding, while conditioning all students to understand that there are black and Latino education professionals and administrators. What better way is there to simultaneously improve the educational experience for students and faculty at independent schools, prepare students for the global society and workforce they will soon enter, combat long-standing stereotypes, and address a need that has for too long gone unaddressed?
As a black alumnus, I know firsthand that aggressively seeking and hiring candidates of color will make a significant difference. But hiring isn’t enough. Schools must do three other things. First, the administration of each school must develop a realistic, accurate sense of the particular culture in which teachers and students of color live on their campuses. That is, schools must understand how these teachers and students experience life at their schools on a daily basis.  Do they feel alone? Do they have a voice? Do they feel respected?
Second, schools need to hire sufficient numbers of teachers of color so that the teachers won’t feel as though they are isolated tokens or appear like tokens to other members of the faculty or to students. Retention of good teachers of color is a constant problem, and creating a strong cohort of teachers of color can improve the chances that the teachers will stay.
Third, administrators must empower teachers of color to ensure that the dominant white culture will not indirectly or unintentionally silence them. Once schools have created the right culture and conditions, the real work of developing empathy can begin and will have the greatest likelihood of success. The key is caring enough to care.
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How Racial Affinity Groups Saved My Life

NAIS

Each year, I attend and look forward to NAIS’s People of Color Conference. It is the only time I sit in a room with other African American educators who also look to recharge. One year, an attendee shared with me that her experience at PoCC convinces her she is not crazy and keeps her from going insane. I feel like a member of a family and PoCC is the family reunion.

One of the many reasons I love PoCC so much is the affinity group experience. An affinity group is a group of people with common interests, background, and experience that come together to support each other. Affinity groups for people of color can be magical places in a historically elite and exclusive independent school system. Participants of both adult and student affinity groups often find it to be a place of encouragement and a way to increase their sense of belonging in their institution.


Brentwood School’s family affinity group at a brunch for mothers of African American students. Photo credit: Brentwood School

Hurting Hearts

Before I found affinity groups, I struggled to breathe. For 15 years, my tank was empty. I was exhausted beyond measure. Being the only African American educator and administrator in my predominately white institution had almost worn me down completely. My heart hurt for the efforts I made to advocate for and protect all families, but specifically families of color that existed in this white, affluent, independent school world.

In my second year at this same institution, a brilliant and talented African American young lady decided to start an African American culture club. Her idea was to celebrate African American culture and educate others about it, regardless of their racial and ethnic heritage. When one of her classmates responded, “We should start a White culture club,” I saw the strength disappear from her eyes.

This young woman battled in the same space I did. She shared in the same constant struggle to defend, justify, and give purpose to her existence as an African American on our campus. She wanted to tell her classmate that he was a card-carrying member of a white club all day, every day. That in each class his identity was so integral to the teaching and curriculum that he didn’t even realize it. She wanted to ask how it felt for him to sit in the lap of privilege and make a comment that served as a dichotomy when the reality was that his comment was why she was initiating this club. She wanted to ask him when was the last time (knowing there would never be a time) he was alone in his identity or was asked to be the spokesperson for his entire race. When had he ever been invisible? Rather than risk losing the breath that was so hard to inhale, she cried. This pain was all too familiar. I, too, was out of oxygen and could not let this be my death.

A Magical Place to Relate

Right away, the African American Culture club became the largest student club on campus. It created a space where students in all stages of their identity development could belong. Black students and their allies addressed diversity topics in the school and globally. We talked about defying stereotypes, leaders and figures in Black history, and media headlines that affected us. When one student shared that he felt a heightened sense of surveillance on campus, another student could relate. Another student shared her frustration of people touching her hair and making ignorant assumptions — and yes, we could all relate. Students expressed how they were often called the name of another student of the same race by students, teachers, and administrators.

The affinity space was a place of affirmation and empowerment that we all so desperately needed. We acknowledged shared experiences in ways that were productive, valuable, and meaningful. It was a brave space that preserved our dignity as a people. It was a place where people of the same identity could share how they navigate the complexities of a PWIS (predominately white independent school), and it was no longer an ostracized experience.

Becoming a Change Agent

For the first time, I felt invited, welcomed, and included in an institution that pretended to represent the same moral and philosophical educational initiatives that supported all people. I knew I needed to help students stay alive in this institution so I continued to create the same space that kept me alive. I knew the time would come when I gave all I had to give and needed to align my own beliefs and experience in an institutionally supportive space.

One day, I read a job description for Director of Equity and Inclusion in a different school that completely described me. The school called for an administrator who would speak to every constituent and ensure that the school was doing its best to envelop all members of the community, regardless of identity, so everyone could thrive. It was time to make a change. Now I’m in year two of being an effective change agent.

A Call to Schools

While developing and supporting affinity groups for my students, I’ve found that I’ve benefited just as much, and potentially more, than they have. Now I see the success of both student and parent affinity groups. Affinity groups allow us to support the humanity of others. It is the most inclusive effort we can make.

Most of our schools’ missions include a component of excellence or achievement. We have non-discriminatory clauses in our policies and procedures. The best way to not discriminate is to value and support the spaces of those who are underrepresented in your population. Give them a place on your campus to exist freely — and to thrive. Be committed to achieving excellence in every area of your school’s mission by recognizing that those whose identities lie in disadvantaged and oppressed groups are having a different experience. If you are uncomfortable or unable to understand the necessity of affinity groups, you probably have never needed one. However, if you are committed to providing an education that is truly excellent for all students in your institution, encourage and support the vital role affinity groups play toward this noble goal.

The Difference by Scott Page

Harvard Business Review

By Larry Prusak

How much time and money is spent seeking “diversity” in our organizations around the world? How much value comes out of these activities?

My answers to those questions are a lot of money and very little .

Now before you think this is going to a political rant, let me assure you that the book we are discussing here, The Difference, by University of Michigan professor Scott Page, is all for diversity, but of a specific kind. Cognitive Diversity is what he is advocating, and he makes a very strong argument for it.

Many of our efforts to be diverse, based on race, gender, age, or some other broad stroke often miss the mark in producing better decisions and outcomes. Page believes that, when “solving a problem, cognitive diversity can trump ability, and when making a prediction diversity matters as much as ability” Taken seriously, this is quite an inflammatory statement.

Cognitive diversity is based on the “toolbox” each one of us carries with us, built from our individual experiences and education and trainings. Specifically the toolbox contains four “tools”: perspectives, heuristics, interpretations, and predictive models that we all use every day in every way. All of us have these tools in differing proportions and we all use them somewhat differently. When an organization manages to build teams emphasizing this type of diversity, desired outcomes – better decisions and better innovations – are far more likely.

This is a difficult book to read, despite the author’s humor and clear writing. It is a serious work of social science and an important work for anyone interested in how to better exploit organizational knowledge, using much more sophisticated methods than the very crude and ineffective tools we currently use.

What kind of diversity do you think results in the best decisions?

Do Conversations About Race Belong in the Classroom?

The Atlantic

Two decades ago, Beverly Daniel Tatum published a bestselling book on the psychology of racism. Now, with the release of the book’s second edition, she reflects on its relevance to schools today.

A blurry photo of students in a school cafeteria
Eric Gay / AP
In 1997, Beverly Daniel Tatum, one of the country’s foremost authorities on the psychology of racism, answered a recurring question that surfaced in her work with teachers, administrators, and parent groups: Why are all the black kids sitting together in the cafeteria? The result was a critically acclaimed book of the same name that gave readers—numbering in the hundreds of thousands—a starting point to demystify conversations about race, better understand the concept of racial identity, and communicate across racial and ethnic divides.

Basic Books

Now two decades later, the black kids are still sitting together. And Tatum has returned with a revised and updated 20th-anniversary edition of her national bestseller that publishes today. One aspect that has changed dramatically since the original release of Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? And Other Conversations About Race are America’s demographics. Latinos and Asian Americans are the largest and fastest-growingpopulations of color, respectively, with children of color for the first time outnumbering white children in public schools. Additionally, the backlash against the election of the first black president, the continuing segregation of schools, and highly visible incidents of police violence seem to belie the claim of a “post-racial society”—making Tatum’s perspectives on effective dialogue about race and racism especially relevant.

Tatum recently shared some thoughts with The Atlantic on why conversations about race remain vexing and what can happen when educators and parents avoid those conversations. The interview that follows has been edited for length and clarity.


Melinda D. Anderson: Has your perspective changed on anything you wrote in the original edition of your book?

Beverly Daniel Tatum:  In 1997 my goal in writing my book was to help others move beyond fear, anger, and denial to a new understanding of what racism is, how it impacts all of us, and ultimately what we can do about it. … I still have that goal, but in 1997 we were a nation at peace and the economy was expanding. Today we are a nation at war, suffering from economic anxiety and the combination of “post-racial” rhetoric, simmering racial resentments, and an increasing 140-character culture of communication that has made productive conversation more difficult to have.

That said, it is still the case that in a race-conscious society, we all have a racial identity that develops in predictable ways, shaped largely by the interactions we have with others. I still believe that an understanding of that identity-development process can help all of us begin to build bridges across lines of difference.

Anderson: In the wake of the events in Charlottesville, Virginia—where members of the Ku Klux Klan, neo-Nazis, and white supremacists marched through the city last month—many educators are grappling with how to help students understand and contextualize America’s history of racism and current racial divides. What would you say to teachers and administrators struggling in this area?

Tatum: I like to begin my conversations with educators by talking about why it’s so hard for people to talk about race. I often ask them to think about their own earliest race-related memories, and without exception what I find is that many people have [these] memories—and if you ask how old they were, they’ll often tell you 5, 6, 7 years old. Then I usually ask what emotion is associated with that memory. And they’ll mention things like embarrassment, fear, anger, sadness, shame, [and] sometimes confusion. Most often it’s some uncomfortable feeling.

[Finally] I ask: When that experience happened, did you speak about it to anyone? Did you talk to a parent, or a teacher, a caring adult about this experience? And almost always, the majority of the people in the audience will say they did not. There’s often just this understanding that you’re not supposed to talk about it. And I start there simply to say …  now you’re 35 or whatever age, and you’ve had a lot of lifetime experiences that have told you, don’t talk about this.

You can’t solve a problem without talking about it. And certainly if we think about educational environments and experiences, it is in the classroom where you can create the space for a conversation about the meaning of the Confederate flag and [discuss] those statues [and] when they were put up. There are resources that teachers can use—provided by organizations like Facing History and Ourselves—to inform themselves, and then bring that information into classrooms in an age-appropriate way. [Also,] if I were in a classroom talking about what happened [in Charlottesville] I’d want to lift up not only the horrific things that we all know about, but also the solidarity of the people who came out the next day to remember the memory of Heather Heyer [a 32-year-old woman who was killed protesting the white-supremacist rally]. I think that it’s important … in these conversations, to always leave space for hope.

Anderson: You delve deeply into the racial-identity development process for black youth—from their early years through adulthood. One anecdote brings the specific role of black teachers to the forefront. Can you tell me about the role black educators—who make up just 7 percent of the public-school teaching force—play in black children’s lives?

Tatum: I often use this analogy: If you and I were in a room together with lots of other people and somebody took a photograph of us, and I handed you that photograph at the end of our time together, and you took a look at it, what would be the first thing you would do? You’re going to look for yourself in the picture.

If you think about classrooms or workspaces or conferences, wherever we are, we go into these spaces and we look for ourselves. You want to see yourself represented. In that sense, when young people walk into a classroom, they want to see someone who they identify with, maybe because they’re the same race. It doesn’t always have to be racial identification. [A student] can identify with a teacher because she likes music [or] identify with [educators] because they are into sports. But to the extent that kids of color walk into classrooms and rarely see someone who looks like themselves in that environment, that’s a missing link.

Anderson: Your writing on the development of white identity was a revelatory look into the current cultural and social dynamics in the United States. Please talk about the process of redefining whiteness from “just normal” to a more nuanced conception of what it means to be white.

Tatum: If … you live in a neighborhood where everybody or most people are white, you grew up in a family where all the members are white, and you go to a school and most people are white, [chances are] you [see your white identity as] the norm. And you probably don’t think much about it—that’s not the part of your identity that you’re focused on. But when you enter into a space, a classroom or a workplace, where you are now in a racially mixed environment, and there’s conversation about issues of race in particular, you may start to have a greater awareness. You start to learn what whiteness means, in some ways, because you start to see what racial-group membership means for other people. Or maybe [that awareness comes through] … reading a book, or taking a class.

However that awareness starts to happen, what I’ve found is that [white] people start to realize that they’ve had some advantages. … They’ve had some benefits as a result of being white that they’d never really paid attention to, but have taken for granted, or not even noticed. And when they start to notice or when they learn the history, it’s upsetting … There are often feelings of guilt. It’s usually at that point where it can be really helpful [to join] an organization like Showing Up for Racial Justice, which helps white people support each other in their growth and learning around how to become anti-racist.

[Figuring out how to turn that guilt into action] is a learning process, and it’s not as linear as I’m describing. It often requires re-educating oneself or learning things that you never learned in school, simply because it wasn’t [taught]. Talking to people you don’t usually talk to. It’s not like it happens instantly.

Anderson: Interestingly, you expand on the conversation—shifting beyond black and white—to interrupt the frequent resistance to talking about racism in non-black communities of color. What are some of the complexities surrounding identity development for students who belong to those communities?

Tatum: Well, I think the basic principle goes back to that picture analogy. If we want to affirm the identities of our students, the first thing we have to think about is: Do they see themselves represented? One of the points I talk about is that the representation of Native Americans is always in the past. There’s a Native educator I quote who says Native youth, who have a very high suicide rate, need to see themselves as having a future, not just a past. It’s thinking about how students will find themselves in the curriculum, not just who’s teaching, but [also] how are they being talked about? If you’re Native American, do you see yourself represented at all except perhaps as the mascot of the football team?
The common stereotype for Asians is that they’re academically successful, particularly in science and math. But what if you are a young Asian person who is interested in journalism? Are you able to express yourself fully or are you being categorized so narrowly that your options are being foreclosed? In the case of Latinos, language is important to identity. Familism [prioritizing family relationships] is an important cultural value; you want to preserve your language so you can speak to [your] grandmother. But if you’re in a school where you feel your language is perceived as a liability—not an asset—that has a direct impact on how you feel about being in school.

Regardless of your group membership, the questions of identity are at the heart of the adolescent experience. … Each group has its own particular social context … but at the fundamental core of each young person’s [identity development] is a desire for affirmation.

Anderson: You admit that you’re an optimist at heart, but for some the prevalence of racism in American society can seem all-consuming. What fuels your sense of confidence?

Tatum: Sometimes you have to work at feeling hopeful. Social progress tends to be two steps forward, one step back. I’m old enough to know that change is possible. I was born in September of 1954, several months after the Brown v. Board of Education decision. … If you think about the sense of urgency of the Black Lives Matter movement, those young people who are out in the streets are asking: Why are we still having this conversation? Why are these things still happening? It’s a difficult moment, there’s no question. Charlottesville and the President’s response have reminded us how difficult it is. But that said, there are a lot of people who want change.

And it’s only because I have seen that change is possible that I believe it is again possible. The dialogue is critical. That’s why I always put the word “conversations” in my book titles, because you can’t move forward without talking to people. Talk isn’t something that comes easily [and] talk by itself isn’t sufficient; you want to have those conversations because you want to inspire action.

James Baldwin’s Lesson for Teachers in a Time of Turmoil

The New Yorker

Baldwin insisted that a more honest reckoning with history was necessary.

Photograph by Ted Streshinsky / Corbis via Getty

“Let’s begin by saying that we are living through a very dangerous time.” So opens “A Talk to Teachers,” which James Baldwin delivered to a group of educators in October, 1963. (He published it in the Saturday Review the following December.) That year, Medgar Evers, a leading civil-rights figure and N.A.A.C.P. state field director, was murdered in his driveway by a white supremacist in Jackson, Mississippi. That year, four young girls—Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley—were killed when Klansmen bombed the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, in Birmingham, Alabama. That year, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated as he rode in his motorcade through downtown Dallas.

I make a point of revisiting this essay at the beginning of each school year, and while Baldwin’s words have always felt relevant, this year they feel particularly so. Students have returned to school after a summer of political and social tumult. In August, white supremacists and neo-Nazis brazenly marched across the campus of the University of Virginia; one shot at a counter-protester, and another mowed down a crowd with a car, killing a woman who had showed up to oppose their hate. A few weeks later, the White House announced that it would be rescinding the protections set in place by President Barack Obama’s daca program—a move that left eight hundred thousand undocumented immigrants uncertain about their futures. Many teachers are wondering how to address these events in their classrooms. Should they incorporate potentially contentious issues into their lessons? Should lessons be pushed aside to tackle the urgent matters of the day?

Recently, I was chatting with a friend who teaches at an elementary school in Washington, D.C., where I live, and he shared with me how confused and disillusioned his students were by what they had seen on television. He sat them in a circle and gave them space to ask questions. “Why was somebody so angry that they wanted to drive a car through people who were asking for their rights?” one student wondered. My friend shared with me another story from a community meeting that he had just attended. A mother stood up and said, “I’m tired of having to teach my two-year-old how to duck; I’m tired of having to teach my two-year-old that certain nights when we get home from school we have to sit on the floor.”

“Yet we send them to school and we’re not allowing them to be a part of an opportunity to address that,” my friend said, hurt and perplexed. The next evening, he brought his students to a local candlelight vigil, where hundreds of people showed up to honor Heather Heyer—the demonstrator who had been killed in Charlottesville—and to protest the hateful actions that led to her death. Throughout the evening, people talked about what had transpired. Some of the students chimed in, too. Later, my friend recalled, the kids told him that doing so made them feel important. “People wanted to listen to me,” one student said.

Baldwin’s talk offers a way to think about this. I first read it when I was a high-school English teacher, in the winter of 2012. I was sitting at my desk one day, after the bell had rung, staring at a clouded chalkboard, leaning back in my chair, its beige foam crawling out from beneath red cloth. I had just struggled through a lesson on the different types of sentence structure—not the most riveting topic for most fifteen-year-olds, I realize—and I had seen my students stare blankly past me, disengaged. I wondered how preoccupied they might be by what was happening outside school walls. A string of senseless murders had taken the lives of some of their friends. In Florida, a boy named Trayvon Martin had just been killed, too, and his killer had yet to face charges. But that day, like most days, I stuck to the book, keeping politics on the periphery.

My decision was based, in part, on Maryland’s educational standards. The state had recently adopted Common Core and parcc (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers) assessments; there was little incentive to teach beyond the bounds of the new curriculum. This wasn’t why I had signed up to be a teacher, but job security and paychecks were directly linked to student test scores. I found myself becoming a part of a system of incentive-based learning that I opposed. That day, a friend, who had been a teacher for many years, gave me a copy of “A Talk to Teachers.” The essay might quell some of my frustration, she said.

Baldwin delivered the talk on the heels of the March on Washington, where he was famously pulled from the list of speakers because organizers—who knew the writer’s habit for speaking extemporaneously—were unsure if he would stay on message. “A Talk to Teachers” is emblematic of Baldwin’s proclivity for candor over political appeasement, and, like much of his work, focusses on history and the American consciousness. “It is almost impossible for any Negro child to discover anything about his actual history,” he writes. Young people are constantly absorbing—through media, textbooks, and policy—the myths of American exceptionalism; for black children, this means that what they are taught in class does not match the world that they navigate daily. “On the one hand he is born in the shadow of the Stars and Stripes and he is assured it represents a nation which has never lost a war,” Baldwin continues. “But on the other hand he is also assured by his country and his countrymen that he has never contributed anything to civilization—that his past is nothing more than a record of humiliations gladly endured.”

A more honest reckoning with history is necessary, Baldwin insists. Of slavery, he says, “it was not an accident, it was not an act of God, it was not done by well-meaning people muddling into something which they didn’t understand. It was a deliberate policy hammered into place in order to make money from black flesh. And now, in 1963, because we have never faced this fact, we are in intolerable trouble.”

It’s this focus on history that rearranged my thinking. In Baldwin’s view, it is the only thing that can help disabuse black children of the stereotypes that have been projected onto their community—and it is necessary for white children, too, who oftentimes serve as the purveyors of these myths, and who do not know the truth about their history, either.

Baldwin understands that learning this history can leave students in a state of cognitive dissonance and frustration. Imagining his own hypothetical students, he writes, “I would try to teach them—I would try to make them know, that those streets, those houses, those dangers, those agonies by which they are surrounded, are criminal.” Here, Baldwin, with literary sleight of hand, adopts the terminology used to pathologize black people and applies it to the system in which they operate. What follows is a medley of lessons that is disquieting in its contemporary applicability. “I would try to make him know that just as American history is longer, larger, more various, more beautiful and more terrible than anything anyone has ever said about it, so is the world larger, more daring, more beautiful and more terrible, but principally larger—and that it belongs to him,” he writes, adding, “I would teach him that he doesn’t have to be bound by the expediencies of any given administration, any given policy, any given morality, that he has the right and the necessity to examine everything.”

After reading “A Talk to Teachers,” I altered my approach, placing less emphasis on the standardized tests and using literature to help my students examine their world. I realized that rigorous lessons were not mutually exclusive from culturally and politically relevant ones. Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” did not have to be sacrificed in order to make room for a discussion on community violence. Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man” did not have to be abandoned in order to tackle immigration. “A Talk to Teachers” showed me that a teacher’s work should reject the false pretense of being apolitical, and, instead, confront the problems that shape our students’ lives.

The most quoted line from “A Talk to Teachers” may be this one: “The paradox of education is precisely this—that as one begins to become conscious one begins to examine the society in which he is being educated.” A teacher, Baldwin believed, should push students to understand that the world was molded by people who came before, and that it can be remolded into something new.

  • Clint Smith is a writer, a Ph.D. candidate at Harvard University, and the author of “Counting Descent.”

Girls in Western Australia Gain Right to Wear Pants and Shorts to School

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Students at a private school in Sydney, Australia. It is unclear how many schools across Australia require girls to wear skirts. CreditMichele Mossop/Fairfax Media

SYDNEY, Australia — Girls at public schools across the state of Western Australia will be allowed to wear pants and shorts to class, no longer restricted to only dresses, skirts or skorts.

The Education Department, in response to a complaint from an 11-year-old student, announced last week that it would amend a statewide dress code to offer girls more uniform options.

Students and parents have long voiced complaints about the policy, but the pushback has gained renewed momentum.

After Krystina Myhre, of Perth, discovered that her 11-year-old, Sofia, could not wear shorts to school, they wrote to the state’s education minister, Sue Ellery, calling for a change.

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Sofia Myhre, 11, wrote to the education minister of her state asking for girls to be allowed to wear shorts or pants to class. CreditKrystina Myhre

“My daughter and her friends have been quite unhappy about it for some time,” said Ms. Myhre, who is also a representative of Girls’ Uniform Agenda, a group that campaigns for girls to have the option of wearing shorts and pants. The rule restricted their movement, she said, making them worry about their body and space.

The dress code made it difficult to participate in athletic activities, Sofia said.

“I think it’s really unfair that my brothers have been allowed to wear shorts, and all through primary school I haven’t been allowed to except when I have sport,” she wrote in her letter. “I really love kicking the footy, netball and doing handstands at recess and lunch. It is annoying doing these things in a skirt.”

Ms. Ellery said that after meeting with the Myhres, she asked her department to ensure the policy was nondiscriminatory.

The change does not apply to private schools, but a number of private schools in Perth said this week that they planned to follow suit. “We are introducing trousers for girls next year, but it’s very much an option,” said Robert Henderson, principal of John XXIII College, a Catholic private school. “It’s certainly not throwing out the traditional uniform.” The decision came after consulting with employees, students and parents.

It is unclear how many schools across Australia require girls to wear skirts.

Girls’ Uniform Agenda is still compiling data. So far, about 70 percent of public high schools and all private high schools in Brisbane, Queensland, mandate wearing a skirt, said Amanda Mergler, a co-founder of the group, but a handful of private schools allow exceptions in the winter. That percentage is likely similar in other states, too.

Such a requisite, Dr. Mergler said, can perpetuate harmful gender stereotypes, leaving girls to believe that they should sit and look pretty, while boys may be perceived as active explorers. Dr. Mergler said she pulled her 6-year-old daughter from one school after a classmate told her she could not use the girls’ bathroom because she was wearing pants. “You look around schoolyards and where girls have had to wear dresses and skirts,” Dr. Mergler said. “They’re sitting down on the sidelines and watching boys run around and playing in shorts.”

One study in 2012 found that when 10-year-old girls wore sports uniforms over skirts, they were significantly more active during recess.

Most education departments let individual schools determine dress code, though they usually have a provision that the guidelines must comply with anti-discrimination policies. In New South Wales, for example, the department states that rules should accommodate the “diverse nature of the student population in the school and not disadvantage any student.” In Queensland, principals are urged to offer a “gender neutral” option.

Because of the ambiguity in language, Dr. Mergler said, schools can claim they are complying with the code by simply providing boys and girls uniforms. Parents in Queensland continue to lobby for an amended policy after an effort to allow girls to wear pants was rejected in May.

In Victoria, a petition to change the policy has drawn more than 20,000 signatures.

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Sofia’s letter pleading for change to the dress code in Western Australia.

Most arguments seem to rest on tradition.

“I think tradition plays a strong part in our schools, and we often want to honor those traditions,” Mr. Henderson said. His school will provide the option to wear pants, he said, but that should be for schools to determine on an individual basis.

“Certainly in private schools, there’s an element of longstanding traditions and parents sometimes thinking, ‘I went to that school and I wore that dress, and I want my daughter to wear that dress,’” Dr. Mergler said. “And the uniform is quite symbolic.”

When she first broached the idea of amending the dress code at her daughter’s school, some parents defended skirts as a way to accustom girls to wearing dresses in the workplace.

“In the real world, women get to choose,” Dr. Mergler said. “I choose today whether I put on pants or skirts, and we want girls to have the same choice at schools.”

As for Sofia Myhre, her mother said that the exercise was a good lesson in effecting change. “I think she yelped in joy actually and jumped up and down,” she said of her daughter’s reaction upon learning the policy would be amended. “She was really excited.”

Teachers Brace for Tough Discussions After Charlottesville Violence

Educators in the recently rocked Virginia city are pondering how to broach racially charged topics with their students.

By Lauren Camera, Education Reporter Aug. 18, 2017

 

Hundreds of people march peacefully with lit candles across the University of Virginia campus on Wednesday, Aug. 16, 2017, in Charlottesville, V.A., in the wake of violence in the city and against torch-lit white nationalist parade the same campus last Friday night. Students and residents gathered at the university's Rotunda in Charlottesville to sing together for an evening vigil that stood in stark contrast to last weeks torch-lit march of white supremacists.

Hundreds of people march peacefully with lit candles across the University of Virginia campus on Wednesday in Charlottesville, Va. (SALWAN GEORGES/THE WASHINGTON POST/GETTY IMAGES)

If you prompt Nikki Franklin’s former students with the words “the time is,” they’ll reply in unison: “always right to do right.”  That’s the advice Martin Luther King Jr. gave students during a commencement address at Oberlin College in 1965, and it’s the same mantra Franklin tries to instill in her students each year.

“It usually takes me the whole year to emphasize that and teach them that,” says Franklin, who grew up in northern Virginia and has been an elementary school teacher in the Charlottesville City Schools system since she graduated from the University of Virginia in 2004.

 

“The younger grades really do revolve around building the skills that will allow students to identify what is respect, how do you show respect and love,” she says. “In general, we focus on the broader skills that will create good citizens.  “Ever since this weekend, I’m thinking about how that needs to be emphasized more.”

When students in Charlottesville return to the classroom from summer break on Tuesday, a little more than a week will have passed since white nationalists, white supremacists and neo-Nazis descended on the city to protest a plan to remove a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. The gathering turned deadly when a car plowed into a crowd of counterprotesters, killing one and injuring dozens.

 

“I don’t know what students saw, what kind of conversations they’ve had,” Franklin says. “I don’t know exactly what situations will come up. I realize that this year is going to be different. I can’t tell you exactly how.”

 

For teachers in Charlottesville and across the country, the violent rally put an indelible blot on the start of the school year, leaving many unsure of the type of support their students may need upon returning, and uncertain how they should talk about and teach what happened in their classrooms.

Among the repercussions of the events in Charlottesville has been a heightened re-examination of Confederate memorials, as well as buildings named for those who supported the Confederacy. According to a 2016 report from the Southern Poverty Law Center, 109 public schools were still named for Confederate icons, about 25 percent of which had a student body that was majority black.

 

But the incident also has reignited a conversation among educators about the responsibility to teach U.S. history without sanitizing the country’s ugly moments – as shameful as they may be.

 

“I think teachers do have a responsibility to bring quality historical perspective to bear on historical issues that’s evidence-based,” says Zach Bullock, chairman of the history and social sciences department at Charlottesville High School, where he’s been teaching for seven years. “That’s more important now than ever before maybe.”

 

Those sentiments are bolstered by revelations in recent years about the content of some textbooks, such as a high school geography book in Texas that portrayed African slaves as an immigrant group and “workers.” A Connecticut school district, meanwhile, last year said it would pull a textbook after a parent complained about a passage that said slave owners “often cared for and protected [slaves] like members of the family.”

“I think what we have to do is help [students] come to good conclusions using good information, good news and certainly bringing a historical perspective to bear on it as well,” Bullock says. “Helping them wade through all of the things they hear and see.”

To that end, numerous organizations have resources posted online for teachers that are specifically geared toward helping them teach about race, diversity and empathy.

The Southern Poverty Law Center, for example, has an empathy lesson plan. The National Network of State Teachers of the Year recently released a list of books for grade levels that have strong social justice themes, to help teachers create equitable learning environments. And educational development organization Facing History and Ourselves has resources to help teachers “foster humanity” in their classrooms in the wake of tragedies like Charlottesville.

 

“Educators will need to be even more reflective and teach the subject matter around race, character and civics in an intentionally deeper way,” Franklin says. “Every educator can revisit their own practice and find areas of improvement.”

 

On Twitter, the hashtag #CharlottesvilleCurriculum, started by an education writer for The Atlantic, prompted teacher and education organizations to highlight and share useful resources.

 

Many of the guides available stress the importance of case studies and field trips, followed up by conversations that can help students understand how historical events relate to modern ones.

 

In Charlottesville, students visit Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello plantation, where slaves were used to cultivate tobacco and other crops, as early as second grade.

 

“For a lot of kids, that’s the first time they have a school experience with race in a sticky kind of way,” Franklin says, adding that she’s never had the same conversation twice when talking to students about race, diversity and the country’s history of slavery.

“I really let the students, their knowledge, their comfort lead those kinds of conversations, always with me in the background knowing I need to reinforce the parts of the conversation that get us to my students leaving our classroom knowing that love is important, that being a kind person is important,” she says.

Franklin hasn’t yet settled on a lesson plan for how she’ll approach the recent events that put her city and that of her students in the national spotlight.

 

“We have this hard work to do, but we’re going to do it,” she says. “We’re going to lean on each other.”