Don’t know much about history: A disturbing new report on how poorly schools teach American slavery

 February 3, 2018

Slave shackles are on display in the Slavery and Freedom Gallery in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Consider this from a disturbing new report on how U.S. schools teach — or, rather, don’t teach — students about the history of slavery in the United States:

  • Only 8 percent of U.S. high school seniors could identify slavery as the central cause of the Civil War.
  • 68 percent of the surveyed students did not know that slavery formally ended only with an amendment to the Constitution.
  • Only 22 percent of the students could correctly identify how provisions in the Constitution gave advantages to slaveholders.
  • Only 44 percent of the students answered that slavery was legal in all colonies during the American Revolution.

These results are part of an unsettling new report titled “Teaching Hard History: American Slavery,” which was researched over the course of a year by the Teaching Tolerance project of the nonprofit Southern Poverty Law Center. The report includes results of surveys of U.S. high school seniors as well as social studies teachers in all grades — nationally representative of those populations — as well as an analysis of 15 state content standards, and a review of 10 popular U.S. history textbooks. The best textbook achieved a score of 70 percent against a rubric of what should be included in the study of American slavery; the average score was 46 percent.

Teaching Tolerance also published a framework to help teachers properly teach the subject, with suggested resources and materials.

The report argues that the United States “needs an intervention in the ways that we teach and learn about the history of American slavery,” which will require work “by state educational departments, teacher preparation programs, school boards, textbooks publishers, museums, professional organizations and thought leaders.”

Slavery defined the nature and limits of American liberty; it influenced the creation and development of the major political and social institutions of the nation; and it was a cornerstone of the American prosperity that fueled our industrial revolution. It’s not simply an event in our history; it’s central to our history.

It found that while teachers say they are serious about teaching the subject, they are uncomfortable doing so. State content standards do not largely convey the need to teach about the history of slavery and most textbooks fail to convey the reality of slavery, the report said.  Other problems include the prevalence of lessons that portray slavery as only a Southern institution, that fail to connect slavery and white supremacy, and that provide no real context about slavery, “preferring to present the good news before the bad.”

The report says:

In elementary school, if slavery is mentioned at all in state content standards, it is generally by implication, with references to the Underground Railroad or other “feel good” stories that deal with slavery’s end, rather than its inception and persistence. Young students learn about liberation before they learn about enslavement; they learn to celebrate the Constitution before learning about the troublesome compromises that made its ratification possible. They may even learn about the Emancipation Proclamation before they learn about the Civil War.

The report found seven key problems with the way American slavery is taught:

  1. We teach about slavery without context, preferring to present the good news before the bad. In elementary school, students learn about the Underground Railroad, about Harriet Tubman or other “feel good” stories, often before they learn about slavery. In high school, there’s overemphasis on Frederick Douglass, abolitionists and the Emancipation Proclamation and little understanding of how slave labor built the nation.
  2. We tend to subscribe to a progressive view of American history that can acknowledge flaws only to the extent that they have been addressed and solved. Our vision of growing ever “more perfect” stands in the way of our need to face the continuing legacy of the past.
  3. We teach about the American enslavement of Africans as an exclusively southern institution. While it is true that slavery reached its apex in the South during the years before the Civil War, it is also true that slavery existed in all colonies, and in all states when the Declaration of Independence was signed, and that it continued to be interwoven with the economic fate of the nation long into the 19th century.
  4. We rarely connect slavery to the ideology that grew up to sustain and protect it: white supremacy. Slavery required white supremacy to persist. In fact, the American ideology of white supremacy, along with accompanying racist dogma, developed precisely to justify the perpetuation of slavery.
  5. We often rely on pedagogy poorly suited to the topic. When we asked teachers to tell us about their favorite lesson when teaching about slavery, dozens proudly reported classroom simulations. Simulation of traumatic experiences is not shown to be effective as a learning strategy and can harm vulnerable children.
  6. We rarely make connections to the present. How can students develop a meaningful understanding of the rest of American history if they do not understand the scope and lasting impact of enslavement? Reconstruction, the Great Migration, the Harlem Renaissance and the civil rights movement do not make sense when so divorced from the arc of American history.
  7. We tend to center on the white experience when we teach about slavery. Too often, the varied, lived experience of enslaved people is neglected while educators focus on the broader political and economic impacts of slavery. Politically and socially, we focus on what white people were doing in the time leading up to the Civil War.

It says the “biggest obstacle to teaching slavery effectively in America is the deep, abiding American need to conceive of and understand our history as ‘progress,’ as the story of a people and a nation that always sought the improvement of mankind, the advancement of liberty and justice, the broadening of pursuits of happiness for all.

The report says:

The point is not to teach American history as a chronicle of shame and oppression. Far from it. The point is to tell American history as a story of real human beings, of power, of vast economic and geographical expansion, of great achievements as well as great dispossession, of human brutality and human reform. The point is also not to merely seek the story of what we are not, but of what we are — a land and a nation built in great part out of the economic and political systems forged in or because of slavery and its expansion. Slavery has much to do with the making of the United States.

This can and should be told as a story about human nature generally, and about this place in time specifically. Americans were not and are not inherently racist or slaveholding. We have a history that made our circumstances, as it also at times unmade them. Enslaved Americans were by no means only the brutalized victims of two and a half centuries of oppression; they were a people, of many cultures, who survived, created, imagined and built their worlds. And through the Civil War and emancipation, they had much to do with remaking the United States at its refounding in the 1860s and 1870s.

Fifteen sets of state standards were analyzed: 10 from the top-scoring states in a 2014 Teaching the Movement review of the way state standards cover the civil rights movement, and five more to add geographic diversity.

The report says that none addresses how the ideology of white supremacy rose to justify the institution of slavery and most fail to lay out meaningful requirements for learning about slavery, about the lives of the millions of enslaved people, or about how their labor was essential to the American economy.

Here’s the full report:

The Hard History American Slavery on Scribd


Multiple Grades: The First Step to Improving Grading and Reporting

Education Week

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Thomas R. Guskey Ph.D.* returns as a guest blog author. He is Professor of Educational Psychology at the University of Kentucky and known throughout the world for his teaching about  student assessment, grading and reporting, professional learning, and educational change.

Imagine going to your physician for a medical examination. During the exam, the physician records data on your height, weight, blood pressure, and heart rate, and asks you questions about your lifestyle and how you are feeling. After gathering all this information, imagine the physician entering the data into a computer that uses a mathematical algorithm to calculate a single number describing your physical condition. The physician then reports the number to you, suggests how you might improve it, and sends you on your way.

Would you be satisfied with such an examination? Would you have faith in a physician who analyzed information about you in this way? Would you trust a computer algorithm to tally the information and offer an accurate assessment of your health? Would you find a single number generated by a computer to be informative or helpful?

Few people would answer “Yes” to any of these questions. Many would even find such a process insulting. We need and expect more. In particular, we want our physician to be a thoughtful and knowledgeable professional who looks carefully at the different aspects of the data in assessing our health. We expect that individual to evaluate this information thoroughly and understand its nuances. And we certainly want more than a single number tallied by a computer from the diverse types of information gathered.

One Single Grade is Inadequate

Yet even though most of us find such a process unacceptable in a physical examination, few object to teachers using a nearly identical process when determining the grades they record on students’ report cards. Every marking period, teachers gather evidence on students’ performance from scores attained on major examinations, compositions, and classroom quizzes. They record data on students’ homework completion, class participation, and punctuality in turning in assignments. Some teachers gather additional information on students’ behavior in class, collaboration with classmates, respect, and effort. They then enter these data into a computer grading program that calculates a single number or grade that is recorded on a report card.

Sadly, a single number used to describe students’ performance in school is just as inadequate and difficult to interpret as would be a single number describing our health or physical condition. That number or grade combines highly diverse data, gathered through different means, and measuring a variety of different attributes. And just like a single number representing our health would be, it’s not particularly informative or helpful.

Product, Process and Progress Criteria Matter

A more useful and meaningful description of students’ performance includes multiple grades. At a minimum, it provides grades that distinguish productprocess, and progress learning criteria.

Product criteria reflect how well students have achieved specific learning goals, standards, or competencies. These might be determined by students’ performance on major examinations, compositions, projects, reports, or other culminating demonstrations of learning. Product criteria describe students’ academic achievements; that is, what they have learned and are able to do as a result of their experiences in school.

Process criteria describe student behaviors that facilitate or broaden learning. These may be things that enable learning, such as formative assessments, homework, and class participation. They also may reflect extended learning goals related to collaboration, responsibility, communication, perseverance, habits of mind, or citizenship. In some cases process criteria relate to students’ compliance with class procedures, like turning in assignments on time or not interrupting during class discussions.

Progress criteria show how much students have gained or improved. Sometimes these are referred to as “value-added” criteria. Although related to product criteria, progress criteria are distinct. It would be possible, for example, for students to make outstanding progress but still not be meeting course academic goals or achieving at grade level. It also would be possible for highly skilled and talented students to show they have achieved the product criteria without making notable progress or improvement.

Multiple Grades Don’t Require More Work

Although these types of learning criteria vary in their importance depending on the subject area and grade level, all three are essential to school success. Meaningful communication about that success, however, requires that they be reported separately. In other words, students must receive different grades for whatever product, process, and progress criteria are considered most important in their learning.

Ironically, reporting multiple grades for these different criteria does not require extra work for teachers. In fact, it’s less work. Teachers already gather evidence on different product, process, and progress criteria. They keep detailed records of students’ scores on various measures of achievement, as well as formative assessment results, homework completion, class participation, collaboration in teamwork, etc. By simply reporting separate grades for these different aspects of learning, teachers avoid the dilemmas involved in determining how much each should be weighted in calculating a single grade.

Reporting multiple grades on the report card and on the transcript further emphasizes to students that these different aspects of their performance are all important. Parents gain advantages because the report card now provides a more detailed and comprehensive picture of their child’s performance in school. In addition, because product grades are no longer tainted by evidence based on students’ behavior or compliance, those grades more closely align with external measures of achievement and content mastery, such as AP exam results and ACT or SAT scores – a quality that college and university admissions officers have been shown to favor.

Products, Processes, and Progress Criteria

The biggest challenge for teachers and school leaders rests in determining what particular product, process, and progress criteria to report. This requires deep thinking about the learning criteria that are most important to students’ success in school and beyond. From a practical perspective, it also involves finding an acceptable balance between providing enough detail to be meaningful but not so exhaustive that it creates a book-keeping burden for teachers.

Clear Rubrics Matter

An additional challenge in reporting multiple grades involves developing clear rubrics that describe each type of criteria so that expectations for students’ performance are well-defined. If teachers decide to offer a separate grade for homework, for example, they must articulate the difference in scores between students who complete an assignment but do so incorrectly, versus others who complete only half of the assignment but what they complete is done well. Similarly in assigning a grade for class participation, teachers must consider if frequently contributing to class discussions is all that is necessary or if the quality of those contributions also must be taken into account.

In the End

Grading and reporting are much more a challenge in effective communication than simply a task of quantifying data on students’ performance. Providing multiple grades that reflect product, process, and progress criteria enhance the meaning and accuracy of that communication. Without adding to the workload of teachers, this simple strategy can do much to improve the effectiveness of grading and reporting. It provides more meaningful information, facilitates communication between school and home, and offers specific direction in efforts to improve students’ learning.

*More about Thomas R. Guskey can be found here. and he can be reached at . 

Student-Centered Learning in Spotlight at World’s Largest Ed-Tech Show

Associate Editor


What will today’s kindergartners need in order to succeed in the world as the Class of 2030?

“Student-centricity,” according to research conducted by McKinsey & Company on behalf of Microsoft Education, and showcased on the opening day at Bett, the world’s largest educational technology show here.

“That’s a theme we heard loud and clear: focusing on the learner,” said Barbara Holzapfel, the general manager of education marketing for Microsoft, during a presentation about the findings that attracted hundreds of people at a “standing room only” session of the conference.

They want to be supported by teachers who understand their needs, and want to be able to explore for themselves what interests them, she said.

Exhibiting that very trait were three 10-year-olds from Hong Kong, who came to the massive ed-tech show with their teacher Ms. Wong, to show off some of the inventions they built and programmed, including a paper airplane launcher and a tea-making machine that allows their teacher to choose how strong she wants her tea.

Here, the 5th-grade students from a government school explain what their invention does:

The automatic tea maker was a gift for their teacher, who explains their invention:

And the girls explain their favorite part about collaborating on the month-long project to create an automatic tea maker:

But what will all this student-centricity mean for teachers? “Teaching is one of the professions at the least risk of being automated,” said Holzapfel, who said the field is expected to grow exponentially.

The teacher “will morph into a guide and coach for students,” she said. “This is a generation that expects to have voice/choice in their own learning journey…and how they navigate it.”

Jobs of the Future

Lower-skill jobs are likely to continue to be replaced by automation. By 2030, “the fastest-growing occupations will require higher-level cognitive skills in areas such as collaboration, problem-solving, critical thinking, and creativity,” the researchers found, according to an announcement about the study. “To help all students build these crucial cognitive and social and emotional skills, educators will need training, technologies, and time.” (See the special report Education Week produced recently on this topic: Schools and the Future of Work.)

McKinsey’s research was based on input from 70 “thought leaders,” an analysis of 150 pieces of relevant research, and surveys of 2,000 teachers and 2,000 students across the U.S., the U.K., Canada, and Singapore.

The future of learning, work and life “is going to be profoundly social,” said Holzapfel, so students will need to develop and apply social and emotional skills. In fact, researchers found these “soft skills” to be twice as predictive of academic achievement as home environment and demographics.

Among the students surveyed, 50 percent indicated social-emotional skills were among their top priorities, compared with 30 percent of teachers. But perceptions differ. While only 30 to 40 percent of students feel they are receiving feedback on these skills, between 50 and 60 percent of teachers feel they are providing it.

Personalized Learning: Part of the Solution

Personalized learning is one of the most promising ways to develop social-emotional skills, according to the study. (See the special report Education Week produced recently on this topic: Personalized Learning: Vision vs. Reality.)

“Research in the past has shown that personalized learning improves cognition and skill development,” said Holzapfel.

“Seventy percent of students believe they can achieve higher growth and more content mastery when they are supported by teachers who really understand them as individuals,” and their individual learning needs, she said.

But personalized learning “is in very high demand, but very short supply,” she explained, noting that 70 percent of teachers say time is a barrier to the approach. Teachers and students in the study disagreed on the pace of learning, with educators identifying time constraints and the ability to individualize to so many students as central to the problem.

Microsoft sees technology as key to the solution. “Artificial intelligence, mixed reality, collaborative platforms, and technologies that go way beyond that—all of these technologies can be really powerful tools” to help teachers save time and gain insights into the learning and progress of each individual student, Holzapfel said.

Micro-Progress and the Magic of Just Getting Started


Welcome to the Smarter Living newsletter. The editor, Tim Herrera, emails readers with tips and advice for living a better, more fulfilling life. Sign up here to get it in your inbox.

I’ve never been great with deadlines.

It’s a flaw I’m keenly aware of, and one I actively try to counter. But despite my best efforts, it’s forever lingering in the background, an insatiable little gremlin that devours my productivity. It is definitely one of my things.

Yet of the countless articles, books and so-called lifehacks about productivity I’ve read (or written!), the only “trick” that has ever truly and consistently worked is both the simplest and the most difficult to master: just getting started.

Enter micro-progress.

Pardon the gimmicky phrase, but the idea goes like this: For any task you have to complete, break it down into the smallest possible units of progress and attack them one at a time.

Let’s say you’re an editor with a weekly newsletter to write. Rather than approach that task as “Write Monday’s newsletter,” break down the very first steps you have to take and keep slicing them up into tiny, easily achievable micro-goals, then celebrate each achievement. Step 1: Open a Google Doc. Step 2: Name that Google Doc. Step 3: Write a single sentence. And so on.

This is an idea that has been given many names — the 5-minute rulethe 2-minute rule and the 1-minute rule, to name a few — but these techniques only get you going on a task. My favorite expansion of this concept is in this post by James Clear.

In it, he uses Newton’s laws of motion as analogies for productivity. To wit, rule No. 1: “Objects in motion tend to stay in motion. Find a way to get started in less than two minutes.”

What’s so striking about applying this law of motion to productivity is that once you shift your thinking into this frame — I’ve started being productive, sI’m going to keep being productive — you achieve those micro-goals at what feels like an exponentially increasing rate without even realizing it. (And before you know it, you’ve finished that newsletter.)

And it’s not just gimmicky phrases and so-called lifehacking: Studies have shown that you can trick your brain into increasing dopamine levels by setting and achieving, you guessed it, micro-goals.

Going even further, success begets success. In a 2011 Harvard Business Review article, researchers reported finding that “ordinary, incremental progress can increase people’s engagement in the work and their happiness during the workday.” That means that once you start that PowerPoint you’re dreading, even if all you’ve done is give it a name, that micro-progress can continue to build on itself until you’ve finally finished that last slide.

But all of that success has to begin somewhere. So close this story right now and go get started.

What are your tips for riding a wave of productivity? Let me know at or tweet me @timherrera.

Have a great week!

— Tim

75 Percent of Teen Girls Have Anxiety — What We Can Do About It


Author and researcher Rachel Simmons talks raising daughters in a toxic culture



Roughly three out of four teenage girls experience anxiety, according to the 2016 Washington State Healthy Youth Survey. Seventy-six percent of tenth grade girls have felt extremely nervous or anxious and 13 percent have attempted suicide.

What is going on and how can we as parents help? We turned to educator and researcher Rachel Simmons. Founder of Oakland-based outreach organization Girls Leadership and leadership development specialist at Smith College, Simmons believes there’s no one reason why so many young women feel anxious.

Still, there is one reason she often sees in her work: more pressure.

“We hope for girls to be smart and brave and interested in STEM fields, but we still expect them to be thin and sexually attractive and have a witty and appealing online presence,” she says. “No matter how many achievements they accrue, they feel that they are not enough as they are … We haven’t really upgraded our expectations, we’ve just added on to the old ones.”

She addresses this pressure and how parents can help their daughters thrive in her latest book, “Enough As She Is” (out Feb. 27).

It’s not a bad thing that we’re instilling more confidence in our girls, Simmons says. The problem is that we’re still raising them in a toxic culture that hasn’t caught up with those new expectations.

“That’s how girls wind up feeling something is wrong with themwhen in fact … something is deeply wrong with our culture,” she says. In the last decade alone, Simmons says she’s seen “the rise of social media, arrival of college admissions mania, and ever more ruthless pressure to be thin tighten the rules of success for girls in punishing ways.”

And that, she notes, undermines the development of their confident, authentic selves. But that doesn’t mean there’s no solution. We asked Simmons why our daughters are experiencing so much anxiety — and what parents can do to help.

Why does more opportunity lead to increased anxiety in teenage girls?

Girls have too many roles to play and too many roles conflict with each other. Add this role overload to the fact that girls continue to need to please others first and be likable. Girls are still raised with a psychology that is trained to think about other people before themselves. This all is a real recipe for unhappiness.

My goal is to give parents tools to help girls carve out a life and a sense of self that feels authentic and important to them that isn’t fully shaped by what other people expect of them. It’s not that challenges are going to go away; it’s about how to manage these challenges. For example, I never tell girls that they are going to stop overthinking things. The question is: Do you know how to manage overthinking and how to understand it?

Got any tips for how to get your teen daughter to actually, you know, talk?

Teenagers are notorious for not wanting to talk when you want to talk. Annoyingly, they’re not interested in talking on your schedule and they want to talk when it’s not convenient for you. If they are deflecting your attempt to talk, ask yourself, ’Is this the right time for them to talk?’ Can you agree upon a different time to talk?

It’s also super important for parents to find that middle way between being authoritarian versus permissive. Kind but firm, gentle, curious and humble. Try saying, ‘There’s a lot I don’t know, and I would love to hear more about what I don’t know; here’s what I am thinking as your parent.’

Every teenager wants to have respect. I’m not talking about them getting to go out until 1 a.m. I’m talking about establishing trust in your teenager’s perspective. That’s being able to say, ‘Hey, listen. There are things you have to tell me’ while [also] standing firm with the fact that you’re the parent and the boss.

And how should you respond when your daughter does tell you something big?

When your child does open up and tell you something big, it’s so important to note that. You say to your kid in that situations, ‘Thank you so much for telling me that.’ Their job is not to serve you by telling you things — their job is to be secretive — so be grateful when they tell you things.

Where does the use of social media come into this?

There’s a real trend of using fear and shame to teach about social media: ‘Your life will be ruined if you do the wrong thing online.’ But teaching through fear and shame isn’t effective for teens.

Social media in and of itself is not harmful — it’s the way in which it’s used that can be harmful. It’s important for parents to make an effort to understand why their kids love it, and to understand their kids are going to make mistakes … Parents need to be clear with their kids about parameters and expectations around use. I don’t think that means being a spy, but you must play a role in how your kids learn to be online through rules and expectations.

In your book, you recommend creating a ‘failure resume’ that lists ways you have failed in your life and sharing that with your daughter. Why?

If you create a failure resume and talk about it with your daughter, you’re desensitizing her to the power of failure. You’re talking about something that’s often taboo and lessening the shame around it. You’re also normalizing failure, making it fun and funny, which makes it less scary. To be comfortable with your setbacks is a muscle that you must flex again and again. It’s a skill.

A failure resume is an ingredient for the recipe [of how to deal with failure]. Essentially my whole book is about this recipe for building resilience. I talk about what is threatening girls and how to respond to it, how to be resilient. I’ve learned that what girls really need are the skills to lean inside as much as to lean in: to practice self-compassion, nourish their most important relations and seek support when needed.

The Scariest Catholic in America

The New York Times

CreditBen Wiseman

The Rev. James Martin is a Roman Catholic rock star. His books, including one on Jesus Christ and another on the saints, have sold hundreds of thousands of copies. The director Martin Scorsese has twice hired him to consult on movies with religious themes. Television producers love him: Back when Stephen Colbert had his Comedy Central show, Father Martin popped up frequently as its “official chaplain.”

So the reaction when he agreed to speak this month to a group of parishes in central New Jersey was unalloyed elation, right?

Wrong. Within days of the announcement, parish officials were in a state better described as dread.

Check out the websites and Twitter accounts of far-right Catholic groups and you’ll see why. To them Father Martin is “sick,” “wicked,” “a filthy liar,” “the smoke of Satan” and a “heretic” on a fast track to “eternal damnation.” They obsessively stalk him and passionately exhort churchgoers to protest his public appearances or prevent them from happening altogether.

And they succeed. After the New Jersey parish in which his remarks were supposed to be delivered was inundated with angry phone calls, the event was moved off church grounds. Father Martin will give his spectacularly uncontroversial talk — “Jesus Christ: Fully Human, Fully Divine” — at a secular conference center in a nearby town.

Why all this drama? What’s Father Martin’s unconscionable sin? In his most recent book, “Building a Bridge,” which was published in June, he calls on Catholics to show L.G.B.T. people more respect and compassion than many of them have demonstrated in the past.

That’s all. That’s it. He doesn’t say that the church should bless gay marriage or gay adoption. He doesn’t explicitly reject church teaching, which prescribes chastity for gay men and lesbians, though he questions the language — “intrinsically disordered” — with which it describes homosexuality.

The Rev. James Martin.CreditDavid Gonzalez/The New York Times

But that hasn’t stopped his detractors from casting him as a terrifying enemy of the faith — Regan in “The Exorcist” and Damien in “The Omen” rolled together and grown up into a balding and bespectacled Jesuit — and silencing him whenever they can. A talk about Jesus that he was supposed to give in London last fall was canceled. So was a similar talk at the Theological College of the Catholic University of America.

And the vitriol to which he has been subjected is breathtaking, a reminder not just of how much homophobia is still out there but also of how presumptuous, overwrought, cruel and destructive discourse in this digital age can be.

“Inexcusably ugly” was how the Roman Catholic archbishop of Philadelphia, Charles Chaput, described the attacks on Father Martin in an essay for the Catholic journal First Things in September. Archbishop Chaput is no progressive, but still he was moved to write that “the bitterness directed at the person of Father Martin is not just unwarranted and unjust; it’s a destructive counter-witness to the Gospel.” He cited a recent article in a French publication with the headline “Catholic Cyber-Militias and the New Censorship,” observing, “We live at a time when civility is universally longed for and just as universally (and too often gleefully) violated.”

After Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego published a similar defense of Father Martin in the Jesuit magazine America, one of Father Martin’s devoted inquisitors tweeted: “If you think the anti-sodomite bigotry in the church is bad, you should see hell.”

I spoke with Bishop McElroy recently, and he said that while there are calm-voiced critics of Father Martin with earnest concerns about what they see as the church’s drift from traditional sexual morality, there are also out-and-out bigots whose methods are “incompatible with what we hope to be as a church.”

“We have to face the fact that there is a group of people across all religious views that are particularly antagonistic to L.G.B.T. people,” he told me. “That comes from deep within the human soul, and it’s really corrosive and repugnant.”

I have known Father Martin for many years and have long been struck by the painstakingly careful balance that he maintains. Is he telling his fellow Catholics to judge L.G.B.T. people less harshly, whether they’re chaste or not? Absolutely. When he and I talked a few days ago, he repeated a recommendation in “Building a Bridge” that Catholic institutions stop firing gay people, which has happened repeatedly.

“Straight couples do not have their sexual lives put under a microscope like that, nor are they targeted,” he told me. “A couple living together before they’re married aren’t fired from a Catholic school.” But that arrangement runs as afoul of church teaching as a sexually active gay or lesbian couple’s does.

From listening to Father Martin, it’s certainly possible to conclude that, or at least wonder if, he has qualms with church teaching about homosexuality. But he’s so restrained and respectful that the president of the Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States officially approved “Building a Bridge,” which has also been endorsed by an array of prominent cardinalsand bishops.

And he trails behind many members of his faith in his publicly stated views. According to a poll by the Pew Research Center last June, 67 percent of Americans who identify as Catholic support the legalization of same-sex marriage, in contrast to 62 percent of Americans across the board.

But the far right isn’t quietly ceding the fight. That’s clear not only in the response to Father Martin but also in a federal education bill, drafted by Republicans, that would protect colleges that ban openly gay relationships or bar gays from certain religious organizations on campus.

And in the church as in the government, the scorched-earth tactics of ultraconservatives often gives them a sway disproportionate to their actual numbers. “These online hate groups are now more powerful than local churches,” Father Martin said, referring specifically to Church Militant and to the American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family and Property, which started a petition demanding that the New Jersey parishes cancel his appearance. It gathered 12,000 signatures.

Lyle Garcia, 72, one of the parishioners involved in the decision to invite Father Martin, admitted to me that he was “very concerned” that in changing the location of the event, they’d rewarded and emboldened the haters. But at least, he said, the talk would proceed.

As will Father Martin. An expanded edition of “Building a Bridge” will be published in March, and it includes material about L.G.B.T. Catholics who told him, as he promoted the book, that it had given them desperately needed comfort.

“I’m at total peace,” he told me. “I really am. An ocean of hate online is really wiped out by just a few tears from an L.G.B.T. person.” Only one thing to say to that: Amen.

Modeling Assertiveness With Students


Simple role-playing exercises can show students how to stand up for themselves without being unkind to others.


©Shutterstock/Monkey Business Images

Assertiveness is a key concept in social and emotional learning and represents the middle ground between the extremes of aggression and passivity. When people behave aggressively, they prioritize their own needs and may use threats to get what they want. When people behave passively, they do things they don’t want to do because they feel pressured or threatened by others.

But when people behave assertively, they stand up for themselves without diminishing or hurting others. In other words, they’re strong, not mean.

Assertive communication is a hard skill to learn. Our culture tends to reward aggression. Putdowns are framed as humor in cartoons and sitcoms, and the internet can be a platform for bullying. It’s hard to find examples of assertiveness in the public sphere.

What does assertive communication look like and sound like in real life? How can we resist the pull of aggressive or passive choices, which may be easier in the moment but don’t solve our problems in the long run? How can we get our needs met without hurting others?

In the classroom, students who lack assertiveness skills may hesitate to share their thinking openly or ask clarifying questions when they’re confused, or allow a classmate’s bullying to go unchallenged. And teachers who lack these skills may struggle to set clear behavior expectations in the classroom or hesitate to seek support from coaches and principals.

Teachers can boost their students’ assertiveness skills—and their own—by teaching some simple communication techniques that can be used in and out of the classroom. Explicitly teaching these techniques can make all of us more comfortable using them in real life.

After introducing and discussing these assertiveness techniques, engage your students in role-plays to give them a chance to practice using them. You may want to present various conflicts or problems, brainstorm about which assertiveness techniques would be the most useful, and then allow students to role-play and evaluate the effectiveness of their choice.


The “nice no”: Students and teachers may feel pressured to go along with other people’s ideas or invitations. Examples include: “Do you want to trade snacks?” and “Do you want to co-plan this lesson?”

These invitations can cause anxiety if we want to decline them. A simple technique for responding assertively to such requests is a “nice no.” We might say, with a smile, “Thanks for asking me, but I’m not interested.” Sometimes a simple “No, thanks” does the trick. Making a counter suggestion often works as a follow-up to a nice no.

Setting a boundary: Sometimes students are asked by peers to do things that are outside their comfort zone, such as “Will you let me cut in line?” or “Can I copy off your paper?” An assertive technique for responding to such invitations is to set a clear and firm boundary by saying, “No, I’m not comfortable with that.” Students don’t need to explain why or negotiate about it—they can simply set a clear boundary and hold to it.

Asking for some thinking time: People sometimes ask us questions that we’re not ready to answer. We might need more information, a chance to weigh other options, or time to reflect on our feelings about the situation. An assertive technique for responding to such questions is to ask for some thinking time: “I’m not sure how to answer that right now. Can I get back to you later today?” A key point is to ask for the amount of time we need, whether it’s later the same day or next week.

Stating your needs: We sometimes run into misunderstandings because we haven’t communicated our own needs clearly. It may seem that other people are ignoring or disrespecting our needs when in fact they’re simply not aware of them. If we recognize this, we can address the problem by stating our needs calmly. For example, a student might say to a peer, “I need space to hang my coat in the closet.” And a student might say to a teacher, “Could you please repeat that? I need to hear the directions again.”

Using an “I feel” message: Sometimes we have misunderstandings that are more personal. If we feel hurt by someone we’re close to, we may respond by being aggressive, making an accusation, or withdrawing passively to protect ourselves. But with friends, teachers, and colleagues who care about us, students and teachers can use an “I feel” message to assertively communicate their feelings and emotional needs. A student may say to a friend, “I feel sad when you cancel our plans, because I love hanging out with you.” This gives the friend a chance to understand the speaker’s needs and try to meet them.

Knowing how to respond to aggression: Sometimes when we communicate assertively, we’re met with an aggressive response that might diminish the validity of our feelings or perspective. The best thing to do in this situation may be to calmly remove ourselves from the conversation by saying something like, “I think I communicated my thoughts clearly, so there’s not much more to talk about.”