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We discuss race in my classroom because my students want to | GUEST COMMENTARY

In 2019, Sidney Thomas' sixth grade student at Holabird Academy worked on a project about who they think deserves a monument, as Confederate symbols came down across the country.
In 2019, Sidney Thomas' sixth grade student at Holabird Academy worked on a project about who they think deserves a monument, as Confederate symbols came down across the country. (Karl Merton Ferron / Baltimore Sun)

Over the past year, verbal battles have waged over how race and our country’s history with race should or shouldn’t be taught in school. In the midst of all of this, one crucial piece of information seems to be going overlooked: We are having conversations about race in my classroom because students want to have them.

Even before 2020, students in my 7th and 8th grade classrooms would come to me with questions: “How did racism even start?” or “Why are Black people treated so wrong?” That they are asking these questions shows that they want to connect the dots, to learn more about their histories and why the world operates in the way it does. Rather than leaving my students to seek out answers on YouTube or TikTok, we discuss these issues in my classroom.

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The first thing I tell my students is that my job is to teach them to think critically — to research and examine sources and to ask questions, never taking anything they encounter as pure, complete truth. “Even what you tell us?” my students often ask, certain they have caught me in my own net. My response: “Yes, absolutely.”

I teach not to create head-nodding automatons, but to build independent, critical thinkers. Students quickly learn my classroom is a place where they engage in research, practice asking questions of source material, discover perspectives too often entirely omitted from their history books, and make connections to the world around them.

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For example, my students learn about European colonization, but they also explore the impact of European colonization on Black and Indigenous people. They examine a variety of sources to identify perspectives (and why some are missing), to corroborate and to make arguments about colonization’s long-term impacts.

First, we get a general understanding about the European Age of Exploration. Then, we study Christopher Columbus’ legacy by collaboratively digging deeper:\ into primary sources from Columbus himself, paintings from the time period and other scholarly works. We also read about the Taino people.

As students examine each source, I encourage my students to ask: What does this source say about Columbus’ legacy? Whose point of view is centered in this source — and why? Whose perspective is left out — and why? Invited to grapple with and make meaning of these different perspectives, students excitedly engage in rich discussions. Students start to comment and question:

“Wait, I didn’t know he actually enslaved Native people.”

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“He killed people? I never knew that.”

“His legacy was destroying the lives of Native people. Why don’t we hear about that?”

Then, I help my students make modern day connections to their city of Baltimore. We looked at newspaper articles and news videos about Baltimore protests against Columbus statues and Columbus Day. Students commented: “I understand why they would want to protest these Columbus statues and Columbus Day. He literally killed and enslaved people. Why would people want to have a statue of him or make a holiday for him?”

Now young scholars in their own right, students were able to ask these critical questions and express their own ideas.

In my eighth-grade classes, we cover the American Revolution. Students learn about the adversarial relationship between the British and the white colonists and explore the democratic ideals of liberty and rights embedded in the Declaration of Independence. All of this is important. But it is not complete. So my students also examine historically omitted voices and stories of the American Revolution and who was — and was not — included in the Declaration of Independence This often leads to reflections like this one offered by one of my students: “The Founding Fathers were hypocrites. They’re fighting for their freedom from Britain, but they’re preventing Black people from being free. Everybody deserves to be free. Not just certain people.” My students learn that it’s not only the injustices against Black, brown and Indigenous people that are omitted from their history books, but also the contributions, bravery and triumphs. For instance, many of my students are unaware that Black people actually fought during the American Revolution for their freedom from enslavement. But by being able to read and discover various sources that tell another side of the American Revolution, they learn Black people’s heroic roles in seeking freedom and begin making connections to what they’re learning in other classes.

Students’ abilities to question, critically think and analyze sources continues to blossom when we study the impact of American chattel slavery on Black people and the U.S. We looked at pre-Civil War newspaper ads announcing slave ship arrivals and slave auctions, as well as post-Civil War newspaper ads from formerly enslaved people seeking loved ones stolen from them through slavery. Students immediately recognized how slavery tore Black families apart, with devastating effects.

We read excerpts from Harriet Jacobs, Frederick Douglass, and Oladuah Equiano’s slave narratives to understand the humanity of the enslaved, but also how their humanity wasn’t recognized because of the brutality of enslavers. We study laws forbidding enslaved Black people from learning to read and write, and how these powerful narratives were a form of resistance against these laws. We viewed laws imposed on free Black people in Maryland to prevent them from living free and full lives, and how Baltimore Black churches educated Black people since public schools refused to do so. We looked at the impact of conditions of slavery on the enslaved and how abolitonists movements sprang up to combat chattel slavery. By fully analyzing historical sources, discussing what they found and asking questions, students were able to see how enslaved Black people were more than “slaves’'; they were human beings who played a major role in United States history.

To make connections between the past and today, my students read an excerpt from the young reader’s version of “Stamped,” discussing race and racism. The day after the verdict in George Floyd’s murder trial, my students asked for space to talk, understand why it happened, and to ask questions. My classroom became that space. One day while we were watching CNN 10, they were able to verbalize the connections between “Stamped” and a story about the Tulsa Race Massacre. Students even asked, “So are we going to learn more about the Tulsa Race Massacre? I want to learn more about it because it does connect to what our book ‘Stamped’ is about.” We did learn about the Tulsa Race Massacre, as well as the impact 100 years later as we listened to Viola Fletcher’s and other survivors’ testimony on Capitol Hill.

As a teacher, what continues to stand out each year is how students always end up telling me: “Why didn’t I learn all of this before? That’s wrong. I should’ve been taught about this.” Students are upset and in disbelief that historical information has been strategically selected for them so that unsettling parts are minimized or hidden from them altogether. There is a sense of betrayal because they feel they deserve to know the full historical picture so that they can come to their own conclusions.

Students are aware of the racial inequities that exist in our world. They want to know why. They want to trace the path from strange fruit to root. History is complex. Students should be invited in and taught how to interrogate and make sense of all the good and wrong, however challenging to face and discuss, that has shaped our society today. It would be disastrous — and, indeed, educational malpractice — to continue to willfully miseducate students about race and its implications in the United States. Black, Latinx, Indigenous and other people of color’s history must not be cast in the margins or edited out entirely. These historically excluded groups of people are pivotal, and their stories and experiences must be taught year-round to all students, including white ones. Not as a footnote. Not only in February. Students need space to discover and research primary sources from time periods and to have those conversations that allow them to dig deeper and think about the perspectives intentionally omitted in the historical narrative because students are watching what’s happening and have so many questions. Classrooms should provide students with the tools and skills they need to answer the many questions they have about our nation because in the end, students become empowered and well-informed change agents.

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Sidney Thomas (thatteachersid@gmail.com) teaches middle school at Holabird Academy. She is the Baltimore City Schools 2021 Teacher of the Year.

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