June 3, 2018

Getting along with other Americans: Start with the young

Sam Smith – Whether you’re listening to the deep prejudice of the president or the deep anger of victims of prejudice, there is surprisingly little sense these days that ethnic relations are anything but a problem, with corrective approaches rarely discussed. It is as if we can only analyze the situation, not deal with it. And rare is the feeling, as Martin Luther King told his colleagues, that among our dreams should be that someday our enemies should be our friends.  

One good place to start is with the young who are the first victims and perps of bias. Here are excerpts from several articles worth reading on this topic.

Teaching multiculturalism

Wayne Au teaches secondary education at California State University. His most recent book is Unequal By Design: High-Stakes Testing and the Standardization of Inequality. But long before that he was a mixed white and Chinese-American teenager at a high school in Seattle. 

Wayne Auth, Rethinking Schools - I went to Garfield High School, located in Seattle's historically African American neighborhood, the Central District. Garfield has been known for many years as Seattle's "black high school," and back in the 1970s there was a strong Black Panther Party presence both in the neighborhood and in the school itself. Garfield, always a basketball powerhouse, also boasts a rich connection to African American culture and music, with names like Quincy Jones and Jimi Hendrix still haunting the hallways….

Totaling around 1,600 students, Garfield's student body hovered at about 50 percent African American and 50 percent white, with a few Latinos and Asian Americans like myself sprinkled in.
Given Garfield's history, position in the community, and commitment to racially integrated education, you might think that real multicultural education took place in most classes. Sadly, it didn't. There was one teacher, Mr. Davis, who taught two "secret" classes at my school: one section of Harlem Renaissance and one section of African Studies.

To get into Mr. Davis' classes, you first had to learn (by word of mouth) the true content of his classes, which were listed plainly in the schedule as Language Arts 10b and Social Studies elective. Second you had to convince your counselor that yes, you really did want to be in Mr. Davis' class, that yes, you really knew what you were getting into…..

To be sure, an African-centric course cannot be "multicultural" in and of itself. African-centered is just that, African-centered. But in the real-life context of a school like Garfield, Mr. Davis' classes embodied multicultural education: it was grounded in the lives, identities, and histories of students; it provided critical and alternative perspectives on history that we were not getting in our other classes; and it openly addressed the issue of racism.

Mr. Davis' classes also offered a lesson on how multicultural education invites students to engage with real social issues. In his courses my classmates and I connected our burgeoning historical understandings of race and racism to contemporary issues. We argued about interracial dating, black nationalism, racism, and education. In this way, multicultural education inherently connects learning to the world outside of our classrooms.

Sadly, college-bound students at Garfield certainly didn't fight to get Mr. Davis' classes on their transcripts. Instead they would forego Harlem Renaissance and African Studies in order to stay in AP and on the honors track. Things haven't changed all that much since I was in high school, because in today's context of high-stakes education, multicultural education is still viewed as not academically rigorous, not "real" education, and not worthy of being included in the curriculum in its own right.

Skin color and poetry

Katharine Johnson, Rethinking Schools - When I look out at my room full of 1st- and 2nd-grade students, I see a symphony of colors. I see this as beautiful and invaluable. Yet I realize the world does not always embrace my students’ multiracial reality. I know that the world will not receive Jamal with his skin the color of summer midnight and his easy laugh the same way it will receive Anita, with her skin the color of late summer wheat and her quiet smile. Young people, like adults, receive countless confusing and negative messages about the implications of skin color. Consistently they get the message that some are better than others—that white trumps black and brown.

Worse than an unwelcoming world is the possibility of an unwelcoming classroom and school. I see racism taking root in the relationships my young learners are establishing. I have had to step in and help my students negotiate their multiracial environment—whether it is stopping a white student from assuming an African American classmate is the one who needs to go with the parent volunteer to work on reading skills, or helping a student of color find a group to join when, once again, she has not been invited into the dramatic play of a group of white girls. Knowing this, I am always on the lookout for learning opportunities that will be accessible and affirming.

When I attended a workshop led by Katie Kissinger demonstrating her approach to celebrating skin tone with her preschool students, I knew I had found a new possibility for beginning to disrupt the skin color prejudice that harms my students on a daily basis. Kissinger’s students had celebrated their skin tones and learned about the biological basis of skin color. Young children, like adults, see different skin colors—and assign meaning to these differences. I wanted my students to understand something of the science of skin color in order to challenge the notion that skin color is an indication of anything more than genetic adaptations to one’s environment. My aim with this lesson was twofold: First, I wanted students to see their similarities across a skin tone spectrum. This would be the science of skin tone. Second, I wanted them to practice the art of praising their own skin tones as a way to access the connection between skin tone and identity in a positive way. This would be the poetry….

I know that children see and wonder about skin color. I know that children, even as young as 6, experience racism directed at themselves, their moms, their neighbors, their cousins, the man in front of them in line at the grocery store. I also know that opening my classroom to a discussion about the skin tone differences that we see and the ones that we ignore is one component to disrupting prejudice based on skin color. And I know that this is just the beginning—sharing an experience around loving our skin tones does not suddenly take away the real pain of how the world sees “white” and “black” and “brown” skinned peoples.

The two weeks we spent writing and learning about skin tone opened my classroom in some important ways. Samantha, an African American girl who barely spoke even in morning circle time at the start of the year, read her entire poem aloud to her classmates. Tyler and Justin, one white and one African American, who had never spent free time together before, became friends when they realized they both had skin that matched Coconut Grove. Jeremy, also African American, finished a piece of writing on the same schedule as the rest of the class for the first time.

Maybe Samantha was simply ready to emerge as a more vocal and public presence in the classroom. Maybe Justin and Tyler would have found some other connection and become friends. Maybe the academic support I offered Jeremy finally kicked in. Maybe not. Maybe the discussion of the science of skin tone and the praise of our beautiful differences facilitated these important transformations. I prefer to attribute my students’ growth to the poems in celebration of skin tone. Regardless, I plan to continue teaching in ways that might interrupt racist hierarchies and might do so joyfully.  

The lack of civics education

The Center for American Progress

  1. Only nine states and the District of Columbia require one year of U.S. government or civics. Thirty states only require a half-year of civics or U.S. government education, and 11 states have no civics requirement.
  2. State civics curricula are heavy on knowledge but light on building skills and agency for civic engagement. An examination of standards for civics and U.S. government courses found that 32 states and the District of Columbia provide instruction on American democracy and comparison to other systems of government; the history of the Constitution and Bill of Rights; an explanation of mechanisms for public participation; and instruction on state and local voting policies. However, no states have experiential learning or local problem-solving components in their civics requirements.
  3. While almost half of states allow credit for community service, almost none require it. Only one state—Maryland—and the District of Columbia require both community service and civics courses for graduation.
Nonprofits that train teachers :Teaching Tolerance, an initiative through the Southern Poverty Law Center, provides free materials to emphasize social justice in existing school curricula. Through the organization’s website, magazine, and films, its framework and classroom resources reach 500,000 educators. Because Teaching Tolerance focuses on teaching tolerance “as a basic American value,” its materials are rich in civic contexts. The website, for example, provides teachers with student tasks for applying civics in real-world situations and with civics lesson plans on American rights and responsibilities; giving back to the community; and examining historical contexts of justice and inequality. Teaching Tolerance also funds school-level, classroom-level, and district-level projects that engage in youth development and encourage civics in action.

The decline of social studies

Jacqueline Coleman, Louisville Courier-Journal -  America’s response to the events of Charlottesville, Virginia was swift, loud, and yet somewhat conflicting. Our collective outrage was unmistakable. Also unmistakable was the fuzzy recollection we have of our country’s history.
Every time injustice invokes a national media frenzy, we are overcome. We rally. We make clever signs. We protest. And then we go back to our daily lives. Those of us fortunate enough to not have to experience injustice daily lay dormant until the next national tragedy rears its head. Simply reacting is a luxury we no longer have – we must band together in to drown out injustice in every corner of our more perfect nation. 

Social justice, civil discourse, empathy, historical context and civic engagement are at the heart of preventing and resolving instances like the one we witnessed in Charlottesville. We often hear the adage, “Hate is a learned behavior.” So, why have we not declared a national educational priority? The answer is simple: because we have allowed the very subjects that provide the perfect avenue for these much-needed conversations to dwindle.

Experts have followed “the decline of social studies education” for over half a century. Its downward spiral began as WWII ended and our nation turned its focus to math and technology.

In 1975, the New York Times wrote, “If knowledge of the past is, in fact, relevant to our ability to understand the present and to exercise freedom of mind – as totalitarian societies, both real and fictional, acknowledge by stringently controlling what may be studied or published – then there is cause for concern about many Americans' sense of history.” 

During our most recent recession, schools were forced to trim budgets down to bare bones. Guided by No Child Left Behind, schools were strong-armed into prioritizing math and English, pushing science aside, and all but forgetting social studies. Whether that was an intended, or unintended consequence, that is undeniably what happened…..

A quality education provides two things: equity and access. Without a strong social studies curriculum at the core of our education system, we must admit we are failing our children – especially our most at-risk populations – subsequently allowing the next generation to fall victim to the misguided, revisionist history that fueled the hateful acts in Charlottesville. 

If we agree that hate is a learned behavior, we must also take ownership for failing to provide an educational space to combat the inequality that haunts our fellow Americans every day and paralyzes our nation as a whole in times of tragedy. Because of the decline of social studies education, civil discourse, and empathy have become lost arts in a nation of people who can no longer talk to one another. 

Every year that perpetuates the irresponsible notion that social studies are not a national educational priority, we waste an opportunity to teach the most valuable skills in humanity to our most impressionable citizens; our future leaders. Every generation hopes to leave the world a better place for their children. I would argue that this “better place” is not a gift to be unwrapped, but rather, a framework to be built.
A strong social studies curriculum that provides equitable opportunities for civic engagement, cultural competencies and historical context would certainly make for a more perfect foundation. 

Jacqueline Coleman is the founder and president of Lead Kentucky, a non-profit organization that recruits and trains college women in Kentucky to become the next generation of leaders.


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Anonymous said...

Sam, have you always been this much of a hippie? I must be getting older...

There is another side to multiculturalism. I mean, would you really want to go live in the middle of Dearborn? Of Beirut? There used to be Hindus in Pakistan, and Afghanistan. But then they had a multicultural enrichment campaign brought to them. The Hutu and the Tutsi seemed to have some friction in their multicultural experiment, too. Have large groups ever actually gotten along in close proximity?

Are we (the West, generally) really, totally sure we're not doubling down on a losing strategy? Is the New England tradition worth saving? The English tradition? Because this only goes one way. We aren't exporting Americans to Mexico, and they aren't exporting Europeans to the levant, or Africa. We are the only people who seem to think there is value in having no values.

Anonymous said...

People were pointing out that the emphasis on multiculturalism could help elect Trump.