My Worst Teaching Moment

This blog focuses on issues related to childhood anxiety and the education of anxious children, but I do want to occasionally address more general aspects of education, especially when they pertain to home or alternative schooling. Today is Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and I believe that it is the responsibility of teachers to actively address both institutionalized and personal discrimination. However, it can be extremely difficult to accurately present societal injustice to young children. Your priority will of course be protecting your student(s) from trauma. Unfortunately, the facts about discrimination of all kinds, and “racial”/ethnic discrimination in particular, are inarguably traumatizing. I think most teachers (and parents) will agree that the best way to teach atrocities is to generalize them for young children and then add unpleasant details as the children age. This is the strategy I utilize in my instruction, and it seems to be effective.

Unfortunately, there was one time when I messed up.

For MLK Jr. Day, I’ve decided to tell the story of the very worst lesson I ever gave. It’s a long and embarrassing story. Prepare yourself.

Last year, I was homeschooling an extremely gifted six-year-old who suffered from school refusal. (He has since successfully returned to public school, and I couldn’t be prouder!) One day, I brought in a favorite book from my childhood: Aunt Harriet’s Underground Railroad in the Sky. As we read the book together, I realized that my student had never heard of US slavery. Oops. Somehow I’d assumed that the subject would have come up.

Now, I understand that many adults would feel that discussions of slavery and racism should be saved for later grades, but I simply don’t agree. Slavery is a defining part of our country’s history, and students simply cannot understand current events or contemporary attitudes and inequalities without exploring the brutality of our country’s past. Of course, when faced with a six-year-old who, it turned out, didn’t even know that people could be classified as “Black” and “white,” my philosophical beliefs began to wilt.

In a 2011 interview about teaching slavery to elementary schoolers, Southwestern professor and co-editor of the Black History Bulletin Dr. Alicia Moore said, “[t]eaching about slavery, just as teaching about any controversial subject, should involve planning and preparation…” Yep, that sounds right. Too bad I didn’t follow her advice. Realizing that I’d just unceremoniously introduced to concept of dehumanization to a first grader, I simply froze. After a moment, I closed Aunt Harriet and suggested we backtrack a bit. What followed was an awkward and uneven lecture about the founding of the US. Finally, I hit my stride: “Wow, we made a big mess with the legos earlier. Cleaning it up will be a lot of work. So what if we could go somewhere and get a bunch of people to do the work for us? And we wouldn’t pay them or anything. We’d own them just like we own the legos.” I paused, relaxing into my analogy. My student smiled with understanding.

“Yeah!” he shouted. “That would be awesome!”

Oops. Of course that sounds awesome to a kid. This is why you plan this lesson before you start blabbing. “Okay, it would be awesome, except for a few things. When this really happened, when the people came here from England like I was telling you, they only used Black people as slaves.”

“People wearing black shirts?” he asked. He really did.

At this point, you might be thinking it would be better to never tell children about racism at all. Then maybe they’ll never learn to be racist. Unfortunately, it isn’t that simple. For example, there’s evidence that racial bias begins in preverbal babies. Further, I have heard first-generation US Americans argue things like, “since my family succeeded in the US, African-Americans should also be able to succeed without assistance or accommodations.” To understand the fallacy in that thinking, you must understand slavery and the events and attitudes that followed. Dr. Moore says, “…do not think that by shielding our children from the past, we are creating some kind of futuristic, post racial, altered space that makes the legacy of slavery go away.”

So I kept going with my sloppy lesson. “Slaves couldn’t get married,” I said, showing him a page from Aunt Harriet. “They had to live in tiny rooms with lots of other people. When they didn’t do what they were told, they got beat up.” As I shared what I thought were mild details, I saw my student’s eyes start to bug.

“What did they eat?” he asked. Kids have weird priorities.

“Whatever was left from their owner’s foods, I guess. And vegatables they grew. They made up cool recipes using yucky parts from animals.” Apparently that was the last straw. I tried to change the subject, but this poor kid was fixated on the idea of having to eat offal and vegatables. Finally, I realized I needed to end the lesson with a message of hope, so I found a cartoon online about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. I told my worried student that things had gotten much better since slavery ended, and that now we know that Black people and white people are equal. “Some bad people with lighter skin are still mean to people with darker skin,” I told him, “but it’s going to keep getting better.” Then I turned on the cartoon about MKL Jr., and, while we watched an animated King arrive in Selma, I made one more big mistake: I started crying.

I was able to hide my tears, and the rest of the day went well. That evening, still shocked by the extent of my failure, I reviewed teaching tips that I thought I had already learned.: Always watch a lesson play out in your head before you begin. Assess student understanding before introducing a new concept, and always create context. Don’t show six-year-olds anything that will force you to cry. (Parents, that rule doesn’t apply to you. Otherwise you’d never get to take your kids to a Pixar movie.)

Slavery is a difficult subject to teach. The interview with Dr. Moore mentions a few truly horrible tactics used by “misguided” teachers. But even those of us who consider ourselves civil rights activists are vulnerable to the guilt, anger, confusion, and horror we feel about racism. These emotions can impede our ability to design effective and appropriate lessons. Learn from my failure!

How do you discuss slavery and the contemporary repercussions with your students? At what age did you tell your kids that there was a time when some people could be owned? Today, while we celebrate how far we’ve come, I hope we’ll also push ourselves to learn more, do more, help more.

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2 thoughts on “My Worst Teaching Moment

  1. Hmmm… what an interesting topic!

    I started teaching my children about slavery at about first grade. I never thought to hide my tears, it made me human and showed the severity of the deed. My children learned a great deal from the lesson and we readdress the issue every few years, depending on our unit study. (They have also read some of the American Girl books, which prompted a great deal of discussion.)

    I may not have given them all the details (some being more horrific than others), but I started out with enough to give them a great idea of the concept and the consequences. As they grew, the details increased. My oldest is now eleven and she knows most everything about it, including the women being abused.

    I believe the issue should be handled with care and given in incremental doses, but given none-the-less.

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