This commentary is by Chris Dodge, principal of Fletcher Elementary School in Fletcher, Vermont.
In February, thousands of dedicated and well-meaning educators just like myself scour their classrooms and school libraries for books on Martin Luther King Jr., Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks, and other famous Black Americans. It’s Black History Month, and the concept is failing our students.
I fell into the trap, too, big time this year, as I visited many classrooms in my school carrying books on famous Black Americans and reading and discussing them with children as young as age 3. I even went so far as to buy four books on famous Black Americans for every student in my school to send home after I presented them in their classes.
I entered classrooms armed and ready to have courageous conversations about racism in a different way this year, more deeply than before, not just read the books and call it a day. I was pleased with myself for stepping out of my comfort zone and diving into this work schoolwide, and I felt prepared by a barrage of professional learning aimed specifically at how to talk about race.
Late on a Thursday afternoon, I finished reading the fourth book in a National Geographic series for children on famous Black Americans to a third- and fourth-grade class of engaged and attentive students. As with each of the previous books, I read the story with gusto, paused to discuss new vocabulary and the main ideas, to garner students’ thoughts on the subject and help them think critically about the material, and to check their understanding.
I had written a letter to families about each book, encouraging discussion at home, and I sent that letter home with every story. I was pleased with myself, to say the least. Sounds great, right? And then, it all came crashing down.
“I sure am glad that we don’t have racism anymore,” one of our brightest fourth-graders proclaimed.
I was stunned, and it was in that very moment that I realized a fundamental flaw in how we teach students about racism. Not only do we teach the concepts in isolation — often only in February, when the calendar suggests — but we all too often teach about racism and discrmination uniquely as a historical problem.
My students could tell me exactly what I wanted to hear about Dr. King’s dream speech, Rosa Parks’s bravery on that bus in 1955, or how Harriet Tubman led slaves to freedom. And, that’s where their knowledge ended. With slavery abolished, Black Americans sitting freely on buses, and women being able to vote, my students celebrated the fact that equality reigns supreme, and that there would be no reason to even consider the lasting effects of our history, or that discrimination and racism might still plague our nation and our schools.
My heart sank as I polled the class, asking them to raise their hands if they thought that racism still existed. There was not a single hand in the air. With 10 minutes to spare, I tried desperately to give examples and convince the group that racism did not end with the events we had studied, and that we each need to play a part in the continued battle against modern-day discrimination. And they looked at me like I had three heads.
I was deflated. While I knew that sharing books and having discussions with students about historical racism wasn’t in and of itself bad, it wasn’t enough. I had fallen short of my obligation to help them connect the historical context to the present day, and that had potentially done harm, not only to them, but to any marginalized population that still struggles with discrmination. Passively and unintentionally, by only presenting the material in the past tense, I had led my students to believe that racism no longer exists. I also risked some of my students not seeing themselves, and their struggles with race-related issues, in our learning.
In the coming days, I worked feverishly to mend the error of my ways with individual and group conversations. I tried desperately to help students understand that the work is not complete, that each of us needs to examine our own beliefs and how they impact others, and that racism very much still exists. I hope they understood. I believe they did, no matter how abstract it may have seemed.
I will teach differently next time. I will discuss racism regularly, not just in February. And, I will start with a modern-day context and work my way back in time to help my students understand how we got to where we are.
Without question, it is important to celebrate the progress our country has made, and the brave individuals who led that work, and especially to recognize the continued work ahead. In order to repair the damage of our history, we must first acknowledge the racism of our present. This learning is a necessary gift to all of our students, both as the future policy makers who will work to end modern-day inequities, and as compassionate citizens who will lead the way in creating a world that is fair and just.