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Teaching Students About A Summer Of Loss And Revolt

John Minchillo
Protestors demonstrate while holding a "WE CAN'T BREATHE" sign and wearing protective masks Thursday, May 28, 2020, in St. Paul, Minn.

As teachers prepare for the start of remote learning this fall, those who teach American history and civics are deciding how they'll talk to students about the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor—and the social justice movement that developed over the summer.

Kate Pole teaches social studies at Normal's University High School, a laboratory school affiliated with the College of Education at Illinois State University. Pole said the approach to addressing these issues is as important as the content itself.

“For all students, but some more than others, you're inducing trauma by having those discussions, asking someone to relive what has happened,” Pole said. “However, to not address it, to follow the ways of color blindness is equally problematic because then it's not recognizing students' personal experiences with race.”

Pole anticipates students will have questions, and not just about the killings, but about the aftermath. Protests have persisted for months. Unrelated looting and rioting has erupted. And in some cases, the police officers involved are being charged.

“I need them to recognize, ‘I'm sorry, we might not have those answers.’ And we might not have them for months or even years,” Pole said. “But I also don't want you to forget that story. Even though you saw the viral video on YouTube, or Twitter or Instagram—whatever it was—especially if you're a white student, you can walk away from it, and say, ‘Okay, I've put my time in with that story. I don't need to think about it anymore.’ But I think about my students of color. That is not the case for them.”

To be fair, Pole said, she’ll also have to approach it delicately with white students.

“Everybody's in a different place,” she said. “Just even getting students—and adults—to figure out and understand what white privilege means, and that it's not a personal attack on them as a white person. Those are very slow, difficult conversations.”

Talking about other forms of injustice and oppression helps, she added, because students are usually able to identify with at least some of them. That helps establish an understanding of when it’s time to talk and when it’s time to listen.

Pole said it’s also important to give students a reprieve from the doom and gloom.

“We need to talk about agency, we need to talk about change, we need to talk about things that are positive action that they can take action that is being taken, so that they also see progress and forward momentum,” said Pole, noting these difficult conversations are easier to have by training students on things like vetting reliable sources of information and discerning facts from opinions.

“That may sound a little bit corny, but if you think about the national dialogue that is happening, if you think about the difference between outrage discourse and news—actual news—there is a significant difference between a talking head yelling at you and telling you what you're supposed to think with lots of graphics,” she said.

It’s also critical to develop students' listening skills, she said. For example, the class may play “four corners” where students identify as either “agree, strongly agree, disagree, or strongly disagree” on a position.

“I might put a claim up on the board about some historical claims: ‘Systemic racism impacts the progress of people of color disproportionately more than white people,’” she said. “If one group speaks up [and another] group wants to speak back to them, the first thing they have to do is rearticulate what the first group said, to the point that the person in the other corner says, ‘Yeah, boy, that's exactly what I meant. In fact, you said it better than I did.’”

Pole said this moment provides an opportunity for schools to revisit how they teach about race and American history, adjusting curriculum to be more historically accurate and holistic.

“It requires a commitment from every single teacher and every single administrator, regardless of subject area,” Pole said. “We're not just going to have one day in the whole year where we called in somebody to talk about diversity, and now we can check that box and say, ‘Done.’”

Pole said that also means creating safe spaces for students to work through these ideas, and roping in parents and the community for help.

“That could be something as simple as, ‘Here's what we're reading, why don't you read with us? Here's why we're reading what we're reading. Here are our objectives and the questions we're going to ask and we would love it if these conversations continued at home,’” Pole said.

Listen to the conversation.

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Dana Vollmer is a reporter with WGLT. Dana previously covered the state Capitol for NPR Illinois and Peoria for WCBU.