A Search for Common Ground

Navigating tough classroom conversations

Pedro Noguera, the dean of the University of Southern California’s Rossier School of Education, and I have a podcast (Common Ground: Conversations on Schooling) in which we dig into our disagreements and seek to identify common ground on some of the thorniest questions in education. I thought readers might enjoy snippets of those conversations every now and then. This week, Pedro and I discuss teaching upsetting topics in schools.

—Rick Hess

Cover of Winter 2022 issue of Education NextNoguera: In the past few months, several states have said we should be able to sue teachers who teach subjects that are upsetting to kids. It seems like conservatives now have very little backbone for distressing subjects. War is upsetting. The Holocaust is certainly upsetting. Slavery is definitely upsetting, and so are mass shootings which occur with great regularity in this country. Despite the discomfort, I think kids have a right to learn about these topics and teachers have a responsibility to help students work through the emotional part of helping kids to understand these issues. Learning about the disturbing parts of our history and of current events is essential for preparing kids to become citizens. I’m wondering what you think about these kinds of laws that might make it illegal for teachers to address such topics if a parent says their kid was upset because they learned about something such as children being bombed in Ukraine.

Hess: I’m with you on the first part. Kids are going to get upset, and we shouldn’t be unconcerned about how they process trauma, fear, or grief. Learning about the Holocaust or about Russian brutality in Ukraine is upsetting. We agree that neither parents nor legislators should be in the business of telling schools they can’t teach about slavery or Jim Crow. But I do think it’s wholly appropriate for legislators and parents to say that teachers should not be promoting personal agendas. Teachers can delve into the realities and legacies of racism and Jim Crow without labeling their students as oppressors and victims. They can do so without crude “privilege” worksheets that demean students for being straight or living in a two-parent home. And they can certainly do so without asserting that “hard work” or “timeliness” are evil legacies of “white supremacy culture.” And, we’d have to sit down and parse the laws, but the statutes I’ve seen are focused on addressing these dogmas—not on truncating the history that gets taught.

Noguera: I get your point. We don’t always know from the way the media reports about these new laws how accurately they capture what the law is or what it’s trying to do. But these kinds of laws are taking off in several states, and anytime something is done that quickly, it’s often done poorly without much thought to consequences. That’s my concern. I’ll give you an example of how it could backfire. My daughter during some lesson she had about Black History Month said, “I think the white kids in class may have felt uncomfortable when we started talking about slavery.” I said, “Why?” She said, “Because some of them might have felt that they were guilty,” and I said, “Well, the teacher should explain that none of the students in the class were slave owners, and all of us have a responsibility for fighting racism.” I believe that kids can learn about distressing events without there being a sense of blame. However, that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t ask how we might be complicit in perpetuating harm toward others. I think that is essential if we are going to move forward and not repeat the mistakes of the past or accept the damage being done in the present as inevitable that we figure out how to do this. However, I still am not sure about how to hold an appropriate discussion with young children on difficult topics. How do we engage 4th graders? How about 2nd graders? At what age do we introduce these topics? Clearly, high school students should be prepared to discuss difficult and controversial topics, but if we wait until high school to introduce history and geography, it might be a little hard to catch up. I don’t want to pretend that any of this is easy or simple. I know it’s complex, and that’s why I am concerned about the teachers who we’re asking to address it.

Hess: I could not agree more. If simply broaching topics like the Tulsa Massacre or Korematsu makes some students uncomfortable, we need to help our kids develop a thicker skin. But it’s also the teacher’s job to make sure that these conversations are appropriately respectful and serious and don’t turn into an excuse for kids to trade barbs or insults. You know, one of the things you and I have talked about a lot, in the book and in these conversations, is the importance of giving each other a little bit of grace and the benefit of the doubt. That can be tough to do when we’re frustrated with each other. But the lack of that means that it’s easy to assume, when someone has concerns about whether something is age appropriate or how it’s being taught, that the “real” agenda is stopping kids from learning about slavery or about the Holocaust. But I think we’d do better if we were more able to make these kinds of distinctions and argue about them in good faith and with some mutual regard. It’d sure be a good model for our students.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and length. To hear the rest of the conversation, check out Episode 10 of Rick and Pedro’s Common Ground Podcast, “Ukraine, Russia, and civics education.”

Frederick Hess is director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute and an executive editor of Education Next.

This post originally appeared on Rick Hess Straight Up.

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