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As the school year approaches, Twin Cities teachers grapple with how to talk about Charlottesville in their classrooms

Stuck on where to even begin, many turned to Twitter. Almost immediately, tweets with “#CharlottesvilleCurriculum” and “#CharlottesvilleSyllabus” started popping up.

White supremacists clashing with counterprotesters during a rally in Charlottesville on Aug. 12.
REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

In response to the recent violence in Charlottesville, Virginia — where KKK members, white supremacists, neo-Nazis gathered to defend a statue of Robert E. Lee and clashed with counterprotesters — educators across the nation began grappling with how they might address the incident with their students at the start of the school year.

Confused about where to even begin, many teachers turned to Twitter to find and share ideas. Almost immediately, tweets with “#CharlottesvilleCurriculum” and “#CharlottesvilleSyllabus” started popping up, containing everything from links to relevant pieces of literature and discussion prompts on racism to specific lesson plans teachers can use to unpack what happened in Charlottesville.

As educators in the Twin Cities prepare to welcome students back this fall, many have plugged in to these conversations — whether they’ve been at the forefront of conversations around equity or suddenly feel compelled to tackle it head on. Here’s a look at how six Twin Cities teachers are processing recent events and thinking about approaching some tough conversations about the issues raised by Charlottesville in the classroom.

‘No easy way to do this’

Rebecca Bauer is heading into her 23rd year of teaching at Central High School in St. Paul. As a white teacher of African-American literature in a school where black students make up roughy a third of the student population yet dominate her student rosters, she says talking about race is nothing new in her classes. Race relations are at the heart of all the content she teaches. She also has years of experience addressing the “white elephant” in the room, as she calls it — the sort of double-take students give her once they realize who’s teaching the class. To alleviate any sense of skepticism, she talks about plans to bring in speakers from the community: educators, experts and artists who can help round out the lessons.

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But Bauer is still not sure how, exactly, she’ll go about addressing what just took place in Charlottesville. “I dont have the answers. There is no easy way to do this. There is no easy way to break this down,” she said. “I’ve been sitting here for the last couple weeks kind of agonizing about: How do I even start? And that’s from someone who’s been talking about race for a very long time. I feel some trepidation. And I think that’s normal because there is no easy way to just talk about this.”

Amy Hewett-Olatunde
MinnPost photo by Erin Hinrichs
Amy Hewett-Olatunde

Amy Hewett-Olatunde, an English Language Learner teacher at LEAP High School, a nearby St. Paul school serving an immigrant student population, has been mulling over the events in Charlottesville as well. For her, however, the sense of urgency around making sure her students feel safe and supported and empowered really amped up during the last election cycle, with Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant campaign rhetoric. In this sense, Charlottesville is a small part of the picture.

“I’ve kind of thought though what we’ll be doing. But I also cannot predict how they have taken in all this information. The one thing I do know is I have to talk about it,” she said. “It’s not a choice. I have to do this because of the nature of the students I work with and because I’m an educator and I’m a human being with a very high moral imperative.”

Kelly Marr, an English Language Arts teacher at Minneapolis’ Justice Page Middle School (formerly named Ramsey Middle School), anticipates Charlottesville will be on the minds of her students as well. Thinking through her approach, she says she’ll likely invite her students to engage in some of these tough conversations. But, unlike many  instances where she’d encourage her students to put themselves in the other person’s shoes, this feels different, she says.

Kelly Marr
Kelly Marr

“I feel like what happened is a little bit more severe, a little bit more obvious,” she said. “When something is so obviously hateful, it feels wrong for me to ask them to take that perspective. In other cases, they’re really good at looking at different perspectives because they’re very good at talking about cultural differences and knowing different cultural norms. But what happened here is just purely hate.”

She suspects she’ll steer their conversations in a different direction at the start of the school year — toward something more along the lines of: “Why do you think these people believe the things they do? Where is this coming from? What’s the solution?”

Morgan Fierst, a math teacher who’s been at South High School in Minneapolis for nine years, is also bracing for a more challenging start to the school year. In her opinion, Charlottesville is just another reminder of the injustices that break down along racial lines in most places, especially in the public education system. This reminder, she says, will likely further erode students’ trust in teachers, even in those who are well-intentioned.

“This year, I think …  the level [of trust] they’re gonna come in at is so low, like lower than it’s ever been before,” she said. “I think teachers try to individualize themselves a little bit too much, like ‘Oh, I’m not racist, or a part of that group.’ But they don’t understand they still represent it.”

Building trust and relationships

Bracing herself for a heightened climate of mistrust and frustration, Fierst says relationship building will be a priority in each class. She uses name tents as a way to help everyone learn each others’ names and to exchange messages with students. Even though she teaches math, taking the time to build a sense of community is paramount.

“My goal is by the second week of school, every kid knows every one of their classmates. Because if you’re not doing that stuff, how are you going to have a conversation about what happened in Charlottesville?” she said.

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As the year progresses, she typically ties in various community issues and patterns of inequity — using things like Census data and housing data — to make math lessons more relevant for her students. But these aren’t topics she hits right out of the gate. “It’s kind of like you’re going a little bit slower, but then you get to go much faster later,” she said.

Named the 2015 Minnesota Teacher of the Year and a mother of two biracial children, Hewett-Olatunde has no reservations about getting political and calling out displays of racism. Charlottesville was only about racism and “white tribalism,” she said. There are important lessons on “ignorant types of power” to draw on that many of these students — who have fled from war-torn nations and lived in refugee camps — can relate to on some level.

“I think we have to, as educators, explain to the students how these things in power happen,” she said. “But also, when we see such negative things happening around us, they need to understand there are so many people who are invested in making sure they have safety.”

For her students who are a bit more advanced in their English language acquisition, she anticipates engaging in some pretty candid conversations about Charlottesville — or whatever other concerns are on their minds — right away. In fact, she says some of her students have already begun reaching out to her with questions through email and social media. But for those who are new to the country, her primary focus will be helping them get settled before overwhelming them with negative current events.

Bauer agrees that taking time to build strong teacher-student and student-student relationships during the first week back or so is a critical step toward being able to have a productive conversation about Charlottesville. She’ll still make reference to the incident, she says, but a deeper dive won’t happen right away.

Once a climate of trust is established, she plans to start using a PBS documentary called “Race: The Power of an Illusion” to help prompt some deeper conversations on race in this country. After each short segment — which runs for 15 minutes, or so — she’ll have them break out into small groups and talk about things like the “myth of race as a genetic factor” and the “history of redlining.”

“And what is whiteness?” she added. “That’s got to be one of the first things we talk about: What is whiteness, as opposed to white people? And what is the idea of whiteness?”

Swapping lesson plans

Mary Cathryn Ricker
Mary Cathryn Ricker

Mary Cathryn Ricker won’t be in a classroom this year, but the longtime St. Paul middle school English teacher  — who’s currently on leave to serve as the executive vice president of the American Federation of Teachers — has been following the conversation on social media that was inspired by Charlottesville pretty closely. The timing of things reminds her of when the Trayvon Martin verdict came out July 2013. Back then, teachers swapped strategies for approaching some racially charged conversations with students as well. But she’s inspired by the seemingly more “sophisticated strategy” teachers are now employing to share resource and lesson plans through platforms like Twitter and Share My Lesson.

“If you’re are a teacher 11 p.m. at night trying to figure out ‘How do I address this come Sept. 5?’ you’re not alone. You’ve actually got a wealth of resources out there,” she said. “Teachers can be a really supportive community if you reach out for help. And they can be a really grateful community when you reach out with resources, with support.”

Sarah VanDerWerf, a math teacher of 24 years at Minneapolis’ South High, felt compelled to contribute to the conversation, especially since she didn’t find much when she tried searching for Charlottesville curriculum ideas specific to math. She used her blog to share specifics on how to use related data sets to sculpt a math lesson around events in Charlottesville.

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Sara Van Der Werf
Sara Van Der Werf

“I think as math teachers, we often let ourselves off the hook for doing things in our room because … people don’t expect us to do it,” she said, noting responses to her post, thus far, have been very positive. “A lot it has been from math teacher so far that are like ‘Oh, I wanted to do something social justice or equity related. I just wasn’t really sure how.’ ”

Realizing that teachers, herself included, are not immune from getting pushback from parents whose own values may not align with messages of inclusivity and equality embedded in these lessons, VanDerWerf says she advises her colleagues to ground their lessons and classroom conversations in supporting evidence.

“I tried to choose things that were linked to very reputable organizations, like the Southern Poverty Law Center,” she said. “So that if you can bring it back to factual, reputable organizations, you can stand on that.”

Not an ‘isolated incident’

While opinions varied on how important teachers felt it was to address the Charlottesville incident immediately — and how to go about talking about racism — consensus on one thing was clear: What happened in Charlottesville should not be taught as an isolated incident.

“Just to put it out there in isolation as something to supposedly have a meaningful discussion around seems really superficial,” Bauer said. “That would be my concern and fear as an educator — that it would be given superficial treatment. I think it’s better to not do it at all than do it in a way that only pays lip service to really teaching about the context of this.”

Ricker agreed that it would be wrong for any educator to address Charlottesville as if it’s “an isolated incident.” Rather, teachers should use it to stoke curiosity in their students, so they begin to inquire: “What are the conditions that could make this pop up anyplace? Do we have some of those conditions right here in our own backyard?”

It’s not just inner-city students who stand to benefit from engaging in these types of conversations, says Hewett-Olatunde. Even schools serving a majority white student population need to work through conversations about racism and white privilege in order to develop a global mindset and develop compassion for others. “We have such a small sliver of time with them, but we have such strong influence over their life,” she said.

Fierst cautioned that finding a way to address the Charlottesville incident in their classroom may actually give teachers a false sense of accomplishment. Hate speech and demonstrations are just one way racism show up, she said. Finding a way to disrupt inquities in the education system, she adds, takes a lot more self-reflection and persistence, as a teacher.

“To me, what’s happening in education is more harmful than what’s happening in Charlottesville,” she said. “It’s like you can’t pinpoint it. You maybe can’t define it quite as clearly, so that’s why it’s easier for people to maybe not dive in. I would hope that it’s pushing educators to talk about it more, and it’s pushing educators to see really, truly, what role do they play in that system, without even maybe knowing it?”