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On teaching schoolchildren about race in America: When we know better, we do better

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Politicians confuse guilt with empathy. What they can learn from a 6-year-old and 1776.

A few years ago when my son was learning about the Civil Rights Movement, he offered his class the recent example of the Black man at Starbucks who was arrested after trying to use the bathroom.

He told me about this on our car ride home but I didn’t know where my six-year-old heard about that incident. When I asked him, he said he heard it on the news I was watching.  Even our kindergartners are flies on the walls soaking in information.

When my kindergartner processed that event on his own, he didn’t identify with the white employee and feel guilty. He identified with the Black man who needed to use the bathroom and felt empathy.

I don’t want politicians to interfere and tell him he came to the wrong conclusion.

As a veteran social studies teacher, and mom of two young students, I’m baffled by some folks’ resistance to teach the past and the present honestly.

Those supporting state bills challenging the teaching of honest history would do well to consult the Declaration of Independence, where a large section of that document is devoted to listing historical grievances.

Our grievances from the Declaration of Independence are rectified and enshrined in our Constitution’s Bill of Rights.

This historical pattern of expressing grievances then celebrating remedies we work together to achieve is how Americans “form a more perfect union.”

For all the times I’ve taught the Declaration of Independence, I’ve never heard from a family whose ancestors lived in Britain in 1776 that this content made their child feel guilty.

When we teach honest history and honest present, we teach empathy and growth, not guilt.

About ten years ago in my middle school world history class, I welcomed a new student from China mid-year. Shortly after his arrival I was set to teach a lesson on Tiananmen Square, which many know is an ugly historical event censored in China.

Out of empathy, I worried about adding to this student’s culture shock by exposing him to this event. After consulting with colleagues I did not censor the event from this student since I would be perpetuating China’s censorship in my American classroom. There were no complaints from the student or his family after that age-appropriate lesson.

When we know better, we do better. Folks trying to stop kids from knowing better are also interfering with their ability to do better as they fulfill the American call to “form a more perfect union.”

When politicians claim that honest history will lead to “psychological distress” (such as HB 324 in North Carolina) they’re saying students will respond with guilt, not empathy. They’re wrong.

Our students would be better served in alleviating “psychological distress” by those same legislators offering more student support staff such as psychologists, social workers, nurses, counselors, and smaller class sizes.

In North Carolina, the same legislators wanting to micromanage school curriculum continue to ignore our state’s constitutional obligation to provide a “sound basic education” to every student as reaffirmed in the 1997 Leandro decision which has yet to be fulfilled over twenty years later.

Legislators’ obsession with curriculum is a distraction from holding lawmakers accountable for what students actually need.

Efforts to vilify educators, and censor our past and present are more reflective of history’s most notorious authoritarian rulers.

We must call on our state legislators and school boards to allow our students to grow with facts and empathy when learning about our past and present.

Our educators understand how to provide age-appropriate instruction. Our policy makers should focus on how they can best support that effort.

Kim Mackey is a National Board Certified social studies teacher for the Wake County Public School System and an active member of Wake NCAE, and Advisory Board member of Red 4 Ed NC. This post appeared originally on her website, educatEDpolicy.

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