We need to reclaim a teachable moment and help our students process the historic protests sweeping Connecticut and the country.
I teach an eighth grade American history class in Connecticut. At their best, social studies classrooms are vehicles for dignified, challenging discussions about American society, and their physical absence across Connecticut is a loss for all its students right now. According to the National Council for the Social Studies, the primary purpose of a social studies class is “to help young people make informed and reasoned decisions for the public good as citizens of a culturally diverse, democratic society.” Even amidst pandemic and economic suffering, the mission to transform young people into just such citizens is still important.
Our students are living through the most significant nation-wide protests in five decades, and under normal circumstances many of us would be responding to the moment with conversations contextualizing the history of racial justice in the United States. Unfortunately, school closures make that hard to do. While my fellow teachers and I will do our best to engage kids with these challenging subjects digitally, there’s simply no way to replace the discussions and teachable moments that would have happened in person.
Instead, many of these conversations will happen at home. So much pressure has already fallen on parents in the digital learning age. They are overwhelmed and exhausted. As an eighth grade social studies teacher, I want to suggest three conversation starters for busy parents to pose to their children. These questions are ones I might use at the start of class, and their goal is to help frame a discussion about the protests and the larger issue of racial justice in the United States.
First, the Connecticut Social Studies State Standards suggest a brief but profound essential question: “Is the United States a ‘just’ society and how has the concept of justice evolved over time?”
Pose the question, what does a “just” society look like?
Second, in his “1963 Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” Martin Luther King Jr. wrote “I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action.’”
Pose the question, what is the difference between order and justice?
Lastly, many of our students (and I consider myself part of this group) are privileged enough to have never experienced violence or oppression at the hands of the state. For these young people, literature and history can provide an access point for understanding.
Pose the question, where have you encountered something like these protests before? Do they remind you of anything you read about or studied before?
Obviously, these questions will not end racial injustice, but they can help start deep conversations at home. For parents looking for more guidance on how to have tough conversations, the organizations “Teaching Tolerance” and “Facing History and Ourselves” are invaluable places to begin.
After the white supremacist gathering in Charlottesville in 2017, I wrote an op-ed in the Hartford Courant stating that “W.E.B. Du Bois wrote: ‘The problem of the 20th century is the problem of the color line …,’ and it seems this will be true of 21st century America as well. Let’s give our students the historical tools they need to grapple with this problem and make the country a more just place.”
Three years later, in the wake of the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Tony McDade, these sentiments are as relevant as ever. Conversations and reflection are so important for young people. Just because schools are physically closed in the present, let’s not lose the chance for students to imagine a more just America in the future.
Thomas Broderick lives in Trumbull.