By Jess Burnquist
My plans for the second weekend of August were not very interesting. I hoped to get caught up on laundry, try out a new recipe, possibly catch a movie with my husband, and spend some time that Sunday refining my lesson plans for the following week (my school went back in session on the third day of the month). But those plans were quickly thwarted when white nationalists gathered in Charlottesville, Va., for a “protest” they called “Unite the Right”—a gathering that ended in violence and the loss of life.
Like many, I watched the events of that day unfold on various news reports. I tried to process endless footage of a crowd chanting anti-Semitic, racist slurs. I took in the news as a Jewish woman, as a mother and as an educator of 10th- to 12th-graders in San Tan Valley, Ariz. As I watched, the pit in my stomach grew. Truthfully, that sickening feeling wasn’t new. It had been growing since the presidential election.
I have always sought to leave my politics out of the classroom. I want my students to learn how to act on their inquiry—to research their opinions, check their sources and come to their own political conclusions in an informed manner. My goal as their teacher has been and always will be to teach my students how to articulate their viewpoints, political and otherwise, effectively in speech and in writing. For any teacher striving to do the same, you know that this isn’t easy. Neither are the indirect and direct external pressures bearing down on us to be apolitical, nonpartisan humans.
We’ve all heard the stories: a teacher’s car vandalized because of politically affiliated bumper stickers, angry and threatening emails from parents, warnings from administrators to not bring certain things up, push back on various reading selections, and the discouragement of discourse that may lead to debate. Living in a red border state, I worried about the aftereffects of the election on my campus. I did not expect that my daughter, a junior at the school where I teach, and I would be the target of anti-Semitic slurs, but we were.
The infractions were blatant, and the handling of them was eye-opening. I wondered aloud to my administration: If students feel emboldened enough to draw swastikas on the desks in my classroom, and to refer to me in front of my daughter as the “kike teacher,” what are they saying and doing to our minority student populations out of our earshot and sight?
This question was at the forefront of my thoughts as the events in Charlottesville unfolded. However, I knew that the pit in my stomach was not growing so much in reaction to the hatred being spewed by white supremacists. Rather, it was growing because I was suppressing my inner desire to speak about the events in class. Such stifling had become habit, a form of job protection. To what end though?
Something shifted. I began to search through my go-to teaching sites, such as Share My Lesson and Teaching Tolerance, to see if other educators were experiencing similar awakenings. Because that is what I was experiencing—an awakening to the fact that as an educator, it is absolutely my responsibility to teach my students how to discuss controversial issues. It is my responsibility to provide students with a safe space to ask questions, state their opinions and disagree with each other. I knew the events in Charlottesville could be used to open the door to such discussion. Especially because there is no gray area. Those who attended Unite the Right did so to propagate their racist, exclusionary and fascist viewpoints. To my relief, I found article after article, post after post, and tweet after tweet by teachers calling on their colleagues to address Charlottesville head on in their classrooms. I also drew on my experiences this past summer at Erin Gruwell’s Freedom Writer Teachers Institute. Being the recipient of Gruwell’s instruction was most magical for me in that she demonstrated an ever-present commitment to being authentic and aware of what needed to be taught.
That Monday morning, I emailed my principal my intention to speak up about Charlottesville in every single one of my classes. I let her know that I would be condemning those who gathered to spread their Nazi-style messages of hatred for diversity. I attached an article with excellent resources for lessons and an excerpt from the American Federation of Teachers’ statement. I took a deep breath and hit send. I won’t lie. I was nervous. If my principal wrote back admonishing my efforts or threatening disciplinary action, I would be in for a long fight. However, in spite of my apprehension, I was at peace because I knew I would be on the ethical side of that fight. Fortunately, I received support and encouragement. I was also asked to speak to my colleagues at our staff meeting and to share my resources.
My students were initially reluctant to discuss Charlottesville. I decided to begin with guidelines about debate and disagreement, should either occur. I encouraged them to ask any and all questions. This seemed to break the ice. They had questions about free speech, hate groups and history, and some wanted to talk about what they could do to combat exclusion here on campus.
Later on at our staff meeting, I mentioned to my colleagues that several students of color came to see me between classes expressing their fear. “Will we be the target here?” I noted to faculty that there are four active hate groups in our community. And I stated that as educators, we must not fail to address the difficult topics in our classrooms, nor fail to provide our students the tools for appropriate discourse or research.
Failing our students in such a way might bring about devastating results—such as being so deeply misinformed, so clearly misled, that the regard for another’s right to exist could lead to horrific violence, or what we now know to be domestic terrorism. And then, of course, I called Tricia, and we determined that this blog entry must deal with the difficult stuff head on as well.
Unlike Jess, I was not back in the classroom following the events in Charlottesville (my school year just started, on Sept. 5). This gave me lots of time to reflect, to read and research, to talk with friends and colleagues, and to be intentional about how these recent events will shape my instruction this year.
I am proud to be teaching in a school that received the Anti-Defamation League’s No Place for Hate distinction last year. I want to make it clear to my students, now more than ever, what that means. I want to talk to my students about the meaning of hate and the history of hate in the world, and how to process and respond to it. I want to engage students in meaningful dialogue about what it means to be a No Place for Hate school.
I was so appreciative to see that Share My Lesson amassed resources with #CharlottesvilleCurriculum and put together the webinar “When Hate Is in the Headlines.” If you did not yet have the opportunity to watch this webinar, make a point of doing so! Led by organizations that I gravitated to immediately following the events of Charlottesville, Facing History and Ourselves, Teaching Tolerance and the Anti-Defamation League, the webinar provides important ideas and resources to support teachers.
I am also so glad that my colleagues and I decided earlier this summer to bring back a text we used as a read-aloud/shared text for a number of years, Something about America by Maria Testa. This historical fiction novel in verse tells the story of a young girl who, with her family, fled to America to escape the war in Kosovo. She and her parents have acclimated to their new lives in Maine in different ways when news hits that a hate group is organizing a rally in the nearby city of Lewiston. The community comes together in response and holds its own counter-rally on the same day, amassing thousands of people in solidarity and opposition against the hate rally, which draws only 30 people.
The historical context for the novel is rooted in real events that transpired in 2003 in Lewiston, after a hate group was inspired by a letter the city’s mayor sent to Somali leaders expressing concern about the number of Somalis moving to the area. The counter-rally was called Many and One.
A photo from the 2003 Many and One rally in Lewiston, Maine. Photograph by Phyllis Graber Jensen/Bates College.
I reread the novel with a new perspective in the aftermath of Charlottesville, and I know that the conversation students have about the text this year will be quite different from that of prior students, who could not make such real and recent connections. I am grateful to have this text to invite students to make these connections and to have the necessary conversations about hate and, most importantly, how we respond to it.
Check out Testa’s website, which has links to amazing resources, including study guides, a documentary and primary source documents, such as articles and literature, promoting the Many and One rally.
If ever there was a time for teachers to discuss current events and teaching practices, now is it! We need to be united, and collaborate with and sustain one another, in this important and challenging work. We encourage that you find your kindred spirits for such work here and now. Share your ideas, concerns and professional development opportunities by adding your thoughts in the comments section below.
Forward Thinking with Kindred Spirits:
Be on the lookout for our next post, which will focus on the projects and work of Jonathan Todres, professor of law at the Georgia State University College of Law. In addition to discussing his co-authored book Human Rights in Children’s Literature, Todres will address his current work and opportunities to build empathy through literature.
Tricia Baldes earned a master’s in English from Lehman College and has been a middle level educator since 2001. Her passion for human rights education has led to her writing curriculum and consulting with nonprofit organizations like Creative Visions, Speak Truth to Power and KidsRights. She co-authored the Rock Your World curriculum and currently works with the team as a program coordinator. In addition to presenting at national conferences for NCTE and ACSD, Baldes has led various teacher trainings and programs for students. She teaches eighth-grade English in Westchester County, N.Y.
Jess Burnquist earned her MFA in Creative Writing from Arizona State University. Her writing has appeared in the Washington Post, Time.com, NPR.org, and various online and print journals. She is a recipient of the Joan Frazier Memorial Award for the Arts at ASU and has been honored with a Sylvan Silver Apple Award. She teaches high school English, creative writing and AP Literature in the greater Phoenix metropolitan area and is a program coordinator for Rock Your World. Her poetry chapbook You May Feel Your Way Past Me is forthcoming from Dancing Girl Press in spring 2017.