If your students are anything like mine (and I’m sure they are), they’re pretty observant. Many of them will have heard about the events in Charlottesville, namely the planned-months-in-advance white supremacist rally “Unite The Right.” They may have heard about alt-right marchers with torches touting hateful rhetoric akin to “Blood and Soil,” the murder of Heather Heyer, and even courageous resistance. We have no precise way of knowing what they’ve been exposed to, so of course this is where we come in. Any teacher worth their salt knows the value of pre-correcting and that is exactly what this situation calls for. I hope to provide some insight into ways you can have intentional conversations with students about what is and is not okay in your classroom through the lens of these recent events.
Students need to be taught both how we show love in our schools and the appropriate way to disagree and dislike. We always want to positively frame our expectations and model instruction, so lead with love.
Teaching love and what we DO like in our school
When your friend (or even someone you don’t know) does something or has a tradition that you aren’t familiar with, don’t be weirded out - Ask questions! Trying to understand is the first step in loving anything.
Listening to people is a quick, free, and easy way to show you respect and care about someone.
When other people are mean to you, it can be really hard to resist getting back at them. It feels good to fight back at first. But when you say mean things, it puts a damper on your own mood and feelings. Challenge yourself to ignore meanness. Instead of clapping back with a rude comment, say things like “Sorry you feel that way”, “That was mean, I didn’t like that”, or just straight up walk away. That kind of stoicism and calmness is impressive and will take you far! It may shock the person trying to get a reaction out of you and convince them to either stop bothering your or even try to get to know you in a real way.
But strictly talking about love in the face of difference will set students up to hit a stumbling block when they feel mad, confused, or scared. Young people need to know that feeling angry is a normal human emotion. However, when lack of understanding about something or someone leads to anger, students must be taught that it’s better to seek to understand rather than to exclude or tear down.
Teaching how to disagree and dislike
Dislike, not hate. You don't have to like everyone or everything. It's okay to dislike someone for what they do or say. Once you dislike someone for something they can't change (race, socio-economic status, sexual orientation, disability, etc.), you become ignorant and cruel. That is hate. You are all hardworking students with the capacity to understand and learn. There is no place for hate here.
If you see or hear hateful or ignorant things, correct them. Doing this can be tough, whether it’s someone close to your or a total stranger! One way to address someone’s hateful comment is to use an “I-statement” about how you feel when you hear it. Another method is to ask them question, such as “Why did you say that?” or “What makes you feel that way? ”When we seek to understand and also force others to explain themselves, we may be able to change things. That is how we learn to be better. When we let people continue to say ignorant and hateful things, even if we ourselves would never say them, it tells those people that saying those things is okay.
In our country, we do have freedom of speech. But there is no such thing as freedom from consequences. People may choose hate speech, but they rightfully should be challenged as a consequence, considering that the other consequence of hate speech is that people are harmed.
Marching and protesting can be a really good thing - if the government is doing something that doesn’t help a lot of people or even hurts some people, demonstrating can change things for the better. People can protest unfair laws, treatment of people, and policies. You can go volunteer to help groups who fight for people who can’t fight for themselves or shouldn’t have to fight alone. These things can even be found on social media like Facebook and Twitter! In other words, there are ways to engage in your community that help you express your concerns in non-hateful ways.
What does it look like to introduce these concepts in your room? For me, my building’s advisory model has an emphasis on circles (both for restorative practices and community building). I plan to implement these tough conversations as higher risk share-outs after the ice has been considerably broken up. You may choose to include this subject matter in life skills/socio-emotional/soft skills lessons you teach. Exactly how it looks is up to your professional judgement. What’s important is that you don’t shy away from denouncing the hatred that is at times so visible to us and our students.
If nothing else goes with you, please do take this with you to your students and your school: In Charlottesville, the alt-right/white supremacists/Nazis marched with torches and guns to intimidate and scare people. They hate people for things they can't control, like their skin color. Those people and their ideas are not welcome, here or anywhere in our school or country. What is welcome, however, is thoughtful conversation, informed disagreement, and open minds.
Some resources to help guide us through these conversations:
#CharlottesvilleCurriculum on Twitter, started by Melinda D. Anderson, a contributing writer to the Atlantic