Teaching the Hard Stuff

Having read the title, you are most likely expecting an article about calculus, physics or the analysis of poetry. For some, these were the more challenging school subjects. However, the everyday issues at the core of American society spark the questions on the minds of our elementary school children.

These children, at a very early age, through their surroundings and the free flow of information bombarding them, become increasingly aware of the privilege and power that comes with whiteness, maleness, gender, religion, wealth, and physical ability. Our inclination, when we hear this, is to proclaim that we should shelter, whitewash, and deflect when children ask questions about these matters rather than address them head-on. Tradition states that children should be children for as long as possible. The simple answer is yes, and no. 

With so many intersecting and overlapping identities regarding race, color, class, gender, sexuality, ability, religion/belief status, and more, virtually all children have aspects of their identity that give them privilege, and others that place them at a disadvantage. Wouldn’t it be better to answer their questions honestly and even to initiate these conversations in safe and developmentally appropriate ways so they can move through life aware of how these issues play out all around them?

In our 21st-century Global Studies curricula, lessons about history and society always raise the question of privilege. Whether talking about state’s rights, the rights of people, or the effects of conflict, there are two sides, those with power and those without, as defined by identity and status. Addressing this helps children to become better listeners, to think before acting, and to consider the impact of their actions on others. These are crucial lessons all children need to learn.

In our high school humanities class, students are encouraged to speak freely while studying the Antebellum Period, Civil War, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, and the Civil Rights Movement. Questions emerge about the “N” word, blackness and national origin, and who “We the people” in the Declaration of Independence was referring to. When considering homelessness and poverty in our elementary class, grades 3-5, or incarceration and the prison system in our middle school, grades 6-8, children puzzle over imbalanced statistics. African Americans are incarcerated at more than 5 times the rate of whites and 20% of blacks and 16% of Hispanics, compared to 8% of whites, are living in poverty. When we introduce American heroes, inventors, and thought leaders, children learn the names of marginalized and forgotten people who were left out of lessons at prior schools.

When children encounter the truth about discrimination they realize many people see and experience the world very differently from the way they do; this enables them to “walk in another person’s shoes”. This heightened awareness and the ability to look at situations through a different lens is essential to developing empathy, open-mindedness, and solutionary attitudes.

Each person’s history matters and children shift from knowing their insular world to knowing the broader world and its people. Recently, during a visit from Yves Mathieu, an international activist, model, dancer, musician, and advocate for marginalized groups, he and students spoke honestly about activism, discovering a passion, trans rights, proper representation, respecting blackness, and making a difference in one’s community.  

When social justice drives curriculum, children speak their minds, ask lots of questions, express varying points of view and consider the ideas of others. Teachers ignite a spark for learning, foster individual creativity, and instill a deep, intrinsic desire in students to be change-makers, innovators and confident visionaries by remaining open to children’s questions and honestly delivering information from many angles.

When adults tell kids the truth about hard things in the world, they say, “I can be trusted and I believe you can deal with hard things, and play a role in making the world a better place.” When children feel emboldened to do the right thing they lead fuller and happier lives and help others to do so too. This creates a better world for all of us. Then we can all get on with the shared experience of play, rest and relaxation.

Try taking your children to the new exhibit titled AFROFUTURISM that is open at the T. Thomas Fortune Cultural Center in Red Bank until November 8th. Your children will learn about the African American physicist, Dr. Walter McAfee, who worked at Fort Monmouth for many years and taught at Monmouth University. He was the first person to successfully bounce a signal off the moon which has led to all the technology we enjoy and use today

Published by Peter Swain