“The Holocaust was an atrocity.”
This was the example I gave my eighth graders as we were learning our words of the week. And with one word, I learned that my eighth grade students had no idea what the Holocaust was.
I could not believe it. And this made me wonder how many other historical events we are not addressing in our curricula.
Ignoring history does not make it go away—it only robs us of invaluable lessons and makes us vulnerable to repeating our mistakes. This school year, we need to commit to teaching students to embrace discomfort. And before you come for me—this is not leftist, liberal thinking. This is aligned to the skills that students will need for employability in 2030.
According to the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), only 8% of seniors in high school acknowledged slavery as being the main cause of the Civil War. Not only is this problematic, but social studies teachers also reported to the SPLC that they felt they did not have sufficient curricular materials to teach about slavery.
Students Need to Learn Hard History
As we head back to school in the next few weeks, I hope that educators will not allow insufficient materials to stop them from teaching students about history—all of it.
- Teach about our ugly history with the Transatlantic Slave Trade. The slave trade is often mistakenly said to have begun in the 1600s. However, it dates all the way back to the 1500s. Our students should know this, and not just students of color, but all students.
- Students need to know about Jim Crow, and how it was intended to keep us separate but “equal,” but created inequality and made the treatment of people of color an inhumane atrocity.
- Expose your students to primary sources. I learned so much from listening to my grandfather tell me about being a boy in the 1930s, being chased by the Ku Klux Klan in Georgia and seeing bodies hanging from trees in Florida. He lived that. It happened—no matter how much we refuse to talk about it.
- Teach your students about the hundreds of Black people who were murdered by mobs, who set out to harm them for no other reason than for being Black in 1919. They called this brutal part of our history Red Summer because of the bloodshed and the lost lives of Black people.
- Teach your students about the deep roots of White Nationalism, especially in the wake of the recent El Paso shooting and the second anniversary of the deadly “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.
We Cannot Be Afraid To Teach
One year, I taught “Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry,” by Mildred Taylor. I sent home permission slips, explained the content of the book, and still had a parent take offense for, as they told me, teaching their daughter to have “White guilt.” Her parents said they were “teaching her not to see color, and she is coming home every day sad about this and we do not like it.” I am here to tell you that talking about race does not make you un-American and saying that you do not see color is not noble—you have not earned the right to not see color. We need to talk about our history.
After I found out my students had never heard about the Holocaust, I ordered “Night,” by Elie Wiesel, and we formed book clubs, assigned roles and deeply interpreted his work. It was painful. We struggled through some parts—tears staining the pages, but we had to learn. At the culmination of the book, we took the entire eighth grade to the Breman Jewish Heritage Museum in Atlanta, where they got to meet and listen to a Holocaust survivor.
This school year, we must make sure all students have the opportunity to learn from multiple perspectives and have access to diverse writers, thinkers and materials. As Wiesel said:
For the survivor who chooses to testify, it is clear: his duty is to bear witness for the dead and for the living. He has no right to deprive future generations of a past that belongs to our collective memory. To forget would be not only dangerous but offensive; to forget the dead would be akin to killing them a second time.Night, 1956
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