When a white supremacist rally to protest the removal of a Robert E. Lee statue erupted into violence this summer in Charlottesville, Va., Da’Shona Martin wanted to talk to her history teacher.
But school wouldn’t start for nearly two weeks.
“The best way I could think of to display my anger was to dye my hair red in protest,” said Da’Shona, who is African American and an 11th-grade student at the Ewing Marion Kauffman School in Kansas City.
Da’Shona’s bright red hair comforted her until she could return to school in mid August and talk about Charlottesville, Confederate monuments, neo-Nazis and white supremacy with Maria Kennedy, her advanced placement history teacher at the charter school.
For many students like Da’Shona, school this fall is a welcome space to hash out questions, concerns and fears. For many educators, returning to class meant determining how to navigate discussions about heated topics — including the darker parts of American history, politics and how President Donald Trump responded to this summer’s events.
John Rury, a University of Kansas education historian, said that for him fostering meaningful discussion about difficult topics relies on building a classroom where people feel comfortable — and also expected — to contribute to conversations.
And then, he said, he stresses the “absolute importance of historicizing things.”
He explained: “We do not arrive today free of the historical context that we come from. And this is particularly important when you look at the subject of race and racial equality and social justice...you can’t divorce it from history.”
Kennedy, Da’Shona’s teacher, also said she strives to help students draw historical parallels between racial incidents of the past and hateful language spewed in Charlottesville that students may have heard about on social media.
The 6-year teacher said that as she watched news reports about the white supremacist “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, she knew students would return to school with tough questions.
“I believe, and I tell my students, history is the story of the human experience and that story belongs to everyone,” Kennedy said. “I try really hard to make sure that my kids see themselves in our history.”
Talking about Charlottesville, she said, would be an opportunity for students to get a glimpse of history being made while she helped them connect the past with the present.
She saw it as her responsibility to help them connect facts. For instance, the surge in Confederate monuments going up early last century corresponded with a surge in conflicts between black and white people, the Jim Crow era and the Civil Rights fights.
After University of Missouri-Kansas City students returned to school, German history professor Andrew Bergerson challenged his students to interpret the events in Charlottesville as if they were historians in the future.
His students talked about what to name the people who had protested the removal of the Robert E. Lee.
“I wasn’t asking them to take sides,” Bergerson said. “I was encouraging them to think of themselves as active participants in shaping the meaning of what those events mean.”
But he also has another goal, one he sees as the most important lesson he can equip a student with.
The ability to prove facts.
“If there is one thing, one overarching goal, it’s to give them the tools to make truthful statements that are backed by solid evidence,” Bergerson said.
That means helping students understand that arguments not based in fact have little value. And that incendiary language has no purpose in academic debate.
That mission can be harder than it sounds in the 2017 climate, when politicians, media, Internet posts, and even the president of the United States spin statements as fact that simply are not verifiable, accurate or true.
“My job hasn’t changed,” Bergerson said. “My job is to help all students. My job is to teach them how to prove things to be true using good historical methods. The problem is we now have political groups and social groups who are denying that method.”
Even throughout the history of education, Rury points out, politics, societal values and religion shaped how students learned about history.
“19th century kids were being taught out of the Bible — it was which version of the Bible?” he said. “...This is all stuff we talk about, how curriculum shifts over time, due to political pressures.”
Some teachers say they have formed strategies to combat mythology students might have been taught by their family or friends, such as theories about racial superiority, as well as problematic curriculum influenced by politics or geography, such as the idea that slavery was a footnote in a Civil War about state versus federal rights.
Long before the Trump administration or Charlottesville, teachers and students at the Kauffman School said they have engaged in discussions about the role race has played in history.
Every Friday Kauffman hosts school meetings that function like a town hall for students and teachers to come together and discuss national and community issues. Students and teachers decide the topics for the day. Both groups openly voice their opinions, perspectives and feelings. Those classroom and school-wide talks have gone far beyond what’s in any of their textbooks.
“We build and write most of our own curriculum, so when history books don’t cover ‘both sides,’ our teachers can shape and adapt and find additional perspectives to share,” said Candace Potter, a spokesperson for the school.
On the third day back from summer break, Kauffman teachers and students — 93 percent of the students are African American — held a school town hall and talked about race, about Charlottesville.
Trinity Cook, a 16-year-old 11th grade student, said that last Friday students and teachershad been talking in small groups about the Charlottesville incident all day and she looked forward to Kauffman community meeting.
Rury said it’s up to teachers to put their stamp on how best to facilitate constructive conversations about race and history, even when curriculum doesn’t necessarily call for incorporating current events into the classroom.
“The curriculum planners are on one side of that classroom door and that teacher is on the other side and when that door closes, the teacher then has a lot of discretion,” Rury said.
Andy Hanch teaches Advance Placement government at Center High School and feels strongly about using current events as they unfold to “bring life to history.”
Charlottesville, he said, was a primary opportunity to discuss First Amendment rights, and federalism. After “catching some students up on what was happening,” that’s what he did. “you have to remember that 16-year-olds have varying degrees of knowledge about, for example, the KKK,” Hanch said. “They know it from a historical perspective and are not used to having a group like that come to the forefront of the national consciousness.”
As events pop up students get a glimpse of happenings on social media and they are curious, Hanch said. “So do you drop that lesson plan for the day and talk about student concerns? I think you have to,” Hanch said.
Da’Shona’s classmate Trinity is grateful for that. Trinity was eager to get to school to talk with her history teacher about Charlottesville, and thankful that she could count on her teachers to discuss it.
“Everyone in my house was angry,” Trinity said. “I knew when I came to school I would get a different perspective, that our teachers would tell us the truth about what was happening and based on history, why.”