TKAM: I See (white) People

The primary lens through which we will teach To Kill a Mockingbird is that while it is a book about race and injustice, it is really a book about white people. We introduced the book with this clarification.  A lot of people think that because it is a book about racial injustice it is a book about Black people and therefore checks the box for “diverse curriculum” or “teaching about racism”. Pieces have been written about why this is not true, and there are SO MANY BETTER books to choose if that is the goal.  The beginning chapters are pretty dull unless you are mining them for information about white, southern Alabama small town culture. There is little to learn about Black people’s lives, joy, or even pain from this book.  They say we write what we know (or we should), and it doesn’t feel like Harper Lee knew very much about us. 

A lot of people also think it is a book about white anti-racist heroes.  We also clarify that, too, is not true.  Atticus Finch is a white widowed lawyer dad raising his two kids in a small south Alabama town. He does his job, upholds his family’s legacy, and makes choices he thinks align with his moral universe.  He is no one’s savior. Tom dies anyway. The town closes back in on itself, white supremacy intact. The system beats them all. 

Why am I convinced it is important to teach about whiteness? Because we cannot even begin to contemplate ending racism, particularly in schools, unless we do. If you are not familiar with white racial identity development, I recommend checking out the following resources.

Teaching While White podcast with Dr. Janet Helms

Ali Michael, PhD, Ted Talk

Ali Michael PhD – “What White Children Need to Know About Race”

The big picture is that white people do experience racial socialization and form racial identities.  There is a process for this racial identity development and it is composed of several non-linear stages. Without understanding this process and making intentional moves to develop a non-violent white identity, we get what we have always had – individuals, well meaning or not, who uphold a white supremacy that wreaks havoc on the world as it seeks to control and dominate people of color and resources.  To Kill A Mockingbird is proving to be an authentic text for introducing these ideas and making space for a necessary dialogue. I should mention that I teach in predominantly white independent schools where students of color are tired of having to carry the weight of these conversations. They find their classmates ill-equipped, and the white privilege and fragility exhausts them. I might not center this conversation if I taught primarily students who were Black, Indigenous, or People of Color. The needs of my students would be different and so would my curriculum. The context, as always, matters.

Recently, a New York City school came under fire for using the work of Dr. Barnor Hesse on The 8 White Identities.  These charts were posted and shared widely.  I won’t argue about the validity of this framework; it’s based on research and the progression lands for me.

The 8 white identities are a really interesting way to look at Atticus and the white people around him.   He is MAX a 6 at the height of his “heroism”, but he really doesn’t stay there very long. 3 is probably his comfort zone.  The town is definitely a 1. Young Scout is clearly a 2. 

Atticus actually loses Black readers early on in the book when he tells Scout not to say the n-word because it is beneath their class and to simply ignore her classmates who do say this racial slur. His advice does little to affirm the humanity of Black people and has much more to do with how he sees “their kind” of white people. The case was further sealed for me with Atticus’s later statement that “there’s nothing more sickening to me than a low-grade white man who’ll take advantage of a Negro’s ignorance”, a patronizing statement that indulges racist beliefs about Black intellect while upholding the presumed superiority of white men within the system of oppression.  Young readers don’t learn anything useful about how respond to racism in real time from To Kill A Mockingbird. We can, however, learn about the motivations a white widowed dad raising his two kids in South Alabama might have for teaching his kid not saying the n-word as they relate to his family’s class and educational privilege among other white people. We can learn how a successful white lawyer doing the unpopular thing of defending a Black man can still fail to see that Black man as anything but less than him.

Rev. angel Kyoto williams has a really provocative teaching on the suffering that oppressive systems inflict on oppressors, in addition to those being oppressed.  She says, 

It is only when you find your story—when you realize the way you think and how you are has been utterly conditioned—that you will understand that even if on the surface you get to do all kinds of things, in truth, you have absolutely no choices at all. You have no choice at all other than to abide in this location and uphold it and be complicit in it for fear that to disrupt it will destroy who you are. 

In To Kill A Mockingbird, Atticus fails to become an anti-racist hero when it matters most – in the quiet moments at home while raising his children. His platitudes about empathy fall short of him really wanting to challenge the status quo and use his privilege to improve life for the Black citizens of Maycomb. Placing too much emphasis on the ways in which he fulfills his tax funded work duties encourages mediocre racial justice work.

It is often argued that the Finches are confined by their circumstances, surroundings, and a set of perceived limits that require them to ultimately preserve the rules of whiteness they are conditioned to believe in. If so, then my students are blessed to be children of these times. By learning about the choices the white characters in To Kill A Mockingbird fail to make, I hope my students learn to create space for those choices in their own lives.

When we know better, we do better. 

On Teaching: 2020 Elections and Voting

So you know what makes an upcoming Election really exciting?  Going back to school in a hybrid model the same week.  I mean challenge IS my middle name.  Wait, no it’s not.  It’s Tommeseau. 

Depending on who you talk to, this Tuesday, November 3rd is either the end of our democracy, the second coming, or Kendall Jenner’s birthday. No matter which way they lean politically, this is the time for teachers to engage.  I get the reluctance to touch this election in the classroom with even a ten foot pole.  I was seriously tempted to duck and dodge the whole shebang.  I did a large project in the spring with my former 6th graders around the primaries, but I was feeling overwhelmed this fall and secretly hoped someone else would do it.  Then I was invited back to The Kojo Nnamdi Show to talk about elections and civic education, and as with all reflective experiences, I was reminded of my duty as an educator to serve my students first, even when it is uncomfortable or hard.  

In the past, to prepare students for elections, we probably assigned the debates as homework or made electoral maps to keep track of results as they rolled in on election night. We wrote pro-con papers about the issues and compared candidate positions.  There was something authentic about modeling civil discourse and polite ways to disagree with people.  

This year feels different. Our country has returned to a time of deep divide. The debates were disturbing. Headlines about potential vote suppression are disturbing. Everything needs to be fact checked because people are lying, and that is disturbing. We pray there is still time to right this ship and hope our relationships and Thanksgiving dinners will survive the outcome, but even the grownups aren’t really sure this is going to end well.

Meanwhile, our kids need to be engaged and inspired to have civil conversations, develop critical thinking skills, and formulate knowledgeable opinions.  What to do?

Here is where I think we teachers can be really helpful: 

Demystifying political processes

With so many mail in ballots and lawsuits on the line, this election is unlikely to be called on election night.  Process is going to be so important, and ours is confusing in a normal year.  I love the free lessons, infographics, and games from iCivics, which was founded by Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. There is a great selection on everything from deciding Supreme Court cases to running for President to passing a bill through Congress. This site syncs with Google Classroom and they’ve curated a selection especially for this election

Last spring I assigned these games for homework, and then students brought their experiences to fuel discussions about how these processes work and fit into ideas about democracy. They were also useful for illustrating how exactly critical bills like the Voting Rights Act or Americans With Disabilities Act were fought for and passed.  This year, iCivics has teamed up with Peardeck to offer several ready to teach slide shows.

Ensuring students are digitally and media literate 

Media literacy is a topic close to my heart, since I majored in media studies during undergrad and worked in advertising.  I have been fortunate to partner with talented librarians and educational technology teachers over the years who shared a wide range of tools and strategies.  ISTE is a great organization that has years of research and standards for digital literacy and citizenship that schools can reference.  

We used to use fun examples like the website about the tree octopus to talk about credible sources and doing real research. I think the 2016 election made it clear that misinformation and disinformation are global industries, and that not being able to differentiate real information from false information has serious consequences for our democracy.  It’s not just a nice to have skill – it is an essential literacy. Media literacy education now has to keep up the creators of this content who are using technology in incredibly complex ways.  It’s gotten so much harder to tell whether an article or video is based on fact or has been created to deceive us. Give this game from factitious a try and see where your skills land.

It feels really important to include emotional intelligence and self-regulation in critical thinking skills. ISTE suggests that when there are no obvious clues that something might be misleading, we can use active listening and reading skills to check in with ourselves.   Refining our gut reactions can help us feel less overwhelmed and inundated. Questions I want students to ask about information they encounter include: 

  • How did I receive this information?
  • Who is delivering this message?
  • Who is creating this message?
  • What words are they using?
  • What is their purpose or intent?
  • What is their tone and what does their tone indicate in terms of perspective or bias?
  • What effect is this message having on me?
  • If I am feeling a strong emotion, where is that strong emotion coming from?
  • What about this message confirms, challenges, or changes what I know and believe? 
  • What am I going to do with this information? 

While the Newseum is closed now, it was such a wonderful resource and I am glad they are continuing their educational programming that supports learning about first amendment rights and media literacy. This lesson from NewseumEd is a terrific tool for putting political ads into context and giving an open framework for analyzing ads running now. 

The New York Times has put together an open ended Bingo game/scavenger hunt format to help students scan the news that comes to them on any platform. A class can use the game prompts to spark discussion or additional research. 

I also think it is important to talk about journalism as a career, with particular attention to the code of ethics professional journalists agree to follow.  If a writer, blogger, or show host isn’t following these rules, then their work might not be news, and that’s an important distinction.  

Emphasizing voter empowerment

The numbers in this election will be epic and getting out the vote is one positive message that seems to be louder than ever.  It is wonderful to see lines forming and a steady flow of cars leaving the parking lots of schools and community centers around the country.  The Choices Program from Brown University has a great lesson on voting, values, and policy during a Pandemic.  

Teaching for Change and the Zinn Education Project have so many interactive resources (many repackaged for virtual teaching) on the history of voting rights in the United States. The role plays are especially recommended because they feature so many students, a narrative that is really inspiring to young people. I used this lesson from Teaching Tolerance to launch a study of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that connected to the spring primaries. All students should have an accurate understanding of the ways women and BIPOC fought (and continue to fight) for their suffrage. 1919 was NOT the year all women received the right to vote. These facts are really appropriate to bring up in a major national election year, but also during smaller local or state ones as well.

I really enjoyed this Throughline/Up First podcast about Frederick Douglass. Voting was very important to his concept of freedom. Lucretia Mott was a really interesting suffragist and abolitionist, and the National Women’s History Museum has a set of four lessons on her, other suffragists, and the Seneca Convention. I’ve written before about Fannie Lou Hamer; her speech is a riveting primary source on the lengths white supremacists went to prevent Black people from voting. These three individuals had very different journeys gaining access to the polls. Examining them together weaves a powerful narrative about obtaining and protecting a truly inclusive right to vote.

This slideshow was created to lead a virtual activity on voting for my son’s kindergarten playgroup.  They really enjoyed learning about our local leaders, doing the scavenger hunt for issue related items, and hearing the read aloud from Sankofa Books. 

My colleague, Krystle Merchant, Director of Community Engagement at Maret School, designed this awesomely engaging and comprehensive Peardeck for our middle school students.

However you choose to do it, however hard next week might be, we need to lean into opportunities to talk about the election with our kids, EVEN if our schools request that we not make it too “political”, whatever that might be code for.  Our students are tomorrow’s voters, and what we do now sows the seeds for future generations of engaged citizenship in our democracy. 

On Art and Empathy: Teaching China

I am very excited to share a project that I have been working on for the last year: Teaching China with the Smithsonian. This website represents a rich collaboration between curators, teachers, museum educators, and web designers. It was an incredible honor to be named a teacher-in-residence by the Smithsonian National Museum of Asian Art and to have so much access to the Freer Sackler galleries. It was also one of the best professional experiences of my career. On the site you will find a range of (awesome) teaching materials, including object specific lesson plans written by me and my colleagues, like this one about a summer chaofu.

People might be wondering about my interest in working with an Asian art museum. One, my masters degree is actually in museum education, and museum based teaching is originally what I thought I would do. Life being life, I ended up in the classroom and this was a glorious opportunity to check out the road I didn’t travel. Two, I have had a number of opportunities to teach and learn about China throughout my career.

When I taught 4th grade at The Dalton School, we studied the immigration of Chinese workers in the 1800s, as well as the xenophobia, discrimination, and detention they faced when they arrived. We learned about the Chinese Exclusion Act and the experiences many had on Angel Island. There is a lovely museum in New York City, the Museum of Chinese in America, that I recommend. These were not topics I studied growing up, even in California, and my perspective on the Asian-American experience was greatly widened.

When I taught 4th grade at Sidwell Friends School, we did a year long study of Ancient China. We learned about the dynasties, oracle bones, bronzes, and terracotta warriors. We compared Buddhism, Daoism, and Confucianism and made a lot of beautiful art that I wish I still had pictures of. Modern language and culture were also taught. Sidwell Friends actually has a tragic story behind its China studies program. Because of the program, I have been to China twice and visited many different parts including Beijing, Shanghai, Xi’an, Guangzhou, and Yunnan. An incredible array of landscapes, food, and displays of artistic expression were intertwined with complex histories, politics, and beliefs. What little I understood from teaching was brought alive and made more complex by traveling there.

A highlight was three weeks at Qinghai Lake in Central China where I supervised students partnering with Machik, an organization devoted to social innovation in Tibet. They helped run a summer camp for Tibetan youth from around the country. There were joyful moments with circle dancing and yak butter tea, as well as stories of oppression and discrimination that resonated deeply.

Since those trips, the relationship between China and the US has only grown more complicated, and in the midst of all of that, I joined Whittle School and Studios, which opened campuses this year in both countries. The goal is for students and faculty to freely flow, interact, and exchange ideas, which has already begun to happen. Circumstances keep bringing me closer to China so I keep processing, learning, and trying to understand. As I seek to build that understanding, I am grateful for the opportunities I have had to see things for myself.

People also wonder why billionaire white men like Arthur Sackler (who collected and donated many of the objects we wrote about) and Mansfield Freeman (whose foundation funded the website and teacher education project) focused their attention on Asian artifacts and cultures, specifically those from China. According to Mapping Cultural Philanthropy, “Sackler…sought to promote an understanding of Asian civilizations through analysis of their artistic expression.” Freeman, who lived, taught, and began an insurance company in China, also wanted to nurture a better understanding between the United States and Asian countries. He instructed the foundation to fund projects that would “strengthen the bonds of friendship between this country and those of the Far East…and to stimulate an exchange of ideas in economic and cultural fields which will help create mutual understanding and thus lessen the danger of such frictions and disagreements as lead to war.”  In their own ways, they hoped their vast and valuable assets could be used to make the foreign more familiar. They hoped it would help build empathy. Current events tell us that the mutual understanding and peace they sought to foster still needs that support. This, I believe, makes our work even more relevant.

Art, like books, nurtures empathy. It sparks curiosity, which draws you in for a closer look. You become proximate. Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative talks a lot about promixity as a pathway, perhaps first to intellectual understanding, and then, if the heart is open enough, to radical empathy.

It is only by empathy being aroused that we change. ~ Alice Walker

Museums can play a powerful role in facilitating this journey from object to empathy by sparking our curiosity and bringing us into proximity with new objects, places, people, and stories. Both museums and travel have transformed me. I hope our lessons allow teachers and students to go on a journey together and through that journey better understand themselves, each other, and the world.