Friday, August 21, 2015

Teaching how symbols have undeniable power

Dan Wasserman authored this political cartoon published in the Boston Globe  on June 18, 2015.  
Wasserman posted it on his Twitter under the heading , “Charleston shooting backdrop.”
An Aug. 19 story in the International Business Times by Aaron Morrison addressed how school districts are grappling with whether or not to ban students from displaying the Confederate flag on campus and it made me think back to a lesson in my classroom that dealt with the same topic. The only problem was that my lesson on this very spirited topic was dull and lifeless.

Last spring my social studies classroom began to heat up after we dove into the Bill of Rights and applied Constitutional principles to everyday issues. My junior and senior students came to life when we talked about dress codes, social media and the First Amendment, but their lack of enthusiasm about the symbolism of the Confederate flag surprised me. Their tepid interest in contemplating whether the symbol of Dixie was appropriate for state and local governments to display makes more sense now. A lot has happened since May when we addressed symbolism in class. 

Just this week the Charleston County School District in S.C. banned Confederate flag apparel on all school campuses effective this school year. All of this is in light of the controversy that erupted in June after a 21-year-old white man shot and killed nine black parishioners at Charleston's historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. The Confederate flag as a symbol of hate became the focal point in a national conversation about race. The accused man Dylann Roof has since been indicted on 33 federal counts, including hate crime charges. The horrific mass murder led to a national movement and the eventual removal of the Confederate flag on the South Carolina state capital grounds.

The scenario we had worked on in class became a fully charged debate gripping the nation. Coupled with the protests and myriad of issues playing out in Ferguson and Baltimore, many students seemed to lose interest in tackling bigotry and racism by the end of the school year. It was as if we had tired of dealing with race in class. Looking back, it seems strange to me that we were tired of dealing with racism in class while bigotry and prejudice continued to rear its ugliness in subtle and overt ways for Black Americans everyday. (See: Jon Stewart Race/Off piece about this topic. The last couple of minutes sum it up nicely.)

Back to the Confederate flag and symbolism.

On one hand I was disgusted that it took a bloodbath soaked in hate to start start a national discussion about the Confederate flag. For decades in the South the bars and stars have been politically brushed aside as though the symbolism was no worse than the flag of a rival SEC football team. How come it took our nation so long to realize how powerful this oppressive symbol had been for decades?  

On the other hand, we witnessed some remarkable acts of courage this summer (Bree Newsome who climbed the flagpole to remove the flag comes to mind) and the power of political momentum. I stood in awe reminded that a collective voice can change the narrative in the United States. Everyday citizens can push the discourse and stir politicians to act accordingly. Americans could finally see that political action can result from public outcry and demands for justice.

The claim from supporters of the Dixie symbol who hid behind the notion that the symbol represented, heritage not hate had stalled the national conversation. Now we could no longer ignore the fact that the flag's heritage has roots as a symbol of opposition to the United States Civil Rights Movement and school integration (An account of this from NPR). The heritage in question is one many believe is toxic to the United States of America.

The power of symbols on the human psyche was on full display after the mass killing and we owe it to students to be honest and guide them so they can discern meaning for themselves about why symbols matter. Hate, like love, comes in many forms and we cannot afford to discount the power of symbols to intimidate and express malice. I am personally grateful for the lesson and wish it had not come at such a devastating expense.

Just weeks before the murder, my students were more interested in school dress codes and free speech issues than discussing intolerance, racism and social justice. Discussing the power of symbols was met with the type of luke-warm response I was used to when we talked about the Connecticut Plan. 

It makes sense to me now as I reflect on the school year. 

The disconnect and my job as a teacher

The notion that a symbol can stir nausea and unleash fear was hard to understand when it had not touched most of my students’ lives directly. Sure, it was difficult for them to wrap their heads around such a sensitive topic in May, sandwiched between prom and graduation day. I am not blaming my students and I do not want to imply that this is a reflection of a weak-minded generation of kids. In fact, their lack of interest in the power of symbols and living up to the Constitutional values we profess has more to do with how I constructed the lesson than anything else. The failure was mine, not theirs. That's the real lesson for me.

Photo By Nick Gregory
I am excited to execute the lesson better this school year and I have already mapped out my strategy. I will bring the relevance of symbols into sharper focus the next time around. 

Ours was a discussion of history rather than modern-day racism. We talked about swastikas, burning crosses and the Confederate flag and we we dove into how they have been used to intimidate and cause harm to others. However, we failed to make a vital connection to how bigotry and hate still exists in society today. With the 2016 presidential election creeping up, students need to contend with all of this in order to be a part of a better America. 

Looking back at our conversations in class, I can now see there was a disconnect spanning geography, race and time.

Geographically, I failed to realize that many people assume that Jim Crow resided only in the South and the false notion that racism in the Midwest is nearly extinct. We need to look no further than Detroit or our own hometowns to see that this is not true. It is quite another challenge to help bridge that gap for students. We can start with challenges closer to home and there are many situations spanning the time since my students were born. (Remember Floyd Dent who was beaten by an Inkster, Mich. police officer or the mystery behind the death of black teenager Eric McGinnis in Benton Harbor, Mich.) Students have endured racist jokes or heard stereotypes and using those personal experiences dealing with racism, sexism, homophobia or other forms of intolerance in our own lives can provide for a more connected learning experience. Helping students make that vital connection is my job.

Most of my students are white (roughly 95%) and I recognize there is a great deal of diversity among them in aspects besides race, but the next time we approach these topics I will use literature and other forms of expression (song lyrics, poems, published material and other media) to provide a living breathing context offered from valuable perspectives. I have already found several sources this summer and after learning from conversations with other teachers spanning different races and backgrounds, I am confident I will do a better job. My students care about others, but it was quite another thing for me to try and help them understand how a symbol can evoke such strong feelings when in fact most of them had never felt hatred spewed onto them because of their race, religion or heritage. I have not had this experience either and so it becomes my responsibility to learn from the experiences of others. We have to bridge that gap in order to recognize the problem and deal with the reality. Finding meaningful ways to help students learn about that which is different and to gain a deeper sense of empathy is my job.

We have to flush out the details and recognize that diversity of views, backgrounds and opinions exists within different genders and races. There is no such thing as “one size fits all” when it comes to how we should unpack controversial topics in class. Students need to know that these topics are not simple or easy to navigate, but that doesn’t mean we should fail to address them all together. This should be a continuing conversation with the goal of working toward a better world. Embracing these conversations and encouraging respectful dialogue is my job.   

The events over the course of the last year in relation to police brutality and the US criminal justice failings are placed at the feet of our students with layers of history, symbolic meaning and various frames of reference. We bring to our learning all sorts of biases and messages from family and media. It is critical to be honest about that fact and try to make sense of it with a listening ear and respect for humanity. This too is part of my charge as a teacher.

I want my students to be more prepared for post-high school experiences (college, military, career) by starting these conversations now so they can share in the outcomes we create locally and nationally. I want to help students responsibly analyze tough issues and confront these topics in a safe classroom space. We can’t expect a better world if we have a generation of students only aware of struggle based on their own experiences and perceptions. Preparing students to seek understanding and embrace diversity as they enter life after school is my job.

It is time to turn up the expectations and have valuable conversations, meaningful lessons and honest revelations related to social justice issues. Moving forward means finding common ground and figuring out our honest disagreements by coming together. After all, this is my job as a social studies educator and I am honored to have the privilege to do it.

(Feel free to contact me and offer suggestions or feedback. I am happy to share my specific ideas as well.)

Additional Resources for teaching and learning about this topic:


  1. If we just had a couple hundred more teachers like you....I want to sit in on your class, Nick!

    1. Janet,

      Thanks for your kind words. Fortunately, we have many professional educators in Michigan schools who are doing great things for kids. Hopefully we can continue to attract a new generation of great teachers. In order to do that, we will have to have to reach policy makers and help them see the value of supporting students with decisions that put kids first. Again, thanks and continue to be heard.

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