One Charlottesville, Va., elementary school teacher grapples with how to have this conversation with her students the week after the violence erupted in her city just as a new school year is about to begin.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Charlottesville city schools will be back in session next week, and work is underway to map out how last weekend’s events around the Unite the Right rally will be dealt with in the classroom. How will teachers help students process the swastikas, Nazi salutes, violence and words of hate that were on open display? Rachel Caldwell has been thinking about that question. She’s a fourth-grade teacher at Burnley-Moran Elementary School in Charlottesville. She joins me now. Welcome to the program.
RACHEL CALDWELL: Thank you, Audie. Thanks for having me.
CORNISH: So I understand that you guys had a staff meeting after last weekend’s events. What was that like? What was the feel?
CALDWELL: First, we debriefed just as adults with each other, as co-workers, friends. And then we moved into thinking about, what are we going to do next week?
CORNISH: So there was a sense you had to do something. How come?
CALDWELL: Absolutely. I think teachers would have felt very disappointed if we hadn’t spent the time, like, really grappling with this huge thing. It feels insincere to just get back to the old grindstone of making lesson plans when you have this huge life-changing event happen for us as adults and especially for our children. And many of them – you know, we know in America that over 50 percent of students are students of color. And that is true for our school as well.
CORNISH: We mentioned that you teach the fourth grade. So they’re about – what? – 9 years old.
CALDWELL: They are 9 turning 10.
CORNISH: So they are old enough to be aware of what’s happening, but they’re still very young. So when you think about the strategy of how to talk about this for the new school year, what are your goals?
CALDWELL: I think we do a disservice to our students and our community at large when we underestimate what students are ready and able to talk about. That’s why we are there as educators, to help them grapple with these topics, how to notice injustice, address it and engage with it productively. So I’ve really been thinking about the books that I’ll be reading with my class, the topics.
CORNISH: So give an example. I mean, what kind of book or what kind of resource might you be talking about?
CALDWELL: First of all, I think we can address specific questions that students have. Last year, I was teaching second grade. And this was before any of these rallies occurred in Charlottesville. I had a student come up to me first thing in the morning off the bus and say, are there white people in Charlottesville that want to kill black people? That was her quote.
And as an educator, we can say like, oh, we don’t talk about race or not right now or I’ll get back to you. But I think as the trusted adult in her life, it was really up to me to address that right then and there. If I silence her, I’m showing her that I don’t care about her personal safety or these huge questions that she has or that I’m too afraid to face it, which I think instills more fear in our young people.
CORNISH: What’s your response to the parent who disagrees maybe with your idea of a social justice conversation, who look at it as liberal indoctrination?
CALDWELL: I think that response can be very different now after these weekend’s events. I think it’s very clear that there are not many sides to this issue, that we can talk about this in the classroom and I’m not pushing a specific political agenda because it’s not a political agenda to kill people.
CORNISH: Right. But it is still a sensitive topic, right?
CORNISH: These conversations, they’re still fundamentally political conversations, many of which are unsettled in this country. I mean, how do you think about, I guess, things that you might actually still avoid or things that you’re worried about handling correctly?
CALDWELL: I think that gets at the question of what do I bring into the classroom as a white person about my own biases and expectations in the classroom? And I’m not an expert on talking about race. I’m not an expert on having these conversations. I’m just trying. And I think – just to give you an example, I’ve thought about in the past that we only teach Martin Luther King. We don’t talk about Malcolm X because that is a choice that our curriculum developers have made.
And am I doing a disservice to my students when I present only one way of addressing injustice without giving them the full picture? But at the same time, when I’ve been teaching this curriculum it’s been in second grade, so those are 7-year-olds. So how am I addressing these topics fairly and equitably, but also thinking about their need for safety and feeling like their teacher hears them and protects them and wants to hear their voice?
CORNISH: That’s Rachel Caldwell. She teaches the fourth grade in Charlottesville, Va. Rachel Caldwell, thanks so much.
CALDWELL: Thank you.
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