Teaching the Tough Topics

A few weeks ago, I attended a lecture for my Archaeology of the African Diaspora class.  The speaker taught us about the reality behind Nat Turner’s Rebellion, from the perspective of Critical Race Theory.  The aims of CRT and Critical Gender Theory–as Dr. Cammarota explained in his lecture on PAR–are to present history through more socially aware lenses. CRT and CGT focus on how historical events relate to issues of gender, race, law and power.  These frameworks challenge history as we know it, which has largely been confined to the experiences of white males.  The speaker at the Nat Turner lecture portrayed him as a hero, a revolutionary whose actions reflected the distinctly American value of fighting for freedom.

The speaker then reminded us of all the teachers who’ve cast Turner as a murderer.  During the discussion portion, one African American man told us he’d grown up in Southampton County, VA, where Nat’s Rebellion took place.  He remembered learning about it in school as a child.  Despite the passage of time, Southampton County is still staunchly divided in its views on the rebellion.  The commenter’s teacher taught her students that Turner was in the wrong.  Moreover, the commenter recalled a song everyone had to sing before class each morning. Lyrics depicted an enslaved person picking cotton; they included phrases like “old darkey” and “[laboring] so hard for old massa.”  The commenter revealed that schools sang this song every day until 1998.  He questioned how young children could learn the truth when the veils of white supremacy have shrouded our education for so long.

I tried to remember how my history teacher taught Nat Turner’s Rebellion.  I couldn’t exactly recall learning it, but then I spoke with a high school friend of mine over Spring Break.  She said, “Didn’t you hear how our U.S. History teacher referred to the Confederacy as ‘us?’ He justified it by saying, ‘Oh, well many of our relatives fought for the Confederacy, you know.'”  Later during that visit, I notice one of my brother’s class coloring book sheets: a smiling Native American girl for Thanksgiving.  (My brother goes to the same high school, but he is in an Exceptional Children classroom.)  Surprisingly, many consider my high school to be progressive.  If even “progressive” schools still endorse these biased curricula, what happens at other schools?


I started to wonder how (early) we should teach the “tough” topics, such as racism, oppression, and consent.  I realize now that it wasn’t until college that I heard the phrase “enslaved African” in place of “slave,” or that my sex ed actually covered consent.  In this class a few weeks ago, we discussed how to approach these topics with children.  I remember Professor Hall mentioning that she felt her 7th grade students were not prepared emotionally to read Night.  I went to a small Jewish school through 8th grade, and we started learning about the Holocaust probably around 1st or 2nd grade.  Though these lessons were difficult at times, we eventually became inured to the pain.  The Holocaust became an opportunity for knowledge rather than taboo.  However, for students who haven’t learned about the Holocaust until much later in their education, reading Night in middle school could be traumatic.

The speaker at the Nat Turner lecture told us that children can handle more than we think.  She warned us that college is too late to finally learn “progressive” histories, because by that point, a person’s views are strongly ingrained.  Instead of trying to untangle years of bias and skewed power structures, we should start trusting children with knowledge.  This could mean updating history textbooks, taking Christopher Columbus Day out of the itinerary, saying “enslaved African” instead of slave, etc.

Regarding consent, it is vital to instill an understanding as early as possible.  The fact that colleges deem it necessary to require an online module that summarizes the concept indicates that we’ve failed our students–especially considering the high rate of sexual assault on campuses.  It’s definitely possible to teach principles of consent outside of a sexual context.  For instance, elementary school teachers can teach students about bodily autonomy and safety, maybe even by talking about hugging instead of sex.  Teachers can actively work to replace “boys will be boys” with “no means no,” and “He’s being mean because he likes you!” with “That behavior is inappropriate.”

College should not be when we exit “the cave,” like in Plato’s famous allegory.  We should aspire teach reality, dispelling the “shadows” of privilege and supremacy that permeate our education.

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2 Responses to Teaching the Tough Topics

  1. liznels says:

    This is a great and really insightful post. Having worked with a lot of children, I do believe that they are capable of handling a lot more than we give them the opportunity to. My youth group leader used to say that kids will reach the bar set for them, it’s just a matter of how high that bar is set. I think that you offer some really practical and simple ways to start change and agree with you that waiting until high school or college is too late. I wish that I had learned some of these topics earlier on because, without knowing it, I have developed biases and would love to grasp these hard topics easier.


  2. kbuffett says:

    This was a very interesting post. The message you’re sharing here reminds me of a quote written by Winston Churchill: History is written by the victors.

    It’s similar to how we’re taught about Thanksgiving and the camaraderie between Native Americans and colonists in elementary school and don’t learn about the genocide of those Native Americans until high school American history class. Potentially “controversial” topics, including sexual assault and consent, are typically glided over until students are much older.

    You are absolutely right: I don’t think we should be avoiding these topics with younger children. I am not sure where that line of maturity is, but as the previous commenter said, I think younger students are capable of handling a lot more than we give them the opportunity to.


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