It is 3:30. I am driving home, and the anxiety building up in my body is palpable. Instead of picking my children up from school and passing seamlessly into the role of mom, I am panicking over my past seven and a half hours.
You see, I am teaching my civil rights unit.
I'll start with the obvious context. I am white. I am female. I am privileged. I teach in a school that is slowly transitioning in demographics towards a more diverse population, yet we are still privileged. I teach in one of the best ranked public school districts in America.
But I remember my own intellectual curiosity as a child, a student, a young adult. My own life in the 99.99% white suburbs of Cleveland, Ohio. How diversity was marked by referencing which regions of Europe from whence our fore fathers hailed. How I have realized that my childhood, dubbed "the land of 2% white milk" by a high school friend, was no accident; instead it was the culmination of forces beyond my ability to perceive at the time. (Ironically, when I return home to Cleveland, I do not see this racial segregation any more. In 1999, I found out in my Cleveland State University urban planning class that Cleveland, Ohio was in the top five most racially segregated cities for much of my childhood. At least that is what my professor told me.)
My sense of confusion and frustration as to why the reconstruction perpetuated for so long as my Civil War-crazed father dragged my family from east coast battlefield to east coast battlefield over a five-year stretch of my childhood. My first true sustained interaction with African Americans came when my aunts adopted African American and biracial babies in the mid-90s. I often wondered just why is it that there was (I mean is) such a great divide in my childhood between the races. And this lead to the ultimate question I could never answer: What do I do about it?
These thoughts have turned to something beyond an academic curiosity. It has driven much of my own personal research, and a lot of what I teach. My obsession with the Fourteenth Amendment, my fascination with voting practices in America...
This is why I feel compelled to address the elephant in the room this year. Ferguson. New York City. Cleveland. South Carolina. Baltimore. All of these civil rights protests that are popping up all over the country.
But, let me tell you. This is not a unit for the faint of heart. We talk about things in here that will make people uncomfortable. I teach with a slight sense of terror the whole time, hoping I adequately straddle the line between adequate historical context and genuine dialogue. But an err for caution lands me into an academic discussion that doesn't broach the real world. Not heeding appropriate caution can violate the trust of my students, offend the community, and land me in trouble.
Oh. The stress.
So, I am thinking about the things we discussed in the beginning of my civil rights unit that are controversial and inflammatory, as my students and I identified all of the awful stereotypes my students have seen in school, and the even more despicable stereotypes and racial epithets they have witnessed on the Internet over the past year in particular.
We take this discussion, the prejudiced perceptions of what life is like in city centers like Baltimore, DC, and Ferguson... and we put this in context with an investigative report that WAMU came out with just this week. One that highlights the great racial disparity in felony arrests for assaulting a police officer; a statute that makes getting out of your car to tell the police your girlfriend is pregnant lands you in jail. A statute that finds 90% of the arrested on this charge are African American when that population constitutes only 50% of DC's population. We then roll through over thirty documents, including articles, letters, poems, movies, audio files, and interactive maps. We talk substantive and procedural due process, and the incorporation process. We go state and local, as well as federal. We look at history and current events. It is a whirlwind, and it is controversial. All the while, I am nervous.
I broach these discussions to show my students that racial epithets and prejudices are often rooted in a government policy. For instance, the exclusion of agriculture in the initial Social Security Act kept African Americans from enjoying retirement with security. Housing projects jointly funded by all levels of government funneled African Americans into urban blight and crime while whites placed restrictive covenants into the deeds of their white suburbs. The perception of ghettos as dirty and run-down; in part due to the lack of municipal services offered to citizens who live in these areas. Red-lining by banks to keep African Americans out of white areas compounded by block busting when a family did sneak in... all of these things forced white flight... and now that property values are so low, and African American wealth is at 5% (Wow!) of that of their white counterparts... we are looking at gentrification of these neighborhoods. So these epithets, who benefits from them? Who causes them? How do we fix them? (And I don't really even go into incarceration, welfare, food, and education in inner-city neighborhoods... food deserts, malnutrition, free and reduced lunch, food stamps, welfare... Oh, it's too complex.)
Kids are listening, skipping pre-planned dismissals to classes offered off the campus. Students are asking to come in and attend a class that they are not technically supposed to. Skipping their own lunch to join us.
A few months ago, a friend of mine asked me how to get her students to follow current events. I guess she asked me because she assumed that I talk current events in my class, which I do... but I do not spend a lot of time asking my kids to regularly read the news.
I think I am ready to change that. There are a lot of different ways to get your kids involved in current events, so here are some suggestions.
Flipboard has been around for a while. My friend used this suggestion with her APUSH class, and says that it is a pretty good way to get kids to read articles she finds on the web.
I decided I was going to create a bunch of magazines (LovGov's Politicool Spot, Teacher Toolkit, and World Our-Story.)
Flipboard is a website and an app you can install on android and iOS devices. It presents content like a magazine on your mobile devices, where you can flip through the pages and read it like traditional print media. You can share stories via social media, as well as import your Facebook and Twitter feeds as a magazine.
Any URL can be captured and placed as a story in your feed, and you can either allow public viewing or editing. It's a pretty great way to get news in a user-friendly format.
This is superior to what I do now, which is share links on Facebook and Twitter. Those can be painful to go back and read. People can also comment on the article (which may be helpful for assigned readings to allow students to respond for participation points). When you flip your article into Flipboard, you can comment on the article to make connections to major content.
If differentiation and assessments are your game, consider Newsela.
You can get this as free service or pay for an upgrade with Newsela Pro, but this site helps you assign and differentiate the same article for different reading levels and assess their comprehension through assessments. Pretty cool. There are even weekly current events quizzes created for you to keep track of what your students are doing.
Student News Daily
Another service that curates articles on current events, the SNP formats their website to replicate the various pages of the newspaper. Students get an opportunity to take weekly tests based on the readings. SNP also offers an app as well as free resources on teaching media literacy.
Pew Research Center's News IQ Test
Have your student compare their current events knowledge to a periodic national survey with this short test. Afterwards, they can learn more about what the nation knows in an informative analysis of our collective knowledge.
NYT & WAPO Programs
More free resources for your classroom are available on the New York Times' Learning Network and the Washington Post's Newspaper in Education programs that curate articles as well as offer resources for teaching media literacy and current events.
Tackling media literacy is a bigger issue. I have the luxury of taking my kids to the Newseum once a year to have classroom instruction on bias, newsworthiness, and ethics. If you are visiting DC, this is always a hit with my seniors. If you are not, checkout their digital classrooms resources. I especially like their NHD collection; what a great resource for kids doing NHD! There are other organizations that are out there that tackle these issues.
The News Literacy Project is a great resource in education, and they are working on many different resources. Digital workshops, student programs and classroom workshops are all great resources that bring journalists to you; they may require you seeking out a grant. But, you get real journalists and experts from the field tackling these issues. This may appeal to folks who also teach courses in School Newspaper and the like. The NLP also has a teachable moment blog, where the experts sit down and analyze some aspect of reporting through the lens of current events.
There are a ton of great resources out there to help get kids involved with current events. Here are a few of my favorites:
NPR's Wait Wait Don't Tell Me
NPR's On the Media
Photo via Flickr/Ted Eytan