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Challenges of Teaching the ‘Hard Stuff’ in School

By Karen Giuffré

Having read the title, you are most likely expecting an article about calculus, physics or the analysis of poetry. For some, these were the more challenging school subjects. However, the everyday issues at the core of American society spark questions in the minds of our elementary school children.

These children, at an early age, through their surroundings and the free flow of information bombarding them, become increasingly aware of the privilege and power that comes with whiteness, maleness, gender, religion, wealth and physical ability. Our inclination, when we hear this, is to proclaim that we should shelter, whitewash and deflect when children asked questions about these matters rather than address them head on. Tradition states that children should be children for as long as possible. The simple answer is yes, and no.

With so many intersecting and overlapping identities regarding race, color, class, gender, sexuality, ability, religion/belief status and more, virtually all children have aspects of their identities that give them privilege and others that place them at a disadvantage. Wouldn’t it be better to answer their questions honestly and even to initiate these conversations in safe and developmentally appropriate ways so they can move through life aware of how these issues play out all around them?

In a 21st century global studies curriculum, as is offered at Voyagers’ Community School, lessons about history and society always raise the question of privilege. Whether talking about states’ rights, the rights of people or the effects of conflict, there are two sides: those with power and those without. These sides are defined by identity and status. Addressing this helps children become better listeners, think before acting and consider the impact of their actions on others. These are crucial lessons all children need to learn.

In our high school humanities class, students are encouraged to speak freely while studying the Antebellum Period, Civil War, Reconstruction, Jim Crow and the Civil Rights Movement. Questions emerge about the “n” word, blackness and national origin, and who “We the people” in the Declaration of Independence was referring to. When considering homelessness and poverty in our elementary class, third through fifth grade, or incarceration and the prison system in our middle school, sixth through eighth grade, children puzzle over imbalanced statistics. African Americans are incarcerated at more than five times the rate of whites, and 20 percent of blacks and 16 percent of Hispanics, compared to 8 percent of whites, are living in poverty. When we introduce American heroes, inventors and thought leaders, children learn the names of marginalized and forgotten people who were left out of lessons at prior schools.

When children are awarded the truth about discrimination, they realize many people see and experience the world differently than they do; this enables them to “walk in another person’s shoes.” This heightened awareness and ability to look at situations through a different lens is essential to developing empathy, open mindedness and solution-driven attitudes. Each person’s history matters, and children shift from knowing their insular world to knowing the broader world and its people.

At Voyagers’ Community School and other schools where social justice is driving curriculum, children speak their mind, ask all questions, express varying points of view and consider the ideas of others. Progressive schools around the country have created an environment that engages students in meaningful learning experiences. Teachers ignite a spark for learning, foster individual creativity and instill a deep, intrinsic desire in students to be change makers, innovators and confident visionaries by remaining open to children’s questions and honestly delivering information from many angles.

When adults tell kids the truth about hard things in the world, they say, “I can be trusted, and I believe you can deal with hard things and play a role in making the world a better place.” When children feel emboldened to do the right thing, they lead fuller and happier lives and help others to do so too. This creates a better world for all of us. Then we can all get on with the shared experience of play, rest and relaxation.

Try taking your children to the new exhibit titled “Afrofuturism” that is open at the T. Thomas Fortune Cultural Center in Red Bank until Friday, Nov. 8. Your children will learn about the African American physicist, Dr. Walter McAfee, who worked at Fort Monmouth for many years and taught at Monmouth University. He was the first person to successfully bounce a signal off the moon which has led to all the technology we enjoy and use today, including the network of satellites that now orbit the earth. McAfee was recognized by President Dwight D. Eisenhower for his outstanding scientific contributions and is part of The Black Speculative Arts Movement: Black Brain Belt.

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