Educators in the recently rocked Virginia city are pondering how to broach racially charged topics with their students.
If you prompt Nikki Franklin’s former students with the words “the time is,” they’ll reply in unison: “always right to do right.”
That’s the advice Martin Luther King Jr. gave students during a commencement address at Oberlin College in 1965, and it’s the same mantra Franklin tries to instill in her students each year.
“It usually takes me the whole year to emphasize that and teach them that,” says Franklin, who grew up in northern Virginia and has been an elementary school teacher in the Charlottesville City Schools system since she graduated from the University of Virginia in 2004.
“The younger grades really do revolve around building the skills that will allow students to identify what is respect, how do you show respect and love,” she says. “In general, we focus on the broader skills that will create good citizens.
“Ever since this weekend, I’m thinking about how that needs to be emphasized more.”
When students in Charlottesville return to the classroom from summer break on Wednesday, a little more than a week will have passed since white nationalists, white supremacists and neo-Nazis descended on the city to protest a plan to remove a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. The gathering turned deadly when a car plowed into a crowd of counterprotesters, killing one and injuring dozens.
“I don’t know what students saw, what kind of conversations they’ve had,” Franklin says. “I don’t know exactly what situations will come up. I realize that this year is going to be different. I can’t tell you exactly how.”
For teachers in Charlottesville and across the country, the violent rally put an indelible blot on the start of the school year, leaving many unsure of the type of support their students may need upon returning, and uncertain how they should talk about and teach what happened in their classrooms.
Among the repercussions of the events in Charlottesville has been a heightened re-examination of Confederate memorials, as well as buildings named for those who supported the Confederacy. According to a 2016 report from the Southern Poverty Law Center, 109 public schools were still named for Confederate icons, about 25 percent of which had a student body that was majority black.
But the incident also has reignited a conversation among educators about the responsibility to teach U.S. history without sanitizing the country’s ugly moments – as shameful as they may be.
“I think teachers do have a responsibility to bring quality historical perspective to bear on historical issues that’s evidence-based,” says Zach Bullock, chairman of the history and social sciences department at Charlottesville High School, where he’s been teaching for seven years. “That’s more important now than ever before maybe.”
Those sentiments are bolstered by revelations in recent years about the content of some textbooks, such as a high school geography book in Texas that portrayed African slaves as an immigrant group and “workers.” A Connecticut school district, meanwhile, last year said it would pull a textbook after a parent complained about a passage that said slave owners “often cared for and protected [slaves] like members of the family.”
“I think what we have to do is help [students] come to good conclusions using good information, good news and certainly bringing a historical perspective to bear on it as well,” Bullock says. “Helping them wade through all of the things they hear and see.”
The Southern Poverty Law Center, for example, has an empathy lesson plan. The National Network of State Teachers of the Year recently released a list of books for grade levels that have strong social justice themes, to help teachers create equitable learning environments. And educational development organization Facing History and Ourselves has resources to help teachers “foster humanity” in their classrooms in the wake of tragedies like Charlottesville.
“Educators will need to be even more reflective and teach the subject matter around race, character and civics in an intentionally deeper way,” Franklin says. “Every educator can revisit their own practice and find areas of improvement.”
Twitter, the hashtag #CharlottesvilleCurriculum, started by an education writer for The Atlantic, prompted teacher and education organizations to highlight and share useful resources.
Many of the guides available stress the importance of case studies and field trips, followed up by conversations that can help students understand how historical events relate to modern ones.
In Charlottesville, students visit Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello plantation, where slaves were used to cultivate tobacco and other crops, as early as second grade.
“For a lot of kids, that’s the first time they have a school experience with race in a sticky kind of way,” Franklin says, adding that she’s never had the same conversation twice when talking to students about race, diversity and the country’s history of slavery.
“I really let the students, their knowledge, their comfort lead those kinds of conversations, always with me in the background knowing I need to reinforce the parts of the conversation that get us to my students leaving our classroom knowing that love is important, that being a kind person is important,” she says.
“We have this hard work to do, but we’re going to do it,” she says. “We’re going to lean on each other.”
Corrected on Aug. 22, 2017: This article has been updated to correct a date reference.