Like most Americans, I have had many thoughts and concerns over the past day and a half, after learning of the violence and murder connected with yesterday’s white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Va. I pray for those who have died and been injured, and for all who are diligently working toward a country that prizes the acceptance and equality that our Declaration promises.
But as someone who often seeks out the difficult questions, I have to raise this one: What if I had a student who was one of those alt-right marchers yesterday? Or what if I had a student who was a vocal sympathizer of their cause? As I type these words, I am seeing a Washington Post article in which a history teacher of the young man who ran his car into a crowd yesterday said the young man had expressed white supremacist views in school.
This is a tough call for any teacher. Teenagers don’t respond well to shaming and being told what to think. So while I strongly hope that those who marched or spoke out for white supremacy will take on new points of view, I don’t think it will happen because they’re told they are wrong. Only through educated dialogue will teens and young adults feel empowered to change their minds, through their own volition. If I started a conversation with a student who had alt-right tendencies, it would be essential that I let him or her know that I was listening.
But I’d also take steps to ensure that this student – along with all of those in my class – hears and considers other points of view. The decisions teachers make on reading materials, conversation format and class environment all can play an essential role in this. Teens pay close attention to the opinions of their peers, so it’s important that classroom dialogue on controversial issues be thoughtful and respectful. The classroom also provides a kind of structure that social media does not. So while this student would likely have had many online debates with others already, the classroom and a teacher’s own experience facilitating discussions would likely be a welcome change for the student and for those who disagree with him or her.
Before class, I’d reach out to that student’s guidance counselor to see what was happening in other classes and in the hallways, to try and get a sense of what that student was experiencing in all the other periods of the day. I wouldn’t duck the topic in class if I learned that he or she was being shamed out loud and on social media; I’d just alter the tone of how we discussed it.
When it came time for dialogue, the goal would simply be for us to read, think deeply, and converse. I would seek out a variety of reading materials, from the Declaration and Fourteenth Amendment to the facts about what happened during the march, to excerpts from different opinion pieces on the issues at hand. I’d seek out diversity in the persuasive writing, perhaps sharing Michael Eric Dyson’s New York Times op-ed piece on repeating America’s history of bigotry, while also selecting The Wall Street Journal editorial board’s piece on the dangers of identity politics. We’d have a lot to talk about, and I’d make sure that students had the chance to read, write down their thoughts, share with a partner, talk in small groups, and eventually discuss with the larger class. Critical conversations like this require teachers to ensure that every student feels heard, and going straight to a full class discussion will likely turn into a debate among the three most extroverted students in class, while the rest squirm uncomfortably.
I can’t promise that any class conversations will change this student’s mind. I can promise that I would follow up with one-on-one conversations that are respectful and offer another ear as this student considers his or her point of view. I’ll never forget the interview Michael Moore conducted with singer Marilyn Manson in Moore’s documentary Bowling for Columbine. When Moore asked Manson what he would say if he could have a conversation with the two boys who massacred their schoolmates at Columbine High School in 1999 or with the community members, Manson answered immediately: “I wouldn’t say a single word to them,” he said. “I would listen to what they have to say, and that’s what no one did.”
We want our young people to develop into responsible citizens who care deeply about their fellow men and women. When we sense that this is not happening, it’s of great concern. Educators in particular can feel a heavy responsibility to help make things right. The question they face is how to address a student’s concerning behavior without losing that student’s trust and respect. I can only imagine the guilt that the Ohio history teacher must feel over what more he could have done to help this young man reconsider his views. In essence, he may have done all he could. But he’s not seeing it that way right now.
“This was something that was growing in him,” the teacher told The Post. “I admit I failed. I tried my best. But this is definitely a teachable moment and something we need to be vigilant about, because this stuff is tearing up our country.”
If there’s one takeaway for teachers, I think it might be to head directly toward those difficult topics. Sure, the class might be less controversial if we avoid it. But our children, our society and our country sorely need respectful conversations about the issues that matter. Teachers have the opportunity and skills to lead these talks. Let’s not waste it.