Tanzina Vega: It's The Takeaway, I'm Tanzina Vega. This past summer Americans watched as an uprising for racial justice made its way across the United States. As that remarkable historical moment unfolded The Takeaway spoke to history teachers to ask them how they explain that moment to their students.
Speaker 2: The place that we started in my classroom was just, for what I needed to do, we needed to start with just dispelling myths.
Tanzina: Now history teachers are grappling with how to teach another historic moment, the Capitol insurrection and one of the most tumultuous transfers of power we've ever seen. Here's what one teacher had to say.
Niles Mattier: My name is Niles Mattier, but my students call me Mr. M. I teach fifth-grade US History at Boston Collegiate Charter School in Boston, Massachusetts. As a history teacher, I do want my students to feel hopeful for the future of the country. However, I also want students to know that while they may love this country, in order for it to improve, we must never stop critiquing it.
Tanzina: We've also got one of the teachers we spoke to back in July with us. Matt Bockenfeld is a Social Studies teacher at Fishers High School in Fishers, Indiana. Matt, welcome back.
Matt Bockenfeld: Thanks so much for having me back, Tanzina.
Tanzina: Also, we have some new perspective from Brenton Cobb, a sixth-grade history teacher and math teacher in Fort Worth, Texas. Brenton, thanks for joining us.
Brenton Cobb: Thank you for having me out too.
Tanzina: Brenton, let's start with you. Has teaching online and in person prevented you from having in-depth conversations about what's going on, or are students approaching you with, "Hey, what's happening?"
Brenton: That's a good question. I think that because I'm teaching in person and online at the same time, it does have a barrier with students online at times. I feel like in the classroom, it's a lot easier to have those conversations, but engaging with students online, there is still a barrier and I think that it does cause some problems to have those deep conversations sometimes.
I think also there's a disconnect too when you're online from your students, you're more-- When you're in, you know person those people and I think that there's a lot of anxiety for these students during this time. I think that that also takes away from just learning in general.
Tanzina: I want to ask you a little bit, Brenton, in a moment, just about what kinds of questions your sixth-graders are coming to you with. Matt, what about you? You teach high school, what are your high schoolers coming to you with? Does it matter if you're remote or in person, or did they have lots of questions for you right off the bat?
Matt: Well, listen. There's never been a better time to be a teacher or a harder time to be a teacher because I think the pandemic has magnified every imaginable social issue. Kids, the questions have been absolutely non-stop. It's incredibly difficult what Brenton was describing, creating that safe space to have the environment to have the honesty and the vulnerability to talk about politics, to talk about race, honestly, to talk about death as the pandemic drums on in the background.
It's been incredibly challenging and very rewarding working at building a classroom space that is both online and in person at the same moment and where you are still having those conversations because the kids have never had more questions than they do right now.
Tanzina: I'm going to come back to you, Matt, about what kinds of questions they have. Brenton, the sixth-graders that you teach, what do they want to know about what's happening? Are they scared? Are they confused? Are they excited? What are they coming to you with?
Brenton: A lot of them are nervous or scared or don't actually know what's going on because there's so much disinformation out there. I've had a lot of students like when the insurrection happened, a lot of the students were like, "Are we going to go to a war?" Even when Trump lost in November, a lot of the students came up to me and they were just like, "If he loses, are we going to war tomorrow? What's going to happen?" A lot of them were just really concerned. I think that a lot of them didn't understand certain things too, which also promoted a lot of more questions for me.
I felt like for sixth-graders, all the information that they're getting is from their parents too and they don't really know much besides that. These students, a lot of them don't search the web or anything like that, or at this moment in time, they're just learning about credible sources. It's me more trying to find those credible sources for them and talking about that too. It's been quite interesting in teaching right now,
Tanzina: Matt, that's a really important point because I often say we are in the misinformation wars as we speak. For high school students that you're teaching, are they coming to you with similar questions or have they done their own research, or are you also grappling with the effects of misinformation in the class?
Matt: Yes, undoubtedly. I teach in an interesting context. We're a suburban school just outside of a city very rapidly diversifying, but within my building, we have students who are sympathetic to the Proud Boys or even have said that they plan to join the proud boys. We also have undocumented folks just trying to make it in America. We have this broad swath of society that we have to serve all of those students. We have students that walk in and they ask is this a fascist takeover? We have students asking are the police going to be abolished? Students asking what is white supremacy? We're kind of hosting all those conversations within the context of a very, very divided city politically and in every way you can imagine. It's just hyperpolarized
Tanzina: Is that polarization, Matt, showing up among students?
Matt: I think it's showing up in the classroom because we are trapped with students who, they hear what they hear from home. I guess what we say in the classroom is that post-truth is pre-fascism. What we have to do is tell the truth all the time and hold to human dignity, regardless of people's perspectives. When we set that context, our conversations are, I think much more productive than they would be otherwise.
Tanzina: Brenton, when you think about things like fascism, white supremacy, these are not new ideas, but they also aren't pillars of a lot of American history classes, to begin with, especially in the sixth-grade. How do you introduce these topics?
Brenton: Well, I try to relate it, like the other day we talked about Hitler, we talked about Germany, and they have a little context behind that. I try to bring that into taking their background knowledge into what's going on today, and is this white fascism, or are we seeing something that could resolve and something as a fascist takeover? I think a lot of the students were really nervous about that, but it also sprung up more conversation amongst them trying to get their ideas going.
I thought that was really great, trying to relate to and their background knowledge because they are young, they're only in sixth-grade, so that's how I related fascism to them even when they don't have that big background.
Tanzina: Matt, what about you? Introducing topics, again, our history textbooks in this country are often lacking in the full story of the United States, and that can include our history of white supremacy. I'm wondering how you incorporate those conversations. Maybe it's an introduction of these terms for the first time to high school students, or maybe it's a deepening of their understanding of these concepts.
Matt: Yes. What we say is that we know that classrooms are the frontline of democracy and that the future of democracy will be won or lost in the classroom. What that means is that I think we had some hard conversations as teachers over the summer. We agreed that we know that George Floyd died with a knee on his neck, but it got there under the weight of our apathy. What we need to do is completely rewrite the curriculum. We can't just add a lesson about George Floyd or add a lesson about the capital.
What we need to do is go from the foundation. How can we understand what happened to George Floyd without understanding the red lining of our cities, without understanding the continued racial segregation in our public school system, a school system that remains about as segregated as it was in 1980, and in many parts of the country is actually continuing to further segregate. We want to build the foundation upon which we can have the conversations that we need to have.
I don't believe that we can talk about Black Lives Matter until we talk about, for example, the origin of whiteness itself, where does this come from and what does it do to us? I think those are the foundation is what we're building in order to be able to have conversations about what's happening today.
Tanzina: Brenton, what about parents? You mentioned having students that come from very diverse backgrounds, very diverse political backgrounds, at least from their parents' perspective. Are parents saying, hey, we don't want our kids to talk about that, or we're not interested in them learning about that or the opposite, teach them more about this?
Brenton: So far, I haven't had a lot of parents reach out about it actually. That's like in my school, I feel like we have to not toe the line, but also I'm trying to bring as much information to them as possible and to have them critically think about what's going on in a time like this. Most parents have not reached out to me or told me don't teach them this or teach them that, so I try to teach them as much as possible unless I hear otherwise.
I think that I just keep going. I want them to get as much information as they can, especially in a time like this. It's so important that they're getting the right information and being able to find this information in the right places. Being in a classroom, I think that as teachers, it is our job to make sure that these students, that they're able to find the right information and they're not being pushed into disinformation. I haven't had very many parents, like I said, say anything about this, but I'm just trying to give them all the facts that I can at this moment.
Tanzina: Matt, we've talked a lot about the mental health effects of this pandemic, now that we're a year into it and it looks like it's going to be a while before we reach the capacity of having enough people vaccinated to really make a difference to go back to something "normal". Are your students feeling the weight of history and also the weight of this pandemic right now? That has to add to the stress, and of course, the educators themselves.
Matt: Yes. To be blunt, I think a lot of my kids are really struggling, both with the anxiety from the pandemic and also just with the changes that's underway. We have a theme in my class. In the book, The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin, there's a quote where he says, "To accept one's past is not the same thing as drowning in it." We find ways to look clearly at who America has been and what we've been without drowning in that and so we don't let despair take over. We understand that our generation is the next generation whose job it is to help realize the democracy. In that sense, I try to restore a sense of purpose to the students so that they don't just drown in the weight of what's happening.
Tanzina: Matt, that's a really interesting point that you're raising there. Brenton, I'm wondering how you see that.
Brenton: A lot of my students, they're thinking about vaccines and they're hopeful for the future, but I have a lot of students in my classroom who also are dealing with deaths in the family because of coronavirus. I have several students that I've talked to over just winter break who their grandparents died, their uncle died. I had one girl who she got coronavirus and then it's spread throughout her family and because of that, her grandfather died. There is sadness around here and they're also dealing with so much more outside of school. My job I feel like right now is to create a safe space for them when they come into the classroom and provide them a voice in here.
It's just we're in a time that we've never and such a time that we've never seen before. Just creating that safe space, being able to talk about the difficult things, and it's also comes to you have to know your students. Knowing each individual student is probably the key thing because not every single student learns the same, or you can talk to them the same way. That's the one thing that I found, especially in such a difficult time right now, not every single conversation is the same and you just have to be understanding and listen. A lot of these kids are just going through a really rough time right now.
Tanzina: Brenton Cobb is a sixth-grade history teacher in Fort Worth, Texas, and Matt Bockenfeld is a Social Studies teacher at Fishers High School in Fishers Indiana. Brenton, Matt, thanks to you both for joining me.
Matt: Thanks so much.
Brenton: Thank you.
Keith: My name is Keith Harris and I teach European and United States history in grades 9 through 12 at a private high school in Los Angeles. When I speak to my students about the events of the Capitol on January 6th, I remind them that our democracy depends on the peaceful transfer of power. It's part of our national identity that was put in place by none other than George Washington. My students have asked and how we come back together as a nation after something like this. My answer is through justice. Those who were responsible must be held accountable, then we can unify.
The nation witnessed the results of a hasty reconciliation in the wake of the Civil War, which gave us nearly 100 years of Jim Crow segregation, curtailing the citizenship rights of millions of Americans, and ideological animosity that in many ways is still with us. Perhaps we can learn our lessons from the past and then carve out a just future.
Brian: Hi, my name is Brian Sheehy. I'm the history department coordinator at North Andover High, which is about 30 minutes north of Boston. I teach AP European History, AP US History, Sports in American Culture, and Sports of the Past. I think that especially with the storming of the Capitol, it was important for me as a teacher to go in the following day and just understand where my students' heads were at and help them process. There are so many things that our students have to process through this pandemic that I thought it was important just to listen and see what they had questions about and see how they felt.
Young people really are much more tuned in than I think we give them credit for and much more in tune with current events than maybe I was when I was their age. It's really a great thing to see as an educator, to see young people really taking an interest in wanting to initiate change, and I hope that continues.
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