Teaching the Unspeakable

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I'm writing this several days after the shooting that occurred at the Emanuel AME Church that killed 9 people. A 21-year old white man who had told his roommate that he wanted to start a new civil war and proudly wore patches representing South African racial apartheid joined in a Bible study for an hour, explained to the people why he was going to kill them, ('they', as in black people, are raping 'our', as in white people's, women and taking 'our' country) and then proceeded to murder 9 black church-goers.

It is frustrating. It is sad. It is maddening. It is so many things, but unspeakable is not one of them. You should read this article in Esquire that helps explain why we need to talk about the reasons behind this shooting. Because there are reasons:

  • We do not live in a post-racial society. Living as a minority in America is different than living as a white person in America, and it isn't better.
  • While there are individual bigots and idiots out there who do things that wake up our collective conscience, the racial issues that really hurt are the systemic flaws that lead us to a school-to-prison pipeline, terrible dropout rates for minorities and huge wage disparities between blacks and whites.
  • White allies have been far too silent for far too long. I have been one of those silent allies. I am ready to be a bit louder, so to speak.
This is going to be relatively short, in part because I don't yet know how to talk to my mostly minority students about this and in part because I have a sleeping 6-week old baby in the other room who won't stay sleeping for long. In one moment I get worried about the world she will grow up in and in the next I can't stop staring at her sleep, amazed at how much I have come to love her in such a short amount of time. 

I think that the key to teaching about something of this magnitude is storytelling. There is no truth to be taught in this matter. If a student of mine holds racist thoughts, they are not going to change because I stand in front of class and lecture on the abhorrent history of racism in America and the logical reasons why racism is wrong. That student may never change, but if they are to change, it will be from storytelling. That, after all, is the basis of all history. We are part of a never-ending (hopefully) story of humanity that unfolds and changes each moment. 

I've been reading a book by Parker J. Palmer titled Healing the Heart of Democracy. I started reading this book before the shooting on Monday. It's funny how things seem to come to us when we most need them. 

One of the ideas in the book is that in order to confront those things in our minds that are most difficult, referred to as items that cause tension, we  have to look inward for the solution. A storytelling method is given that I want to try in my classroom this year. (Palmer, pg. 166-167) It comes in three parts:
  1. Tell the story of self.
  2. Tell the story of us.
  3. Tell the story of now.
Honestly, I haven't process what this looks like in the classroom yet. I'll have to spend time this summer thinking about what this will mean for my students. I'll write more on this someday, but I'm not ready yet.

I do know that my students, and all young people, need to be talking about this no matter their starting opinion. This event is the opposite of unspeakable. We must speak of it; we must analyze it; we must act because of it.

The only thing that I am really not compromising on is that America is not past its racial history. How do we get there? Why have we been unsuccessful so far? How do other events like recent issues of police brutality or New York's Stop and Frisk policy relate?

 I don't know the answers. All I do know is that if I can get my kids to think deeply about these issues, then suddenly our world history will come alive to them as they see common threads emerge throughout time.

I teach to make history come alive for students.

I teach to find the answers to these questions.

I teach in the hope that one day there are some questions we don't have to ask.

Thanks for reading this blog! I hope you'll consider taking a moment to comment below and turn this into a conversation. Whether you are an educator or not, we have all had common experiences with education both good and bad. I want to hear what you think! 

About Me:
My name is Alec Chambers. I am a high school history and government teacher at a small, urban public school in Kansas City called Center High School. We regularly kick tail. Among many awards, we were named a National Blue Ribbon School in 2014. I don't just teach at Center- I also graduated from Center in 2006 after attending Center Schools K-12. I have a degree in Political Science, a second degree in International Relations, a third degree in Education and a Master's of Arts in Teaching. I have an unofficial degree is soccer. All of those degrees have led me to the high-paying teaching profession! I have a newborn daughter and am married to the most awesome woman on the planet. Seriously. It's a proven fact.

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