Teaching tough topics with sensitivity

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By Deb Kadin

Contributing Reporter

As River Forest's District 90 prepares to open school next month, one issue that still may be under review is how racially and culturally sensitive material can be taught in Roosevelt Middle School history classes.

Lynda Holliday, a parent of an eighth grader, and District 90 Superintendent Edward Condon may meet again in the coming weeks to explore how the district can teach the facts and focus on the deeper meaning behind topics such as slavery or the Holocaust.

In an elementary school district that is becoming more diverse, administrators note that handling the issue, which bubbled up late in the last school year, could be improved upon.

Condon said sensitivity is critical and that how matters are taught should be on the minds of teachers as they get to know the students and their emotionality.

"We are proud of our diversity efforts, but there's always a need to improve in this area," Condon said. "It's one area that we have worked on in professional development and continue to support our teachers' skills in this area."

The issue at the center of the controversy focused around the Dred Scott Supreme Court decision, a matter that contributed to the start of the Civil War. While the specifics of the incident may be a matter of how the teacher taught the lesson, the way the exercise was carried out distressed Holliday's daughter, a seventh grader at the time.

Students were assigned a side; wrote and discussed their positions and came up with a compromise. Then they talked about what actually transpired.

The lesson was part of "History Alive! The United States through Industrialism," a curriculum provided by TCI, or Teachers' Curriculum Institute, social studies textbooks and curriculum for K-12 schools. The district has used the material for at least five years, district spokesman Tari Marshall said.

Holliday's issue was not with the subject matter but rather what she said was the insensitive manner in which it was handled.

On the day in early June that the class focused on Dred Scott, only one of the two African-American students — Holliday's daughter — was present in class. And because of where she was seated in the room, she was assigned to defend the decision, Holliday said.

The 1857 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that all blacks – slaves as well as free men – were not and could never become citizens of the United States. Scott, a slave who lived in the free state of Illinois before moving back to Missouri, a slave state, had appealed to the court in hopes of being granted his freedom, according to a study guide to the PBS series, "Africans in America."

Chief Justice Roger Taney, a staunch supporter of slavery, wrote that [blacks] had ... been regarded as beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations; and so far inferior, that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect."

As a lawyer, Holliday said she thought the exercise would help mold her daughter's critical thinking and debate skills. As a parent, Holliday was appalled. She spoke with building administrators who said they'd speak with the teacher to learn the particulars of the assignment. Efforts by the Journal to reach the principal, Larry Garstki, and the teacher were unsuccessful.

The teacher apologized to the student once she became aware of the situation but did not contact the parent, Marshall said.

The teacher, who has taught at Roosevelt for 12 years, was not disciplined, Condon said, but was told that she needed to make modifications in how material was presented in class.

Independently, Holliday contacted Condon, who felt the meeting was productive. She also brought the issue to the school board's attention in June.

Condon said that the lesson did not trivialize the seriousness or significance of the subject. To the contrary, Condon said, the critical thinking activity that was part of the exercise focused on building a student's understanding of how the differing perspectives contributed to the nation's actual path toward Civil War.

"The manner in which the lesson was conducted was appropriate," Condon said.

Museum educators note that schools can't ignore these subjects.

"There is no justification for slavery. But teachers ought to show the impact these topics had on the world. They can afford students an opportunity to see the world through the eyes of the victim," said Pemon Rami, director of educational services and public programs at the DuSable Museum of African-American History in Chicago. "Teachers need to allow students to look back at what happened, note how much progress there's been in society and how far society still needs to go."

In choosing sides on an issue, it's important not just look at pros and cons: the lessons should be about making choices and lessons should focus on the motivations behind making those choices, said Amanda Friedeman, youth educator at the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center.

"Choices have consequences," she said. "Teaching history should not be about conveying facts, but helping to make students contributing members of society. It's about what kind of communal and social values do we want them to have and how to relate to people around them. That's implicitly conveyed in the way we teach them.

D90 has seen a slight demographic shift in the past few years, particularly at Roosevelt Middle School. While enrollment still is predominately white, 25 percent of the population in 2012 was minority or multi-racial/multi-ethnic, according to the D90 report cards.

Holliday suggested that D90 require diversity training; set up a committee to evaluate the appropriateness of course material as related to diversity; create a committee of parents, teachers and administrators to provide guidance on the issue; implement a program, along the lines of the Oak Park and River Forest High School program, "Courageous Conversations."

Condon said "I would be very pleased to speak with her, and I encourage Mrs. Holliday to come directly to me or the principal to discuss them."

Holliday was excited that D90 appeared to grasp the importance of this issue.

"I look forward to productive dialogue," she said.

Reader Comments

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Done from Oak Park  

Posted: July 16th, 2013 11:17 AM

I'm surprised that the school district didn't contact all the parents of the kids involved in this assignment to ask them if it was OK to teach this subject and if they had any input into how to teach it. And then to contact all the other parents of the kids not in the class to ask if it was OK with them to teach this subject. And then to have a meeting to discuss whether or not to go ahead with the assignment. And then just say "Screw it - we'll let the parents teach this subject at home".

Susan Lucci from River Forest  

Posted: July 16th, 2013 10:24 AM

I look forward to applauding District 90 when and if it listens and hopefully, collaboratively formulates a more sensitive approach. Methinks a more sensitive teacher would have exercised better judgment. Thanks, Lynda, for courageously bringing this to all of our attention. No doubt, we can be more sensitive. Our children, watching us, deserve nothing less.

Truth to Anon  

Posted: July 14th, 2013 12:05 AM

My point Anon is that White/Csucasian and Black/African American can be transposed in your original comment quite easily. It's all about perspective and what's most valuable is to be able to realize that.


Posted: July 13th, 2013 10:09 PM

Violet: Don't you have a George Zimmerman Freedom party to run off to? I can go months without reading this site, and I come back only to discover that you're here pushing the same drivel you were months ago. Most internet trolls grow up eventually. Don't be so resistant to this natural progression. Go toward the light. Be a better person. Get out of that basement and go for a jog. Volunteer somewhere. Get a better job. Clearly you're lacking fulfillment in your life.


Posted: July 13th, 2013 10:02 PM

"Truth" (talk about "egocentric"): Could you offer something of substance, or are vacuous comments your only offering? Never once did I say I was speaking for all black/African Americans.

Stephen from River Forest  

Posted: July 13th, 2013 4:48 PM

Slavery is AMERICAN history. Is it something to be proud of? No!! Slaves built this country. The United States has always had an exploitable labor force. This is why we are the powerful nation we are. To strip a group of people from their native land and to do horrific things to them in the process is a crime against humanity. Blacks were never compensated for 367 years of free labor. Imagine apple not having paid employees for 300 plus years.

Violet Aura  

Posted: July 13th, 2013 3:58 PM

Cont. by a narrow thought about their power and abilities. And trust me--some of those who claim to want to help people become more independent of all this actually perpetuate the existence of the active pain body so that the person sees themselves as eternal victims. And focusing on such limiting beliefs only invite more and more of them. In order to get unstuck, one must stop CHOOSING thoughts which lead to negative beliefs. Yes, you a co-creators! You are not just sitting ducks, folks!

Violet Aura  

Posted: July 13th, 2013 3:55 PM

White guilt. *Edit: What GIVES one a boner, I should have said. Eckhart Tolle has great teachings about the pain body and how it can extend to groups. For instance, BP as a group have a huge pain body not only due to slavery but an inability to transcend feelings of victimization. Yes, you can point to outer forces which seem to be the cause of this but it's never ultimately "out there." And this is why there are BP who freely move among all types of people with success--they're not bound...

Violet Aura  

Posted: July 13th, 2013 3:51 PM

Cont. is Exhibit A. Why do people think they can approach the truth and increase compassion with mere labels? And now we are monitoring the labels like good little Thought Police and making sure everyone is on message. Melanin content is not one's True Nature. Neither is nationality. Neither is givens one a boner or heart flutter. Charlize Theron, who is blonde and pale, is an African-American. See how stoopid it all is? And I don't believe a BP started this nonsense--it stinks of liberal...

Anon Sounds Caucasian to Me  

Posted: July 13th, 2013 3:47 PM

(I am Violet, by the way;) I am 50% Hispanic and within that word-label is African DNA (from what I am told or what is speculated). I severely doubt I have ever heard a WP refer to him/herself as Caucausian--usually it's a BP doing that! And the irony is that when I DO hear WP using African-American, it's often with racist undertones, so don't kid yourself that a word-label will eradicate squat in terms of racial (or other) animosity. The insanity of LGBTLMNOPQ (and there are more letters now)


Posted: July 13th, 2013 3:26 PM

Anon, your opinion comes off as very egocentric as you sound as if you really believe you speak for all black (or African American) people. Having read the comment threads of this publication (and I'm referring to comments of black (or African American) as well as white (or Caucasian), it seems that your opinion is just your opinion.


Posted: July 13th, 2013 10:09 AM

Now that black/African Americans are choosing their own cultural labels they are getting backlash. I'm convinced that no matter what black/African Americans do, some people will be rubbed the wrong way by it because of their own animosity and hatred toward blacks/African Americans. Whine about it all you want, at the end of the day your feelings about the term "African American" is inconsequential. And all the anonymous internet circle-jerking in the world won't change that.


Posted: July 13th, 2013 10:04 AM

It is at the height of arrogance for non-blacks/African Americans to ever try and dictate what black/African American people call themselves. Whites use Caucasian interchangeably. Latino and Hispanic is also used interchangeably. Some Asians refer to themselves as Desis. And yet black/African Americans are catching flack for choosing their own cultural label. For centuries black/African Americans had absolutely no power to choose what they were called in society at large. (continued...)

Uncommon Sense  

Posted: July 11th, 2013 12:09 PM

And this is exactly why we are now a nation of low information voters. History can be ugly and offensive. However, it needs to be taught without flinching lest we are to repeat it. People need to stop being so sensitive. If anything, we as black folks need to know how bad it was to get some perspective on how much better things are now and appreciate how far we have come.

Violet Aura  

Posted: July 11th, 2013 12:07 PM

Cont. and start your own homeschooling network! Everything about the factory schools sucks: from the design to the curriculum (Common Core is a nightmare designed by Big Business/Bill Gates types to dumb-down and demoralize the intellectual joy that children possess naturally) to the godawful food...A plant-based, chemical-free diet and a student body full of non-materlailistc, ethnical children and their parents is awesome sauce on steorids!

Violet Aura  

Posted: July 11th, 2013 12:04 PM

Kim, I think this lesson stimulated inquiry. "Facts" are usually anything but. And sussing out the meaning of a particular event requires going beyond dates, place, etc. You would have to be a blooming idiot to put your kid in a public school nowadays if you have the means to do otherwise! It's so far-gone that I don't see any good coming from such an environment. If you have the moola, try Waldorf or some other open-ended school. Better still, hook up with other like-minded peeps CONT.


Posted: July 11th, 2013 11:28 AM

Violet-No, it doesn't matter if one knows the end date of the Civil War. However, understanding the causes, results and myriad interpretations of historical events is important. The 'facts' of history are often not static but to claim that teaching history is not about facts but rather about building character (as the museum educator implies) indicates an intention to avoid teaching history as an inquiry process and instead focus on morality.

John from OP  

Posted: July 11th, 2013 10:39 AM

Thank Jesse Jackson for introducing "African American" Go to Africa, they think it is silly. In all countries there are blacks and whites and other derivations. As to the lesson, history is history. The class lesson was about what happened - and then to talk about today. There is NO reason to be apologetic. As others have said, history is about showing people what it was like, what happened - and what were the facts, not changing them so we can think we are all PC

Violet Aura  

Posted: July 11th, 2013 9:17 AM

Cont. with a pro-slavery side. It's called critical thinking skillz. Kim, does it really matter that the Civil War ended in 1865? I think that comment was more in line with the application of the "facts" rather than rote reciting of dates and factoid blurbs. And much of what consists of "history" may be bee ess anyhow.

Violet Aura  

Posted: July 11th, 2013 9:14 AM

First of all, the student is BLACK, not "African-American!" Well, unless she's an immigrant from Ghana or the like. There is NOTHING wrong in saying BLACK. We have no qualms in using WHITE and yet BLACK is taboo? Bizarro world much? As for the assignment, I have NO idea what the teacher must apologize for. This is crazy-making. I suspect Mama was offended that her BLACK daughter was chosen as the anti-slavery advocate. I also am thinking that she balked at there even being a debate CONT.


Posted: July 11th, 2013 7:02 AM

I'm not sure what precisely her problem with the lesson was? I've taught that lesson--students examine the arguments given and explain how those arguments can be supported under the constitution and legal system. And I'm a bit bothered that the museum educator said teaching history isn't about teaching facts but about determining what kind on society we want to be--it IS about teaching facts, how historians interpret and explain those facts, and how sometimes 'facts' aren't really facts at all.

Mary Anne Christy from Seattle  

Posted: July 10th, 2013 7:54 PM

I think this kind of discussion is very important. However, it's important regardless of the percentage of non-white kids in a classroom. White kids should feel uncomfortable with the issues in Dred Scott, too. To suggest that the issues are only important because there are new African American kids in the classroom obscures the important point. We shouldn't be changing our way of teaching because the demographics change but because it's the right way to teach.

Pam Hering from Seattle  

Posted: July 10th, 2013 4:19 PM

I commend all the parties involved for their courage in discussion a controversial issue. It is important to be teachable (as a teacher) and to have the courage to teach history at a deep level.

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