As a senior at Seattle’s Center School, an alternative arts intensive public high school with a stellar academic performance record, Zak Meyer was thrilled to land a spot in Jon Greenberg’s “Citizenship and Social Justice” class.
Space in Greenberg’s popular humanities class is coveted. Hundreds of current and former pupils credit the teacher with creating a curriculum that is “life-changing,” “highly transformative,” and “a highlight of lots of students’ time at the school.”
It turned out to be everything Meyer had hoped for.
“We’ve been diving into stuff that I will be dealing with in my freshman year of college, and getting deeply into issues of our society,” Meyer told the Seattle Post Intelligencer. “I am a minority in that I have a disability. The course preaches tolerance of all backgrounds. It opens the world to me, not just from my point of view but in understanding the views of others...”
Students study speeches by Dr. Martin Luther King and Malcolm X and invite local community leaders to speak in the class. They are prompted to talk honestly about racism, class disparity, and privilege in their day to day lives at the start of every session. Assignments include analyzing “the way media and society fetishize both women and people of color.”
But the provocative discussions that Meyer found so revelatory abruptly ended a few months ago when a female white student accused the teacher of creating an “intimidating educational environment.”
The Seattle School Board agreed and decided to transfer Greenberg to another school next year. The board also banned future use of the Courageous Conversations teaching method employed by Greenberg to address issues of race and gender.
The structure of the curriculum has been an integral part of Greenberg’s class for the last decade.
District officials have revealed little about the nature of the complaint. The parents who filed the grievance against Greenberg have remained silent about what their daughter found offensive.
Seattle Schools Superintendent Jose Banda said, moving forward, parents need to be told ahead of time if a classroom activity could cause “a high degree of emotion for students or potential distress.”
A statement released by the district said: “Seattle Public Schools strongly believes that race and social justice should be taught in our schools. These are important conversations for our students and staff. But we don’t want to put any child into a situation where he or she feels so intimidated by the manner in which these issues are being taught that the course is no longer effective.”
Parents and students have rallied around Greenberg and the Courageous Conversations element of the curriculum. Last week, hundreds of Greenberg supporters protested a school board meeting, spoke on his behalf, and called on the board to reverse their decision to transfer Greenberg. Their efforts were not successful.
“Of course, it makes people uncomfortable. The class would talk about ‘white privilege.’ I felt uncomfortable, because I did not know the extent of it,” Meyer said to the Seattle Post Intelligencer. Now that he’s taken the class, he said, he’s become aware of the unintentional racism that exists against minorities.
Classmate Rachel Livengood, who is also white, added, “The discomfort was with ourselves, not with the class . . . Experiencing discomfort is normal.”
Indeed, conversations about race, discrimination and social injustice are touchy and difficult. National conferences, summits, and graduate schools of education devote massive resources to finding the best strategies for addressing these issues with students.
The fact that we come to the conversation with diverse racial realities and experiences causes us discomfort.
The Courageous Conversations curriculum developed by Glenn Singleton invites teachers and students to deliberately push beyond polite conversation in order to get to the heart of controversial and often incendiary issues dealing with social inequities.
“An indication that we are engaging in an authentic conversation about race is when people can share their racial truths derived from multiple perspectives,” Singleton said. “The fact that we come to the conversation with diverse racial realities and experiences causes us discomfort.”
This is due in part to the fact that many believe racism no longer exists, according to Singleton.
“Others struggle because they see and/or experience racism on a daily basis, and know that it can create great pain and limit opportunities.”
Teachers at the Center School are concerned that the school board’s disapproval of the Courageous Conversations engagement tactics will have a chilling effect throughout the school district.
Doug Edelstein, a teacher at another Seattle public high school says he worries how it will affect discussions about other controversial topics.
“That it will create a chilling effect is an understatement,” Edelstein told The Seattle Times. “Student discomfort will become the arbiter of curriculum.”
In a keynote address at the National Conference on Race and Ethnicity in American Higher Education, Melissa Harris-Perry, a political science professor at Tulane University, advised educators to get out of the classroom to teach students about race.
"Race talk often works better when it's associated with race walks. It's not just talking, but actually doing things," Harris-Perry said. "Students want to think about solutions to the problem."
In 2006 Harris-Perry took a class of Princeton University freshman to help gut homes in post-Katrina New Orleans. She said the experience radicalized them and was probably the most valuable experience of the semester.
“It was for students of such privilege an insight into the definition of what inequality is."
Building long-term partnerships between students and their communities and allowing community members to do most of the talking is key to teaching about race, said Harris-Perry.
Research shows that the earlier adults and family members help young children begin understanding the realities of race, the better they are at negotiating this phenomenon as they grow older.
Singleton says children notice racial differences and begin asking questions quite early. That is why it is imperative for schools to “intervene and create safe spaces for children to process.”
“We have to answer their questions in such a way that it does not create for them a feeling that they shouldn't be asking about skin color, or that race is somehow taboo or a problem.”
How do you think our schools should teach students about racism and discrimination? Share your thoughts in comments.
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- Teaching & Learning
- Jon Greenberg