Tag Archives: antiracism

Change the Setting to Change the Mindset

When we start talking about hot topics, people immediately take sides and get defensive. Most people, let alone students, struggle being truly empathetic and looking at a situation from multiple points of view. Everyone understands their own point of view and oftentimes think that they grasp the opposite side, but usually they don’t. This leads to emotional debates that only entrench people more deeply in their positions. Teaching the SEL competency of Social Awareness is vital if we want to heal divisions in our country and world. We need to build empathy in all of our students.

How can we talk about important issues without the conversation breaking down into unproductive arguments?

Once I shared a news article with my students about U.S. soldiers torturing Iraqis at Abu Ghraib prison. But instead of giving them the actual article, I copied and pasted it into a GDoc and changed the setting of the story. I substituted China for the United States and Tibet for Iraq. We read and discussed how horrible the Chinese actions were. I wanted students to commit emotionally to judgement before I revealed that there was something not true about it. Eventually I told them that it wasn’t really about China in Tibet, but the U.S. in Iraq, and gave them the link to the actual article online. Then we looked online at the disgraceful pictures of Abu Ghraib (warning many are graphic). Since I teach thematically, students immediately made the connections to other U.S. atrocities that we had previously studied in the Moros Massacre (Samuel Clemons’ commentary) and My Lai Massacre.

This bit of deception helped open the minds of some students who initially would have been resistance to any critique of the U.S. military. It allowed them to take their jingoism out of their first impression of the event and evaluate the facts without their instinctive bias. In the end, students were able to more deeply understand why America is unpopular in certain parts of the world.

A while back, I heard about (don’t remember where) teachers in Israel using “The Troubles” in Ireland to build empathy in their students by studying the complexities of religious (Protestant vs. Catholic) and ethnic (Irish vs. British) strife in another part of the world. The conflict in their own country was too personal and close at hand for students to consider objectively. But by first looking at similar issues abroad, students were able to apply it back to themselves. I think this is a genius approach to teaching empathy.

This week I listened to Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History Presents: The Limits of Power, an excerpt from his book David and Goliath. This podcast episode focuses on the very topic of escalation between the the Protestants and Catholics in 1970’s Ireland and how the British got involved, and I think that it can be applied to more than Israeli / Palestinian conflict.

Gladwell explains that a paper, Rebellion and Authority from Leites and Wolf argued that economics was the key factor in dealing with rebellions. It was (still is???) the primary viewpoint of governments and law enforcement at the time. Basically use force to make insurgents feel pain, and they will comply. The feelings and emotions of the people are irrelevant. Gladwell’s excellent storytelling demonstrates the fallacy of this theory (Sidenote: this theory also was behind the U.S. strategy in Vietnam).

Of course, he has the American struggle for equality and full civil rights in mind, when he wrote this chapter of his book and the parallels are obvious. This podcast would be great to use with students and have them first analyze “The Troubles” and then apply their conclusions to the Black Lives Matter movement and other resistant movements.

Sometimes we need to change the setting to change the mindset!

CASEL has recently updated its competencies to reflect the importance of equity. Social Awareness now includes sub categories:

  • Taking others’ perspectives
  • Recognizing strengths in others
  • Demonstrating empathy and compassion
  • Showing concern for the feelings of others
  • Understanding and expressing gratitude
  • Identifying diverse social norms, including unjust ones
  • Recognizing situational demands and opportunities
  • Understanding the influences of organizations and systems on behavior

I think one of the most important additions is the last bullet point. We need to teach students the legacy of systematic racism. History is not just individuals making decisions, but huge, powerful systems that control and limit options for the disadvantaged. In the United States, public schools are one of these systems. And when it comes to “identifying diverse social norms, including unjust ones,” it is often easier to critique another country than one’s own. Try using “neutral” international settings to build consensus before engaging in partisan domestic issues. The future of democracy may depend on our ability to develop Social Awareness in the next generation!

Antiracism “and Now You Know the Rest of the Story”

When I was a kid one of my favorite people to listen to on the radio was Paul Harvey. He did a news program at noon every day. He would tell a story that always had a surprising twist and end with his signature line: “And now you know the rest of the story.” Paul Harvey was not rewriting any of the news, but sharing interesting tidbits that gave a broader picture.

Antiracism has been accused of being revisionist, implying that modern historians are trying to rewrite history and distort it with their prejudices and viewpoints. What this accusation ignores is that all historians, including the ones who were contemporary to the actual events as they transpired, are biased according to their culture and viewpoints. Furthermore much of Western history, and American history in particular, has intentionally been told from the viewpoint of validating the powerful, white male perspective.

History textbooks themselves are horrible. They are biased and one-sided. Some new histories react against the myths of Manifest Destiny and American Exceptionalism by going to the extreme the other way. What is needed is an honest telling of the history and actions of individuals.

The entirety of history is too vast for any one person to study. Therefore historians decide whose stories are important enough to tell and what to include. For example, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were Founding Fathers involved in some of the most critical moments of the creation of this country. They were also owners of enslaved people and benefited from their labor (Mount Vernon does a great job sharing the stories of the enslaved residents). But students are more likely to hear fables about chopping down cherry trees than the fact that Washington rotated his enslaved people in and out of Philadelphia every six months to skirt a law granting them freedom or the great lengths he spent pursuing Ona Judge, an enslaved young woman who was his wife’s personal attendant, who escaped to freedom in the north.

Teachers should present all sides of historical figures and let students decide for themselves how to judge their legacies. The fact that Washington and Jefferson were enslavers doesn’t negate other positive things that they accomplished. But is Thomas Jefferson more important than Sally Hemings? Does her story deserve to be told too?

What modern historians have done is more attune to Paul Harvey “telling the rest of the story.” They are not rewriting history, but uncovering forgotten or neglected aspects of history. Chief amongst the forgotten parts of history are the stories of women and BIPOC.

Instead of creating heroes or villains, let’s share historical actors as flawed humans and let students make their own judgments based on the totality of their actions.

The teacher’s role is to share the entire story, not to edit out the embarrassing parts. We don’t justify or excuse evil. We don’t ignore positive contributions. We present the whole truth and let students decide.

What historians are always attempting to do is get a more complex, well-rounded version of what happened in the past. They, themselves, are biased based on a myriad of factors. Bias does not make something incorrect. I can be biased and right or biased and wrong. Accuracy and bias are two different, but related animals.

But we aren’t neutral. Neutrality is a myth. As Howard Zinn said, “You can’t be neutral on a moving train.” Neutrality is usually claimed by the traditional teacher teaching from the sterilized textbook version of history. While this approach may be “safe” because they are using state and board approved materials, it is anything but neutral. Textbooks are incredibly biased and most include many myths.

Teachers themselves are biased by:

  • the resources they choose and don’t choose
  • the curriculum they follow or don’t
  • the stories they tell or don’t
  • the things they test or don’t
  • the people they ignore or don’t

Most teachers attempt to hide their personal opinions from the class, but their bias will still shine through to the observant student. Rather than denying or ignoring our biases, it would be more honest to tell students up front why we choose certain resources. Mixing up different primary sources is a great method to challenge students to decide for themselves.

So when you employ Antiracist projects in your classroom, you are not rewriting or changing history, but shining a light on neglected stories to give students a more complete version of the story of all humanity.

“Ignoring the history that you don’t like is not a victimless act.” John Oliver

Let’s Connect

Questions? Interested in SEL and PBL workshops or consulting on remote learning?  Connect with me at  michaelkaechele.com or @mikekaechele.