“Disrupting the narrative” and facilitating classroom discussions about slavery were major themes at the second annual Teaching Black History Conference at Muriel W. Battle High School, which began Friday. This year, many of the teachers who came to the conference want to learn more about supplemental materials that they can use to allow more voices into the conversation about black history, said Ashley Woodson, associate director of the Carter Center for Black History Education in MU’s College of Education. The center organizes the conference.
Missouri State University education professor Cindy McMeley said she came to the conference with five of her colleagues to be a “more informed teacher of teachers.” She and some of her colleagues attended a 9 a.m. session on teaching slavery to elementary students. McNeely said that discussions like these are important because her lived experiences as a white person in America are different from others, and she wants to be more informed.
Two teachers, Rachel Johnson and Dawnavyn James, from The Children’s School at Stephens College, led a packed session about their experiences teaching a 40-student kindergarten through a fifth-grade class about the history of slavery in America. Johnson, who teaches kindergarten through second-graders, said kindergarten teachers should start teaching about slavery, and the conversation shouldn’t just be in Black History Month.
In her class, she begins the conversation about slavery in America by looking at her own family history. Many of Johnson’s direct ancestors owned slaves. One of her more famous ancestors is Patrick Henry, who says, “Give me liberty or give me death.” Henry was a slave owner. “There’s this tension of, he did good things, but he also owned slaves. What are we going to do with that?” Johnson said.
She asks her students to look at their own family histories. What they realized is that their own family histories have shaped their lives. As the students move into third grade, James, who now teaches at Parkade Elementary School, teaches them about the Confederacy and, in particular, the debate around Confederate monuments. James said most of her students start out opposing the removal of Confederate monuments. But as they research the history of the Confederacy and the monuments, they begin to change their minds. By the end of the year, James’ class is split on what to do with the monuments. Most of the students end up on the side of moving the monuments to museums, she said.
Her role, she said, is a neutral one. “I think the role of a teacher is as facilitator and guide,” she said. She doesn’t think teachers should insert their opinions into the discussion but instead foster debate and encourage students to reach their own educated conclusions. Johnson said early-education teachers should not underestimate their students. “We all have a responsibility to teach, especially our youngest learners, because they are laying this foundation,” Johnson said. “If you wait until fifth grade, you’re going to have to undo some serious damage that’s already been done.”
Woodson said the conference reminds people of the importance of telling the history of black Americans and helps support anyone looking for creative ways to incorporate the experiences of African and African-descended people into the curriculum, value systems, and stories they tell children. “We focus on pre-K through 12 because that’s such a formative time,” she said. The conference has built a network of speakers who needed a platform to help get their ideas and stories into diverse hands and classrooms in its two years.
“That’s what we’re attempting to do here,” she said. “Put a magnifying glass on amazing things that are being done and then make it accessible to some of our most underserved, underpaid, overworked teachers — people who have committed themselves to produce future civic agents who will hopefully transform the world and aren’t celebrated enough for doing so.” The conference continues from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Saturday at Battle High School. Next year the conference will be held in Kansas City.