Writing my way through the school year!

We are studying WWI, and I was sharing photographs, quotes, and information particular to Delaware during that era. The text

touched on segregation, and we were sidetracked into a lively discussion.  My students find segregation unfathomable, they can’t wrap

their minds around the fact that your skin color determined your place in the world.

One little girl , whose Dad is biracial said, “My Dad said you can’t be part black or part white. What are you going to do, split yourself down the middle?” They make you think.  Which is why I was so surprised by the statement she made later, while we worked in our small group.

We were reading a Sioux myth, and one of the students said it was an Indian myth.  I asked them what is another name used for Indians, and after a few incorrect answers, the same little girl yelled out “Dotheads!”  My jaw dropped, but I quickly recovered because of the other students’ harsh reaction to what she said.  I calmed everyone down, and explained to her that the term “dotheads” was offensive and it was something that shouldn’t be used.

I realized that she was not aware of what she was saying when she replied, “But that’s what Ms.Bonnie says”.

Maybe it wasn’t my place, but, I told her that I didn’t know Ms.Bonnie, but I did know that the word she used was offensive to Indians, and that she shouldn’t use it.  She said, “Ok”, and we moved on with the lesson.

I am hoping it doesn’t turn into a big deal (Ms. Bonnie calling the school, etc…), but I felt like I needed to “unteach” what this student had been taught.  Sometimes the things our students pick up from those at home are offensive, rude, or just downright lies.  Is it our job to “unteach’ what has been “taught” at home? Or should we just move on and hope that life straightens everything out?  Is it a lost cause, because home trumps school most of the time?

Well, even if it becomes a big deal, I stand by what I said. There was no screaming or yelling, just some well-needed(hopefully well-heeded) advice.  I only wish I could give the same advice to  “Ms. Bonnie” .  😦

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Comments on: "Is It Our Job to “Unteach” Behavior Learned at Home?" (7)

  1. I usually react in a negative fashion when I hear this kind of vile talk coming from my students.

    Recently, we were reading authored by Barack Obama that referred to Martin Luther King, Jr. One student – who is a wonderful young man – shared with us that Barack Obama is bad because he has a “dirty face”. (In the past, another student argued that only blacks voted for Obama, and that’s why he won).

    Needless to say, I was flabbergasted. When I picked my jaw up off the floor, I pointed out that all of our faces are different colors – mine being the most different of all (all my students are Latino and I am white). We noticed that each student had a different color of skin, and were all in agreement that it didn’t mean that some are dirtier than others. I needed to make the point on a very simple level, so we talked about how people come from different countries and based on those countries their skin color is different…

    Anyway, it was a definite shocker, kind of like when a camper of mine all those years ago said, referring to the style of t-shirt, “My dad says we shouldn’t call them ‘wife beaters,’ we should call them ‘guinea tees.'” Oh my goodness.

    To your question about whether it is our responsibility to “unteach” what our students assume about other cultures…that’s such a tough question. On one hand, we have an obligation, don’t we, to project and even expect upright morals and values. On the other hand, we don’t want to go stepping on cultural toes. I like to think – arrogantly – that we teachers can win out in these situations, but as my mother always says, “You can’t beat the rule of the street.”

    So we do our best, cross our fingers, and hope what we teach sticks…

  2. What a great post! I believe any of these opportunities are opportunities for conversations to have a better understanding of differences. I’m not sure I would say something was right or wrong but provide a space for children to develop their own opinions. They’ll have to develop opinions throughout their lives and giving them the tools to develop their own opinions is more important than saying one specific opinion should be different. I would have a hard time in the moment knowing what to do or say and I think you handled it well. Keep up the great work.

    • Thank you Emily! I like the idea of allowing them to voice their opinion. That’s why I didn’t make a big deal of it. (No humiliating scene) If I had done that, I would never have given her the chance to tell me that this was something she learned from Ms. Bonnie. This is why she didn’t see anything wrong with it.

  3. Richard Cottingham said:

    I went to an all white elementary school in Virginia during the late 1940s and the 1950s. My teachers would not allow the use of the N word but all they did was remind us that it was not to be used in school. My family was as prejudiced as any although I do not believe my father would have physically harmed someone such as participating in a lynching.

    The first time I attended classes with an African American student was in 1962 at East Carolina University. Out of a Freshman class of 2000 there were three or four black faces. No teachers at the elementary, secondary, college or post grtaduate level ever tried to cause me to “unlearn” the attitudes and behaviors I had been reared with.

    What happened was that I was taught at the college level by professors who were living examples of an attitude of openess, equality, fairness and acceptance. We were taught that the ony differences between race was skin color and other superficial physical differences. We were encouraged to participate in the Civil Rights movement and to be activitsts. I learned those lessons and surrendered the hate and bias I had learned as a child.

    Five years ago I married a wonderful African American woman. We have made accomplishemnts in the care of Intellectually disabled adults that have become the standard for our state. I am happier than I have ever been at any other time of my life.

    If you want your kids to unlearn, set an example for them to follow.

    • I agree Richard. A lot of times, the teachers in the classroom are the only positive example our students may have. So hopefully, we are a positive example.

  4. Great post! And great comments too! I take a very activist approach to my students’ less-than-acceptable racial views. When these incidents happen–and they do despite working in one of the most diverse schools in the country–I embrace the opportunity to show a different viewpoint. Can we “unteach”? The very idea of teaching vs. unteaching is questionable to some degree. I try to facilitate their learning, point them in new directions, that sort of thing. Nevertheless, there are some social perceptions that must be challenged head on through open dialogue. I never want my students to feel like they cannot be open with their opinions, and I never attack, or allow others to attack, but I do confront unacceptable views that originate in the home. I have no fear of a parent phone call in such an instance because respect for all people regardless of background should be a given. Whether I can dispel students’ prejudices or not, I know that I must present a counter-view, or a counter-story, if for no other reason than to let them know that the microcosm of their home-life is not necessarily reflected in the larger world.

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