What Schools in Minneapolis Are Teaching About Race: Hint: It's not about blaming white people or hating the United States.

AuthorLahm, Sarah

Lindsey West, a Minneapolis-based middle school teacher, often starts classroom discussions on race with questions rather than answers. What do her students really know, she wonders, about the history of racism in the United States, beyond platitudes that come to them through one-off events such as Black History Month?

West says that by age ten, many of her students have absorbed the idea that it is impolite to mention race. But West, who is Black, says she doesn't have that option: "The very world I live in is not colorblind."

And so she puts together resources and curriculum materials that help her students understand the ways that race impacts every aspect of U.S. society. She wants them to know it is "OK to ask and to wonder" about racism and racial identity.

West, who has taught fifth-graders in the Minneapolis Public Schools for the past nine years, will typically begin a social studies unit with a check-in of what students already know. Many are familiar with the history of slavery in the United States and its connection to the Civil War. They are also usually aware of some of the key figures of the civil rights movement, people like Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks.

She then prompts her students to think about why the civil rights movement was necessary after the Civil War ended slavery. "What happened in between?" she asks them.

Or, she might ask, why did Jackie Robinson have to integrate baseball if all Americans were, by that time, equal citizens?

West will guide her students through an age-appropriate poem, article, or piece of historical fiction, such as Christopher Paul Curtis's novel, The Watsons Go to Birmingham--1963, which examines life in Alabama during a pivotal time in the push for civil rights. It "provides a safe landing for most students," West says, by allowing them to discuss characters and situations that are a step removed from their own lives.

West's approach to teaching about race is grounded in building relationships with her students by helping them think critically about their world and about their own ideas. Her goal is to put students' critical thinking skills into action, perhaps through a service project that raises money for people in need in their own communities. "This is an antidote to them feeling helpless," she says.

What goes on in West's classroom is a far cry from the indoctrination fears around race and public education being fanned by rightwing activists such as Christopher Rufo.

Rufo is...

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