Over the past few years we have seen news reports regarding school assignments gone wrong. At every grade level there have been times when the topic was unsuitable, usually because the theme was not valid to the specific class, was perceived to be too politically charged, or was just grossly inappropriate for a classroom setting.
There have also been times when the assignment was well-intentioned, but for different reasons, may have been misunderstood. Such was the case this past week in Dover.
Teachers struggle with new and creative ways to engage their students. Our educators are no different than the rest of our society, competing for the minds of youth with ever-advancing technology. Allowing students more control over their education means teachers must allow students the freedom to achieve, which also means on occasion we learn more from the perceived failure than the intended success of an assignment.
A group of Dover High School students were recently presented with an assignment in their U.S. history class. The students were studying the Reconstruction Era of the American South and were tasked with a project that illustrated the conditions of the time period. The Civil War had ended, the South had lost, and the slaves were “freed.” However, this time would bear witness to the brutal persecution of the black population in the post-Civil War South.
Even though the recently freed slaves enjoyed a brief moment of liberty in the South to include the election of more than 20 congressmen of African-American descent, the Reconstruction Era came to a crashing halt once the federal government withdrew from the region. This would usher in the Jim Crow years and the rise of Ku Klux Klan. Which brings us to the assignment at Dover High.
The students were asked to reflect on conditions of the post-Reconstruction Era from the perspective of those who lived during this period, to include the persecuted and the oppressors. There are times when one must try to truly envision what it must have been like to “walk in a person’s shoes.” This was a cruel time in world history, especially when you consider the struggle of pre-Civil War African-Americans, followed by their brief freedom and sadly the hard realities of Jim Crow. That was the assignment, and based on the reaction, that is what the students achieved.
One group of students created a jingle to the tune of “Jingle Bells,” with a clearly racist slant. Does anyone doubt songs meant to ridicule, marginalize and denigrate African-Americans in the post-Civil War South existed and were sung with glee? During the “singing” of this song the phrase “KKK KKK, let’s kill all the blacks” was uttered. This is absolutely disgusting and dehumanizing. And sadly, exactly the conditions that existed in the post-Civil War South. But now we must reflect on the aftermath.
I applaud the reporting of this story by this publication. It handled it fairly and with objectivity. I also understand the public outrage and concern expressed by the school administration. Taken out of context, removed from the situation these students were asked to reflect upon, this would be disturbing. However, the public response and concern expressed may have taught the students, and community, a valuable lesson, that something which was once acceptable and commonplace in our country is no longer tolerated. In the words of one of these students (from the Foster’s Daily Democrat story), “It was not our intention to offend anyone. We were simply trying to make a factual reference to the KKK and their history.” He added, “We were just trying to bring to light the terrible history of the KKK and about what they did to people throughout all of history.”
Looking at the response from people disconnected from the lesson and looking at the situation from outside the classroom, the students certainly did bring the KKK’s evil nature to light.
I know people will disagree with me, losing sight of the intended lesson, and there might have been a better way to achieve the desired end results, and no one can deny this event will help promote further dialogue, but it would be a huge mistake to allow the public to lead this conversation, detaching the students and their teacher as the primary participants. We need to allow the teacher and the students to come back together and finish what they started, and give them the opportunity to complete their assignment (under the additional guidance of the school administration), which was to understand the racism and cruelty of a post-Civil War America.
Lastly, regarding John Carver, the teacher responsible for this assignment, what lessons are we teaching these kids by immediately attacking Carver, with some calling for his firing? What a ridiculous overreaction. Carver by all accounts is an outstanding teacher, respected by the administration, students and parents. Let us not rush to judgment and cast aside the life’s work of an incredible educator. Carver has earned that much and we, as a community, owe him our gratitude and opportunity to resolve this matter fairly and without prejudice.