Uncomfortable Conversations Key in Relating Past to Present to Future, History Teachers Say

October 17, 2017


Sometimes history is uncomfortable, Rachel Santos says.

Conversations around race, class and gender have the potential to cross a line into offensive territory. But if we avoid those conversations altogether, she says, that’s where progress stops.

In her eyes, learning happens when we face the discomfort.

Santos is one of several area teachers adjusting the way they teach to include controversial current events in their every day lessons — believing even high school students need to learn how to talk about privilege, power and oppression.

“Students want to talk about it,” Santos said. “And if we’re silent as teachers, we’re also allowing students to be silent. We’re adding to the issues the world faces.”

It isn’t quite an adjustment for Santos.

At 21, she’s fresh out of Stonehill College, teaching her first history courses at Attleboro High School in world history and current events.

Still, as a neo-Nazi rally engulfed Charlottesville, Va., in protest of the removal of statues of Confederate soldiers just weeks before school was set to start this September, Santos knew she’d be talking about it in her classroom.

Her first question was simple: What do you know about Charlottesville?

Some, she was surprised, knew very little.

To shape the conversation, Santos had each student throw a crumpled piece of paper from their seats to a basket in the front of the room. Students at the front were excited, Santos said, while those in the back complained the exercise wasn’t fair.

But that was the point, Santos said.

“The people in the front never complained. They never thought about the people behind them,” she said. “It got us talking about the idea that, I’m not just going to stand up for people if I have a fair chance.”

Santos said her lessons identify different perspectives in a single issue, asking, who is missing here?

Oftentimes, she said, it’s the voices of those in power that we hear. The students in the front of the class spoke over those in the back. But what happens when more narratives are heard?

Santos tasked her students with reading different perspectives on the Charlottesville protest. They read arguments from those who said statue removal tarnished history — but also considered perspectives of those who see the statues as a representation of racism and oppression.

The Charlottesville protests eventually boiled over into debates over the value of each race, and Santos said fear of that conversation erupting in a classroom likely prevents many people, including teachers, from speaking on it.

But that fear can easily be diminished if clear lines are drawn, she said. And, it shouldn’t mean productive conversations can’t be had.

“I think that’s where people get worried,” she said. “But for me, human and civil rights aren’t negotiable. We won’t have those conversations in my classroom because I don’t think it’s up for debate. It is how we seek to create change instead that becomes political.

“A lot of times we jump to conclusions without understanding both sides,” she said. “But it becomes easier to address when you understand the content of it more.”

Sean Mulkerrins has one goal in his role as a history teacher at North Attleboro High School: Give students the whole story.

“I try to play it down the middle,” he said. “But if I see the conversation leaning pretty heavily one way, I’ll play devil’s advocate.”

His reasoning is simple: A teacher should never tell you what to think, but should instead equip you to best think for yourself.

“I want my kids to question what they’ve been raised to believe or their own thought process and think, ‘Why do I think that way?’” Mulkerrins, 36, said. “I want my students leaving North Attleboro High knowing that other people have other experiences and other views, and that’s not a bad thing.”

Part of that process is using the past to understand the present. Which isn’t all that hard with the power of social media bringing current events to teenagers, Mulkerrins said.

When he asked his students to find parallel’s in today’s world to the fear and mistrust of foreigners during the post-WWI era, they immediately pointed to Charlottesville, the repeal of DACA, the travel ban and the proposed wall in Mexico.

As these comparisons become more and more relevant, even Mulkerrins, a 14-year educator, has had to adjust the way he considers the issues in the classroom himself.

“North Attleboro is not as diverse as other parts of the state or country,” Mulkerrins said. “So for the first 10 years of teaching about these race- and ethnic-based events, I taught it one way. But I think it was harder for those kids, where they were living, they weren’t seeing those issues every day.

“It’s not like how it is today with Colin Kapernick and the Black Lives Matter movement and things like that. These issues were always there, but it seems stuff today is front and center. We’re all being forced to engage with it more — and so it’s easier for kids to, too. But we as teachers and adults need to bring it out and talk about it openly, as uncomfortable as that may be.”

Mulkerrins said he allows students to talk freely and adds the opposite side of view just to get them to think — but like Santos, there is a line.

“White supremacy — I would never defend that,” he said. “I dismissed them as what they are: Simple minded people with unfortunate views. I said it’s kind of wild to me that we’re seeing people with tiki torches and masks and chanting these things that we’ll be learning about in a few weeks with Nazism and World War II. I never thought I’d see that in my life.”

As Attleboro’s history department coordinator, Brian Hodges said schools should encourage teachers to deal with controversial issues — albeit, responsibly.

“We have to make sure we’re not injecting our own politics,” Hodges said. “That’s not our job. But history needs to be much more than remembering stuff that happened a long time ago.”

Hodges said teachers need to help students engage with current event events and teach them how to arrive at their own conclusions.

“They want to talk about this stuff,” the 34-year-old said. “They want to understand how this happens, what’s going on. Especially when it’s controversial, it’s important to help students through it. Otherwise, when they’re not taught, they’re not listening to one another, and I think that’s how we get to places where we don’t understand each other.”