Sunday, February 19, 2012

Teaching Sensitive Issues

“Would you teach about the civil rights movement?”

In response to this question, twenty-eight teachers in my Master’s class silently moved en masse to the right side of the room to signify that they would indeed teach this subject to their elementary students.

In fact, most considered it negligent to ignore this historic movement that brought about the end of segregation in our country.  Familiar stories were shared about Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, the march on Washington, D.C., “I have a dream”, Ruby Bridges and peaceful protests and demonstrations.  Each educator felt comfortable with this discussion and seemed well versed on how to approach the topic in the classroom.

The unanimous feeling in the room was that the civil rights movement was a good thing. Children should be taught about it.

This question and the ones that follow were couched within the framework of the six elements of social justice education, which range from self-love and knowledge to taking social action in the face of injustice.

“Would you teach about the Holocaust?”

Most of the teachers stayed where they were but several moved to the center of the room to indicate that they were not sure.  The uncertainly stemmed from the age of their students not from resistance. Everyone agreed that it should be taught. But when? How would one approach this subject with younger children?  Would they understand this heavy topic? Would it frighten them too much?

One teacher offered up the book Terrible Things: An Allegory of the Holocaust by Eve Bunting as a way to start this conversation with first and second grade students. In the end, everyone agreed that it was a subject that could be tackled in elementary school and one that should be started early.

“Would you teach about gay marriage?”

There was a great deal of movement in response to this question.  For the first time a group of teachers moved to the far side of the room to express that they would not teach about gay marriage.


In New York gay marriage is legal. But teaching this law becomes a sensitive topic because some teachers equate teaching about equal rights for homosexuals with either support of the law or with uncomfortable discussions of sex between couples of the same gender. The topic of gay marriage and gay rights in the classroom should never be about sex. It is about equal rights and perhaps about love. Love is the reason two people want to get married in the first place.

As the teachers in my class shared the reasons behind their reluctance it became apparent that, for them, equal rights was not the main focus.  One woman stated that she teaches at a Catholic school and is not allowed to talk about gay marriage or gay rights issues. Another shared that even if she were allowed to teach the subject, she would not because it goes against her personal beliefs. And a young man said that he would teach about it but would not know how to approach it.

All of them expressed concerns regarding parental outrage and personal choice. It was deemed simply too controversial to address in our schools.

Throughout this discussion I couldn’t help but imagine how this conversation might have echoed a similar one heard 40 years ago in regards to the civil right movement.  There will always be sensitive topics to address in a fight towards social justice, equality and tolerance.  The question then becomes, who will stand up and make a difference?

Note: This was my third post published by Teaching Tolerance and it can be found here in its edited form.


Ms.M said...

How frustrating. I would have said yes to ALL those questions. I realize people have different beliefs and values than I do, but I hate it when I realize the prejudiced students are being taught or not taught.

I feel it is so important to teach our students about all these times and issues. They are part of our culture and must be talked about in order to build tolerance but really more importantly ACCEPTANCE.

I certainly don't live in a liberal State. In fact I live in a very Conservative State and I find a way to broach all those subjects.

BTW, Patricia Polacco's book The Butterfly, can be found here:, is an excellent book to discuss the Holocaust with.

Todd Parr's books about family's are great ways to begin a discussion of Gay marriage. BTW, I agree there is absolutely NO reason to talk about sex in the classroom. It is a matter or civil rights and equality under the law.

Well, now that I am all fired up, I will get off my soap box. I think I have to calm down a few minutes before I go to the parent conferences I have scheduled this morning. I guess you can tell this is a hot button for me.

Ms. M
Ms.M's Blog
A Teacher's Plan

Gary said...

Ms. M. - Thanks for the heads up on the Polacco book. I will check it out. Todd Parr's books are favorites of mine. He just received recognition last week for promoting understanding with his books. Check out his facebook page.

I have been also thinking about the fact lately that tolerance is not enough. Acceptance is much better. I appreciate your input so no worries about getting fired up. It is an easy topic to get ignite passions.

Steve Reed said...

This is so interesting!

I think the key to any worthwhile instruction is the age of the students. We don't teach Dickens to students who aren't yet equipped to understand it. In the same way, I wouldn't expect gay marriage to be taught to students whose comprehension of relationships just isn't there yet.

But yes, it DOES need to be taught at some point! Like the Holocaust, it is probably an issue for a somewhat older student. As you and Mrs M said, it has nothing to do with sex. It's about family and social structure and, yes, civil rights.

Younger students who ask about it -- who say "Why does so-and-so have two daddies?" and that sort of thing -- can be told the very basics, but a systematic classroom discussion can come later. I don't think I would have been capable of understanding what gay marriage or the struggle for gay equality meant before, say, fourth grade. (Kids these days are probably savvier than I was, though!)

Hilary said...

I would have been entirely comfortable having my young children learn about civil rights and gay marriage (legal all across Canada since 2005) - both are ongoing realities which teach compassion and respect. I would have hoped that the horrors of the Holocaust would have been put off until they were old enough to grasp it maturely.

I have a simple question for you. Would you consider disabling your word verification? It's become much trickier to read over the last few days and until Blogger hears the many complaints, disabling would help. Okay, so that was more of a request and a complaint than a question. ;)

Gary said...

Steve - I have not mastered these topics either but I am getting more comfortable talking about sensitive subjects as I talk about it with others and get feedback. Plus, as I gain experience with children I can better understand how and when to approach these topics.

Hilary - Done! I didn't even realize I still had the word verification turned on. Thanks for persisting with it to comment on the post. It should be easier in the future.

Angella Lister said...

Gary, when my daughter was in 8th grade, she and her class marched on MLK day in support of gay marriage, because they believed that if MLK were alive today he would surely champion the cause.

My girl ended up writing one of her college essays about staging that march, about the discussions that preceded it in her class and the decision to go forward, and the way they held megaphones and delivered speeches in support of gay marriage on that very cold january day of 2008.

the whole school marched with the 8th graders, as is customary on MLK day, from the preK kids and their families on up, all in support of gay marriage.I loved that from the littlest kids up to the 8th graders, they understood that the choice of who you love and the right to love that person is a human right, and the legal denial of that right is a civil right that has been violated. When the gay marriage law passed in nyc last year, my daughter wrote in her essay, she "silently saluted" the choice her class had made and felt that they had done their part to "preserve the rights and dignity of individuals."

i asked my daughter, "What if you run into a homophobic admissions officer?" she said, "If this essay keeps me out of a particular college, then i don't want to go to that college."

I am so proud of her i could burst.

thank you for raising this issue, and putting it in its proper frame. it is not about sex at all. it is about love. it is about the right to love who you choose and to make a commitment to that person under the law. by my lights, that is not at all complicated for children to understand.

Gary said...

Wow Angella! Thanks so much for sharing this here. I wish there were more parents out there raising their children to be as accepting and loving as yours. Your daughter is just beautiful (and she can bake!).


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