Rights, Race, and the Confederate Flag: Global Education in Our Own Backyard
Wednesday, May 25, 2016
Posted by: Christina Mimms
By Kent Lenci, Brookwood School and Bo Garrett, Highlands School
We Americans don’t seem to agree about much these days. Political discord reveals deep cultural divides, one of which runs along the Mason Dixon Line. In Massachusetts, students freely refer to southerners as “racist hillbillies,” and many southern students imagine their northern counterparts to be “rude” and “bossy.” We know this because our middle school history students are engaged in a lively collaboration that binds students in Alabama, Massachusetts, Tennessee, and Vermont. Through a mock Supreme Court case, students at our schools collaborate to decide whether a Tennessee student had the constitutional right to bring a Confederate flag to school. Rights, race, and the Civil War feature prominently in our dialog, although the historical content of our exchange is merely a vehicle to instill open-mindedness in our students. The primary vehicle of communication between students from “the North” and those in “the South” is a blog, where, over the past couple of years, students have exchanged their perceptions of the “other” across the Mason Dixon Line, dismantling some sturdy misconceptions in the process.
The first phase of this project, a conversation about how we perceive the “other,” begins with northern students writing down the words they associate with “the South” and southern students registering their own perceptions of “the North.” We turn this information into word clouds, which are then shared among partner schools. These word clouds (depicting southerners as “racist hillbillies” and northerners as “bossy” yet “inferior”) provide the basis for several days of online dialog between students at the two schools.
After about two weeks of dialog, we turn our sights to the court case of a student named Tommy Defoe, who was suspended from his Tennessee school for wearing a Confederate flag belt buckle. He sued the school district, alleging a lack of free speech, but lost his case. For the purposes of the project, we imagine that the case goes to the Supreme Court, and students take the role of attorneys for the school and the student. The remainder of the class serves as Supreme Court justices, charged with deciding whether the suspension was constitutional.
Students on either side collaborate simultaneously, using the blog and web-based platforms to swap ideas about the case. For example, last year Brookwood students interviewed Mary Beth Tinker (whose own case provides a powerful precedent, the Tinker Standard, for Defoe’s team) and posted the Skype session on our blog. Defoe’s attorneys then collaborated with their counterparts in other schools to figure out how best to use the information in the hearing. At this point in the project, the dialog shifts from a general comparison of cultural backgrounds that characterized phase one to a more pointed exchange on the Confederate flag, the limits of the First Amendment, and the causes and legacy of the Civil War. Southerners and northerners can, of course, take wildly different viewpoints on the meaning of the Confederate flag, the limits of the First Amendment, and the causes and legacy of the Civil War. Southerners and northerners can, of course, take wildly different viewpoints on the meaning of the Confederate flag, a key prerequisite to encouraging open-mindedness.
During this two-week phase of the project, collaboration runs the gamut. Students listen to audio files of Brookwood teachers discussing the Confederate flag; examine the Sons of Confederate Veterans’ position on the Confederate flag; and swap interpretations of documents such as Mississippi’s Declaration of the Causes of Secession. The long-distance collaboration arms students at each school with new perspectives on these sources, and this increasing open-mindedness helps them understand the history in a deeper, more nuanced way. The discussion of race is inextricably linked to an examination of the Confederate flag and the Civil War, so it naturally emerges in the project. Still, we hope to broach an explicit discussion of race in a more intentional and directed fashion with each iteration of the project.
We have relied on reflective writing assignments to assess the extent to which this collaboration has helped students grow, including prompts such as, “Explain how your perception of the Confederate flag has changed — or why it has remained the same —since we started this project.” As the adoption of digital portfolios becomes more widespread, students will include artifacts, such as screen shots of their blog entries, as a means of self-evaluation. Indicators of a well-executed project will be the actions of the students, though, so success will ultimately be determined by whether they do the following:
- Reconsider stereotypes about those on the other side of the Mason Dixon line.
- Recognize that geographic and cultural differences can lead to alternate — but not necessarily incorrect — viewpoints on a given topic.
- Demonstrate curiosity about those with whom they have had little contact.
- Seek information about the role of race in American society.
- Work to solve seemingly intractable dilemmas that impede the progress of American democracy.
This project is easily replicated. Instructors of social studies, English, or other humanities courses eager to participate, and teachers in other roles should welcome this simple avenue for collaboration as a means of opening minds to the greater world. The project fits at the middle or high school levels. Participation in the dialog would not necessitate changing one’s curriculum, since the conversations (online or otherwise) could be sprinkled into other units or tackled as homework — separate, if so desired, from the day-to-day business of class. Schedules need not be disrupted, since the dialog is asynchronous — no need to coordinate time zones or schedules across partner schools.
Each year the project has grown. We have high hopes, not only of sustaining the budding relationship between Highlands School (Birmingham, AL), Battle Ground Academy (Nashville, TN), Brookwood (Manchester-By-The-Sea, MA), and Vermont Commons (South Burlington, VT), but also of expanding our reach. This year, Brookwood joined forces with two universities, whose students served as consultants during the project. Aspiring attorneys at the Northeastern Law School stood by as students researched the Defoe case, using our blog to communicate with Brookwood students about the First Amendment, the function of the Supreme Court, and other legal matters. Once students completed their mock hearing, they synthesized their learning in an Explain Everything project, which they shared with students at Harvard's Graduate School of Education (who had also been learning about some of the same issues relevant to the Defoe case). Next year, we hope to expand the partnership with those universities by connecting them with Highlands, Vermont Commons, and BGA; perhaps there are connections to be made at southern universities as well.
The project should, by design, appeal to teachers across the country. Within the past few years there has been an emphasis within educational circles on global awareness, and myriad lists of “21st century skills” include some variation on student’s understanding the world beyond their own immediate sphere. This project provides a platform for furthering that educational goal, so it enjoys the benefit of being exciting for teachers to adopt, engaging for students, and convenient for administrators to support.
If you are interested in learning more about the project, or if you would like to participate in an upcoming collaboration, please contact Kent Lenci (firstname.lastname@example.org) and/or Bo Garrett (email@example.com).
Kent Lenci teaches 7th grade history at Brookwood School in Manchester, MA. Bo Garrett, Ed. S., is middle school chair at Highlands School in Birmingham, AL.