Neo: Nazi-Confederate March in Charlottesville, Va. A Very Teachable Moment…

I hear that some principals, on their own, or by a superintendent’s directive, are discouraging teachers from “touching on” the Neo-Nazi-white-neo-confederate-white supremacist march that took place on 8/11 in Charlottesville, Va.
First of all I am sure, that most students particularly middle and high schoolers are fully aware that this “situation” took place; simply based on the huge amount of public and private information related to this tragic event that is being produced. And so like many “worldly” events that occur outside of school, the question is: do we want the professionally trained educators and counselors to lead and guide the conversation; or (never works), let the students informally organize their own unstructured responses? The latter “plan” could lead to student to student conflicts, and/or student–faculty/administrators/staff unnecessary confrontations. Or, even angry students acting on their own outside of school, could find themselves (or someone else) injured, killed, or having a negative interaction with law enforcement agents.

My understanding of how to handle these types of major societal events is that just “pretending” they did not happen is a recipe for disaster. CSD 29 Queens NY, an urban school district which serves one of the largest number of Muslim students in NYC; received universal acclaim and praise, for our pedagogically thoughtful and healing response to the 9/11 tragedy. The peace that followed in the district was not by accident; or by our hoping “nothing bad will happen”. School leaders must act, and not act solely on hope!
And further, utilizing these types of moments is exactly what schooling is all about. Perhaps if some of those Nazi swastika flag waving folks learned about the tremendous scale of human suffering and sacrifices (including possibly their own family members), that was needed to defeat Nazism; perhaps they would not see that flag as an instrument of honor and celebration.

Now to be sure a school cannot approach these types of events without some strategic plan of action; like where (which classes) it will be discussed, the what and how the lesson plan objective-talking points will be developed and delivered, and (really important) by which teachers; are critical parts of the process. Not all teachers are prepared and/or suitable to teach this particular lesson (and this has nothing to do with race); which is not the same as saying that they are not great teachers with the regular content curriculum.

I would probably utilize the History or English departments; and select teachers to co-teach the lesson with guidance counselors. These would be the educators who can keep the lesson: well-managed, “on script”, on task and focused. Some of the key objectives you want to achieve through a guided, ground-ruled based discussion/lesson:

(1-3 year principals, you will probably need some mentoring and guidance before undertaking this effort. And for all principals, if the district gives you a plan, script and/or talking points, follow them to the letter!)

1) You don’t want the students to do anything harmful to themselves and others; and you don’t want the students to engage law enforcement in a negative and unproductive (for them) way.

2) You don’t want students to be depressed, in despair, feel “paralyzing” afraid, and destructively angry. Allowing for a safe space and place for students to go to express how they feel about the incident outside of the classroom.

3) The constitutional facts around protest and free speech. As well as the rights of counter-protestors, should be explained. (principals you should have on call volunteer “specialist”, in this case attorneys, in your resource rolodex )

4) The students will probably (even by way of their parents, religious leader, etc.), be aware that Mr. Trump has not exactly been a beacon of reconciliation and restoration in this situation. Don’t dwell on it; and students should read the more situationally appropriate comments made by many other elected and civic leaders, across a very vast political and philosophical spectrum. You can present Mr. Obama, or any past president’s response in a similar situation; but don’t in a partisan way, “politicize” the event. Present the facts, and if the lesson is conducted right, the students will “naturally” arrive at the best moral and compassionate place they need to be.

5) Comparing and contrasting the event with literary work (i.e. The Diary of Anne Frank; Dr. M.L. King’s: “Letter From A Birmingham Jail”; or New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s Speech About Removing Confederate Monuments)

6) Historical references for example: “Why has Germany been so strict (by law) on outlawing all signs, symbols, expressions, movements, organizations, etc. that present Nazism as a positive and proud heritage-historical event?”

7) Correct any “bad, not well thought-out”, emotionally driven ideas. I.e. “all white Americans are Nazis” or, “Colleges in the south are not safe to attend!”

8) Create some creative outlet, project for the students to express how they feel. That can be letters to elected officials, an intergenerational oral-history project, and letters to the victims of the car assault, drawing-painting, music, drama, essays, poetry, short stories, dance, or acts of service.

9) Finally, send a carefully crafted note to the parents explaining how the school addressed the issues (lest students, as they often do, go home and tell their parents their “creative” version of what happen). And let parents know that if they have any questions and concerns, please don’t hesitate to call you, or visit the school without an appointment; and then don’t hesitate to take-return their calls, and really meet and talk to them! (Send a copy to your superintendent, and whoever handles “parent complaints” at the district office; surprise is usually a problem!)

Let me state up front that I would never advise a principal to disobey a directive from their superintendent. I know both as a former principal and superintendent that the people above us on the supervision organization chart, who have “big picture” as part of their job description, can often see dangers and problems we are unable to see in the “trenches”. But I also know that if schools run away from addressing the tough and difficult moral and ethical issues of our time; then we run the greater risk of producing adults, who may have “competencies and skills”, but who lack an internal compassionate guidance system. Remember: 1930’s-40’s Germany was an international: STEM, Art, Intellectual, Philosophical and (yes) Theological powerhouse!

If a principal is given the green light to develop a “plan of study” in response to a terrible and traumatic societal event, then by all means do it with a strategic vision and smartness; a strategy that keeps your school safe and together; and that also protects, and intellectually strengthens the individual students.