Update: Due to the agitating nature of some comments, further comments that are off topic or argumentative for the sake of arguing will not be approved. As always, if you have an argument to present and evidence to back it up, please post. I am looking for good resources to use in the classroom. Thanks
Today in class my students and I discussed the violent, and often genocidal, conflict between the Puritan settlers in New England and Native Americans. After a brief discussion and a short video on the Pequot War and King Philip’s War, I assigned a short essay. I asked students to analyze “Why do [they] believe [Americans] are so quick to forget this important part of the history of Puritan settlers and embrace the mythology that we learned in grade school of the peaceful and freedom seeking Pilgrims?” The answers I got were great, but one stuck out. To paraphrase, one of my students suggested that people prefer to concentrate on the positives of the past. Another student noted that not many people would not want to acknowledge that their grandfather carried the head of Chief Metacom to Plymouth. Collectively, the class seemed to agree that people gloss over the past in praise. I asked if they had any other examples of this “whitewashing” taking place. One student said, “The flag.” I asked, “which flag?” The student responded, “The Confederate Flag. People want to say it represents history or heritage…but not racism.”
Since the tragic event this Summer, the Confederate Battle Flag has become a toxic symbol. Many Americans criticized the unapologetic and noneducational use of the flag and in some cases, violence occurred in reaction to it. Since that time, many educators searched for a way to “introduce the subject of the history and memory of the flag in the classroom.” I too have been pondering this issue. It is especially difficult in a public school setting where there are strict academic frameworks and tedious standardized tests. Regardless, I feel strongly that it is my duty as an educator to address contemporary issues and teach how and why those current events are connected to the past.
During pre-planning, part of a public school teacher’s yearly process is to decorate the classroom. Unlike universities and some private schools, public school teachers usually do not have the luxury of an office. The classroom is our office. Additionally, the classroom is an extension of the education that a teacher provides. In the past, because I’m a Civil War enthusiast, I decorated my walls with generals, portraits, and flags. I always make it a point to use my decorations during the school year in one form or another. In previous years, this included the Confederate Flag. Due however to the pernicious nature of the flag since the Charleston massacre, I decided to be more attentive in what I put on my walls and in what context. I also sought another point of view on the matter and I emailed Kevin Levin, an educator and Civil War historian who focuses a lot on race and memory. Kevin published my email on his blog, which generated a few responses about whether or not it is appropriate to display the Confederate Flag in the classroom. The comments are an interesting read in and of themselves.
To make a long story short, I came to the conclusion that I want my classroom to be a safe environment for education. I did not, however, want to fall victim to censorship and avoid controversial topics out of the fear of offending someone. Much like Eric Jacobson stated on Kevin’s blog, now more than ever it is important to teach the history of that flag and its connection to race. To do that without the flag, is indeed a missed opportunity. I ultiamtely decided that the use of the flag in my classroom, would always be dictated by me without any room for its use or interpretation void of proper context (i.e. waving it around in front of buildings, in pick-up trucks, beside the interstate, and on government building).
On the first day of school, after introductions and the usual paperwork shuffle, I asked students about their Summer and gave them the floor. Then we got on point, and I asked them about events that took place during their break that have historical significance. Some referred to SCOTUS’s decisions on gay marriage and ‘Obamacare,’ but most said the Charleston shootings and the Confederate Flag. As I pinned the flag on the white board I asked, “What makes this so controversial?” After a general discussion I told the class of a planned activity that I had come up with in an attempt to make history relevant to current issues affecting the country. I told them that this would be an activity that we would start on day one and it would take us into next semester, through the Civil Rights unit.
I passed out index cards and asked all of my students to write their names on the card. Then I asked them to write down, in three words or less, what runs through their minds when they see the flag. I amplified this request by telling them that I did not mean if they saw the flag in a museum or classroom, but rather on a building, next to the interstate, in a truck, or any other informal setting such as that. I tried to rush students into writing their responses by telling them not to over analyze but to literally write down the first thing that popped into their head. Granted, I teach at a very racially diverse multicultural school. This means that I teach students who have no cultural connection to the flag whatsoever. I encouraged students to write down what they thought even if the ‘Dukes of Hazzard’ or Kanye West was the only thing they associated the flag with. After that, I directed them to write down three “points” or “arguments” that they might make to support what popped into their head. You can see some of the responses below.
My long term goal in this activity is to allow students to assess what they think about the flag, and to analyze whether or not that assessment is accurate as the school year progresses. When I get to the Civil War unit, I will hand students back their cards and tell them to write an opinion essay about the flag based on what they know and using what they wrote on the card. I will collect those essays and the cards when students are finished. During second semester, after I have completed the unit on the Civil Rights movement, I will have students revisit their cards and essays. At this point, students will have to write another essay evaluating their initial responses to the flag and if that response has changed. Students will have to use what they have learned over the course of the school year to justify their responses regardless of what opinion they argue. In short, if their opinion changed or stayed the same, the students will have to justify it.
In addition to self-assessment, I want students to have a powerful image of their evolving view of the flag. To do this, I am going to refer to Civil War soldiers who often painted on their flags to give them extra meaning. Soldiers painted or stitched regimental designations, symbols, and the names of battles onto their flags. It distinguished their flag by showing whom it represented and where it had been. In somewhat of reverence to that, I am purchasing a Confederate Battle Flag and painting a line down the middle. On the left side, I will have students paint their reaction to the flag at the beginning of the school year. On the right, they will paint their reactions at the end of the year. The flag sends different messages to my students – so – my students are sending the messages back. I really cannot think of a more “appropriate” way to display the flag.
Hopefully this long term project will serve as a personal guide on how to introduce and teach the memory and history of the flag in the classroom. Over the years I’ll be able to make adjustments, keep what works and throw away what does not. I will definitely make it a point to post pictures and provide updates about the project as the school year progresses. As always any comments, observations, or recommendations are appreciated.