Teaching Charlottesville

Aug 20, 2017 by

Facing controversy during “interesting times”

That’s one way to put it…

The phrase “May you live in interesting times” is most likely a western fabrication attributed to an ancient Chinese curse. Although the saying may be the subject of dubious etymology, it seems especially appropriate when considering the recent string of current events in Charlottesville Virginia and elsewhere.  The times we live in are “interesting” to say the least and given an option, most would choose a more placid era. Polarization has become the norm and a new lexicon has emerged that is both confounding and offensive to many education professionals.

For educators, these unfolding troubling events complicate and challenge the already difficult task of educating students.  Students are most likely already discussing these events and drawing their own conclusions however misguided they may be.  In some situations it may be best to avoid controversial subject matter, especially when it has no bearing on specific subject matter or the educational process.  Sadly, the national preoccupation with race and social justice issues are very much a commentaries on our educational system.  The current wave of civic unrest is the most recent episode of a historic narrative that can be directly tied to the bloodiest conflict in US history.  Denying the relevancy of these “interesting times” may seem expedient in the short term, but ultimately marginalizing this or other relevant, controversial topics may be a missed opportunity.


In the trenches making sense of it all. A search for further understanding and “teaching Charlottesville” delivers a wealth of relevant resources for educators.  Trusted sources like NPR, the Washington Post and Education Week all offered similar resource lists to educators in the aftermath of the event.  The #CharlottesvilleCurricullum Twitter hashtag is rife with links for more resources, including lesson plans and reading materials.   Facinghistory.org has adapted materials first used during the Ferguson protests of 2016 to prepare students and educators for the difficult discussions associated with more recent events. Tolerance.org is a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center and has developed classroom materials for educators since 1991. There is no shortage of materials for educators regarding this issue.  If anything, finding the right materials will require some reflection and analysis on the specific needs of students.

Controversy: The New Normal

Although no educator wants to find themselves in the middle of a physical or verbal classroom melee, spirited inquiry and discussion should be valued for its instructional possibilities.  Even as troubling and offensive as the events in Charlottesville may be, they warrant consideration by students.  By modeling civility and other classroom management tactics, educators can insure that students not only develop thoughtful opinions based on facts, but they may also learn more about civil discourse.  That is a lesson severely needed in these difficult times.  The Yale Center for Teaching and Learning offers some simple and effective guidelines for dealing with controversial subject matter.  At the outset, the instructor should determine the desired outcome and lesson.  Is the desired outcome social empathy, civic engagement or academic detachment?  Determining desired outcomes allows the instructor to set the overall tone of any classroom instruction.  Before beginning any classroom exchange the instructor should establish clear ground rules regarding civility and relevancy.  The instructor should model civility even under the most challenging circumstances and always try to tie the issue to relevant class materials.  Perhaps most importantly the instructor must be ready to moderate intense feelings of students and themselves.  Should the class become overly contentious the instructor may need to call a “time out” so students can calm down.  From there, students may be asked to engage in a writing exercise to analyze their thoughts or present a reworded argument that is more approachable.  This type of engagement will better prepare students for the contentious nature of public discourse in current times.

The New Polemic

It may be convenient to marginalize the current political atmosphere as something of an anomaly, but the in reality, it’s taken generations to get to this level of social dysfunction and it will likely take years to reverse the trend.  For that matter, there is a historic precedent for heinous political and social discord that can be traced to the founding of the nation.  Educators are uniquely situated to have an influence on this dysfunction so long as they are willing to address the controversy and guide their students through the process of truly civil discord.  Regardless of political views, the rising tide of social and political turmoil is undeniable.  The role of educators in reviving the dying art of respectful disagreement cannot be understated.

Keywords: #CharlottesvilleCurriculum

Comment Below on the methods teachers in your building use to promote inclusivity.


#CharlottesvilleCurriculum. (2017, August 14). Twitter. Retrieved from twitter.com: http://twitter.com/search?q=%23CharlottesvilleCurriculum&src=tyah

Educator Resources. (2017, August 14). Facing History. Retrieved from: http://www.facinghistory.org/educator-resources

Kamenetz, A. (2017, August 14). Resources For Educators To Use In The Wake Of Charlottesville. Washington, D.C.: National Public Radio. Retrieved from: http://www.npr.org/sections/ed/2017/08/14/543390148/resources-for-educators-to-use-the-wake-of-charlottesville

O’Toole, G. (2015, December 18). May You Live In Interesting Times. Quote Investigator. Retrieved from: http://quoteinvestigator.com/2015/12/18/live/

Strauss, V. (2017, August 13). The first thing teachers should do when school starts is talk about hatred in America. Here’s help. The Washington Post. Retrieved from:  http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/answer-sheet/wp/2017/08/13/the-first-thing-teachers-should-do-when-school-starts-is-talk-about-hatred-in-america-heres-help/?utm_term=.11401296fc4b

Teaching Tolerance. (2017, August 14). About Teaching Tolerance. Retrieved from: http://www.tolerance.org/about

Will, M. (2017, August 14). Teachers Share Resources for Addressing Charlottesville Hate Rally in the Classroom. Education Week. Retrieved from: http://mobile.edweek.org/c.jsp?rssid=25919151&item=http://api.edweek.org/v1/blogs/83/?uuid=73336&cid=25919951

Yale University. (2017, August 14). Teaching Controversial Topics. Yale Center for Teaching and Learning. Retrieved from: http://ctl.yale.edu/teaching/ideas-teaching/teaching-controversial-topics

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