As teachers across the country prepared to begin the academic year in August, 2017, the violent Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia threw many into disarray as they attempted to contextualize the United States’ legacy of white supremacy and racism for the young and inquisitive. For some, the easiest option was to avoid any pushback from schools, parents or students by leaving it outside of the classroom.
But for The Friends School of Atlanta (FSA), shying away from big issues is not an option. In fact, difficult issues often inform the primary courses for a school that prides itself on offering programs that cater to social consciousness. Alex Zinnes, who teaches middle school social studies at FSA, was one of those teachers who chose to tackle it head on.
Because she ends the spring semester on African Studies with a case study on Rwanda, Alex usually begins the semester in January with a mini unit on genocide in order to help students develop a vocabulary to have fruitful discussions. Charlottesville had her thinking differently. “I addressed it and we had a discussion,” she said, “but afterwards I was thinking that there’s so much more to unpack.”
That’s when she encountered Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech, “The Other America,” where King says, “In the final analysis, racism is evil because its ultimate logic is genocide.” She thought about this well into October when attending a professional development session on service learning with FSA middle school science teacher Dennis Bauer. There, she discovered Teaching Tolerance, a publication from the Southern Poverty Law Center, which included a toolkit on teaching about the alt-right. That’s when it all came together.
Still, Alex didn’t want to just teach about the alt-right using the resources found in the magazine. She examined her own subjective position as a white Jewish woman, seeking sources to enlighten her own personal thinking. She also informed parents beforehand, which is a vital part of education at FSA—emphasizing that parents are stakeholders in the classroom. Alex reminded them: “It’s hard to contend with the knowledge of the Alt-Right and yet, I cannot think of a more important thing to do right now, but teach your kids what this menace is, how to identify it, and how to stand up and confront it.”
Alex and her class learned that the alt-right is just the latest formulation of white supremacy rebranded to appeal to a wider spectrum of society through the use of mainstream social media platforms and memes. The class discussed how the movement focuses on recruiting white males ages 12 to 22 who feel lost or unattached to a greater cause. Identifying with the alt-right gives them a false sense of power. For the second component of the lesson plan, Alex implemented a design thinking assignment that required students to generate prevention strategies to target this demographic before exposure to the alt-right. Students produced projects that included a picture book warning young children against the dangers of the alt-right, a summer camp that teaches acceptance and inclusivity, an afterschool program and a social media app.
Combining Quaker pedagogy with design thinking helped to greater integrate collaborative problem solving into the lesson. “Quakers believe the purpose of education is to develop critical thinking skills in order to discern the light within,” she says.
Encouragement from her students fuels Alex’s commitment to having difficult, but necessary conversations. One eighth grader commented, “I appreciate you (Alex) for stepping up and teaching us about this harsh subject so that we would know the truth and are not mislead by the internet or others that may be influenced by white supremacists or Alt-Righters.”
Alex feels honored that the FSA community allows her to be so daring in her teaching and learning. As she reminds parents, “We’re in this together.”
By Malcolm Tariq