Catherine Ariemma teaches high school history in a small town in Georgia. In her sixth year now, she has won awards for her work, but recently, she allowed four of her students to perform a historical re-enactment that ended with her on paid administrative leave and wondering if she would have a classroom to return to next fall.
Hoping to make a point about racism in U.S. history, four of Ariemma’s students donned the robes of the KKK and strolled into the school’s cafeteria. The other Lumpkin High School students were unaware the four were participating in a class assignment, or that they were being filmed as part of a video project.
Ariemma’s students were also emotionally shaken when they realized just how traumatic their project was for many of their unsuspecting fellow students.
A teachable moment?
Lumpkin County High School is located in the small town of Dahlonega. Dahlonega has segregation and racist ghosts to deal with, as many places in the United States do — North and South. Four teenagers dressed as Klansmen stirred up emotions that many people did not know how deal with, nor did they want to deal with.
But in Ariemma’s opinion, discussions about our racist past are too important to disregard and not simply confront head on.
“You cannot discuss racism without discussing the Klan. To do so would be to condone their actions,” she said.
Others don’t disagree with her intent, as much as her method. Superintendent Dewy Moore believes Ariemma used poor judgment and that the lesson was not thought out or executed properly. For her part, Ariemma has asked the superintendent if the incident can be used as a teachable moment.
I agree with Ariemma about discussing racism openly and honestly. When I taught advanced placement English to 8th graders, I was expected to walk the students through Mark Twain’s, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The story is set in the pre-Civil War south and deals with a young boy helping a slave run to freedom in the North by traveling by raft up the Mississippi River. The book is infamous for it’s use of the “N-word” and for the stunningly racist viewpoints of even the book’s main character and “hero”, Huck Finn.
The middle school I taught in had a minority population of roughly 25 percent, which for Iowa was pretty substantial. Having students read a book like Huckleberry Finn was just one teachable moment after another, let me assure you. But on the day one of my students questioned why we should read the book at all, as most of the characters were racists to one extent or another, my answer was this”
“History doesn’t change because you close your eyes to it. The characters in this book reflect the people of those times. We can’t wish them away, or different, because it makes us angry or uncomfortable. We can only look at them as they were and learn something from it, and hopefully, do a better job than they did.”
A little warning would have gone a long way toward improving Ariemma’s assignment. First rule of planning lessons is always think of what can go wrong, and correct it before you teach it to your kids. However, an award-winning teacher, if I am to believe the media these days, is hard to come by. There is a teachable moment here for all parties. Let’s hope for Ariemma and her students that the Lumpkin County School Board thinks so too.
photo credit: 08KKKfamilyPortrait by Image Editor