This commentary is by Robert L. Walsh of South Burlington, who taught African American history at South Burlington High School from 1980 to 1995. Earlier, he completed a career in the U.S. Marine Corps, retiring as a lieutenant colonel. He was a member of the adjunct faculty at the University of Vermont from 1002 to 2007. He is the author of “Through White Eyes: Color and Racism in Vermont” and “Brooks of Montpelier,” and co-author of “The Other America: The African American Experience.”
The national controversy about critical race theory arrived in Vermont last June when, at a public forum in Rutland, speakers “urged people to take action against local school boards where curricula include conversations about racism.”
Conversely, in a recent issue of South Burlington’s The Other Paper, the Vermont Student Anti-Racism Network published an opinion piece demanding students receive “an accurate and comprehensive education on race and racism.”
The following scenarios are germane to every teacher in Vermont.
Tomorrow morning, as you enter your first-period class, two students are having a heated argument about the Black Lives Matter flag flying on the school’s flagpole. During your fourth-period class, a student uses the N-word. At the end of the day, some parents are waiting for you in your office. They want a promise that you won’t teach critical race theory. The next day a student asks, “What is racism and why is everybody upset about it?”
Are you prepared for these teaching moments?
In 1999, the Vermont Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights issued a scathing report on the subject of racial harassment in Vermont public schools. In response, the Legislature has passed legislation and promoted diversity.
In July 2019, Gov. Scott appointed an executive director of racial equity. Currently, an Ethnic and Social Equity Standards Advisory Working Group is charged with reviewing the standards of student performance established by the State Board of Education. One of its specific charges is to “provide across the curriculum content and methods that enable students to explore safely questions of identity, race equality and racism.”
Clearly, ensuring these standards are achieved will be your responsibility. From your perspective, racism is the key word in the proposed standard. It is a word that is misunderstood, incendiary and political. Unfortunately, little or no effort has been made to prepare you for this task.
In December 1979, I was tasked to teach a one-semester course in African American history. It was an elective offered to students in grades 11 and 12 and was scheduled to begin in February 1980.
To say I was unprepared to teach African American history is an understatement. I spent the Christmas vacation reading Lerone Bennett’s book “Before the Mayflower” and designing lesson plans. Fortunately, South Burlington High School’s audio-visual department had some excellent materials on hand. I was also fortunate that Dr. Leon Burrell, an African American professor at UVM, was willing to visit my classes and talk to my students.
That first year went as expected, some highs and some lows. During the next 15 years, I learned as much about African American history, racism, and the African American experience as my students.
Last year, in an article published in VTDigger, Mr. Chris Dodge, then principal of the Fletcher Elementary School, wrote about his experience discussing African American history with his students during Black History Month. He recognized his limitations and committed to a personal, self-study program of the subject. I strongly recommend you do the same.
The following are recommended readings to get you started. Each is available on Amazon.
- “Why Are All The Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria” by Beverly Tatum. This book provides an explanation and understanding of racism.
- “The 1619 Project” by Nikole Hannah-Jones. This book provides an in-depth understanding of the origins of racism in America and its impact on our society.
- “Before The Mayflower” by Lerone Bennett. This book is a general presentation of African American History.
- “The Other America: The African American Experience” by Robert L. Walsh and Leon Burrell. This book is designed to supplement secondary school instruction in U.S. history.