Mimi Kirk is a contributing writer to CityLab covering education, youth, and aging. Her writing has also appeared in The Washington Post, Foreign Policy, and Smithsonian.
As bias incidents at American schools surge, one Maryland high school requires all freshmen to take a new course designed to encourage open minds and civil dialogue.
On a recent Thursday morning at Arundel High School in Gambrills, Maryland, Tiara Colbert divided her ninth graders into groups and asked them to write down all the stereotypes they could think of. “They can be awful,” she instructed, doling out markers to use on big sheets of paper tacked up around the room.
The kids milled around, jostling and joking with each other. And the sheets soon filled up: “Muslims bomb everything.” “All blacks are in gangs.” “Cheerleaders are stuck up.” “Asians are smart.” “All Mexicans cut grass.” “White girls drink Starbucks.”
As the lists of stereotypes grew, the groups studied them, with some discomfort. “I can’t believe someone wrote that!” a boy shouted. The students then sat in a circle and discussed why such stereotypes exist. “People use them to feel better about themselves,” said a girl with long brown hair. “Because people don’t want to know the truth,” added a soft-spoken boy.
The conversation shifted to stereotypes that the kids had themselves experienced. “People think I’m a thug because I’m black,” a boy named Caleb said. “But you don’t look like a thug!” someone called out. “You have glasses.” The class laughed nervously.
This is Community Citizenship class, a brand-new required course for all Arundel High School freshmen. The class has five modules: self; community; culture and race; citizenship; and change making. Each class opens with a question or task to spur discussion. Principal Gina Davenport, who spearheaded the course, said that the goal is to help students learn to be open to different views and to communicate with each other in a way that isn’t hurtful or degrading. “The aim is for them to build relationships,” she said.
This is an issue that’s acquired some fresh urgency lately, both at Arundel High and nationwide. Arundel’s student population is 50 percent white, 35 percent African American, 9 percent Hispanic, and 6 percent Asian. Earlier this year, the school made some headlines when a student circulated a petition under the name “Kool Kids Klan” that asked fellow students to sign on to white supremacy, specifically saying that black Americans should be sent back to Africa.
Incidents like this have been more common of late in American schools—a phenomenon often linked to the rhetoric and policies of the Trump administration and the general emboldening of those espousing racial, ethnic, and religious bigotry in his name. In nearby Montgomery County, Maryland, for example, the Washington Post reported a tripling of incidents involving racist images or messages reported to police in the spring of 2017. In a recent UCLA survey of more than 1,500 public high school teachers, more than half reported a greater number of students experiencing “high levels of stress and anxiety” than in previous years, due to worries about Trump’s policies, particularly immigration, the environment, and LGBTQ rights. More than 20 percent reported increased polarization at their schools, and close to 30 percent had noticed a rise in the number of students making derogatory remarks about other groups during class discussions.
At Arundel High School, the senior who initiated the Klan petition was suspended and earned his diploma through alternative means, and the school held a number of events to address the incident, including a community circle and a study of the book At Momma’s Knee, which examines race in America.
“We saw we had a problem in that the kids lacked understanding about race,” said Davenport. “And we’re a school, so when we find an education deficit, the solution is to educate.” Over the summer Davenport and five teachers and staff members—including Colbert and Johanna Ricker, who was teaching another section of Community Citizenship the day I visited—developed the course.
Initially, Davenport got some pushback from parents. Some asked why the school couldn’t “just let go” of the issue. But most of the response to the course has been positive, from both parents and students. In Colbert’s class, a boy named Bidit told me that he feared the class was going to be “stupid and boring”—but now he likes it. “You understand more about who people are through learning about their past experiences,” he said. And in Rickers’ section, a girl called Maliah said that the class encourages students to consider how they relate to others. “It gets you thinking about what you’ve done in the past and how you can change yourself,” she said.
Concern about “The Trump Effect”—the Southern Poverty Law Center’s term for the uptick in hate incidents and anxiety among students following the presidential election—has not dissipated since that report’s April release. Paula McAvoy, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and co-author of The Political Classroom: Evidence and Ethics in Democratic Education, said that while teachers are worried about fraught political dialogue in schools, they are at the same time determined to use this opportunity to better prepare students for democratic participation. “For instance, the feeling is that we have to get students better informed and able to access accurate information,” she said. (In the UCLA study, more than 40 percent of teachers said that students were more likely than in previous years to introduce unfounded claims from unreliable sources.)
Amid the post-Trump curricula designed to help American kids navigate our divisive national moment, McAvoy said the Community Citizenship class is unique in that it engages all students. “The students that usually get such political discussions are those from higher social classes and on advanced educational tracks,” she said. “It’s admirable that the school is giving everyone access.”
She noted that if teachers want to hold political discussions in their classrooms but lack institutional support or are unsure how to proceed effectively, organizations like the Close Up Foundation and Facing History and Ourselves, which offer relevant professional development, can help.
McAvoy also added that it’s important to remember that schools, while politically non-partisan spaces, shouldn’t be neutral in the fundamental principles of democracy. “Human rights and equal protection are starting points for discussion,” she said. “While you want a lively political conversation, you also have to send the message that the idea of white supremacy, for example, is not a legitimate point of view.”
Arundel’s Community Citizenship teachers say that their students have been largely respectful during class discussions. “We trusted that they were going to be civil and responsive, and they have been,” said Davenport. And though Davenport added that she and her colleagues are still working out the course’s kinks—“I guarantee when we run this class for the other half of the ninth grade in February, it will look different”—she feels confident in what they’re already accomplishing.
“We’re giving the students strategies to seek to understand, to communicate appropriately, and to foster relationships so they’re successful here at school and later in life,” she said.