Educating Our Children in Difficult Times Part II

March 14, 2019

A couple of months ago I was asked about our approach to educating students about the Holocaust and the history of genocide, particularly in light of controversial events covered by the media in some regional high schools and across the country.  After privately reflecting on the challenge of educating our children in this era, I felt compelled to author a summary of our work as a school district and shared it widely with the community. 

Since that time, we have continued to look inward as professional educators to consider our role in educating our children in difficult times.  If our mission is to prepare all students for the world they enter when they graduate, what must we consider?  As we collectively reflected, a deep understanding of the issues involving racism, tolerance, and civil discourse emerged as priorities for our students if they are to thrive in the global economy, and if they are to make a unique, positive contribution as informed, ethical citizens. 

Our district vision is clear.  Additionally, what separates our work from other systems is the clarity of student outcomes in preparing all students for life beyond the Madison Public Schools.  These 21st Century Capacities are explicitly identified in each curricular unit of instruction your child experiences, and they are assessed to measure student performance.  

Again, I want to reassure the entire Madison community that our schools are dedicated and committed to meaningfully incorporating the study of these topics in our core curriculum, experiences that reach all of our students at their developmental levels.  I’d like to reiterate that we are educators.  We are at our best when we are left to do what we are professionally trained to do…teach.  By meaningfully building these topics into our curriculum, we can reach all students with some of our most important work.  We do, in fact, begin instruction about racism, tolerance, and particularly, civil discourse, in age-appropriate ways as early as kindergarten.   

When dealing with complex issues, there are complex responses.  We are not perfect.  Our most limited resource is time.  Perhaps our greatest challenge is the constant churn of forces outside of the school walls.  Yet we seek to continually improve our entire approach to confront these issues in ways that will prepare all students for the world they will enter when they graduate.  

Below are just some of the highlights of our overall instructional program on the topics of racism, tolerance, and civil discourse.  For clarity, I have broken down these highlights into the following areas:  

  • Guaranteed Curriculum Experiences for All Students 
  • Instructional Methods/Approaches.  

Guaranteed Curriculum Experiences for All Students

Although not an exhaustive list of the curriculum content that addresses the topics of racism, tolerance, and civil discourse, below is a list of highlights of what is taught in our schools.  The list begins with our early elementary experiences, and culminates with the more sophisticated high school level courses.

K-8 Social Studies Program

Grade 1 Social Studies Unit 2:  “My Family Unit”

Overall in grades K-2, the Social Studies curriculum emphasizes community and respect for others. In this unit, students explore and share their heritage, culture, and family traditions.  Through the fostering of alternative perspectives, students gain appreciation and respect for families’ differences.  Students will know that no one family is exactly alike and that families can have similar and different structures, backgrounds, heritage, and traditions.  This is a very age-appropriate introduction for first graders on the topics of accepting differences among their peers and community members.  Embedded in this unit is an “Interactive Read Aloud” on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. that gently introduces the concept of empathy and social justice with an activity that directs only the students with velcro on their shoes to have their snack.  Questions of fairness and personal feelings are explored as the teacher guides students through a reflection on this activity.  

Grade 3 Social Studies Unit 2 “Connecticut History”

The underpinnings of racism and tolerance are introduced in Unit 2 of Grade 3 Social Studies curriculum in which students examine cultural differences between Native Americans and Europeans, with the overall curricular goal of learning to respectfully and responsibly work with others through the exchange and evaluation of ideas.  Perhaps the most compelling experience for third graders on this topic occurs when Connecticut is put on trial as we ask students to debate the following:  Did Connecticut support slavery

Middle School Social Studies Program

The middle school Social Studies core curriculum delves into the topics of racism and tolerance.  Among these experiences include:

  • The Grade 6 Social Studies program, which endeavors to build empathy for the disadvantaged by studying the history, and modern day worldwide dynamics of, food insecurity, clean water scarcity, and inequities in public education. An emphasis is put on understanding problems and how imposed solutions from the outside do not often match the complexities experienced on the ground. 
  • Grade 7 Social Studies Unit 2: a deep study of the Holocaust with an emphasis on the concept of tolerance
  • Grade 7 Social Studies Unit 3:  a look at modern day conflicts and their impact on human rights across the world including South Africa, Iran and others.
  • Grade 8 Social Studies Unit 2:  a study of life during the Gilded Age for African Americans, with an emphasis on the efforts African Americans, and other disenfranchised groups, made to improve their condition in American society. Further exploration of this topic is an option as a focus of their Grade 8 research papers.
  • Grade 8 Social Studies Unit 4 an examination of how World War II sparked the Civil Rights movement.
  • Grade 8 Social Studies Unit 1 an investigation into the Bill of Rights and the concept of the right to free speech, even when unpopular, deep disagreements are articulated. 


K-8 Language Arts Program

Seven years ago, our schools began a transformation in our Language Arts program.  Those changes were driven by “what” we teach, as well as “how” we teach our students.  Through this renewal process numerous topics addressing racism, tolerance, and civil discourse are presented to all students. 

The compelling life stories of those from many diverse backgrounds are explored in the Grade 3 Unit 5 Language Arts curriculum.  This “Biography” unit reveals those who have overcome challenges to make an impact on our lives today. 

As you could imagine, as students progress through the grades, the complexity of these topics deepens, as well as the nature.  The overall curriculum begins to take on substantive issues in the Unit 3 of the Grade 7 Language Arts curriculum, Informational Texts”.  Students are encouraged to research provocative topics of interest through informational texts, identifying bias and rhetoric, while transitioning to persuasive essays on such issues as bullying and racism/discrimination. 

Unit 4 of the Grade 7 Language Arts curriculum, “Historical Fiction,” begins with Civil Rights book clubs with choices of Mississippi Trial, 1955; The Lions of Little Rock; Fire From the Rock; and The Rock and the River.  Additionally, to bring this content to life, teachers use documentaries such as the Oscar-winning account of the Civil Rights movement “A Time for Justice,” as well as the stories of Ernest Green and Emmett Till.  Students contemplate the concepts of emotional setting, alternate perspectives, and prejudice throughout the unit.  

The Grade 7 Language Arts Unit 5, “Exceptionalities”, focuses on tolerance and empathy for those living with disabilities/challenges. This unit culminates with the “Exceptionalities Day” event, an opportunity for students to attend talks throughout the day from a dozen or more people who are living with an exceptionality.

The Grade 8 Language Arts Unit 5, “Global Perspectives”, immerses students in the autobiographies of people from other cultures/countries living through adversity.  Students are asked to analyze how people react to fear, adversity, and authority.  Additionally there is a study of human rights violations through texts, as well as the United Nation’s Declaration of the Rights of a Child.  Cultural norms are considered, as well as such atrocities as the Holocaust.  A guest speaker, Holocaust survivor Judith Altmann, meets with all students to share her experience, and most importantly, sending the message of the need for love and tolerance for all today.

The Grade 8 Language Arts Unit 4, “Social Issues”, engages students in the study of various social issues in the country and the world, with a particular focus on building empathy.  The concepts of uneven power relationships, fairness vs. equality, alternate perspectives, and acceptance/rejection are analyzed throughout the unit. 

Confronting Slavery

The history, and evils, of slavery in our nation is studied multiple times.  For brevity, below are just some of the examples. 

In addition to the aforementioned Grade 3 unit, Unit 2 of the Grade 5 Social Studies curriculum takes students through an in-depth study to understand the origins of the barbarism of slavery in America. Students learn about the second middle passage for African Americans to western states as result of growth of the cotton industry and the dramatic struggle the country experienced in dealing with its growth.  Upcoming additions to the unit will include a new section on the Reconstruction and the triumphs and trials of the freed slaves.  Grade 4 Unit 2 of the Social Studies curriculum wrestles with the views of slavery during the American Revolution time period, asking students to consider if, and how, these views changed during the Revolutionary War.  Further innovations and revisions to our social studies curriculum will include the addition of a study of the book by Venture Smith, one of only six contemporary accounts of 17th century slavery by a former slave. 

Daniel Hand High School

It is nearly impossible to capture the remarkable work of our high school on the topics of racism, tolerance, and civil discourse due to the ubiquity of course offerings through our trimester model.  If you are unfamiliar with this model, I can assure you that students have substantial choice in a wide variety of electives, unlike any other public high school in the state.  As a result, course offerings are tailored to match student interest.  For more information on these offerings please see our Program of Studies. 

For the purposes of this message, I will summarize the core offerings, as well as the more mature elective experiences in our Social Studies and English/Language Arts programs.

High School Social Studies

One look at the course offerings in the high school Social Studies program reveals an overall focus on the human experience, and primacy of human dignity.  This program acknowledges that humanity thrives and struggles together, and that, as one human family, we have the power of empathy to improve the human condition.

In the US History, Civics and American Government, and Global Studies courses, students are challenged to consider their thinking about why, despite incredible historical efforts of marginalized groups, inequalities and the insidious effects of racism and intolerance have perpetuated.  Additionally, a broad range of electives presents opportunities for students to discover the roots of stereotypes that lead to discrimination and racism, while learning strategies that help to minimize social traps that they can apply to their own lives. 

High School English/Language Arts

The authenticity of rich high school, or college level, literature lends itself to read, discuss, and write about unresolved racial issues, and the lack of tolerance that emerges from ignorance of another’s culture.  In-depth studies through literature offer an alternative to cursory understandings, or misunderstandings, students may develop outside of school based on messages that fail to expose the complexity of racism and intolerance.  Literature also enables us to uncover the danger of a “single story” as students analyze alternate perspectives. Our pivotal “Race, Literature, and Culture” course, co-created with the renowned Dr. Yohuru Williams, provides the most in-depth analysis of the societal roles of racism and segregation that we offer our students.  

Instructional Methods/Approaches

In addition to the curricular experiences we offer our students, perhaps we are most proud of the instructional approaches that we incorporate into daily classroom activities that promote civil discourse. As a system, we place a high priority and invest in the training of our professional faculty. Below are some examples of these approaches:

  • Accountable Talk: Through this approach, our students are taught the norms and skills of civil discourse.  In short, talking with others about ideas and work is fundamental to learning. But not all talk sustains learning.  For classroom talk to promote learning it must be accountable to the learning community, it must be accurate, it must use appropriate knowledge, and it must engage others in rigorous thinking. In practice, the “Accountable Talk” classroom illustrates how students respond to, and further develop, what others in the group have said. Students are taught sample question/sentence stems that promote this type of civil discourse as early as kindergarten, whether discussing a solution to a math problem, the motives of a character in a book, or the something as complex as unresolved racial issues.  You can see evidence of this approach in our early elementary classrooms, all the way through the system and in our Advanced Placement English courses at the high school.
  • Argument Protocol: Over the years, we have worked to train our teachers in language arts and social studies on the “argument protocol” approach, a highly engaging and interactive way to gather evidence and formulate strong, well-reasoned claims, leading to compelling persuasive writing experiences.  In this approach, students are taught about the power of evidence-based claims, and the necessity of respectful decorum when demonstrating claims, as a powerful alternative to the empty vitriol most children are exposed to in world of social media.
  • Peer Feedback:  Most writing units incorporate elements of peer feedback, an approach where students are taught how to effectively, and respectfully, give feedback to their peers based on a performance expectation.  Respectfully pointing out areas of growth, while sharing commendations, teaches students how to confer in age-appropriate and effective ways.  Peer feedback also gives students an opportunity to have their voices heard, and perhaps most importantly when concerning civil discourse, to listen to each other.
  • Socratic Seminar:  The Socratic seminar is a formal discussion, typically based on a text, in which the leader asks open-ended questions. Within the context of the discussion, students listen closely to the comments of others, thinking critically for themselves, and articulate their own thoughts and their responses to the thoughts of others.  The investment into listening skills and thoughtful articulation of responses to others forms a necessary foundation to civil discourse. 
  • Cooperative Groups:  Another time-honored practice, in cooperative learning, students work together in small groups on a structured activity. Cooperative groups work face-to-face and learn to work as a team.  This approach is used in nearly all classroom settings from our core classes to our related arts program (i.e PE, art, music, etc.).  Again, the necessity of listening to others and responding thoughtfully and respectfully in cooperative group learning activities forms the necessary foundation to civil discourse.
  • Debate: Education and thoughtful debate are inextricably linked.  The free and respectful exchange of ideas is a core value in our learning environment.  However, the cadence of the classroom debate is instructional as students exchange conflicting ideas in a reasoned and respectful way.  This process conditions students to the conventions of civil discourse.  Debate is seen in classrooms across the spectrum in our schools, from as early as the elementary level to the upper high school courses. 
  • Responsive Classroom: Perhaps the most powerful, evidence-based approach to the development of social/emotional skills is the Responsive Classroom Model. In this model, all students learn a set of social and emotional skills that include cooperation, assertiveness, responsibility, empathy, and self-control. The Madison Public Schools adopted the Responsive Classroom Model as the core social/emotional learning program for all students K-8. 

The Madison Public Schools system is driven by a mission and vision to prepare all learners for the world they will enter when they graduate.  The complexity of citizenship and the challenges of global economy in the 21st Century may complicate our work, yet is does not diminish our dedication and commitment to meaningfully incorporating the study of the most critical issues of facing this generation. 

March on. Do not tarry. To go forward is to move toward perfection. March on, and fear not the thorns, or the sharp stones on life's path. ― Khalil Gibran 

Again, as a system, we are not perfect.  But we are proud of the work we do each day with our students in spite of the challenges we face.  Although the information above is not, and cannot be, a full account of all of the work we do to educate our students about racism, tolerance, and civil discourse, may it reassure you, as a parent, that along with an exemplary academic program, we are truly preparing all learners for the world they will enter when they graduate from our schools.    


Thomas Scarice
Superintendent of Schools