Think Out Loud

Educators say teaching about systemic racism is key to understanding history

By Allison Frost (OPB)
June 22, 2021 4:59 p.m. Updated: June 22, 2021 8:49 p.m.

Broadcast: Tuesday, June 22

The event at Colonel Summers Park in Southeast Portland on June 12, 2021 was part of a national "Day of Action" to support teaching history and speak out against legislation that limits teaching about racism and related topics.

The event at Colonel Summers Park in Southeast Portland on June 12, 2021 was part of a national "Day of Action" to support teaching history and speak out against legislation that limits teaching about racism and related topics.

Elizabeth Miller


Some states are passing laws restricting curriculum related to racism and history. Portland-area teachers rallied last week as part of a Day of Action opposing those bans and in support of educators around the country who are coming up against opposition for their work teaching history. They say you cannot learn history or current events without understanding the role that racism plays in our culture. We talk with two of those teachers: David Scholten, a fifth-grade teacher at Abernathy Elementary school and Suzanna Kassouf, a 9th-grade social studies teacher at Grant High School.

This transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.

Geoff Norcross:  After more than a year of protests for social justice, the way teachers are talking to their kids about racism and inequity is being closely watched right now. Republican led legislatures are introducing bills that would clamp down on public school teachers bringing up certain topics like systemic racism or internalized white supremacy.  Some Portland area teachers are opposing those moves and we wanted to talk to a couple of them. David Scholten teaches fifth grade at Abernathy Elementary School and Susanna Kassouf teaches ninth grade social studies at Grant High School. David, we know that Oregon is not considering any legislation like this. But you were among some teachers who came out as part of a national day of action against these bans across the country. Why was it important for you to be a part of that?

David Scholten:  We stand in solidarity with teachers across the nation and we recognize that just because there is no legislation currently in the Oregon legislature to ban these concepts, it doesn’t mean it’s not possible in the future. We know that there have been pushes at the school board level. And there have been people, vocal in the state, who have really been critical of teaching the truthful history of our nation. So we felt it was really important to stand together with educators from across the nation who are directly experiencing this right now.

Norcross:  Are you personally hearing from kids’ parents about what you’re teaching in the school?

Scholten:  I do, every year, hear from a parent or two who is uncomfortable with some of the concepts I teach. But overwhelmingly, parents are in support of the way that I teach racism and identity, in the way that we look at the history of our nation and the current state of our nation as well.

Norcross:  There’s a concept that is very much in the national discussion right now and that is critical race theory.  Many people are very critical of that concept being taught in the schools. There are a lot of different interpretations but it’s widely being used to mean any antiracist elements in history or social studies or other curriculum. So, David, do you teach critical race theory?

Scholten:  I’m a fifth grade teacher. So, no, I do not teach critical race theory. It is something that most students will not encounter until college, if not graduate school. It was a way to look at racism in the law and to look at the way that our legal system upholds systems of white supremacy.  So that is not age appropriate for our kids.

Norcross:  How about you, Susanna? You’re a high school teacher. Do you even bring up the subject in class?

Susanna Kassouf:  Like David said, critical race theory is  a field of legal study that explores race as a social construct that has been used, over time, to maintain white supremacy.  So I don’t teach law.  I don’t teach it in that sense. But I do teach the concepts of racism, oppression, white supremacy, dominant culture, et cetera. Critical race theory is being kind of used as a catch all by the right to encompass anything. They don’t like a truthful telling of our painful history and the different kinds of systemic oppression that we have in this country.

Norcross:  As I understand it, it’s kind of an answer to what used to be called liberal race theory, an interpersonal problem that you need to work on. Critical race theory in the eighties and nineties said, no, it’s deeper than that. It’s societal and it’s baked into a lot of the systems and the institutions that we rely on. And that’s where the concept of systemic racism comes in. So Susanna, how do you incorporate that idea to your kids?

Kassouf:  I teach a class called Ninth Grade Inquiry. It’s a class that’s supposed to help you be prepared for high school, college and career. To me, the way you’re going to be most prepared for these things is that you have a baseline understanding of yourself and a baseline understanding of our world. And like James Baldwin says, “you really can’t have one without the other”.  So we explore those things and then we weave in reading, writing,  annotating, media analysis, also creative expression, mindfulness and self compassion.

My first unit is on identity prejudice and culture and something that I really want to get across. I try to get across as Beverly Daniel Tatum says, “we’re all breathing in the smog of racism and all sorts of oppression”. Sexism, heterosexism, transphobia, et cetera. We’re all taking in the messages from our society and our systems, of these things. So it’s not our individual fault if we have the thoughts and feelings that were implanted into us by our society.  But it is our responsibility to learn the truth and undo those thoughts and feelings in ourselves. T hat’s what we try to do in that unit. If you want, I can go into more detail.

Norcross:  I’m interested in how that shows up in your classroom, David. How do you teach those concepts differently, given that you’re talking to littler kids?

Scholten:  First, I just want to say that it takes a lot of effort to avoid these topics. It really is something that, if you’re going to teach, you have to make an effort to avoid these topics. Because in every point in history, if you look at it from a certain perspective, you’re going to see that there were laws and practices and policies that were intentionally designed to promote one group and to disenfranchise another. So there are so many examples.

So the way I teach about it with younger kids is a little bit different than what would happen in high school. There are a few ways that we can incorporate it into elementary school.  You know, most elementary school classrooms have what’s called a morning meeting where we’re kind of checking with each other and talking about how we’re feeling and how we’re doing. That can be a place to bring up a topic. Another way is through the literature that I choose. So for example, in my class this past year, as the read-aloud book for the class was a book called Farewell to Manzanar which is a memoir of a woman who, as a young girl, went to a concentration camp, forced there after World War Two. She was of Japanese descent. When we were reading it, what we found was that racism toward people of Japanese ancestry didn’t start with the bombing of Pearl Harbor.  It was happening long before then. There were economic reasons why people of Japanese descent, successful landowners and farmers in the Hood River area, were being targeted. The literature opens the door for these kinds of conversations.

Norcross:  And how do the kids respond to that?

Schoulten:  They’re thirsty for it. It’s usually met, at the beginning of the year, with this kind of surprise, like ‘how come I didn’t know this, How come nobody talked about this before?’  I was kind of shocked by your last guest, Sarah Taylor, when she said that there was a hidden story of the Chinook people that they’re trying to bring to light. This begs the question, why are some of these stories hidden? Why are some stories part of our national narrative, that we can recite by heart and others, you have to dig and dig, while both happened.


So I think the kids are really thirsty for that truth and especially by 4th and 5th grades.  They’re ready for that kind of digging and discussion, that things aren’t simple, that we can look at a topic like racism and say this is not a simple thing. We have to dig and look at both sides to really understand what’s happening here. It’s gonna take some work.

Norcross:  Some will say that you have to be careful about teaching kids, especially kids who are white and are that young, about history like that because they can internalize it even if it is the truth and it can be a lot to saddle a kid with. How do you respond to that?

Schoulten:  I think when students and families are used to one perspective about our nation’s history, when there’s a pivot and suddenly other perspectives are being included - perspectives that may show that there were horrible actions by white people in power to maintain that system of dominance - when there is that shift, it can be disorienting. And yes, as a teacher, I need to be empathetic to that.

But I also need to remember that there are other students we have who have never heard their family’s history and have been marginalized in our educational system every single day. So the discomfort that a white student may feel is a discomfort that a black or brown student might have felt from the minute they entered kindergarten until the day they graduate - every single day. So I just make sure I understand that’s going on. But that’s not going to slow us down from talking about what we need to talk about.

Norcross:  Susannah back to high school for you.  Can you give us a sense of some of the exercises that you give your students? I understand that a lot of what you teach is not the traditional lecture and reading and testing kind of scheme. What do you do?

Kassouf:  One unit we did this year was on the Marvel movie, Black Panther.  Through it, we explored colonization, United States imperialism in Africa, and of course the Black Panther Party, as well as the war on drugs.  So for the Black Panther Party, we start actually got some of these ideas from inEducation project, which is a great website. We start by looking at the 10 point platform of the Black Panther Party without saying what it is. It’s our mystery document.

We start to explore what is it they actually wanted. Then students take on a role of somebody who was in the Black Panther Party, allied with the Black Panther Party or was an enemy of it, like Jennifer Hooper. They meet each other in a mixer so they can learn about it through each other. Then they do a little bit of reading, a little more watching and then actually I had the founder of Portland’s Black Panther Party into class to do a Q and A with students.

Norcross:  How’d that go over?

Kassouf:  It was amazing. I mean he’s just so wonderful and the kids have such good questions. I’m always so impressed by them. So it was wonderful.

Norcross:  So how did you decide that you would focus on Black Panther, the movie and Black Panther the Party. Obviously the names are the same, but how [do] you dig through the wealth of material that you could present to your kids and decide on one or two things?

Kassouf:  I think as a teacher, you’re changing it all the time every year and I was one of the many teachers in our country who was inspired by the months of monumental historic protests that we had last year.  I specifically wanted to bring the black experience into my classroom this year. Also this was online, this was COVID year. So engagement was really the name of the game. I thought Black Panther, the movie, might be a good segue for students. We also learn different concepts like a unit on gender studies and women’s rights and things like this.

Norcross:  David, how did the social justice and Black Lives Matter protests over the past year energize your work?

Schoulten:  Similar to Susanna I was teaching many of these concepts before the summer protests. But going into the protests, I just realized that more and more, I felt like it was important to center that experience. Because Black History month in February is a positive thing. But that still leaves 11 months where the white perspective is often being centered. So I really thought about how I can make this entire year about centering the perspective of Black americans and Indigenous cultures. It really just brought it more into focus for me and inspired me to take that next step in my practice.

Norcross:  I’m sure that a lot of kids are taking what you tell them in class and what you teach them in class and taking [it] home and talking to their parents about what they’re learning. When parents come to you with their concerns, what do you tell them? Where do you come from as an educator and an instructor when you’re trying to understand where the objections come from?

Schoulten:  As a human being who is a work in progress, I have some better days than others. I’m trying to model that sense of empathy that I want to develop with my kids in the classroom -  trying to use that in my life.   It’s not like I’m in my classroom trying to teach empathy to my kids and then step outside and [am] not willing to hear a parent.   I really want to hear where they’re coming from. I want to understand what their objections are and try to respond as empathetically as I can. So it really depends on what the objection is while really trying to hear them and move forward with them and let them know that it’s a safe place.  So a lot of what we’ve been talking about is content.

But there’s also the process that we use in the classroom for how we talk about these kinds of issues. So I really put a lot of emphasis on the process.  We go over protocols about how we talk.  We do what’s called a progressive stack where students can raise their hand. I write their name on the board and if we haven’t heard from a student in a while and they raise their hand, they go right up to the front. [Other protocols include] how to listen empathetically, how to hear when there’s harm that’s been done and how we can repair it. By trying to create that safe space, that gives me a chance to talk to parents about not agreeing with everything that I’m teaching.  But it is a safe place for your student to have these conversations and to object if they feel like it’s necessary?

Norcross:  Do students object even though they’re only in fifth grade,

Schoulten:  I haven’t heard that many students object to issues of race.  But I’ve heard a lot of my female students objecting to some of the concepts that we put forward based on gender - really challenging classmates and even challenging the teacher saying that perspective is really a male perspective.  So it’s interesting how once kids start to learn to see that one perspective is not the only perspective, they’re able to translate that into other areas of their life, and it can be a real tool for them.

Norcross:  In high school, Susanna, you have kids on the precipice of becoming adults thinking about college and about adulthood and what comes next. [Do] you think these lessons on racism and gender discrimination are going to help set them up for adulthood?

Kassouf:  I always tell my students that I think the most important thing in life is relationships. You have positive, healthy relationships when you can really see another person and know  another person.  I think that’s what these kinds of lessons do for my students. While there is all this oppression, I don’t think any group, even the dominant group, benefits from a culture of oppression and a paradigm of domination.   Even if you are in the dominant group, which some of my students will grow up to be, it hurts your soul to live in a world where other people are being oppressed.

So when we can all come together - normal people like you and me -  just coming together and saying, ‘we’re gonna change, things we’re not going to accept the way things are’. Empowering students and giving them the tools to help them show up in the world in more authentic ways is what I try to do as a teacher.

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