Fifth grade is full of a lot of tough questions. I openly admit when I don’t have good answers, then we talk it out. This week, students asked, “But why would anyone be racist?”
It began as we read When Marian Sang to dissect Marian Anderson’s motivation for facing her fears when she sang in front of a potentially racist crowd of 75,000 people on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1939. In order to answer the question, students had to examine her background and address the racism she faced when she was growing up.
Normally we read a book of this length in a day, but students were so interested in talking about racism that this read aloud stretched into three days. Over and over again, students wanted to know where racism comes from, why anyone would choose to treat others so horribly. While we did not reach any conclusive answers, we decided it had to do with fear and groups of people living separately. Students brought up how our classroom is groups of people living together, how our president is both white and black. Their faces were shocked, upset, sometimes angry as we talked, but they were also alive with interest.
When I first started teaching, having this conversation would have made me nervous, worried I was somehow going to say the wrong thing. However, in my second year with the same kids, I am braver. I let them talk things out, respectfully, of course. I guide the conversation and offer good examples of our world getting a little better, one step at a time. It is amazing to watch them think through such challenging questions, amazing how deeply they care, amazing how even if our world still has a lot of racism, how much it has also changed over the last century.
Marian Anderson is a hero I never knew existed.