By Eric Johnson
CHAPEL HILL (July 13, 2022) – “Hard history is not hopeless history,” said Christie Norris, borrowing a quote from historian Hasan Kwame Jeffries as she spoke to a group of teachers in Chapel Hill last month. “You can teach challenging things in a way that inspires your students.”
It’s a message educators are eager to hear as battles over curriculum and library books and attitudes about American history have put a spotlight on classrooms across the country. Norris, the longtime director of the Carolina K12 program at UNC Chapel Hill, has made a specialty of helping teachers navigate contentious topics in thoughtful, welcoming ways.
“When we tell the story of this crazy time, teachers will be at the front and center,” Norris told the educators who attended the annual William Friday Teachers Retreat. “You bring joy, love, and knowledge in the midst of chaos.”
Supported by the North Caroliniana Society and Carolina Public Humanities, the Carolina K12 program invites teachers from across the state to meet with authors, professors, historians and researchers to brainstorm new approaches to our state’s fascinating and often overlooked history.
“We try to honor teachers as the scholars and professionals they are,” Norris said. “They’re asked to cover some really difficult topics at a time when there’s a lot of intense scrutiny, and we want to make sure they have the support to do that well.”
Over three days, teachers from every region of the state heard from musicians and performers on how to use art in the classroom; listened as author and cultural historian Larae Umfleet offered ideas for teaching the 1898 Wilmington coup with sensitivity and nuance; and talked with author and UNC Asheville professor Wiley Cash about how students should take a deeper look at their own communities.
“This place you’re from is worthy of literature,” said Cash, whose bestselling novels are rooted in North Carolina. “This place you’re from is worth writing about.”
Cash’s latest book is a fictional retelling of the 1929 Loray Mill Strike in Gastonia, an event that drew global headlines at the time but largely faded from North Carolina’s history.
“One of the most significant labor movements in American history happened in my hometown, and I didn’t learn about in school, and I didn’t learn about it in either of the North Carolina universities I attended,” Cash explained. “Sometimes the stories in our own backyard are the easiest ones to overlook.”
Educator and juvenile justice advocate Michael Williams ran through a litany of brilliant, rarely taught figures in North Carolina history: People like James Frances Shober, the first Black physician with a medical degree to practice in the state, and William Benjamin Gould, a man born into slavery in Granville County who went on to write one of the most valuable diaries of the Civil War during his service in the U.S. Navy.
“The purpose of a well-rounded education is not to make anyone feel bad,” Williams said. “It’s about making sure students get what they need, that they can see themselves in the history of their state.”
It’s also about helping students cope with the challenges of the present, where they’re going to encounter difficult topics no matter how much we try to shield them. On the first night of the retreat, I sat next to a high school teacher from Robeson County who told me she was planning a classroom debate about abortion. I asked if she was nervous to take on such a fraught, politically charged topic.
“It’s my students who want to talk about it,” she said. “They hear it on the news, they hear their families argue about it, and many of them have strong feelings about it. They want to understand it better.”
Of course they do. The idea that we’re going to keep uncomfortable subjects out of the classroom ignores the reality that our students live in the world, where uncomfortable topics come up all the time. There’s no curriculum in North Carolina aiming to introduce students to a particular view of abortion; it certainly wasn’t a topic at the UNC retreat.
But those Robeson County kids see billboards from advocacy groups, witness protests in their communities, catch bits of news and online outrage from politicians. Of course they’re going to ask their teachers to help make sense of it all, and we should want educators to have the tools and the confidence to answer that call.
“You know and your students know when you’re telling the truth,” said Bill Ferris, a longtime historian at Carolina and a giant in the field of Southern culture. “You have to follow your heart, especially in moments of tension.”
Ferris told the group about growing up in the segregated South, asking pointed questions of his teachers and parents and getting few good answers. Schools have always been battlegrounds, he said, because young people are always questioning the world around them.
“You hold the keys to the future,” Ferris told the teachers. “It all starts in the classroom.”
Eric Johnson is a writer in Chapel Hill. He works for the UNC System and is a member of the Carolina Public Humanities advisory board.
Learn more about Carolina K12 and teaching hard history: https://humanities.unc.edu/ck12/teachinghardhistory/