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Educating for Democracy

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Donald Trump lost the presidency, but the social divide he amplified while in office remains, and scholars are trying to figure out how to bridge it. 

UVA’s  school of education will soon launch Educating for Democracy – a program designed to help teachers talk with students about race and other divisive issues of our time.

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UVA Professor Derrick Alridge helped design the Educating for Democracy program.

Since the Summer of Hate, when white supremacists marched on campus, professors at the Curry School of Education have been thinking about how to promote unity through classroom conversations.  

“We wanted to do something to respond to these events as educators," says Professor Derrick Alridge, an expert on African American history. "We came up with the idea of developing a curriculum that would challenge this history of great white men.”   

They started working on lesson plans that teachers could download from a website with materials suited to every age group according to Professor Johari Harris

“There wasn’t a large body of work really focused on the developmental science of how kids think about the issues that have emerged in history," she recalls.  "How does a kindergartener, versus a middle schooler, versus a high schooler think about issues of racism and issues of discrimination?” 

The program would guide discussions and tell stories of many people who fought for equality but were left out of history textbooks.

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Professor Johari Harris says Educating for Democracy offers resources tailored to the needs of students in grades K-12.

“You know we love Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks," Harris says, "but we realize that they are just one piece of this long-standing movement for racial equity like Chacha Jimenez. He was an organizer in Chicago during the 1960’s – a youth organizer-- and it’s interesting because when he was growing up he started out as a gang member, and he reformed himself and really started advocating for people who were living in poverty within his Chicago community.”

Alridge says that and other stories are part of the curriculum to be tested this fall. So far, he adds, teacher response has been good.

“They’re interested in hearing history from the bottom up – history of historically oppressed people.”

And there is teacher training material designed to make classroom teachers more comfortable when having important but uncomfortable conversations.  

Harris remembers  a teacher who said, "You know it’s really difficult to know even what’s the right term to use.  Like should I call a student black or African American?"

So they developed a glossary that explains historical terms and labels Americans have used to identify one another, and units designed for middle and high school kids all end with a call for civic engagement and social action. 

***Editor's Note: The University of Virginia is a financial supporter of Radio IQ.