The tragedy came at the end of an anxious, tumultuous week in the United States. Beginning Monday, October 22, pipe bombs were sent to over a dozen prominent Democratic figures, including former President Barack Obama, and to the CNN newsroom in New York City. The suspect, a right-wing extremist, is now in custody. On Wednesday in Louisville, Kentucky, two elderly African Americans were killed at a grocery store by a white shooter who had first attempted to enter a black church. This week felt extraordinary, yet Americans have been living through a time of increasingly visible, public bigotry and violence, including the 2015 killing of nine worshippers at Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church by a white supremacist; the 2017 bombing of a mosque in Bloomington, Minnesota; and the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, that same year, when marchers chanted neo-Nazi slogans and a counter-protester was murdered. The rise in hate, in these incidents and others, has been well-documented.
Americans must consider what these troubling events suggest about the current state of the country and the future of this diverse democracy. Such incidents are also on the rise around the world, including growing antisemitism in Europe, making hate an issue of global concern. Educators have an additional role to play. Even as we mourn, we also have to help our students process the week’s events within a safe and supportive learning community. Students need to share their reactions and hear those of their classmates, and with our guidance explore difficult questions about the past, present, and future. If we don’t make time to talk about these events, we risk normalizing them.
These conversations might begin on Monday morning, but they should continue long after, not just as a time-out from regular curriculum, but as a commitment to fighting hate and nurturing democracy that informs everything we teach. As Fernando Reimers, international education leader and Facing History board member, reminds us, “Addressing the most visible attacks, once they happen, requires the specialized knowledge and organization of law enforcement. Preventing them requires the concerted effort of each and every one of us. . .Preventing such hatred at the roots. . .requires deeper and earlier action in communities and schools.”
In this teaching idea, we offer some suggestions for opening a conversation about the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting and other recent events with your students, as well as selected resources to examine antisemitism and religious bigotry and to explore the role we all can play in standing up to hate.
In addition to the suggestions here, you might connect last week’s incidents to your ongoing discussions with students around the fractious and intense mid-term election campaign. It is worth considering the relationship between the two. To what extent does political rhetoric, whether by our leaders or in the debates we have individually with others, fuel hatred? What responsibility do leaders and citizens have to appeal to each other’s “better angels” rather than stoking our basest inclinations through stereotypes and resentment?