Can Technology Help Teachers Start Tough Conversations about Race?

Diversity and Equity

Can Technology Help Teachers Start Tough Conversations about Race?

By Jenny Abamu     Jun 7, 2017

Can Technology Help Teachers Start Tough Conversations about Race?
National Museum of African American History and Culture resources given to educators, Photo Credit: Jenny Abamu

Technology certainly does not always make painful events from the past easier or more comfortable to discuss. In February 2014, a Belgium-based startup attempted to use a series of tweets to re-enact the trial of two white men accused of murdering 14-year-old, Emmett Till, a young black man, in Mississippi in 1955. The firestorm of negative reactions, which argued that this digital treatment belittled the severity and significance of the event, led to an apology for “naivety and errors in judgment” from CEO Thomas Ketchell.

Yet there are other ways to support constructive conversations about race, culture and history—and apply technologies that enhance physical spaces to help learners immerse themselves in past lived experiences. In Washington, D.C., the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) offers teachers professional development workshops coupled with digital resources to help them address race in America.

National Museum of African American History and Culture

“The space we are creating allows people to be brave and feel safe. We encourage people to get comfortable with being uncomfortable,” says Anna Hindley, the early childhood education initiative coordinator at the NMAAHC. “We are modeling with teachers what they have to do with their students.”

Hindley, together with Candra Flanagan, the student and teachers program coordinator at NMAAHC, have been leading educators through quarterly workshops to support them teaching “the American story through the African-American lens,” as Flanagan describes it.

Unlike traditional professional development sessions, the workshops operate more therapeutically as educators are sometimes challenged to reflect critically on their understanding of society when diving deep into America’s painful history of race. “We have had a little bit of pushback when we are speaking more directly about race and identity. We have to look at where people are on their identity journeys,” says Flanagan. “We ask them: ‘Is this discussion uncomfortable because we have provided a fact they didn’t know about, or because we provided a reinterpretation or different way of thinking about a particularly moment in history?’ We want to sit with that and think about why it is uncomfortable.” She says this type of reflection helps teachers parse out their thoughts, and identify how racial relations have impacted their understandings.

Hindley hopes that educating teachers can lead to more students being taught about race. She notes that children begin to observe racial differences as early as six months; at 2-years-old children are already ascribing behavior to race, and, if not taught otherwise, racial prejudices and stereotypical thinking are in place as early as 7-years-old. “There are studies that show that if children are not made aware of history then they will not understand why there is inequity today, and they will not see when another child is being discriminated against based on their race,” says Hindley, citing research from Melanie Killen, a professor from the University of Maryland, whose work focuses on child development and racial understandings.

“This is why I am very passionate and believe very much in museums as a great place for young children,” Hindley continues. “The collections and the way museums are organized show the complexity of the world, and it is a great concrete way for children to understands and see how different the world is.”

Crowds of student groups filled the NMAAHC during my visit. According to Flanagan over 30,000 school groups have come through the museum since its opening back in September of 2016. It’s hard to imagine what is going in their minds as they interact with the hi-tech exhibits that seem to tickle every sense as visitors pass through them.

National Museum of African American History and Culture

Upon entering the dark Portuguese slave ship, the chilly inscription on the wall sets a somber stage: “We had about 12 negroes did willfully drown themselves, and others starv’d themselves to death; for ‘tis their belief that when they die they return home to their country and friends.” Voices echoing from the ceiling tell the stories of those slaves, while video clips map out their journey.

“We have a lot of media in our exhibitions,” says Kathleen Kendrick, the exhibition’s curator at NMAAHC. ”You see a lot of audio, video and interactive touch screen experiences, where you can access more stories about the content that you have seen.”

National Museum of African American History and Culture

Many of the touchscreen experiences immerse students into the era, lives and opinions of Black Americans. For example, if students engage with the lunch counter tabletops, recreated to represent the sit-in protest against Jim Crow segregation laws, they are asked to pick a movement (such as the bus boycotts or the black power demonstrations), given a life scenario, and asked to make decisions (which can range from lobbying the police for support, or forcefully responding to acts of violence with appropriate retaliation). Based on their decision, they are told which group their views align with and what percentage of people who took the quiz agree with them.

National Museum of African American History and Culture

In another touchscreen experience, students gain an understanding of what it was like to travel on the road as a Black American in the 1940s from Chicago to Alabama where restaurants, lodging and safety were active concerns. The exhibit is set up like a car, and students touch the dashboard that includes directives from the famous “Green Book,” a travel guide with safe motels and for African Americans published in the 1930s through 1960s, to make decisions about their journey.

National Museum of African American History and Culture

The museum also includes reflection booths, where visitors have two minutes to leave video feedback about certain exhibits and experiences in the museum. “While I love this country, I do know we have a lot of history and healing to get through,” says a woman in one of the feedback messages. So far the museum has collected over 20,000 messages that they hope to put online soon.

Kendrick has worked for the Smithsonian for over 20 years and in NMAAHC for over five. She designed many of the hi-tech exhibits like the Green Book car, and she says the technology that visitors now carry through their doors has changed the museum experience. “Most people have a device, and I am thinking about how we can use that in a way that doesn’t take people away from the physical content,” asks Kendrick.

She is thinking about including text-message interactions, similar to an experience currently available at the Holocaust museum. “You text a number, and then you get a prompt like, ‘Hi, I am a Holocaust survivor, and I am going to walk you through this exhibit. When you get to X point send me a text, and we will talk about what you are seeing,’” explains Kendrick. She is describing an automated text-system that explains and interacts with visitors through messaging.

In addition to all of the technology available inside the museums, Flanagan and Hindley are hoping to expand online digital collections for educators to use in their classrooms. “We are creating more lesson plans that can go into the Learning Lab, more video clips, online seminars and workshops for teachers,” says Flanagan. But she notes that sometimes only viewing things online is not enough as unpacking racial baggage can be a complex undertaking.

National Museum of African American History and Culture

Two days before I arrived at the museum a noose was found in front of an exhibit in the NMAAHC called, "The Second Rise of the Ku Klux Klan," and the day after I left another “section of a rope” was found near the Martin Luther King Memorial in Washington, D.C. Both incidents are still under investigation and the message, though unclear, has both troubled and motivated employees at the museum to continue their work. “This conversation isn’t new,” says Hindley, “I want visitors to leave empowered. We have a whole museum that shows what can happen when people come together and make a difference.”

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