Difficult Classroom Conversations Have Transformative Power

At the SLJ Summit in Minneapolis, Mississippi English teacher Gennella Graham shared a story that reminded attendees why it is so important to fight the attempts to silence classroom discussions on race and history.

As groups around the country attempt to ban books by and about LGBTQIA+ people and people of color, a parallel movement is trying to stop the discussion of race, civil rights, and the history of the United States.

Gennella Graham shares her story at SLJ Summit.
Photo credit: Sarah Morreim

At the SLJ Summit: Advocacy in Action in Minneapolis from Nov. 4-6, Mississippi high school English teacher Gennella Graham was part of the “Fighting Against Censorship” panel. Graham, who is a member of the NCTE Standing Committee Against Censorship, discussed the work of the NCTE to help educators fight book bans, as well as how school librarians and English teachers can work together toward access to inclusive and representative stories for their students. Then, Graham shared a story that illuminated the value of discussing issues of race and civil rights in the classroom.

In 2017, Graham attended a teaching institute run by Teaching for Change at Tougaloo College on the Black ­Freedom Struggle in Mississippi. While there, one of her assignments was to research the life of someone in her hometown who had impacted the civil rights movement, then write a poem in their voice. Graham couldn’t think of anyone from her hometown of Corinth, MS, where she has lived her whole life and now teaches. After doing some research, she discovered one person—William Roy Prather.

The one paragraph she found offered few details: the 15-year-old was murdered on Halloween night in 1959 by a group of white boys. With no other information, she called her aunt who was alive and living in Corinth at the time of the murder. While talking to her aunt, Graham learned that Prather was a distant cousin. With that and a few more details from her aunt, ­Graham wrote her poem. Unbeknownst to her, Teaching for Change published her poem on its website. Later in the year, the case was reopened and a reporter interviewed Graham about what she knew. But that wasn’t the end of the story for Graham, who saw an opportunity for her classroom.

“I’m that teacher,” she told attendees. “I took this story, and I shared it with my students. Of course, it’s about civil rights, it’s about murder, and I know that as a teacher, we are told, ‘Don’t talk about that; Don’t bring that into the classroom.’ But I brought it into the classroom.”

For a few years, she shared the story with her classes, teaching them about an incident in their own community, a piece of civil rights history in Corinth. But last year, the discussion took an ­unexpected turn.

“During the course of the conversation, I was telling them that I found out this person was my cousin, and I saw a hand go up,” she said. “It was one of my Caucasian students in class, and he said, ‘Miss Graham, the person that murdered your cousin was my great uncle.’ And I was like, ‘Oh, Lord, I’m probably going to lose my job this day.’”

Graham momentarily lost control of the conversation as the students’ emotions took over.

“I took a breath. I said, ‘Wait, wait, wait. Stop, let’s talk about this. First of all, this happened before his time, this was his great uncle [and] my cousin who died, I didn’t know him.’”

Graham told her students not to let the mistakes of someone’s ancestors impact the decisions and the words that they use today.

“I said, ‘Instead, let’s learn from what happened.’ That changed the dynamic of the classroom. We were able to calm down. We were able to have that discussion. And we just talked through it. And at the end of class, the other students in the classroom, they calmed down, they apologized.”

The white student whose relative was part of the mob approached her and apologized after class, but Graham reminded him what she had said earlier—it was not his fault.

The conversation wasn’t without backlash, but after her principal talked to her about it, he supported her decision.

“This is what I love about teaching, and this is what I love about having a voice that matters,” Graham told her fellow educators in the room. “I told him what I did and what took place and he told me, ‘Miss Graham, I trust you. So if you feel as though this is an issue that needs to be discussed, well then, if any parents have anything to say against that, I’m just going to tell them to get in touch with you. And you can explain the why.’”

The classroom conversation was an important learning experience.

“If I had never brought up that discussion out of fear that I would lose my job or something would take place, we wouldn’t have been able to have that rich discussion,” she said. “I feel as though if you can’t talk about these issues in the classroom, which should be a safe place for our students, they are going to talk about it in their homes. And if they talk about it in their homes—and I keep in mind, I’m from Mississippi, they talk about it in their homes—there’s no telling what type of stories they’re going to hear. They’ll get one side of it. In my classroom on that day, they heard both sides of the story. And we were able to talk about it and reason through it.”

Graham even created an assignment from it.

“I was able to take that situation, that conversation, and create a writing ­assignment for my children, so that they can learn not only about the Civil Rights Movement, Martin Luther King Jr., and Rosa Parks—these are names that they’re so familiar with hearing. I wanted them to learn about people in their community that have made a difference,” she said. “I wanted them to learn about ­individuals they had never heard of before, read their stories, and compose a story in that individual’s words.”

It was a history lesson, a writing lesson, and a lesson in having a discussion about important, emotional topics.

“I know it could have turned out differently for me, it could have turned out differently for my students. But that’s what happened and even though I know that we’re still discouraged from talking about race in the classroom, my plan is to talk about it again this year. I’ll let you know how that goes, but that’s my plan,” she said to extended applause from Summit attendees.

"I have chills," said fellow panelist Erika Long, a former school librarian who has been working with the Tennessee Association of School Librarians on fighting harmful legislation and creating more positive and inclusive laws. "This is exactly why [legislation] is important, the story that you just shared. It's important because when we create this harmful legislation, and we don't advocate or push against it, then students are not able to learn from the past, in order to make the difference that we want to see now and in the future."

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