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Middle Level Teaching and Learning majors grapple with ‘Hateful Things’

February 24, 2021
Joseph Flynn
Joseph Flynn hoods a College of Education doctoral graduate during the 2019 commencement ceremony.

Joseph Flynn is, through and through, an educator.

And as the associate professor in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction viewed and absorbed the 39 pieces contained in the “Hateful Things” traveling exhibition from Ferris State University, he saw the great potential to shift its impact into classrooms.

“It’s a museum exhibit, and we think there is a lot to learn from the exhibit. If it doesn’t hit you in your soul, I think it definitely hits you in your conscience,” says Flynn, who helped to bring “Hateful Things” to NIU in his role as associate director of the Center for Black Studies. “I wanted to make sure there were opportunities for some kind of structured and accessible lesson plans, at the very least for middle-level students.”

Beyond that, Flynn realized that Middle Level Teaching and Learning majors at NIU could enhance their preparation and future effectiveness if they were the ones assigned to design those lesson plans.

Meanwhile, it would multiply his initial hope for “a couple lesson plans” to “15 or 20 or however many we can get.”

“I think it’s going to be a challenge, and I think that’s good,” Flynn says, “because it will require the teacher-prep students to really grapple with a lot of issues, and maybe reflect on some of their own understandings and some of their own values around issues of race and racism.”

Donna Werderich, coordinator of the Middle Level Teaching and Learning program, jumped on board when Flynn reached out to suggest the collaboration.

Donna Werderich
Donna Werderich

The bachelor’s degree includes a focus on the integration of curriculum and other related initiatives, says Werderich, who has turned Flynn’s idea into reality.

“It just really fits nicely in how we are trying to prepare future educators who are responsive teachers who can recognize the need to provide instruction that focuses on social justice, equity and inclusion,” she says. “It’s the heart and central foundation of our program, and it aligns to the overall mission of the Association for Middle Level Education.”

Open through April 9 at the NIU Pick Museum of Anthropology, “Hateful Things” forces visitors to confront more than a century of negative iconography that shaped the way that people perceived and interacted with Black people from the end of the Civil War into modern times.

Pieces from popular and commercial culture join images of violence against African Americans as well as the Civil Rights struggle for racial equality.

Considering these objects now lifts them from their original purposes to serve as reminders of America’s racist past. It also challenges present-day images of racial stereotyping with the aim of stimulating the scholarly examination of historical and contemporary expressions of racism, as well as promoting racial understanding and healing.

Middle Level students have been assigned to develop ready-to-use, culturally responsive classroom lessons and resources that offer breadth and depth, spanning essential social justice topics and reinforcing critical social emotional learning skills.

Their finished projects, due in March, also should identify relevant instructional resources and texts, include digital presentations on their topics and book talks on their suggested readings and demonstrate ways to scaffold the content to young learners.

Possible topics they can explore include social justice; racial segregation and inequity; discrimination; Black history; Jim Crow laws; human rights; teaching tolerance; bullying bias; stereotypes; and identity development.

Hateful Things crates
Hateful Things is open at NIU through April 9.

Questions to ponder: How are identities shaped by society? Why is it important for me to stand up for others and myself? What is the relationship between diversity and inequality? What does it mean to be unfair? In class? In school? At home? In my community? In the world?

“I’m really excited to see how this is going to turn out,” Werderich says. “Working collaboratively as a team is a signature component of middle level education, and we’re hoping this is going to provide a wealth of resources for educators in the field. Together, we can continue to make a difference and strive to develop justice-oriented, change-agents in our communities.”

Betsy Kahn, an associate professor for teacher-licensure in the NIU Department of English, teaches ENGL 479: Theory and Research in Literature for English Language Arts, the course required for English Language Arts majors in the Middle Level Teaching and Learning program.

“Hateful Things” has provided her students “the opportunity to apply what they are learning in the course to create engaging lessons to share with practicing middle school and high school English language arts teachers to use in their classrooms, she says.

“English 479 students are working collaboratively to design instructional activities that actively involve middle and high school students in analyzing the historical roots and harms of racial stereotyping and in identifying stereotypes in the images, advertisements, videos, television shows and literature that they encounter in the world around them,” Kahn says.

“Through this unique opportunity, our teacher candidates are able to experience the processes involved in creating instruction for teaching complex and difficult issues in “real” classrooms in diverse middle schools and high schools,” she adds, “and will be able to use what they learn in student teaching and in their own future classrooms.”

Paper masks, c. 1950s (C7-24). Image courtesy of the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Paraphernalia.
“Paper masks,” c. 1950s (C7-24).
Image courtesy of the Jim Crow Museum
of Racist Memorabilia at Ferris State.

Flynn and Werderich also brought “Hateful Things” to students in MLTL 303: Clinical Experience in Middle Level Curriculum and Instruction, who attended a virtual seminar delivered by Flynn.

His presentation “was very powerful and emotional,” Werderich says, “and we could sense that in our candidates. It’s of course timely, which is saddening. It’s saddening that we are still dealing with so many of the issues.”

Yet “it’s empowering as well,” she adds. “It’s reaffirming that our role as educators is to make a difference, and it reaffirms our calling. I’ve always said that the heart of middle-level education, and all of the development that adolescents go through, is that we do have the power to create changemakers.”

She also sees “the ripple effect” in motion.

“One of the reasons why I am in the teacher-educator role is that I hope that the instruction and programming that we provide has a ripple effect on our teachers, and when they go into their classrooms, there is a ripple effect on their students, and then it continues,” Werderich says. “It begins with building candidates’ knowledge.”

Vickie McGrane, university supervisor for MLTL 303: Clinical Experience in Middle Level Curriculum and Instruction students, agrees.

“Sometimes in our lives, we are given a task that helps us to become more introspective about ‘issues’ we may not have considered because they didn’t personally affect us,” McGrane says.

“My hope in having the teacher candidates create these social justice lesson plans affiliated with the ‘Hateful Things’ exhibition was to help students ‘walk in another’s shoes,’ monitor their own reactions to people who are different from themselves, chart their own prejudices and stereotypes and share this eye-opening experience with others – specifically middle schoolers.”

As Illinois adopts Culturally Responsive Teaching and Leading Standards to ensure that educators from all backgrounds can teach the state’s increasingly diverse students, and as the teacher workforce remains primarily white females, Flynn calls the timing perfect.

Joseph Flynn
Joseph Flynn

“I see it as an opportunity,” Flynn says. “With these practices and these ideas and these commitments to both cultural competence as well as culturally responsive teaching, we have to be able to model to candidates what this kind of work looks like.”

Watching his seminar, and conducting their own research to create lesson plans, will provide more than the “requisite subject matter knowledge” to earn good grades on the homework.

“It has the impact of causing, first and foremost, the candidates to be reflective about this history and phenomenon,” he says.

“Perhaps through having to sit and grapple with not only the images but also the history of these images can people understand what racism really looked like,” he adds.

“The majority of the images are what we would consider old – not of this generation – but, like all aspects of history, the past is prologue. I think recognizing the pervasiveness of Jim Crow memorabilia, and the ways in which African Americans were represented for over a century – pervasively – helps them to get a deeper understanding of what it was that people were actually dealing with on a daily basis.”

History lessons on racism in the United States tend to focus on laws and policies, Flynn says, mentioning the Dred Scott or Plessy v. Ferguson cases or the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

But that ignores, and fails to teach on, the “day-to-day living and the kinds of indignities that people had to face day in and day out.”

Flynn made sure that the future teachers looked at racist pieces in the “Hateful Things” collection that fall in the category of “household” items: Calendars. Salt shakers. Laundry bags. Bottle openers. Trash cans.

“It was anything that you could consume in your life. Children’s games. Books. Movies. Vaudeville. Shooting targets in the shape of a Black man with an Afro and exaggerated big lips. You had all of these different products, and they span the gamut of daily life,” Flynn says.

“What would have that been like to walk out of your house and walk by a toy store in which a grotesque image of a Black person is meant to be hit by a child?” he asks. “And what does that do to one’s psyche, and how do these inanimate objects have a contribution in shaping the ways in which entire groups are seen?”

He acknowledges that other communities were not spared such indignation, including Native Americans, Asian Americans, Latinos, Muslims and people of Middle Eastern descent.

“Everyone has been lampooned and dehumanized through these images and icons,” Flynn says, “but at the same time – and, I think, arguably – the sheer mass of these collections of images, and these negative stereotypes and representations, is overwhelmingly targeted toward African American communities.”

Flynn has high hopes for what this lesson will teach the Middle Level majors and the larger impact it will make in coming years.

K-12 students “need advocates – accomplices – who are understanding enough of the history and culture to recognize the sensitivities and sensibilities of exploring this material,” he says.

Social Justice Summer Camp 3.0 in 2019

“Since most of the teachers that we’re graduating are white, I think it’s important that we have teachers who can talk, and feel comfortable with talking, about these issues – because white folks need to be a part of this conversation,” Flynn says. “To have these conversations, you need to have them modeled, and I think it’s becoming more and more important that white folks model to each other how to have these kinds of conversations in critical, reflective and sensitive ways.”

Because the material “can be seen as so dehumanizing,” he adds, it prompts people of color living today to wonder: “Why did they do this to us? Why did they represent us like this?

Teachers can help to answer those questions.

“If you understand the history, and recognize where it came from, as well as recognize how those images have begun to change in the last 20 years, you can help students have that conversation and help white students have those conversations, so that white students can get a deeper sensibility or understanding about what we are actually talking about when we talk about racism,” Flynn says.

“This is what has happened – for whatever reason – so we need to deal with this phenomenon,” he adds. “And if we can’t have constructive conversations about it, let alone understand the history that’s behind it, then what exactly are we doing?”