BIPP: The #BLM lesson plan that polarized a Wisconsin city

Trey Gaither, BIPP Intern

After raising two small children, educator Melissa Statz migrated to the town of Burlington, Wis., taking up a teaching position in the social sciences at a local elementary school. As a teacher, Statz offered her students an opportunity to take a critical view of societal trends and gain insight into the collective behavior of social groups. She stands firmly on her adherence to a multicultural educational philosophy, which encourages students to analyze topics such as racism from a methodical, deductive framework. After the August police shooting of Jacob Blake by a white Wisconsin police officer, the streets of the Kenosha flooded with protestors, all while Statz sought to incorporate such developments into her lesson plan. Her students used a worksheet, children’s book and an explanatory video from “BrainPOP” in order to convey the pervasive nature of racism, and to bring about greater awareness of the Black Lives Matter movement. But when her students returned home and discussed these lessons with their parents, many of them were outraged. One parent took to Facebook, posting the entire lesson plan and adding to the outrage in the Wisconsin school district. Angry parents quickly called the school and mandated that Statz be removed from her teaching position. Interestingly enough, once word reached parents, the local school district observed a spike in racially-motivated hate crimes. Statz’s critical educational philosophy, based on a reexamination of race relations and racism in the United States — and the response to it by the town’s parents — highlights how misconceptions of racism and BLM can drive polarization to a tipping point. Statz pointed out that her main reason for giving such a charged lesson plan was to describe the process by which systemic racism persists in American life, and she paid the price for it.

Statz’s lesson plan may have sparked controversy within her local community, but it also moved the school district which employs her to finally address these concerns. The experience of Shelley Smith, a white mother with two Black sons, offers a different perspective that pushes back against the harsh critiques lobbed at Statz by disgruntled parents. After the lesson plan, Smith reported witnessing a transformation in her son, Jalen: he actually became excited about school. Throughout her time in the area, Smith noticed that the kids in her area did not necessarily enjoy school, often complaining of uninteresting lessons or difficult courses. Add to all this the fact that Jalen Smith is one of only 48 students of color in his Wisconsin school district — a district that houses nearly 3000 students, in a community that is 90% white. Unlike the other parents in her community, Shelley Smith had not pushed back against Statz, happy that her son gained a confidence booster after the lesson plan. As a white mother of two African American boys, Smith understands the harsh reality they must face and the role she must take to protect them. During the second and final 2020 presidential debate, former Vice President Joe Biden acknowledged the protective barriers many families of color, especially Black families, take to save and protect Black life — particularly the “Talk,” which many black families must impart on their children to avoid police violence. Shelley Smith talked with her two Black sons, not only to make them aware of the predatory nature of American society towards black men, but to also reassure them of their natural rights to life and liberty.

Smith was impressed that a teacher in her district saw her son for who he truly is. She is thankful for Statz’s lesson plan, and dismayed that it caused polarization in her community by those who actively oppose the BLM movement. Having to convey to her Black children that these crucial lessons were being removed from the curriculum broke her heart. Jalen could not seem to understand why the vicissitudes of systemic racism could not be taught in his class. Parents who condemned Statz’s teaching, by contrast, posited that she overstepped her boundaries as a teacher. Many conservative families in the community were outraged by the lesson plan, forcing them to engage in difficult conversations with their children. Statz actively pushed back in showing that her fourth-graders were ready to talk about racism. 

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