Assignments that prompt students to empathize with those who committed atrocities need to go

An assignment on the Trail of Tears has prompted debate about taking historical perspectives.

Helping young people understand the causes and effects of historical events is a formidable task for any educator. History isn't just "what happened and when." There's also a "why," "how" and "who" in every historical happening, and quality history education helps students explore those questions.

Sometimes, however, that exploration can go off the rails.

Most people would agree that understanding different perspectives is an important part of learning history, but there are more and less problematic ways of helping students gain that understanding. We've seen some of the more problematic methods pop up in school assignments before, from asking students to pick cotton like slaves to listing the pros and cons of slavery.

Now an assignment from a school in Georgia is making the rounds, with people calling out issues with the perspective it asked students to take.


Jennifer C. Martin shared a photo of a computer screen from her friend's kid's school with an assignment about the Trail of Tears, telling students to write letters from the points of view listed in the questions and to use facts to support their point of view. (The Trail of Tears sometimes refers to the forced removal of several Native nations from their ancestral homelands in the Southeast in the 1830s, but also refers more specifically to the forced relocation of the Cherokee nation to Oklahoma in 1838. Thousands died of disease, exposure and starvation during the removals.)

The writing prompt on the screen reads:

"Write a letter to President Jackson from the perspective of an American settler. Explain why you think removing the Cherokee will help the United States grow and prosper."

Having written about problematic history lessons before, I know there will be people saying, "But this is just asking students to understand different perspectives! We have to be able to understand perspectives we don't agree with."

That may sound reasonable—or even desirable—but there are some problems with that line of thinking when it comes to teaching kids.

One, there's a difference between understanding someone's perspective and taking on their perspective, even as an exercise. The latter can be useful; putting yourself into someone else's shoes through "Imagine if" exercises is a good way to build empathy, helping us understand the impact of an event on a person or people. But is it desirable to build empathy with people who committed or perpetuated atrocities? I would argue it's not.

Second, the Trail of Tears is an objectively oppressive historical event. Asking students to explain the benefits of it from the perspective of the oppressors is gross. We don't need to "both sides" an oppressive event, as if there is some legitimate justification for why it happened and what the impact was. There is an explanation, of course, but when we take on a perspective and make arguments in favor of it as a personal exercise, we risk legitimizing and justifying it. This is totally unnecessary and potentially harmful.

Third, what if you were a student whose ancestors were the ones who suffered and/or died during the Trail of Tears? How would this assignment assist in your understanding of that event? It's not like you wouldn't already know that the settlers cared more about the growth and prosperity of the United States than about your people's lives, so what would be the point of this assignment for you?

If we want students to think critically about these events and look at the different perspectives that led to the tragedy of the Trail of Tears, we can ask questions that get them to think critically without making them argue the benefits from a colonizing perspective, such as:

"Why did some American settlers support the removal of the Cherokee people? What do you think about their reasoning?"

"What were the motivations behind forcing the Cherokee people off their land? How did American settlers benefit from the tragedy?"

"Were the settlers' arguments for relocating the Cherokee aligned with the American ideals of liberty and justice? Explain."

None of those writing prompts require a student to put themselves into the mindset of people who committed or supported violent injustice, but they still accomplish the goal of understanding different perspectives and getting students to think.

We need to acknowledge that history is not neutral and history lessons are not benign. There are ways to teach history that are objectively inappropriate, no matter what the intention behind them. Asking students to take the perspective of a Nazi during the Holocaust would be inappropriate. Asking students to take the perspective of a racist white person in the South during the civil rights movement would be inappropriate. It's not appropriate to ask students to think like a colonizer during the Trail of Tears. Understanding that perspectives differ does not require taking on an oppressive perspective, even as an academic exercise, and we do students a disservice by asking them to do so.


Leah Menzies/TikTok

Leah Menzies had no idea her deceased mother was her boyfriend's kindergarten teacher.

When you start dating the love of your life, you want to share it with the people closest to you. Sadly, 18-year-old Leah Menzies couldn't do that. Her mother died when she was 7, so she would never have the chance to meet the young woman's boyfriend, Thomas McLeodd. But by a twist of fate, it turns out Thomas had already met Leah's mom when he was just 3 years old. Leah's mom was Thomas' kindergarten teacher.

The couple, who have been dating for seven months, made this realization during a visit to McCleodd's house. When Menzies went to meet his family for the first time, his mom (in true mom fashion) insisted on showing her a picture of him making a goofy face. When they brought out the picture, McLeodd recognized the face of his teacher as that of his girlfriend's mother.

Menzies posted about the realization moment on TikTok. "Me thinking my mum (who died when I was 7) will never meet my future boyfriend," she wrote on the video. The video shows her and McLeodd together, then flashes to the kindergarten class picture.

“He opens this album and then suddenly, he’s like, ‘Oh my God. Oh my God — over and over again,” Menzies told TODAY. “I couldn’t figure out why he was being so dramatic.”

Obviously, Menzies is taking great comfort in knowing that even though her mother is no longer here, they can still maintain a connection. I know how important it was for me to have my mom accept my partner, and there would definitely be something missing if she wasn't here to share in my joy. It's also really incredible to know that Menzies' mother had a hand in making McLeodd the person he is today, even if it was only a small part.

@speccylee

Found out through this photo in his photo album. A moment straight out of a movie 🥲

♬ iris - 🫶

“It’s incredible that that she knew him," Menzies said. "What gets me is that she was standing with my future boyfriend and she had no idea.”

Since he was only 3, McLeodd has no actual memory of Menzies' mother. But his own mother remembers her as “kind and really gentle.”

The TikTok has understandably gone viral and the comments are so sweet and positive.

"No the chills I got omggg."

"This is the cutest thing I have watched."

"It’s as if she remembered some significance about him and sent him to you. Love fate 😍✨"

In the caption of the video, she said that discovering the connection between her boyfriend and her mom was "straight out of a movie." And if you're into romantic comedies, you're definitely nodding along right now.

Menzies and McLeodd made a follow-up TikTok to address everyone's positive response to their initial video and it's just as sweet. The young couple sits together and addresses some of the questions they noticed pop up. People were confused that they kept saying McLeodd was in kindergarten but only 3 years old when he was in Menzies' mother's class. The couple is Australian and Menzies explained that it's the equivalent of American preschool.

They also clarified that although they went to high school together and kind of knew of the other's existence, they didn't really get to know each other until they started dating seven months ago. So no, they truly had no idea that her mother was his teacher. Menzies revealed that she "didn't actually know that my mum taught at kindergarten."

"I just knew she was a teacher," she explained.

She made him act out his reaction to seeing the photo, saying he was "speechless," and when she looked at the photo she started crying. McLeodd recognized her mother because of the pictures Menzies keeps in her room. Cue the "awws," because this is so cute, I'm kvelling.

A simple solution for all ages, really.

School should feel like a safe space. But after the tragic news of yet another mass shooting, many children are scared to death. As a parent or a teacher, it can be an arduous task helping young minds to unpack such unthinkable monstrosities. Especially when, in all honesty, the adults are also terrified.

Katelyn Campbell, a clinical psychologist in South Carolina, worked with elementary school children in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook shooting. She recently shared a simple idea that helped then, in hopes that it might help now.

The psychologist tweeted, “We had our kids draw pictures of scenery that made them feel calm—we then hung them up around the school—to make the ‘other kids who were scared’ have something calm to look at.”



“Kids, like adults, want to feel helpful when they feel helpless,” she continued, saying that drawing gave them something useful to do.

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Alberto Cartuccia Cingolani wows audiences with his amazing musical talents.

Mozart was known for his musical talent at a young age, playing the harpsichord at age 4 and writing original compositions at age 5. So perhaps it's fitting that a video of 5-year-old piano prodigy Alberto Cartuccia Cingolani playing Mozart has gone viral as people marvel at his musical abilities.

Alberto's legs can't even reach the pedals, but that doesn't stop his little hands from flying expertly over the keys as incredible music pours out of the piano at the 10th International Musical Competition "Città di Penne" in Italy. Even if you've seen young musicians play impressively, it's hard not to have your jaw drop at this one. Sometimes a kid comes along who just clearly has a gift.

Of course, that gift has been helped along by two professional musician parents. But no amount of teaching can create an ability like this.

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