Dawn Sarli, Poultney Middle School ELA Teacher, wanted to start the year off in a way that would help her students think about diversity and inclusion and how it impacts us all today. “I wanted to help students understand the impact of race, racism, and privilege and how all of this plays into the larger context of society,” says Dawn. So she designed a unit that ultimately helped her students win First and Third place at the Vermont Bar Association’s Martin Luther King Jr. Poster-Essay Contest.
Poultney High/Middle School is a rural school in Vermont with an overwhelmingly white student and faculty population as are most areas in Vermont. Conversations around race are not typical among white populations in Vermont outside black history month once a year, but it is ever more evident that those conversations need to happen. I grew up in Vermont and moved back 7 years ago, and in that time since I’ve been back I cannot count how many times I’ve heard people say, “We’re not racist in Vermont.” The problem is, they don’t know what racism is because we don’t talk about it. When you have black political figures harassed so relentlessly that they not only abandon running for re-election they resign mid term, you can’t say Vermont isn’t racist. When we have white local city council members post racist memes on social media and still continue to serve on the board, you can’t say Vermont isn’t racist. Because of incidents like these, we need to force the conversation in an effort to stop perpetuating white supremacy in our state, and since these conversations are rare at home, we need to make it a priority in our schools. This is the reason Vermont passed H.3 dubbed the Ethnic Studies Bill last year.
H.3 aims to make curriculum more inclusive in the Green Mountain State by recognizing the history, contributions, and perspectives of ethnic and social groups. “We know all students who see and hear from a range of different perspectives and cultures at an early age, are more likely to show tolerance and respect, and less likely to bully others and be swayed by messages of hate,” said Governor Phil Scott as he signed the bill on March 29, 2019. Tabitha Moore, the NAACP Vermont Director and President of the Rutland Chapter, said that they receive more complaints of racism in the area of education than any other area in Rutland County. Dawn also understood this is an area of immediate concern, and so she embarked on this new unit at the start of the school year.
Dawn knew that she first needed to get all students on the same page and establish a common understanding about the basic definitions around this difficult issue, so she started the unit off with the book Why Are All The Black Students Sitting Together in the Cafeteria by Beverly Daniel Tatum. Tatum uses an understanding, accessible, and non-judgemental tone to explain racism, Dawn remarks.
She also knew this unit would cause students to confront big emotions, but that it was important to confront these emotions to reach a place of new learning. “Students were all over the board with their reaction. Some were defensive, which is a normal reaction and at least they are reacting. Others felt guilt and shame, and many came to a place of revelation and contemplation,” says Dawn as she thoughtfully selected her words. In order to reach these places, to provoke these emotions, and to have these conversations, she needed to build a high level of trust with her students; it was essential in order for this unit to be effective.
She worked hard to create a classroom where students felt vulnerable yet safe discussing the topic. Because of this, she was able to provide a space where students felt comfortable to ask tough and personal questions. At one point, one student pushed back at her, Dawn reflects. She asked Dawn how she felt about a teacher pushing their own agenda at school. “I said, I don’t mind that my students know that I think racism is bad,” Dawn remarks. And that seemed to click with the student that this wasn’t about politics and pushing agendas.
Dawn chose the book Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D. Taylor as the anchoring text for the unit. She chose this particular book because the protagonist is a child in a true coming of age story that resonates with students to help them feel compassion and reverence. They spent a lot of time connecting what was going on in the book with contemporary issues of race and how this manifests today. As they were reading the book, Dawn heard about the Vermont Bar Association’s Martin Luther King Jr. Poster-Essay Contest through a colleague, Linda Paquette, and she knew this would be another great exercise for her students that tied directly into the work they have been doing. Plus, she knew they could win.
“True peace is not merely the absence of tension; its the presence of justice.” – Martin Luther King Jr.
The contest called for Middle school students to create a poster and write a short essay interpreting what Dr. King’s “True peace is not merely the absence of tension; it’s the presence of justice” quote means to them. “It fit in perfectly with the chapter we were reading in the book at that time,” says Dawn referring to the quote by MLK Jr. And so they began to look through the information on the VBA website on the Bus Boycotts and the Civil Rights Movement. All students submitted essays and four came out as winners.
Nicolas Milazzo and Zachary Davis, 8th graders from Poultney High School, were presented with the first-place plaque and trophy for their school and Kaitlyn DeBonis and Courtney Ezzo, also 8th graders, received second runner-up plaques. First runner-up was Elizabeth Cunningham, a 7th grader from Edmunds Middle School in Burlington. The students, Dawn, and their families were invited to Montpelier for a special ceremony that included a tour of the statehouse and an invite to the Vermont Supreme Court to meet VT Supreme Court Justices Paul Reiber, Harold Eaton, Karen Carroll, and William Cohen.
The students’ posters and essays were on display at the Supreme Court building throughout the month of January. They were also featured in the Vermont Bar Journal.