Talking About Race: Local social studies teacher pushes students to have tough conversations

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — “For me one of the first rules in my class is respect. Everybody has something of value to bring to the table. I make sure that my students are well aware of the diverse atmosphere that we exist in, whether it’s within the classroom, the school, or the community as a whole.”

Those ground rules set the tone in JoCelyn Roundtree’s classroom to have deep, sometimes sensitive and important conversations.

The Olympic High School social studies teacher teaches world history among other subjects, like African American studies.

“Many of the topics that we talk about, especially when they are geared around race and understanding the impact that race has on every aspect of life, from within African-American studies talking about redlining, or even when we get to the African Diaspora and slavery, it gets very sensitive, especially when we have a diverse classroom,” Roundtree said.

She covers a lot in her courses around race and culture, from religion, immigration, the Holocaust, early colonialism and exploration, to the history of plantations in our own backyards, and recent events, like the Black Lives Matter movement.

They’re not all easy topics, and the reality is, they can be uncomfortable.

“I don’t ever want to make my students who ... are non-black and brown feel like they are to blame for anything. And I don’t want to make my black and brown students feel like victims -- like all your life, this is what you’re going to come to succumb to. So it’s one of those things where you have to kind of walk this delicate, fine line between ... this is what happened, and we can’t change it, but then understanding what it is that we need to do to make sure that we don’t repeat this.” Roundtree said. “And you can’t avoid history. It happened, just understand why it happened.”

>> Watch our Talking About Race and Schools special on Roku, Amazon Fire and Apple TV.

Reporter Elsa Gillis asked her how her students, most of them freshmen, respond to these conversations.

“They’re excited. They never really get an opportunity to voice their opinions. Many of my students when they come into class and we start talking about different, all kinds of different, sensitive topics, they actually thank me, they stay behind a lot of times and tell me ‘hey, I experienced this,’” she said, “There’s a comfort within the classroom when you kind of just let them freely speak and kind of learn from one another, because that’s how we learn in social studies, when we discuss things.”

She says she pushes her students to think critically and see all perspectives.

Roundtree feels the state’s updated social studies standards enable her to do this even further.

The standards provide a framework for what’s covered in class -- including racism and perspectives of marginalized groups.

“The 2021-2022 Social Studies Standards actually allow us to go deeper, and it allows us to actually make sure that we are including all the different diverse racial groups that we teach. So that everybody feels as though they have a voice in history, and they are acknowledged that you have a part in this story.”

(Watch Below: Roundtree talks more on the new social studies’ standards)

And with so much focus now on what is taught in the classroom, Gillis asked her about the importance of talking about race.

“You’ll find that when we talk about race, when our students talk about race, when race is a consideration within the lesson plans, within the lessons that are taught within the classroom, it actually allows us to see more of our similarities than it does our differences. So if we are truly going to live in a global society and function within this global world, we can’t exclude any of the people that make that world up,” Roundtree told Channel 9. “Those conversations help us break through some of the biases, whether explicit or implicit. It helps us break down some of the misconceptions and prejudices and as an educator you need to understand the perspective of the students that you teach. If you do not come from the communities that many of the students come from, how can you effectively teach those students? You can’t.”

(Watch Below: Roundtree shares the importance of talking about race in the classroom)