To Kneel or Not to Kneel, That is the Question

Composite image - Kneeling football player with American flag background

My Digital Toolbox for this class is focused on Second Grade and specifically the American Symbols.  

VDOE SOL Civics Unit: 

2.13 The student will understand the symbols and traditional practices that honor and foster patriotism in the United States of America by

  1. a) explaining the meaning behind symbols such as the American flag, bald eagle, Washington Monument, and Statue of Liberty; and
  2. b) learning the words and meaning of the Pledge of Allegiance

Prior to last week’s homework assignment, I had not fully considered how controversial certain symbols like the Statue of Liberty could be.  As a child, I was taught to respect the various symbols of the United States including the Statue of Liberty, Pledge of Allegiance, American Flag and the National Anthem.  In 2016, I was shocked to see sports figure, Colin Kaepernick,  kneel in protest at the beginning of a football game as the National Anthem played. To me, the Anthem was always a beautiful symbol of hope, courage, freedom, liberty, and community. I never stopped to consider that may not be the case for all. 

How should we as educators address this potentially controversial issue in the classroom? Are we able to separate our personal feelings and opinions and simply teach the content standards, or should we attempt to inform, enlighten and educate our young learners that not everyone is treated the same in our country and why that might be?  Should we go the next step and try to explain the controversy? 

I found the following brief article relevant and informative. The article provides context and discusses both the Pros and Cons of kneeling. I would love to hear your thoughts on the topic and how it pertains to social studies education for our children. 

Also, take a look at this longer article providing a bit more background.

8 thoughts on “To Kneel or Not to Kneel, That is the Question

  1. Great post, Erika! The Britannica Pro/Con article does a really good job of breaking down the different sides of the debate in terms that even very young students can understand. That being said, should we tackle this topic while teaching the National Anthem to second graders? Phew. I honestly don’t know. The controversy around Colin Kaepernick’s decision to kneel during the National Anthem is polarizing, to say the least. I can imagine having to field multiple emails from disgruntled parents. I think for me the question is not so much should we teach it (yes, I think the history of protest is important to introduce to students), but when and how we should have this conversation. Do we discuss the kneeling debate when the students are just learning the National Anthem in 2nd grade– or does this all happen later as part of a lesson on how to evaluate two sides of an argument? I don’t have the answer, but I think timing and context are probably pretty important here, especially since parents likely have their own very hot takes on the issue.

  2. Erika,

    I believe we should inform, enlighten, and educate our young learners that not everyone is treated the same in our country and why that might be. I think our decision to further explain the controversy will likely depend on children’s ages, maturity levels, and backgrounds. Additionally, we will have to consider our school administrations and the political climate.

    I absolutely understand why individuals kneel during the national anthem; as Britannica’s pros section mentions, in many ways, the United States is not living up to its ideals of freedom. This is a form of peaceful protest and did spark conversation. As for the listed potential cons, I do not think this is disrespectful; I think it is a legitimate form of protest of deep systemic injustices and a national crisis. I am not sure what form of peaceful protest would not “sow division.”

    However, not everyone shares my position, and I understand the potential pushback I’d get from parents regardless of political administration. As Vivian mentions, 2nd grade may not be the ideal age for these conversations.

    Of note, I do not plan on saying the Pledge of Allegiance during class and therefore will have to engage in some form of honest conversation with students. Our Social Studies class has brought to light many issues without clear cut answers, and I am grateful for the opportunity to engage in these conversations.

    Thank you for sharing!

  3. Hi Erika,

    I believe that these types of topics should be addressed as they do come to light in conversation. For second grade students, I feel that, while teaching the standards of 2.13a, b, I may not introduce the topic of “#TakeAKnee” into my teaching instruction to the students. However, if a student does bring the topic up in class, then I would appropriately address the topic – but again, only if it is brought up by a student in second grade. It should be noted that, that there is a possibility that a second grader or teacher may not participate in saying the Pledge of Allegiance (whether its for protest, religion, or another reason).

    I believe it’s important that we, as educators and role models, maintain respect and understanding as a student or any individual may kneel or not participate in saying the Pledge of Allegiance. I believe that the most important thing to address in the classroom, with consideration of grade level you’re teaching, would be to explicitly state why an individual is kneeling, so students can gain understanding through the perspective of the peaceful protestor. In other words, we can help our students’ understanding the question of “Why?” (a student/teacher/individual is kneeling or not saying the Pledge of Allegiance), so they can differentiate between truth and misinterpretations or misunderstandings.

    Here is a link to an article from that relates to Social Studies by the First Amendment on the topic of Rights & Activism. Although this is a Learning Plan for older students, I believe that it is insightful read. Further, it makes the connection of #TakeAKnee to the Civil Rights Movement. As the Civil Rights Movement is to be taught in the 4th grade, this could be an opportunity to (in an age-appropriate manner) talk about this peaceful protest.

    I really enjoyed your blog post topic, so thank you!

  4. Hi Erika,

    First, I would like to say I really enjoy the topic you’ve chosen to talk about and the clever title to go along with it! In Dr. Kuti’s diverse learners class, we talked about a similar topic and how we as educators would address our student’s choices in their displays of patriotism. As you said, there was a set of values you feel associated with the pledge and national anthem, yet others may see it as a mockery or joke because they feel oppressed. Like the Britannica pro list mentions choosing not to put your hand on your heart, not say the pledge, or kneeling during the anthem is a first amendment right. For this reason, if my student decides to make that choice, I will certainly respect that decision; it is not my choice to tell them to act a certain way. If it becomes apparent that they are doing it as a joke or getting a rise out of their classmates, that will be a private discussion. I think I would start the year off by reiterating to my students the choice to partake in the pledge is theirs. However, they must be respectful of their classmate’s decisions and respectful of the general practice of the pledge. Realistically, many classes fail to say the pledge daily because students rush to eat breakfast or have class announcements.

    If I were to teach second grade where the SOL required these symbols to be introduced, I would address the NFL practice that has resulted in taking a knee. I don’t think it is necessary to ignore the elephant in the room; students are well aware of Colin Kaepernick’s decision, and it is an American symbol in its own sense. There is a way that the topic can be discussed without delving too deep into Black Lives Matter and avoiding potentially crossing “boundaries” or upsetting parents/administration.

    Admittedly, this article is very liberal; however, it addresses how children are more aware than we sometimes give them credit for. I think it’s easier to be one step ahead and talk about taking a knee as opposed to being caught off guard and being unprepared to answer the question if it was brought up to you.

  5. Hi Erika,

    This is a great topic so I’m really glad that you posted about it. I personally would not bring this topic up unless a student asked why some players kneel during the national anthem. I do think that we as teachers should address that not everyone in our country is treated fairly or equally, but I would not discuss this topic in second grade unless it is brought up by a student. I think the first article is great for students who do wonder!


  6. Erika,
    Thank you for sharing! This is a complicated topic that we as social studies educators may encounter. I think first and foremost we have to align ourselves with the standards. The standards convey that we teach why we stand, honor the flag, our country, and those who lost their lives defending it. I think this topic is particularly touchy regarding veterans and children who may have lost a parent or have a parent overseas. On the other hand, we have children who live in fear as people of color in our country. I live in Southside in Richmond and am engaged to a black man. I often worry about him when he leaves and has to drive home through the projects near my house. The reality we face in America is that Caucasian people do not encounter the same fear. I think we are doing our students a disservice by addressing why the flag should be honored without addressing why some people kneel, like Capernick. I think there is, of course, an appropriate age to discuss this topic, however I think students have a right to know. That being said, I don’t think telling young children about this when they are unable to fully understand it is beneficial. I think upper elementary students are the ones who can handle deep discussion about this topic. As always, you have to know your students and be mindful about how you approach the subject. I think being open with students in an appropriate way is always the best way to go.
    Thank you for your post, Erika!

  7. Thank you for your blog post, Erika.

    As educators, we strive to inform and educate students on as much as possible. The students deserve to know the truth and various sides of history and to be able to form their own opinions and beliefs on what they think is right. I, personally, would not explain the significance of kneeling and how problematic symbols and statues of “freedom,” “liberty,” and “hope” are for a great portion of the US population. Unless a student from K-3 or K-4 addressed it directly and asked me about this kind of information, I would personally stay away from teaching that kind of information until at least 5th grade.

    I do, however, agree with Bethany to some degree. A factor that might play into a change in the above decision would be the political climate of the school administration and classrooms. If I feel that students in fourth grade or younger are more mature and are able to handle this kind of discussion well, I will give it second thoughts.

    When the kneeling of Colin Kaepernick happened, the world was in shock and many people believed it to be disrespectful. I never did and still do not view it as disrespectful. The football player acted appropriately with respect to his attitudes toward the National Anthem. I am not sure where I stand with regards to having students stand for and recite the pledge of allegiance. There is a chance I may not do it at all. But if I do decide to incorporate I will encourage higher elementary students, who are aware of the issues some may have with the flag and the pledge of allegiance, to make their own decision to stand for the pledge or to remain seated. I went to a public school for my first year of middle school and, every day in home room, two students led the pledge over the comms. This created an environment where students would all be encouraged to do the pledge. I still have yet to think about this topic more, and thank you for bringing it up!

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