A place for educators to find thought-provoking news, conversation and support for those who care about diversity, equal opportunity and respect for differences in schools
It was a brisk New England day as I walked out of the community center with a group of Somali Muslim women from my adult English as a Second Language class. My students were laughing and joking, their hijabs blowing in the breeze. We had finished our unit on the New World, drawing connections between Europeans immigrating to America and Somalis immigrating to Lewiston and southern Maine. Suddenly, a local woman shouted, "Terrorists!"
"She's just trying to act white." I remember those piercing but confusing words cutting me like a knife. I clinched my Super Reader certificate. My puzzled expression was taken as bravado by the African-American girls, who responded with a threatening question, "Do you want us to fix your face?"
Junior high school students and members of their school's student civil rights team felt that no one was taking them seriously in their efforts to improve the school's climate. Recently they'd visited classrooms and offered presentations on Maine's civil rights laws and the harmful impact of bias-based derogatory language. They did not get a warm reception from their peers.
The year I taught art in the dysfunctional chaos of an overcrowded urban middle school with weak administrators, practically everyone in the school—both students and teachers—needed a "safe place."
A couple of months ago, a student pulled me aside to ask for help with a job application. As a teacher working with adult immigrants and refugees, I hear this request fairly often. After class, we discussed the job she wanted –housekeeping for one of the large hotel chains in the area. Paper applications were no longer accepted.
As I head back to the classroom, I think about the last school year. In the second-to-last week of school, my fifth-grade classroom was 90 degrees, with no air conditioning. My students were sitting together, helping each other, laughing, struggling and having fun. At the beginning of the year, they were unsure of each other. They smiled politely but kept to themselves or the friends they knew and never asked for help. So what had changed?
Classroom discussions are usually dominated by a few “alpha” students eager to participate. We can all envision those students. Hands stretched high, fingers waving, literally or figuratively saying, “Ooh, pick me, pick me.” But how do you get that student who is desperately trying not to make eye contact with you—or anyone else in the classroom—involved in the conversation?
As a matter of practice, we encourage teachers to integrate learning opportunities about religious tolerance and cultural understanding throughout the school year. But this is especially important as the 10th anniversary of 9/11 approaches.