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I asked my sixth-graders a loaded question at the beginning of my Holocaust unit. “What is race?” I hoped to help students comprehend the flaws in Nazi ideology regarding Jewish people and race science. When they stared blankly at me for a few moments before responding with answers that covered everything from nationality and religion to skin color, I knew my lesson plans for the day were about to change.
I recently overheard a lot of talk in the hallways about holiday gifts that students want or deals they had found during the Black Friday mad rush of sales. It made me think about how oftentimes, on returning from winter break, I would discuss with other students the laundry list of things they received as gifts. I’ve always been careful to not assume that every student celebrates Christmas or Hanukkah and the gift giving that comes with that. But it dawned on me, just that morning, that my informal discussions with students about gifts and presents has the potential to quickly marginalize our students in poverty, regardless of the time and traditions of their gift giving.
I asked a small group of second-graders what they would like to find inside their mailboxes. That was after we read a story about a goose who opened her mailbox and found a kite. I expected to hear answers of things: video games, toys or basketballs. But the first student who raised her hand looked at me with sincere, big brown eyes and said, "I'd like to find a letter from my dad."
In my classroom, my kids say the profoundest things.
In order to enhance my sixth-graders’ ability to connect personally with topics we read about in class, I assigned a writing assignment. I ask students to make real connections to demonstrate their understanding of the topic.
There are three areas of connection. First there’s the connection to their lives, then to another piece of literature and finally—the most sophisticated connection—to the world.
A young language arts student teacher directed her class to “close your eyes and imagine what your characters might look like.” I was observing her second-ever presentation to one of the classes where she would practice-teach for the next few weeks.
“Details are very important in descriptions,” she continued, “but you can’t write about them if you can’t see them. Maybe you want to write about a beautiful young girl. Think about the details. She’d have big blue eyes and long blond hair, and her hands would be slender and delicate.”
As she spoke, I watched her seventh-grade students. They represented the lower-middle-class school’s racial and ethnic mix pretty well: About half of them appeared to be Hispanic, almost a third could be considered African-American and the rest looked Caucasian. I didn’t see a blond hair or a blue eye among them. Most also had round, soft bodies.
Have you ever been the only (fill in category) person in the room? Race, class, gender, age, body type, marital status—any number of identifiers can place us outside the norm, depending on the room. Otherness is a specific experience, especially for those who don’t live it every day.
A couple of my students unwittingly placed themselves squarely into the role of “other” in an assignment outside our classroom, and I suspect learned a more powerful lesson than I ever could have taught them in class.
The assignment was to find, attend and write an article covering an event. When two students proposed attending a senior citizen fundraising fashion show on the other side of town, I immediately approved the idea.
Three weeks ago at lunch, the tenth-grade teachers met with the class "repeaters,” students who have repeated either their freshman or sophomore year. These students make us want to pull our hair out because of the many small (and not so small) ways they choose to self-destruct. One has completed two years of school and has a total of three credits. As a straight- A nerd during my own high school career, I don't fully understand how this could have happened in the first place.
Regardless, the teachers called the meeting, ordered pizza, explained the purpose and discussed credits with the students in small groups. We were honest and open, explaining what their next steps are, how they can get it together and how to sign up for credit recovery.
It can be one of the most difficult obstacles to overcome during a discussion of racism. This time the silence in the room follows a difficult question.
Perhaps my students don’t feel like talking. Maybe they didn’t do their reading of Walter Dean Myers’ Monster. Or, maybe they just don’t see it.