“Forty-six times?” my middle school students breathed, sitting back in their chairs. “You’ve been arrested 46 times?” They hadn’t been expecting the 60-something-year-old African-American man to give that answer when asked if he’d ever been to jail.
They were surprised to find that he was proud of the statistic. The gentleman, a child of the civil rights movement, was one of several activists who visited our Boston classroom last spring as part of a filmmaking unit on courage and social change.
My students were originally interested in the filmmaking portion of the project; little did they know that the interviewing process would be far more memorable. They were hooked. Better yet, they were deeply engaged in expanding their own historical understanding as our visitor explained that he’d been arrested for his activism in cities around the world. His history of nonviolent protest included standing against apartheid in South Africa and standing up for gay rights in France.
And, yet, while I know my students were inspired by the gentleman’s story, I was mistaken when I assumed that they would connect it to their own lives. I neglected the fact that my students had limited knowledge of social history, almost nothing beyond mainstream facts of the civil rights movement. They, therefore, needed a historical context to properly connect their own lives to this gentleman’s actions.
This fact became apparent in a follow-up conversation during which students shared that they would never have made the sacrifices he and other activists made years ago.
“If I was alive at that time, they would’ve been in trouble,” one young man said. “Because there’s no way I’m going to jail for someone else.”
His statement intrigued me. Through a series of subsequent discussions about this sentiment, my students and I came to some conclusions:
- Laws were unjust decades ago, especially for people of color and women.
- People who did not have voting rights needed other methods to make their voices heard.
- If no one stood up to unjust laws, they never would have changed.
By contextualizing the gentleman’s activism, students were able to better understand his actions. But they still called it “adult stuff,” questioning the role of children.
“You do know that children and teenagers played a huge role in the civil rights movement?” I asked.
Come to find out, they did not. We’d arrived at the root of the situation: Students thought of history and social change in terms of iconic figures, heroes and heroines, instead of common folk. They didn’t know about the leaders behind the scenes, such as Ella Baker, Fannie Lou Hamer, Septima Poinsette Clark, Bayard Rustin, or the hundreds of child activists in the Children’s Crusade in Birmingham, Ala., in 1963.
The coming weeks in my class included more reading and discussion of young, unacknowledged change agents. I used Ellen Levine’s Freedom’s Children and Elizabeth Partridge’s Marching for Freedom, both nonfiction books about young people’s involvement in the civil rights movement. Students read the story of Claudette Colvin, the 15-year-old girl who refused to give up her seat in Montgomery, Ala., nine months before Rosa Parks did the same thing.
My goal was to explode conventional ideas about who makes history and why. I wanted my students to know that we all make history, even if our names don’t make it into history books. And that these activists were people who made mistakes, had doubts, worried about skin color and their looks and had other experiences to which my students could relate.
Certainly, not all my students walked away with the same content knowledge or with neatly constructed understandings of the 1950s and ‘60s. But they all learned that studying history is difficult, complicated and dependent on the storyteller’s point of view. And they discovered that the great change agents of the past (many of whom were young people) were not so different from those of us living in the present.
As they worked to focus their social justice films on a certain activist or issue, I saw students struggle to articulate what activism means in the context of the social issues that touch their lives. They had to work with their partners and think through what they really believed, what evidence supports their beliefs and how to best communicate those beliefs to others. This struggle, I believe, is where learning truly lives.
Knight teaches at Boston Arts Academy, a public school for the visual and performing arts.
As teachers, we often focus (rightly) on what it is we’re teaching. I might specialize in mathematics for traumatized youth, while your gift is in conveying your enthusiasm and respect for science or literature. But from time to time, I am reminded that there are many spaces where education can happen, some of them entirely separated from what we actually teach.
I have a student, Delia, with extremely well-developed avoidance tendencies. Each day holds a new crisis, a new scheduling conflict, another reason not to come to class or, when she does come to class, not to remain there for the full session. I often feel (naturally, I think) very frustrated by this. I used to respond by emphasizing timeliness and respect for class schedules and by trying to foster in her a desire for improving her attendance.
Over time, however, I began to feel worn down. I was here to help her get her GED certificate, after all, to teach her the content that would be assessed on the exam. Still, I did my best to meet her where she was in order to keep her engaged. When she would ask what time class started, instead of repeating the obvious—“on the hour”—I began to say instead, “Whenever you can come. Class is always open for you.” Sometimes she would come and stay for a bit, but more often, she would not.
I did not consider this whole series of interactions a success at the time; on the contrary, I felt that I had not been able to spend any real time teaching Delia anything at all. Her tests showed no marked improvement, and she was no closer to reaching her goal of obtaining a GED certificate. She was, however, more often in the building and seemed more cheerful when we spoke.
I wasn’t thinking of it at the time, but what I was practicing was something along the lines of risk management or harm reduction. These concepts shift our attention as educators from hitting benchmarks and meeting standards, focusing us instead on the work we can do to gently bend the arc of our students’ lives—toward less dangerous behavior, decreased street involvement and a greater openness to behavior change and educational growth. In Delia’s case, that meant maintaining a relationship grounded in building healthy attachment and meeting her where she was.
One afternoon, on learning that I would be changing positions and would no longer be teaching the classes she (only occasionally) attended, Delia became visibly upset. “Who’s going to teach me?” she said, “You’re such a good teacher!” That’s when it occurred to me that I had been wrong to think I never taught her anything, despite the fact I had never had the chance to convey content or impart knowledge through regular, formal lesson delivery.
To some extent, all educators know that the way we relate to our students communicates as powerfully as our words. But those of us—and our numbers are growing—who work with students from damaged homes, wounded communities and abusive relationships see especially keenly how we educate through attachment repair. The environments we create, the tone we take and the presence we hold can unlock lessons within our students that are more effective than the best we could ever create at our desks.
I can’t say today that I know exactly what Delia believes I have taught her; it’s probably true that none of us ever really knows what we teach to one another. But if what she gained from me was only the fact that I showed up even when she was struggling to show up herself, it was a thing of great value to her. And like much of what teachers truly teach, it occurred in the space between lessons, in that relational gray area where we must not forget that learning also happens.
Swoveland works with high-risk students in Massachusetts, primarily preparing them for the GED certificate exam. He also leads enrichment and engagement programs in writing, photography and art.
Editor’s Note: Last October, Teaching Tolerance and Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding brought you Addressing the December Dilemma in Schools, a free webinar for educators on the important topic of holiday inclusion. Join us for an encore of this popular presentation on Wednesday, December 4 from 6:30-7:30 p.m. EST.
Now that December has arrived, teachers are faced with a dilemma: How can we successfully create the most inclusive climate in our religiously and culturally diverse schools? Efforts to teach about all religious holidays can raise more questions: How do we know we are teaching these holidays accurately? How can we be sure everyone feels included? And does teaching about several religious holidays in December neglect the rich religious diversity of holidays celebrated throughout the year?
The diverse holidays of the world present great teachable moments. Teaching Tolerance and Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding have teamed up to help teachers capitalize on these moments while recognizing and addressing the complexity of the so-called “December Dilemma.” Join us for a free webinar that will help you create deeper understandings of religious and secular holidays, facilitate classroom discussions surrounding inclusion and respect for religious and non-religious differences, and evaluate existing classroom resources and strategies for equity and inclusivity.
Anticipating and avoiding potential conflicts during the December holidays can make schools safer spaces where all children feel welcome. In order to move toward a pluralistic environment where different faiths and secular worldviews can be acknowledged within the classroom, educators need to be equipped with skills and knowledge to address both religious and secular holidays, to promote equity in the classroom and to encourage conversations about these traditions throughout the year.
Wicht is senior manager for teaching and learning at Teaching Tolerance.
A typical FB post averages about five comments. This one inspired 55. Almost all were substantive.
Many comments pointed out administrative or systemic practices our readers saw as damaging to job satisfaction. Some readers felt disrespected by their administrations. Many stated they were underpaid. Meeting overabundance and micromanagement were recurrent themes. Several commenters called for changes to the overall education system (testing, teacher evaluation, unions, tax distribution, privatization, election protocols, etc.).
We were happy to receive a number of positive, proactive comments from teachers who had witnessed change or who believed it was possible via reforms that could happen at the school—or even the personal—level. Three stood out:
…Utilize the smarts and hearts of experienced—perhaps even retired—teachers to offer more than just teaching techniques, but encouragement. Teaching is difficult, but it is not impossible. Perhaps our best teachers are born that way, but the rest can be taught good teaching practices and human relations skills for the classroom.
… One solution could be team teaching. If every classroom had team teaching, children would learn so much more because sometimes there would be two teachers there to work with kids and sometimes one could be with the class while the other planned for an upcoming lesson or unit or scored work in a meaningful way.
… One of my best administrators was a man who…was always willing within reason to help me establish what I wanted and change the way things were done. He was a man who instead of asking “why?” asked “why not?” … It was EXTREMELY satisfying and gratifying to know that my voice was being heard, seriously considered, and that I had some power over the structure of my classes.
These comments reminded us that the inclusive values and relationship skills our readers model and promote when working with children are important precisely because they are so critical beyond childhood. Upon reflection, we found that the themes of these comments directly mirror themes found in some of the culturally responsive pedagogical strategies that Teaching Tolerance recommends. Consider the applicability of these themes—in the classroom, at a faculty meeting and in the larger community:
- Leveraging the strengths and wisdom of the larger community reduces isolation and helps create a broader sense of collective responsibility for educational outcomes.
- Listening and remaining open to new ideas creates a safe environment where individuals feel empowered and respected.
- Seeking and honoring multiple diverse perspectives capitalizes on a greater variety of strengths and leads to richer experiences.
- Supporting collaboration with and support between peers nurtures growth and ability.
We know that, ideally, students would consistently experience and witness these principles and values throughout their entire school building. But we also know from our readers’ responses—to this post and to stories we’ve published recently about teacher bullying, about LGBT teachers and about retaining teachers of color—that this isn’t happening in many of your schools. And just as an absence of social justice in schools affects students, it affects the morale, safety and effectiveness of teachers—and the very profession of teaching.
So what’s our best advice for improving job quality and retaining teachers? Recognize that everyone, not just children, benefits when anti-bias social justice principles are incorporated into our work as educators, community members and citizens. And the more individuals who recognize this benefit, the more likely it will be that social justice principles escape the domain of classroom extension exercises and special, piecemeal trainings and become part of our school and community cultures.
The good news is there is an ever-expanding community of people working to spread this recognition. If you are reading this, then you are likely one of them. Thank you.
van der Valk is an associate editor for Teaching Tolerance.
A few days ago, a coworker told me the word “gay” was just part of the culture, a word that means stupid.
In my opinion, this isn’t how we, as adults and educators, should model attitudes and behaviors when we tell our students to practice acceptance. I knew I needed to speak up.
Context is important when considering how to speak up, and I had gotten this wrong in the past, causing the conversation to be unproductive. Because this coworker was a peer and because we were in an informal setting where we could talk it through, I decided to take the “educate” approach.
“We’re working with kids who might already identify as not straight,” I responded. “It’s not okay to make them feel like what they are is the cultural equivalent of ‘stupid.’”
My coworker shrugged and said something to the effect of “But culture…”
I went on, trying to keep the frustration out of my voice.
“When I hear students use that word, I try to ask them what they mean when they use the word. Then, I ask them to choose another word. I always ask them to choose another word.”
“How’s that working out?” my coworker asked.
It was a good question. Sometimes it’s a struggle. Saying “Choose another word” is something I learned from a coworker a few years ago, and it’s still hard for me to say it to adults. With students, it’s easier because of the power differential. But, that power differential means that I can train students to not say the word around me while not necessarily helping them understand why they should be more thoughtful in their word choice. When we ask students to choose another word, we need to teach them how and why and what words to choose.
I have a student who—again and again—tells me she can’t do work because she’s too “retarded.” “I can say retarded, because that’s what I am,” she says because of her special ed status.
If she were trying to reclaim the label, that would be one thing. But with this girl—an elementary school student—it seems instead like an agreement to wear the label others put on her to avoid challenging herself. So, after asking this girl several times to choose a different word to describe herself (or others), I began also pointing out things she’s learned to do well: creating tissue paper flowers, crocheting, hula hooping, coming up with games other youth want to play. I also ask her what the word means to her and if she understands why I’d like her to use a different word. I explain my reasons to her if she says no.
In the course of two months she’s stopped using the r-word to describe herself. And the other youth in my group have also stopped using slurs—at least during the hours that they’re in my program. We’ve had community meetings about what it means to build each other up instead of tearing each other down. We’ve talked about what it means to have—and be—friends. We talk almost daily about what my students have done that day to make someone else’s day better.
I didn’t know how to summarize this for my coworker other than to say, “Mostly, it works. It’s an expectation that I have, and my students know that.”
“I talk to my students about it, too,” my coworker said. “It’s just so engrained, you know?”
“For sure,” I replied. “We can still hold students accountable for the things they say. We can still try to combat the bullying inherent in name-calling.”
In the conversation with my coworker, I chose my words very carefully and left the conversation open to continue. There are lots of different ways to speak up. While previously I had made choices to directly call people out—causing them to feel threatened and defensive—framing my stance on these words as a discussion about how we work with students reminded my co-worker that words can hurt. By choosing other words, I was able to share with him ways to help students do the same.
Clift works in an after-school program for youth and is the Communications Intern for the Colorado Coalition Against Sexual Assault.