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What We’re Reading This Week: December 19

The Atlantic. Lesbian and gay teachers talk about coming out to students and navigating the professional complications of being out at school.

American Indians in Children’s Literature. Blogger Debbie Reese lists the best books of the year written by Native writers and by those who “aren’t Native but got it right.”

Diversity in YA. Author Malinda Lo analyzes YA books published in 2014 featuring LGBT main characters and themes.

The Nation. Students with incarcerated parents deal with emotional struggles that can make it nearly impossible to focus on school.

Rebecca Hanes. Barbie is a classic gift for girls, but this post offers five reasons to pause before purchasing these dolls. 

Slate. Writer Alexandra Neason argues that the teacher diversity gap is more an issue of retention than recruitment.

The Daily Tribune News. The distribution of free bibles at a public school media center raises serious concerns about the separation of church and state. 

The New Yorker. A powerful collection of photographs from the Selma to Montgomery March in 1965.

If you come across a current article or blog you think other educators should read, please send it to editor@tolerance.org and put What We’re Reading This Week in the subject line.

Eyes Wide Open

In the weeks since Thanksgiving and during the buildup to semester exams and winter break, there’s tremendous energy at school. You can see it when students enter the classroom.

There’s Stu, an introvert who comes alive in his writing for English class. He’s committed to a number of clubs and student government activities. Empathetic and intelligent, he’s well-liked and respected by his peers.

And in the same class, there’s Michelle, an equally skilled writer and student with killer wit and a brilliant sense of timing. She’s a theater kid who has mastered the science of how to joke in class without upsetting the teacher.

Since we’ve gotten back from Thanksgiving, however, both of them have been acting differently in subtle ways.

Stu’s shoulder-length hair is usually pulled back into a ponytail, but this week it’s been hanging down covering his face, like a cloak of invisibility. He still engages in class discussions, but when he’s not actively discussing Shakespeare in class, or when I see him in the hallway, he seems to draw into himself, not making eye contact, not really engaging.

Michelle is still joking in class and cracking up her friends, but in between those moments, she’s putting her head down on her desk, or her smile disappears too quickly from her face. She doesn’t move in the room with the same bouncing energy, and sometimes her jokes take on a slightly sharper, more sarcastic edge.

I shared my observations and growing concerns about Stu and Michelle with the school counselor, and she informed me that she has already been meeting with Michelle. Michelle is coping with depression and anxiety. Not having a good rapport with Stu, the school counselor asked me to reach out to him.

Stu actually approached me first, asking that I take a look at a poem he was considering submitting to a writing contest. The poem clearly showed his sense of being overwhelmed and feeling hopeless. It was simple to then ask him, “Stu, after reading this poem, (which is beautifully written), and just noticing you the last couple of days, I want to ask you if everything is okay.”

There was a long pause, and he didn’t make eye contact with me. Eventually, he gave his head a quick shake. I asked him about specific points in the poem, and his responses remained minimalist—a headshake or nod, a quiet yes or no. His poem contained references to sleepless nights, emotional starvation and self-harm. When I asked him if these moments were more than just details in a poem, and when he eventually nodded, I suggested that we should move our discussion to the counselor’s office.

It’s important to remember that mental health issues and overwhelming stress or anxiety don’t have the same symptoms as a student who is getting physically sick in class. Likewise, it’s vitally important to remember that the winter holidays with their longer breaks and various family gatherings may create untold levels of stress and anxiety for our students.

As teachers, we need to recognize that the subtle changes we notice in our students may be small ways they are asking for help. The National Association of School Psychologists has a useful list of behaviors to look for and a step of actionable steps for school personnel, while Children’s Mental Health Services offers a guide for teachers of students with anxiety disorders.

It’s in the quiet moment of the school day or the class period when glimmers of what Stu and Michelle are really feeling on the inside come to the surface. As educators, we need those quiet moments, not only to catch our breath in our hectic work, but also to be there for our students whose silence screams for attention.

Editor’s Note: The school counselor mentioned had releases of information permitting her to discuss students’ mental health with the author of this blog. All students’ names and other identifying details have been changed. 

Elliott teaches high school English and creative writing at an independent, college preparatory school. 

Working for the Common Good

Students may find “the commons” a strange term. It’s not a part of their everyday vocabulary. What’s unfortunate is that the concept may also be unfamiliar to them. I first heard the term when I was in high school. The commons was the place where we ate lunch and hung out with friends before and after class. It was a gathering place, a common area. As long as everyone followed the rules and treated each other with respect, the commons was a pleasant place to be.

“The commons” is actually an old English term referring to a common parcel of land used by herders to graze their cows. A somewhat similar system in the United States today allows the grazing of livestock in the national forests. This system is not without controversy. 

In 1968, Garrett Hardin published an essay in the journal Science discussing a dilemma we, as humans, face in making valuable resources (such as land) a part of the commons. In this essay—aptly titled “The Tragedy of the Commons”—Hardin describes the situation of herders adding more cattle to their herds to maximize their personal gain. The result was overgrazing of the land and eventual destruction of the pasture.

If the concept of the commons is foreign to our students, I’m concerned that the idea of the common good may be, too. The common good is that which is good for all people, not just one person or a group of people. In reference to the commons in Hardin’s essay, the common good would require each person acting in a way that would keep the pasture from being overgrazed and eventually destroyed. If they had acted accordingly, all would have benefitted.

The commons we need to be concerned about today is more than a pasture—it’s the entire natural world. In Hardin’s essay, the lack of concern for the common good resulted in the loss of livelihood for all the herders. In today’s world, the destruction of the natural environment would be a more serious loss for all of us.

Hardin’s essay is sometimes used with older students to help them understand the difference between renewable and unlimited resources. The pasture for the herders represents a renewable resource. As long as there were limits on how the pasture was used, the pasture stayed healthy. What destroyed the pasture was individual greed—seeking what is beneficial to the self at the expense of what is good for the community.  

Hardin’s essay might also be used with students to help them understand that caring for our common habitat, the Earth, means caring for and about each other. The message to save the Earth isn’t just about the Earth—it’s about all of us. One way to help students grasp the idea of the commons and the common good is to have them participate in an exercise where they need to decide who benefits from a particular activity or rule: Is it just one individual or group who benefits or is it the larger society? With this exercise, students might also be asked to identify how the individual, group or larger society benefits or gets hurt. Here are a few examples for them to consider:

  • Grazing of cattle on all public land is allowed without restrictions.
  • Limits are imposed on the number of fish that can be taken from a lake.
  • Fines are imposed for littering in public places.
  • People are allowed to smoke wherever they want to.

Another activity you might do to help students understand the need to consider the common good is to engage them in developing a set of classroom rules that would benefit the entire group. You might also challenge them to think of a “bumper sticker-type” slogan that expresses the basic concept of working for the common good. “Better together” and “We matters as much as me” are two examples.

A premise of Hardin’s essay is that each man was locked into a system compelling him to seek personal gain even if this resulted in harm to the common good. A similar thought held by some people today is that human nature is fundamentally selfish and that we each exist for our own sake. Others, however, propose the opposite—that we are by nature caring and altruistic. We can certainly point to examples of individuals whose behaviors support both views.

One thing we do know, however, is that how we are nurtured or taught plays a role in who we become. As teachers, we can help students become more caring and considerate by helping them understand the concept of the commons and what it means to be concerned about the common good.

An excellent resource for more discussion ideas is On the Commons.

Wilson is an educational consultant and curriculum writer.

Missteps in Civic Engagement

I recently attended the National Council for Social Studies annual conference in Boston, where I saw countless examples of the work that dedicated educators are doing to increase civic engagement in students from kindergarten through college. It’s clear that educators who teach students about the valuable roles they can play in their communities are doing a great service. However, no matter how well-intentioned, some civic engagement activities can miss the mark when educators do not carefully guide students.

This fact emerged during a session at the conference on a Project Citizen endeavor in Tennessee. Project Citizen is a program sponsored by the Center for Civic Education, a nonprofit organization “dedicated to promoting an enlightened and responsible citizenry committed to democratic principles and actively engaged in the practice of democracy in the United States and other countries.”

In Tennessee, participating students identified a serious community problem: the terrifying experience of children after methamphetamine busts at their homes. Stripped of all their clothing and belongings and then decontaminated, they are placed into the foster care system with only a blanket wrapped around their naked bodies. The students were rightly outraged and developed the brilliant solution of equipping police with backpacks to carry in the trunks of their cars, to give to children when they are removed from their homes. Each backpack contains a pair of underwear, a T-shirt and toys. The students secured funding and worked with the local authorities to get the backpacks placed in police vehicles.

This is an example of important civic engagement, and the educators involved excelled at teaching their students how to make a difference in their own communities.

There are just two problems: the toys and the T-shirts. First, the toys were rooted in gender stereotypes to which not all children conform. Not all girls want dolls, for instance. When I asked the presenters—the teachers behind the project—about this, I was told that the participating students decided on the toys. To me, this is a missed opportunity for a teachable moment about difference and the importance of suspending judgment.

But the T-shirts were the greater problem. The shirts identified the project and featured a slogan about the harmful effects of methamphetamine. 

I asked the teachers whether they thought such a shirt would stigmatize the children who wore them. They assured me that nothing of the sort happened: The students who ran the project also wore the T-shirts. No one could identify why each child wore the shirt.

If that’s true, great. But the educators did not produce evidence to support this conclusion, nor did they provide any feedback from the children for whom that T-shirt might be one of the very few items of clothing they own upon entering the foster care system. In addition, the T-shirts might serve as painful reminders of their horrible situation. The educators defended the shirts, arguing that they were acceptable because the students leading the project created them.  

I don’t think that’s a good enough reason to put a T-shirt about methamphetamine destroying families on a traumatized 6-year-old. It is the educators’ job to encourage students to question their work, to say, “This is a great design, but let’s think about it. You would wear it by choice because you’re proud of this project. But how would you feel about wearing a T-shirt like this if you came from one of those homes? Would it remind you of that bad time? Would you worry that people who saw you wearing it would think bad things about you and your family?”

I am reminded of Atticus’s instructions to Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view . . . until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

Project Citizen in Tennessee would have been more successful if educators had asked students to walk around in their T-shirts as if they were beneficiaries of the project, not the creators. While the educators running the program correctly and successfully allowed students to control the process of civic engagement, they missed an opportunity to intervene and challenge their students.

Had they done so, they would have built greater empathy in their students. It’s empathy, not sympathy, that helps build tolerance and understanding—two qualities that one needs to make a difference in a community.

But ultimately, we can learn from missteps. These are teachable moments—for educators and students alike—and upon reflection and discussion, they can help build a more robust civic engagement practice. Teaching Tolerance would like to hear from you. In your experience, what are some of the lessons you and your students have learned from missteps in civic engagement projects? 

Silos-Rooney is an assistant professor of history at MassBay Community College.

What We’re Reading This Week: December 12

The Huffington Post: Video blogger Franchesca Ramsey presents five steps for being a strong and effective ally.

The Huffington Post: When 7-year-old Parker Dains saw “for boys” on the cover of a book, she asked the publisher to consider the gender stereotypes this type of labeling reinforces.

Juvenile Justice Information Exchange: Following the death of two its members, the student organization Kids Rethink New Orleans Schools seeks to carry on their work by pressing for restorative justice. 

LGBTQ Nation: A school board in Virginia has restricted the use of school bathrooms based on students’ sex. 

The New York Times: Glaring racial disparities surfaced in this school discipline case involving two girls—one African American and one white—and two very different outcomes.

The New York Times: Writer Charles Blow recalls witnessing the beating of Rodney King and considers how his reactions then compare to what students today feel about Ferguson and Eric Garner.

Salon: Teaching Tolerance blogger Vishavjit Singh reacts to racist comments by sharing his unusual life story.

USA TODAY: Millennials are the most racially tolerant of any recent generation—yet they grapple daily with just how much race still matters to society.  

U.S. Department of Education: U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Attorney General Eric Holder released a guidance package this week aimed at helping state and local agencies provide quality education to incarcerated youth.

If you come across a current article or blog you think other educators should read, please send it to editor@tolerance.org and put What We’re Reading This Week in the subject line.

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