Seeing Through the Privileged Haze

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I have always considered myself a thoughtful and considerate teacher. I try to understand where my students are coming from. I want my students to feel safe and respected. Last year, one of my students taught me how even the best intentions can miss the mark.

Each school year, I assign my eighth-grade students to create a map, or “blueprint” of their bedroom. I tell them how novelists do this to more fully develop their characters’ personalities. You can tell a lot about a person by what’s in their bedroom, I explain. What posters are on the walls, what color the bedspread is, if there are piles of dirty laundry heaped all over the floor, if there is a pet cage. Students then present these maps to the class and other students ask questions about the details of their drawings.

I know that some students share a room with siblings, and that bedroom size varies. Students notice differences between their home lives and the home lives of their peers, and that’s the point. We have great discussions. And even though they are sharing personal information, I didn’t think talking about their bedrooms is inappropriate or unreasonable.

At the end of last year, I led my seventh- and eighth-grade students on a three-night trip to Seattle. We raised money to pay for Amtrak tickets, museum fees and lodging at a youth hostel. Students slept in very simple and narrow rooms furnished with two or three bunk beds and sometimes a desk. We used communal bathrooms and ate in a kitchen with other guests.

The trip was a blast. On the last night, we shared trip highlights. Many students talked about their time browsing around Pike Place Market or strumming on a guitar at the Experience Music Project. Others tearfully told about the connections they had made with other students. Then Jackie, a seventh-grader said, “The best part of this trip for me was that I actually got to sleep in a bed for three nights. I don’t have a bed or a bedroom at home. I have to sleep on the couch or the floor. So, this was like heaven!”

This was something about Jackie’s life that I didn’t know. It made me realize how easy it is to make assumptions about my students’ lives through my life lens. I felt grateful to Jackie for revealing something so personal, and so powerful.

This year I have Jackie in homeroom. I decided to keep the bedroom map concept, but with a slight adjustment. Instead of “Bedroom Map,” I called it the “Special Room Map.” Jackie made a beautifully detailed map of the guest bedroom in her grandmother’s house—another place she gets to sleep in an actual bed. I’m really glad she had an opportunity to share it with us.

Anderson is a middle school humanities and interdisciplinary studies teacher in Oregon.

Comments

Your story made me think of a

Submitted by Vivianne Fogarty on 30 October 2012 - 5:48pm.

Your story made me think of a French unit I used to teach about Fire Safety. Students had to draw their home layout with 2 exits in the case of a fire and present it to the class. I can remember one student not wanting to do it - perhaps parents had separate bedrooms, or there was something personal about the project that the student was not comfortable with. It's so easy to assume some things, so I think your story helps us to remember to not assume anything! It's always good to offer alternatives and be sensitive to these things. Thanks Sarah!

I recall similar assignments

Submitted by Lisa Orozco on 26 October 2012 - 12:57am.

I recall similar assignments when I was in middle school and remember just making things up. Sharing with others about your personal life makes you vulnerable. It's important to have students commit to not having discussions outside of the class about other students, when students are asked to share personal things in the classroom. An "Imaginary Room" assignment option may not give you a powerful relevance about a certain student....yet it may give some students peace of mind.

Hi Sarah - Great piece!

Submitted by Anne on 25 October 2012 - 4:03pm.

Hi Sarah - Great piece! Please reach out to us if you're interested in piloting some activities from new curriculum called Created Equal http://www.classism.org/programs/created-equal We'd love your thoughtful feedback.