I’m not old enough to have taught or been a student during the height of the Cold War. I imagine, however, that teaching in our contemporary milieu of political polarization and anxiety about our country’s future and place in the world is quite similar to the paranoia and fear people experienced during the Cold War era. I believe that our students need us to acknowledge that their futures feel unstable and unclear. One way to do that is by teaching them to embrace a certain level of uncertainty and ambiguity in their learning.
I’ve been thinking about this recently as my eighth-grade Global Thinking students have embarked on a unit on the Middle East. My students greet this material with a mixture of curiosity and trepidation. They have an intense desire to understand the world around them and they sense, correctly, that there is more to the story than what is shared in the U.S. media. For them, there is excitement in studying such complex and urgent material, but they also sense our country’s atmosphere of angst and are themselves uneasy. They are scared, but they’re not sure of what; they are curious, but they’re apprehensive about what they don’t know. In this way, they are similar to many Americans who find themselves fearful and angry.
As a history teacher and scholar, I believe that one of the reasons for this profound national anxiety is a lack of information, knowledge and understanding about the world, especially the Middle East. I see evidence of widespread Islamophobia—including the conflation of Islam with the Middle East—as well as evidence that our students and fellow citizens believe gross inaccuracies about the region. And yet as I think about my unit on the Middle East, I also know how challenging it is to understand such a complicated region, where the narratives are intricate, even contradictory at times. Using The Middle East in Transition, a curriculum from The Choices Program at Brown University, as well as supplemental materials from contemporary news sources, I try to provide the broadest possible historical context for current developments. Although the unit proceeds logically and feels like a conventional history unit with timelines, slideshows and discussions, our learning quickly gets complicated. We read articles that directly contradict one another. Our struggles with bias, perspective and narrative are more daunting than usual.
This knottiness scares some teachers away from teaching material like this, but I prefer to take that complexity and make it the starting point for students’ learning. In this blog post, my colleague similarly argued for “accepting, and even welcoming, this ‘messiness’” as an essential part of our course. The message we send to students when we ignore challenging content is much scarier than tackling this content thoughtfully and carefully: Cordoning off areas of the world or lines of inquiry only reinforces students’ perceptions of what matters. Misperception will only fester and calcify if we don’t at least attempt to disrupt it, even if we do it imperfectly. If we only studied what fit neatly into a cohesive narrative, there wouldn’t be much to study in history class!
When I present the unit to students, I am explicit about how hard it will be. I am similarly transparent about my own struggles to develop understanding, and I model for students that the embrace of uncertainty and patience with ambiguity are at the root of authentic scholarship. The unit is framed as an opportunity for them to practice developing comfort with uncertainty. I believe that the lesson of learning with a teacher whose own knowledge is emerging and evolving can inspire students to keep inquiring and learning themselves. As we learn more, we typically have more questions. We teachers may need to lean in and model that fact ourselves. So teach what you’re still learning, be open about your questions and acknowledge uncertainty. Show your students how an unyielding quest for knowledge and understanding is the surest path toward a more tolerant, open-minded world.
Gold is a seventh- and eighth-grade history teacher at Moses Brown School in Providence, Rhode Island.
Before my first-year undergraduate students begin to discuss Heart of Darkness, I ask them to think about the word Africa and make a list of all the things that come to mind. A few weeks ago, the board looked like it always does:
Photo by Colleen Lutz Clemens
Then I ask students to look for themes. They are quick to note that most of the items on the list are negative: disease, poverty and war, for instance. The positives are often animal related. (The Lion King comes up within the first 10 items every time.) But what I notice most is a theme of lack.
This activity gives us the chance to talk about the danger of thinking of Africa as a monolith, as an amorphous landmass instead of a continent made up of 54 countries. I even brought in one of my daughter’s books that has a page called “African Animals.” At home, we don’t use that title. Instead, we call the page “Animals You Might See on Safari.” I remind students that the countries that make up the African continent are entirely different places with different languages, government systems, problems, arts, literatures and more.
But it is so easy to think of Africa in a limited way when we hear only one kind of story. From Sally Struthers to Kony 2012, the most visible messages about Africa in the United States reify the idea of a monolith—and become the only story many students ever hear. My goal is to help students see that other stories come along with those stories, that the continent has strife but also has poets, novelists, doctors, university professors, activists and other kinds of thinkers. By reading texts created by these thinkers, students can start to complicate their idea of Africa.
Finding stories that show the complexity of life on the continent takes some time and effort due to the overwhelming media focus on tragedy there. However, as scholars and teachers, we are obligated to do this work. This consideration includes our use of Chinua Achebe’s novel Things Fall Apart (1958) as the primary voice of African literature in the classroom. A monolith of its own now, the novel and its main character, Okonkwo, speak only for a specific clan in a specific ethnic group—Igbo—in a specific nation—Nigeria. When we teach this novel as “The African Novel,” we reify the notion that the African continent has one essential story, a story that Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie reminds us is limiting in her TED Talk, “The Danger of a Single Story.” And if we do not teach any other works by writers from Africa or the African diaspora, we convey to students that there is only one storyteller and thereby silence an entire continent.
For teachers who have administrative support to consider and adopt new texts, I would like to offer some suggestions that can help students consider experiences beyond Okonkwo’s. These readings can help them see that there are many voices writing from multiple perspectives—perspectives that may mirror their own. These titles share themes attractive to young adult readers, including coming of age in the midst of personal struggles, conflict and social change.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Purple Hibiscus (2003). This novel takes the reader inside the Achike household, a well-off Nigerian Catholic family terrorized by the father, Eugene. Narrated from the perspective of the 15-year-old daughter, Kambili, the story follows the destruction of the family at the hands of Eugene. Her moments of self-discovery and freedom are disrupted when domestic violence leads to a family tragedy.
Buchi Emecheta, The Bride Price (1976). This bildungsroman tells the story of Akunna as she transitions into adulthood in Nigeria. Upon her menarche, she is considered marriageable, but her desire to marry for love makes her hide her period. A tale of growing up, falling in love and leaving the family home, this novel gives students an opportunity to connect with and feel empathy for this young protagonist.
Athol Fugard, “Master Harold”…and the Boys (1982). Fugard’s play shows Hally’s maturation as a young white boy in apartheid South Africa. With only three characters, this play is an easy read while it teaches challenging concepts of race. Hally’s love for Sam and Willie is in crisis when he realizes that in order to survive as a white man in a racially divided country, he must denounce those he loves to fulfill the role expected of him. All three of the characters have lost something by the end of this heartbreaking play.
Marguerite Abouet, The Aya Series (Series begins in 2007). Illustrated by Clément Oubrerie and translated by Helge Dascher, this series of graphic novels centers on Aya, a young woman in the Ivory Coast in the late 1970s. Aya is a vibrant, career-minded teenager coming of age during a time of political unrest.
Kopano Matlwa, Coconut (2008). Told in two voices, this novel explores the challenges of racial identity in South Africa. Ofilwe and Fikile are both coming to terms with being “coconuts,” a derogatory term meaning they are black on the outside but white on the inside. As each character comes of age, she struggles with her identity in ways that students will be able to connect with, even if they live thousands of miles away from the novel’s setting.
Robin Malan, The Story of Lucky Simelane (2006). This short novel shares themes and setting with Coconut while focusing on a male experience. Lucky has “white features” that set him apart from his community. The novel focuses on his search for a personal identity in a South Africa still recovering from apartheid and its forcing of racial identities on its entire population.
Clearly, any list will fall short of helping students understand the diversity of the African continent. You can seek out texts beyond these titles and evaluate them for their contribution to your students’ diverse reading experiences using this tool.
Clemens is the assistant professor of non-Western literatures at Kutztown University in Pennsylvania.
Are you an educator in or near Atlanta, Chicago, Detroit, Huntsville, New Orleans, New York, Philadelphia or San Francisco? Do you like going to the movies—for free? Do you want to see one of the greatest stories ever told about sports, race and international relations on the big screen?
Then today is your lucky day!
Focus Features, a division of NBCUniversal, is pleased to provide K-12 educators in select cities with free passes to attend private screenings of Race, the new biopic about track-and-field legend Jesse Owens.
This year marks the 80th anniversary of 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, Germany, at which Owens won four gold medals. His dominant performance at the games dealt an important and powerful blow to the ideologies of racial inferiority held around the world, including in Nazi Germany and in the Jim Crow South. Race opens in theaters on February 19.
The story of Owens’ triumphs is as relevant today as it was in 1936. Educators can discuss the film’s themes and integrate his story into existing lesson plans with these free materials from Focus Features:
- Complimentary curriculum guide with 11 interdisciplinary lesson plans that meet NCSS Standards
- A discussion guide
- Video clips from the film
- Photographs from the film
- Interviews with the filmmaker, cast and Jesse Owens’ daughters
Interested in attending a screening? RSVP and reserve your spot today!
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How many times has your English department grappled with the question of teaching the same old texts? Some educators think every book should be from the canon of Western literature. Others advocate for multicultural novels that reflect our contemporary world. But when it comes down to it, no one can part with teaching To Kill a Mockingbird. It always stays.
While the novel is written by a white woman, told from the perspective of a young white girl, and holds up a white male as its hero, I maintain that this book offers myriad opportunities for anti-bias teaching. To this end, I created a lesson that allows teachers to use To Kill a Mockingbird to teach from the perspective of a female African-American character: Lula.
The New York Times education blog inspired this lesson. In the newspaper’s “Text to Text” series, guest writer Laura Tavares recommends reading Chapter 15 of Mockingbird while also reading a report on lynching by the Equal Justice Initiative, Lynching in America: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror. Chapter 15 follows Scout, Jem and Dill to the courthouse where Atticus is defending Tom Robinson. Classroom discussion of the chapter tends to focus on young Scout’s ability to break up a mob, mob behavior or Atticus’ courage. Tavares’ article suggests using the chapter to turn students’ attention to Tom and the horror he is likely to face. Doing so opens classroom space to talk about the brutality of lynching. Essentially, Tavares turns the lens by asking, “Without an awareness of this painful history, can students grasp what is at stake for Tom, Atticus, Scout and other characters in the novel—and can they reflect on its resonance today?”
The lesson that this post inspired me to develop focuses on Chapter 12, which offers another rich opportunity to turn the lens. African-American characters dominate the narrative in Chapter 12, allowing readers one of the only opportunities in Mockingbird to see the African-American characters as three-dimensional people with full lives of their own, positive roles in their communities and in positions of power.
In this chapter, Calpurnia brings Scout and Jem with her to the First Purchase Church. Lula, a young African-American parishioner, makes Scout and Jem feel unwelcome and gives Calpurnia a hard time about bringing them there. She says, “…they got their church, we got our’n.” Lula is described as “contentious” and “a troublemaker from way back, got fancy ideas and haughty ways.” With all the sympathy building for Calpurnia, the nurturer of the white protagonists, Scout and Jem, it is difficult to empathize with Lula.
But let’s talk about Lula.
Lula represents the African Americans in Maycomb who are starting to voice their outrage about the unjust treatment their community members endure. Her voice needs to be heard and validated. It is not necessary to declare Lula right or wrong; however, it is valuable to take some time to acknowledge Lula and consider what her anger tells us about the frustration felt by members of the African-American community in Maycomb. She may not convey her message in a way that is palatable to readers, but Lula shows courage in her willingness to stand up to the powerful members of her parish and state something that many members of the congregation probably felt.
Focusing on Lula’s perspective gives teachers the chance to ask questions that can support anti-bias teaching. Could Scout and Jem bring Calpurnia to their church? What are Lula’s “fancy ideas and haughty ways”? Could this just be Lula expressing a need for self-empowerment? Does she have a right to be angry? What is happening in Maycomb that would explain Lula’s response to Scout and Jem? Would any other white citizen be welcome at First Purchase? Is it possible that while Calpurnia and Reverend Sykes support Atticus, they may still resent the rest of Maycomb’s white citizens? How have we as a society come to accept quiet religious hypocrisy but condemn voiced anger over heinous racist acts?
Lula deserves some class time. She is not alone. In Chapter 24, Mrs. Grace Merriweather, “the most devout woman in Maycomb,” tells her employee, Sophy, who is clearly upset about the verdict, that “‘Jesus Christ never went around grumbling and complaining.’” Merriweather’s exchange with Sophy is another opportunity to explore rising voices in the African-American community.
Our students will hear these voices only if we give the Lulas and the Sophys space in our lessons—especially when studying one of literature’s most-read books about racial injustice in the United States.
Ritchhart, R., Church, M. & Morrison, K. Making Thinking Visible. How to Promote Engagement, Understanding, and Independence for All Learners. San Franciso: Josey-Bass, 2011.
Tyson, Lois. Critical Theory Today: A User-Friendly Guide. 1999.
Esshaki is an English and English as a Second Language high school teacher in the metropolitan Detroit area.
The Atlantic: "Becoming educated should not require giving up joy but rather lead to finding joy in new kinds of things[.] ... In some cases, schools should help children find new, more grown-up ways of doing the same things that are perennial sources of joy: making art, making friends, making decisions."
Autodizactic: "I never felt comfortable being queer and a teacher. From student teaching in Illinois to my first years in Florida to working at SLA – while vastly different in their levels of acceptance, none of them felt completely safe. None of them got to see all of who I was."
Heart of a Teacher: "School becomes a community when there are a set of values that all stakeholders respect and uphold. Here are some of the core elements that I thought were highlighted and emphasized during the many conversations I heard at #educon."
The Huffington Post: "We can't just start a GSA in a school and think that’s it. We can’t just train teachers and say that things are going to be amazing. We really have to educate the community."
The New York Times: "The problem of income inequality, Dr. Wilson concludes, is not between Black America and White America but between black haves and have-nots, something we don’t often discuss in public in an era dominated by a narrative of fear and failure and the claim that racism impacts 42 million people in all the same ways."
The Washington Post: "How do the 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia support their public schools? Badly, according to a new report card [that] evaluates their performance on six key criteria and finds all of them wanting."
If you come across a current article or blog you think other educators should read, please send it to email@example.com , and put "What We’re Reading This Week" in the subject line.