In the nearly two decades I have been in the classroom, teaching literature and writing has never felt more vital. Since November, I have struggled to be positive, to take what I see as a deterioration of the United States’ core beliefs and find a positive way forward.
Right now we face a public narrative that erodes empathy rather than embracing it; many of our country’s most empathic enterprises are threatened. That undermining had me feeling a bit hopeless when my wife handed me Yaa Gyasi’s debut novel, Homegoing. After reading it, I find myself doubling down on my efforts to root the study of literature and written expression in an emancipatory impulse.
The novel begins in the 18th century within the walls of a British castle on the Gold Coast (now Ghana) in Africa. Two women born of the same mother meet very different fates—one marrying a British officer and one being enslaved and held in the dungeons below her sister’s feet. From there, the book alternates chapters following the descendants of these two women across time and continents. Both lineages are filled with tragedy and subjugation, and both have moments of beauty and grace.
To me, a white male who has benefitted from both my skin color and my gender, the story resonated with much of what I see around me. I thought of the stark contrast between the education I received growing up in Haddon Township, New Jersey, and the educational opportunities offered to kids living just 10 minutes down the road in Camden. The story made me think about the systemic discrimination that is the foundation of our country’s history, and how that history has shaped movements like Black Lives Matter. It made me think about undocumented immigrants, whose life circumstances are so different from mine simply due to the geographical chance of birth. It made me think about refugees trying to flee war and people incarcerated in overcrowded U.S. jails. It made me think about unemployed factory workers and people piecing together minimum-wage jobs.
Teaching in a relatively affluent, largely white high school, I have always been troubled by a lack of empathy I see in some of my students. Too often in conversations about injustice or unfairness that spring up from the books we read, my students seem unwilling to acknowledge the advantages they have been given over so many others in our society. Beautiful schools, well-appointed science and computer labs, free tutors and test-prep classes and relative safety, to name a few. Many students seem to believe that they are where they are simply due to their merits, that a history of systemic discrimination has nothing to do with it. People who struggle must simply work harder, some of my students believe, failing to acknowledge that those who struggle have to travel farther to achieve the same ends. I fear that attitude is a large part of the reason we find ourselves in an empathy-deprived society.
I am not talking about creating sympathy; I don’t want my students to feel bad for or pity anyone. I am talking about teaching empathy. I want them to be able to understand the feelings of those whose experiences look nothing like their own. So, after reading Gyasi’s remarkable book, I am reinvigorated to show my students the advantages they have and foster their understanding of the inequities in a system that prevents so many others from accessing those same advantages. But awareness isn’t enough: I want to develop young adults who use the advantages they have been given to stand behind and work alongside those who have not.
I am asking my seniors to think and write about justice. What is justice? What does it mean to get justice? Is justice the same for everyone in this country? Should punishment for criminals be punitive or rehabilitative? The first time I asked them that last question, most said strictly punitive. Now, after days of debate, after watching Adam Foss’ TED Talk on the role of a prosecuting attorney and Dan Pacholke’s TED Talk about allowing inmates to live fulfilling lives, many are changing their minds. Some are seeing prisoners as people for the first time. Others are now looking at all sorts of questions through a more empathic lens. Still others have taken my suggestion and are picking up Homegoing.
Now, more than ever, I want my students to view literature as a reflection of our world through which they may bear witness to the atrocities of the past and present and the remarkable ability of the human spirit to persevere, evolve and overcome. Now, more than ever, I want them to write in ways that help them find their own voices and illuminate the power those voices have when raised to amplify the voiceless.
Knoll is a writer and English teacher at a public school in New Jersey.
The Atlantic: “The [community school] model is based on the idea that diagnosing the social and emotional needs of children and their families and then alleviating barriers such as hunger, mental-health issues, and poor eyesight will make academic success more attainable.”
Chalkbeat: “Here is what the young protesters had to say about the president’s recent immigration orders, federal education policy and what it’s like to be Muslim in Trump’s America.”
CityLab: “Often, it was school segregation that created neighborhood segregation, not the other way around.”
EdSource: “‘There are thousands of students today in classrooms with teachers who are wholly unprepared.’”
Education Week: “We need to reassure the most vulnerable students in our school districts that we will support them in their time of need. ... However, we also need to have difficult conversations with all of our students, especially when there is so much uncertainty in the world.”
Education Week: “The district’s new police department is the first step in Atlanta’s efforts to confront a challenge many urban school systems have not easily tackled: concerns that putting police in schools undermines efforts to create a safe and supportive learning environment.”
The New York Times: “High school students may broadly back the First Amendment, but not without limits: Their support is tempered depending on the kind of speech and where it’s delivered.”
Voices In Education: “Teachers have been connecting with each other to confront racism and learn to talk about race with their students in three ways: organizing gatherings and safe spaces; making, sharing, and curating collections of lesson plans or curricula; and holding public conversations and workshops.”
The Washington Post: “‘Many students and teachers were confused by how the posters themselves could be causing a disturbance or concern, since their sole purpose was to make minority students feel represented and accepted.’”
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.
Being a Teaching Tolerance advisor is a great way to give back to the education community, learn more about our work and network with other anti-bias educators. We established the board in 2011 to help ensure that our materials are relevant and reflect the diverse needs of educators working in school communities across the country. The board consists of classroom teachers, staff developers, librarians, school counselors and administrators who are currently active in K–12 education, including people working at the university level in teacher preparation programs.
This year, we’re recruiting to fill five slots on the board, and the process is competitive. We are specifically looking for middle school counselors, librarians and STEM educators working in the Mountain and Great Plains regions of the Unites States. The application is now open!
Advisors contribute to TT’s mission in a variety of ways, including but not limited to:
- Giving feedback on content;
- Sharing expertise and practice via our blog;
- Reviewing feature stories for Teaching Tolerance magazine;
- Contributing book and film reviews via the Staff Picks departments;
- Helping program staff anticipate important trends and changes in the field;
- Acting as ambassadors for the program and its mission.
TT Advisory Board members serve two-year terms—the next term begins June 1, 2017, and ends May 31, 2019. Appointment to the board is contingent on the ability to commit to attending our annual summer meeting in Montgomery, Alabama. All expenses are paid for this trip, which is a unique experience to meet with like-minded educators and share ideas while visiting some of the most important memorials and landmarks of the civil rights era. This summer’s meeting will be held July 19-21.
If you think your experience, practice and expertise fit the bill, be sure to apply. The deadline is March 9; new advisory board members will be notified by early April.
We look forward to reading your application!
Social justice education is at the heart of the work I do in schools, and in the past couple of days, one of my mentors, Dr. Maya Soetoro-Ng, reminded me of the importance of coming together with others to make this mission explicit. In correspondence from her position at the Spark M. Matsunaga Institute for Peace and Conflict Resolution, she called on various organizations to post statements on their websites, social media platforms and other spaces of influence and connection that directly speak to their commitment to education for the enhancement of civil liberties, social justice and peace. In this message, she encouraged all of us to explicitly state:
We are part of an American institution of culture and conscience. Our mission speaks broadly of the commitment to human rights, civil liberties, environmental stewardship and positive peace. In order to nourish these commitments, we seek to deepen our understanding of one another and our common humanity, to learn of and teach about the powerful experiences and universal needs of myriad and diverse peoples. We are firmly against any action that discriminates against or unfairly targets refugees, immigrants, women, native peoples, people of color, Arabs and Muslims, because such actions undermine the integrity of the nation and fail to reflect the moral courage that is owed to its people.
I instantly felt that, by communicating this clear and common stance in writing across the communities and organizations we work in, our collective capacity for working together to create positive change grew stronger.
This is the power of a shared message, and it is one of the core reasons I am deeply attracted to Teaching Tolerance’s Social Justice Standards. “The standards provide a common language and organizational structure,” Teaching Tolerance states. “Teachers can use them to guide curriculum development and administrators can use them to make schools more just, equitable and safe.” Through their theoretically sound origins and well-articulated continuum of engagement, the language embedded within the four domains of the standards—Identity, Diversity, Justice and Action—has the potential to link social justice educators across grade levels, geographic regions, diverse populations and public and private settings.
Just imagine what would happen if state departments of education and independent schools across the nation used these standards to reframe the daily experiences of students and teachers. Perhaps we would move one step closer to ensuring “the basic [educational] need for the whole spectrum of thinking/feeling competencies to be taught to all students, regardless of gender and other cultural variables,” as anti-bias education pioneer Emily Style writes in “Curriculum as Window and Mirror.” Maybe then, all of our young people would have access to both the critical content and social emotional approach to teaching and learning that is necessary for building a more empathetic, inclusive and just society.
With this in mind, my colleagues and I at the University of Hawai‘i at Manoa’s (UHM) College of Education Institute for Teacher Education (ITE) Secondary Program decided to use the Social Justice Standards to redesign our teacher education program. Grounded in a commitment to creating an equitable and socially just society, this program will provide our teacher candidates with a transformative learning experience. Specifically, the program will help candidates develop a deep wisdom for teaching. That teaching will be rooted in place and community action, which will in turn serve as a foundation for sparking their future students’ wonder and imagination about how to live in the world. The program will also prepare teachers who will contribute to cultivating schools and learning experiences that provide students with opportunities to create a compassionate democratic society.
With the Social Justice Standards at the foundation of our program redesign, we have been able to come together with a clear and common language for creating program activities, coursework, curriculum and assessments. Additionally, we have a collective voice for communicating what we mean by social justice education to the university faculty, teacher candidates, K–12 teachers and students, and larger communities that we work with.
Just as Dr. Soetoro-Ng and my colleagues in the UHM ITE Secondary Program have done, now is the time for all of us to make our collective stance on social justice education explicit. With resources like the Social Justice Standards, we have the tools we need to, as Teaching Tolerance encourages, “plan and carry out collective action against bias and injustice in the world.” In the words of Mary Kawena Pukui, "‘A‘ohe hana nui ke alu ‘ia:” No task is too big when done together by all.
Makaiau is an associate specialist at the University of Hawai‘i at Manoa College of Education Institute for Teacher Education Secondary Program and the director of curriculum and research at the University of Hawai‘i Uehiro Academy for Philosophy and Ethics in Education.
The first time I asked my students for critical feedback on my teaching, we were on our way back from a fieldtrip to the National Portrait Gallery. As we rode on the metro, I seized the opportunity to ask them about what they like and don’t like about my teaching. I learned about this strategy in Christopher Emdin’s book For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood...and the Rest of Y’all Too. His approach is grounded in Gloria Ladson-Billings’ concept of culturally relevant teaching. The idea is to consult with a small, academically diverse group of students during lunch or after school (or on a train) to discuss how you can improve their classroom experience. Students’ suggestions are put into action, and the teacher continues to meet with the students to receive further feedback.
As the teacher, you have to be ready to accept criticism from your students; you have to overcome pride, denial and anxiety. I was nervous that day on the train as I asked my students about my teaching.
“Do I talk too much?”
“What do you think about the vocabulary strategy?”
“Are students taking advantage of me because I’m too nice?”
The students told me they like my class because I encourage them to share their experiences and opinions. They criticized their peers who get off task when we use tablets. One student wanted more vocabulary practice. After just one meeting, I realized that there were needs and concerns that weren’t being met. My joy over this exchange was tempered by the thought of previous students whose needs I could have better addressed using this strategy.
Back at school, I was eager to hear from students in my most behaviorally challenging class, so I recruited four new participants. They were quick to raise the topic of disobedience during our first meeting. One student pointed to the classroom constitution on the wall and said, “You need to enforce those rules.” The other students nodded. They were concerned about a handful of their peers who consistently talk over me during class.
“You’re too soft.”
“You’re not hard on us like the other teachers.”
They were criticizing me for never yelling or punishing them. I have avoided such practices after learning that authoritarian discipline isn’t effective and is disproportionately used in high-poverty schools. During my first few years as a teacher, I would react angrily if a student’s behavior was excessively disrespectful, but it did nothing but create a stressful learning environment. My next strategy was to calmly send students out of class, but again, this didn’t address the root of the problem. This year, I vowed to keep all students in the room unless they were a danger to themselves or others. For the most part, I have won them over with humor and mutual respect. I try to preempt behavioral issues by planning engaging activities, but the reality is that some days are less engaging than others, requiring students to exercise more self-control.
From a classroom management standpoint, I can attest to improvements in student behavior that were a direct result of these feedback meetings. By simply asking students to talk about their experiences in my class, I have been able to better adapt to their needs. Critical thinking is a core value of my U.S. history curriculum, but I had failed to turn the critical lens upon my teaching. But in doing so, not only have I enhanced my practice, but also the student participants gained a deeper sense of responsibility by contributing to the successful reform of their classes.
Editor’s note: For more information on rethinking your approach to classroom management, see Reframing Classroom Management: A Toolkit for Educators and its accompanying free, on-demand webinar.
Seeger is a seventh-grade history teacher in the Washington, D.C., area and a doctoral student at George Mason University.