An Educator's View

b_770_346_16777215_00_images_IMG_1743.JPG6th Graders reading Maniac Magee ask: 

  • How are we to treat people? Are all people to be treated equal?
  • On what basis should we / do we evaluate our fellow human beings?
  • On what basis should we regulate our association with other people?
  • What is a human’s basic purpose in life?
  • Are humans basically good or evil?
  • How can a life gain significance?

Last week, my 6th graders read various articles on homelessness in the U.S. to gain a bigger picture of the novel that we are currently reading, Maniac Magee, by Jerry Spinelli, which touches on homelessness as well as issues related to race. I asked my students to choose two of the seven articles that I had assigned them on Newsela and instructed them to write questions on the board that were coming up for them while reading. As students went to the board with their markers, I was surprised, but also proud to see that their questions focused much more on issues related to racism than I had anticipated. I was proud in that moment because I knew that my students felt safe at IVA to ask these types of questions. Some of the questions included, “Are other minorities treated the same way in different areas?  “Why is there so much racial discrimination in the U.S.A?” “Why do people judge by race or gender, and when did this start?” “In what states is racism most realized?” Not only were they asking questions about homelessness, they were making connections between racism and poverty.

One of the most challenging aspects of teaching is to release control to students while they are having an academic discussion. As teachers, we often we want to guide students into whatever it is we think they need to see or understand. This can feel especially difficult when it comes to discussing racism because there are so many layers to consider, it evokes emotion and struggle, and the discussion is often inconclusive.  Last fall, I was challenged to consider how I could better invite these discussions into my classroom while taking a graduate course at Biola University with Dr. Denise Reid. Our class focused on providing a curriculum that is accessible to all of our students through an inclusive environment and a multicultural education. Dr. Reid says that her goal is to make her students feel uncomfortable. Learning about the institutional racism that has been present in our country since it’s founding and how it still permeates so many of our systems in many subtle and not so subtle ways, shook me. But it also led me to start having more ongoing conversations with friends and to become more aware of how to have these conversations with my students. Dr. Reid helped me to see that I have value in these types of conversations even though my race is not one that has faced decades upon decades of racial oppression. I learned that my primary role as a white woman is to be a listener and to learn from the perspectives and experiences of others.

The intellectual humility of the staff at IVA has been such a profound marker for me about what makes our school unique. No matter the content of our discussions, I have always experienced honesty, open-mindedness, and humility from my colleagues. One of our most recent and ongoing discussions has centered around recognizing that our staff is not as ethnically diverse as our student population. In our efforts to continue understanding how to most effectively teach our diverse group of students, we wanted to learn from Dr. Reid together, and so we invited her to join our Professional Development this past Friday.

There were so many valuable things that we learned as a staff. We were challenged to consider how well we are inviting parents into our space by communicating the thinking and learning that our students are actively engaged in everyday. Dr. Reid encouraged us to see the school as a social resource for our students and families and we discussed how we might better provide this. During our time of reflection, we wondered whether there might be more explicit ways to communicate equality and fairness to our students. We also brainstormed ideas for how to bring in more sources from a variety of cultures. For example, Mrs. Gordon and Ms. Campos talked about how they wanted to provide their students with more examples of scientists from diverse backgrounds. Mr. McCurry and I discussed how we might engage our students in conversations about Imperialism and Colonialism during the time period of Robinson Crusoe.

Dr. Reid also encouraged us to see the ways that we are currently providing an inclusive environment and a multicultural education. Recently, in Ms. McAdams’s Physical Education class, I saw students continuously rotating in pairs to play badminton with different groups of students and watched as they had to resolve conflict through their knowledge of the game. In Mr. Fountain’s history class, I saw eighth graders discuss thought-provoking quotes about how government should be run through the “Microlab Protocol” where students listened to one another for 60 seconds without responding. Though I didn’t get to see it in action, I heard about Mrs. Denis’s art class discussing an image by Israeli artist Noma Bar that expressed his response to the Trayvon Martin shooting. Students were not told the “backstory” of the image, but on their own tied it to the Black Lives Matter movement and the destructive nature of fear and racism. In my own class, my 6th grade students recently read Natasha Tretheway’s “Flounder,” after I heard her being interviewed about diversity on a podcast called On Being.

A flounder, she said, and you can tell/ ’cause one of its sides is black./ The other side is white, she said./ It landed with a thump./ I stood there watching that fish flip-flop,/ switch sides with every jump.” Students discussed the narrator’s experience of being mixed race and how she seems to feel as if she has to “flip-flop” between two identities.

Being a teacher gives me a chance to experience hope everyday--no matter the political climate or anything else going on in the world. I have the opportunity to see my students embrace difficult conversations, to listen to one another well, and to always look for beauty. One way that I find beauty in the world is through poetry, so I’ll leave you with this quote by Natasha Tretheway.

“Poetry allows us to reckon with our troubled past and to imagine the better, more just society that we must continue each day to build. It evokes in us ‘the better angels of our nature,’ eliciting our most humane impulses to engage the humanity of others through the projection of our own emotional knowledge, our empathetic understanding —​ the best knowledge we have for dealing with each other. And deal with each other we must. I have faith in poetry’s ability to help us do so, to wield its ennobling influence on us, and to save us —​ perhaps not as a nation, but one life at a time.”