When I used to teach books & topics in my former school, there were certain background assumptions I could make about my students. I didn’t have to explain Spanish language in the text. I didn’t have to break down issues around injustice whether it was racial, economic, or gender-based. My students were always well aware of the existence of these things and could cite examples of the pervasiveness of these issues in their own lives. That wasn’t the case at Headwaters School. I had to think strategically about what text I was going to teach and what work I had to do to build background knowledge for students because the majority were unaware of how these social issues play out. I had to think about how to create units of study where they not only learned about the stories, but the issues around the stories and the larger commentary on society.
Some important things I’ve learned:
– Students are always interested in these topics because they want to learn more. They feel that it’s relevant and important and current. They want to know what the controversy is about and the history behind these hot-button issues. Needless to say, there’s rarely negative feedback from students when we address these issues.
– I will be questioned and there may be disagreements. I need to be ready for that. Therefore, I am a student of social injustice. I stay current on the news and I read (skimming counts!) articles, essays, blogs, and anything else that can give me more information. I don’t know it all and I share that truth with my students. Then, I encourage them by saying that we’re learning together and that the classroom will be the best space for them to ask questions and research answers.
– In every single unit I touch upon a social issue. Every. Single. Unit. Everything we read has some sort of connection to the real world in this way. Even when the author thinks (like in so-called classics, for example) they’re not touching upon a social issue, they are. We discuss absences, too, such as the absences of black characters or the absences of meaningful female dialogue. We enjoy & critique literature.
– Students want to discuss with each other, and they want to hear new voices. So, I bring in videos, guest speakers, and other ways of sharing new voices on these topics with them. I make sure that our texts are diverse, both in the topics they address and even the format of the text.
– This work is critical. This is why I feel that teaching is valuable. This is how I make sure that my students become empathetic and culturally competent. This is also how I can be ME with them. These are the issues that matter to me. These are the issues that impact my family and my hometown. This is the work that ensures me that they won’t grow up to be the people that spew hatred and ignorance at people like me.
This is what gives me hope.