We have all been there - those moments when our students take our well planned discussion or question and we are suddenly faced with how we handle situations where students are seeking to better understand difficult subjects. These conversations can degrade into chaos quickly, but student teacher Ms. McEwen found a way to forge ahead and both she and her students learned a lot rather than ending up in a heated argument or avoiding the topic all together. Often we are the ones students seek out when trying to understand difference and diversity. If we can keep our wits about us and find ways to have these tricky conversations, our students will leave our classroom all the wiser for it and maybe, just maybe, it will spread to their peers too. Thank you Ms. McEwen for not only your insight, but for sharing a glimpse into your classroom.
How do we prepare ourselves for the close-mindedness and lack of acceptance that our students bring to the classroom?
As I taught my first solo lesson this semester I felt the confidence and excitement that fills me up every time I stand in front of a group of students. My excitement swayed for a moment as we began our class discussion over the pros and cons of book banning in schools and whether or not they thought that banning books was needed.
"I wouldn't want to read a book about gays and I wouldn't want my son someday to read about gays either." Stated student A. I told him that while I valued his opinion, he needed to be respectful to others in voicing his concerns, but I barely finished responding to his comment when student B piped up in agreement.
"I don't want to become gay, so I wouldn't want to read about gays." I tilted my head in confusion as I stared at the room filled with diversity.
"You guys don't feel that books depicting gay and lesbian couples should be allowed at school because you are afraid they will somehow turn you gay?" I asked with what I'm sure was a humorous look of astonishment upon my face.
"Reading books about gays makes it seem like its ok and its not ok in Gods eyes." Student A asserted. I slowly nodded my head as I gathered up my thoughts, contemplating whether or not to continue on with the topic as it was starting to get some of the students wound up. I know what I would say had this conversation taken place in one of my College classes, but this was a completely different group that I was addressing and I needed to continue in a delicate, but firm way.
"Gay couples are around us every day, we see gay couples everywhere, they're apart of life." Student C chimed in. I looked up at her as if God himself had sent her down to rescue me. I smiled and politely encouraged her to continue. "Just because you see a gay couple on the street doesn't mean that you are somehow going to become gay, if you don't like it look away, but it's part of life." She finished. I had an overly excited moment and applauded Student C before I continued.
"I want you all to think of things you see and hear about on social media, in the news, in movies, radio, television and music." I began. "Now think of all the diversity that is attributed with these things, people of different religious backgrounds, racial backgrounds, social status, gender, age, and yes even sexual preference. Would these shows and movies and social media and music be as exciting to watch or listen to if it was all the same?" There was a quite murmur of no throughout the classroom. "Would you guys want to read a book about a character that you could relate to specifically?" I asked directing my attention to Students A and B. Student B nodded, but Student A pondered my question for a moment.
"What kind of character?" He asked.
"A young black boy, a student in high school." I offered.
"Yeah." He agreed reluctantly. I smiled.
"Well, don't you think that every student has the right to open up a book that may relate to them and things that they may be going through?" There was some productive discussion from a few of the students in response to this question. "Everyone has the right to feel accepted, to feel like they belong no matter what their differences are, we all just have to be open-minded and willing to accept those we may not understand." There was more productive conversation in which I called on a few more students to speak out.
"My thing is..." Student A interjected. "Is that most characters like me written in these books are not like me. I'm a good student and most black boys aren't good students in these books. We placed in a box." I nodded my head in understanding as this was something that I could relate to personally, black stereotypes.
"Have any of you ever read a book called All American Boys?" I asked with a small smile. None of them had. "All American Boys is a book geared towards young adults such as yourselves in which a young black man, such as yourself (I directed towards Student A), is attacked by a police officer after being wrongfully accused of stealing in a convenience store."
"That boy aint like me though, I'm a good student, I don't do all that stuff." Student A cut in.
"Well, this boy is a good student too, he gets good grades, plays on the basketball team, listens to his parents, he simply has brown skin."
"What color is the police officer?" Student B asked. I told him that he is white. "I wouldn't want to read that 'cos that would make me mad at the police. They always messing with a black person." Student B added. We got a little off topic at this point before I called attention.
"This is what I was talking about when I said we all need to be open-minded. Not all police officers are bad, not all black people are bad, there is good and bad everywhere, but we can't censor life. We cant ban an event or a person just because they are different." I pointed to the PowerPoint behind me and looked at the books that were listed by people who have requested that they be banned which consisted of Harry Potter, 13 Reasons Why and Captain Underpants. "You all are aware of the things that are in these books at this age, foul language, blood, alcohol, magic and hopefully underpants." (A few laughs). "Bottom line is, it's up to you whether or not you want to educate yourselves or not, but what does banning these books do for you all as the students?"
"Keeps us ignorant." Student D offered.
"It hides the reality of the world from you all." I nodded in agreement.
Now, what was my question?? Oh yes, there is no way to be completely prepared for how your students are going to respond to a certain topic, not every student is the same which is what makes teaching so exciting and difficult. Warren states that "When hot moments occur because of inter-student dynamics, in ways not related to the subject matter, it can still be important to address the issue and to ignore certain remarks has its own consequences."
This was a very necessary lesson for me to experience. When I am asked why I want to go into education, my answer is always the same. I want to help shape and encourage our youth to become intelligent, confident and respectful adults and although I may forget sometimes, if we're lucky we come across a group of students who help shape and encourage us to be the understanding, respectful and patient teachers that they deserve!
Warren, Lee. Managing Hot Moments In The Classroom. Derek Bok Center. 12 November2007. http://www.cmu.edu/teaching/resources/Teaching/CourseDesign/InstructionalStrategies/HotMomentsClassroom.pdf
Reblogged from: http://mcewenseducationalthoughts.blogspot.com/
Often it is from those newest to our profession that we are able to step back and see what we might need to adjust or reconsider in light of the events happening in the world around us. Here's an insightful post from student teacher Kimberly Kope that encourages us to find ways to broach these tricky subjects and tricky times with our students in ways that are meaningful and build connections. Enjoy!
Becoming the Teacher I Want to Be (Online Reflection #1)“Reading opened up the world” (Rose 21).
I just read that sentence in Lives on the Boundary by Mike Rose, a book assigned to me for one of my classes. I’ve done a lot of thinking about what kind of teacher I want to be and what kind of teacher I will be, and that sentence succinctly states a lot of what I want to convey.
I want to give kids an opportunity to better their lives through reading and writing. I want to expand their horizons. I want to teach them about our civic responsibilities, which Randy Bomer, author of Building Adolescent Literacy in Today’s English Classroom, agrees is important. He says, “It’s essential that [students] be ready to participate in democratic communities, which means not just reading to become informed about those issues that may require a vote but participation well beyond that” (8). I want to encourage that participation.
As I’ve grown older I’ve become more aware of the world around me, specifically what is happening with our government, situations other cultures deal with on a day to day basis that I couldn’t even imagine, and social issues I feel very passionately about. These three items (and many, many others!) are something that can be explored in English class through reading, writing, and research and are things I strongly believe will make my students better people and more prepared to go out into the “real world” and find their place.
But, how do I teach these things? (Me wearing my VOTE shirt will only go so far in teaching civic responsibilities, but I’ll still proudly wear it every November.) How do I promote inclusion and respect? What is the best way to approach topics when students have different stances than I do? How can I make my students understand that through reading they gain many important skills? Or even more simply (and probably the question I will need to focus on first as I embark on my journey of teaching), how will I motivate them to read at all?
Cult of Pedagogy has put together a lot of information teachers can use when teaching social justice in the classroom. Not only does this site give helpful ways to go about teaching some of the important things I listed above, but it helps answer how to discuss topics in class that not everyone will agree on. Cult of Pedagogy warns you to be aware of potential disagreements but “teaching students how to respectfully discuss an issue with people who don’t share their opinions is a lesson that will serve them for the rest of their lives” (Gonzalez). Literature (whether a novel, short story, play, or poem) is full of controversial topics, contains arguments for or against historical problems, and oftentimes tries to be didactic by nature. Being aware as a teacher that issues may arise because of the texts I’m teaching will be important, but teaching my students how to respectfully debate and intelligently cultivate arguments for those debates (or even papers they will be writing for class) will be even more important for my students.
Coincidentally enough, a student in my mentor teacher’s class gave me one answer (of many) to my question about how to convey reading as important and how to motivate the unmotivated. The class is reading A Long Way Gone by Ishmael Beah, a harrowing story about Beah’s life as a child soldier in Sierra Leone and his rehabilitation process after he was taken out of the war. In the first set of reading questions the students were asked to write a reflection/reaction on the first five chapters of the book. This particular student wrote about how he didn’t intend to actually read the book because he never did, but once he picked it up out of curiosity, he saw himself in Beah and was inspired to keep reading. He realized if circumstances in our country were different, or if he was born in Africa, that could be him.
What that means is picking books that students can see themselves in (whether that’s because of a situation they’ve gone through or simply because the protagonist looks like them) is extremely important. Penny Kittle advises to “start where they are” (161), and that is advice I plan to follow. As a teacher I want to make sure my students are represented in the texts they read, and when they’re reading about someone who doesn’t represent them, then through discussion and research learning about new cultures and building empathy will be the goal. Bomer offers another answer to the motivation question by stating (what should be the obvious, but is probably often forgotten), “people generally get more excited about things they have chosen to do” (10). Offering my students choices throughout the year will also be something I strive to do.
There’s so much to think about when designing your curriculum to convey what you believe is important and in getting your students to believe those items are important as well, but being with my mentor teacher’s class for not even two weeks I’ve learned a lot from both her and the students. I can tell this semester will be eye-opening, not only in answering many of the questions I posed but in constantly creating new questions I plan to explore.
Bomer, Randy. Building Adolescent Literacy in Today’s English Classrooms.
Gonzalez, Jennifer. “A Collection of Resources for Teaching Social Justice.” Cult of
Pedagogy, 14 Feb. 2016, https://www.cultofpedagogy.com/social-justice-
Kittle, Penny. Book Love: Devloping Depth, Stamina, and Passion in Adolescent
Readers. Heinemann, 2013.
Rose, Mike. Lives on the Boundary. Penguin, 1989.
Posted by Kimberly Kope at 7:44 PM