Reflecting in the Wake of Tragedy

Today’s post is a difficult one for me to write, and perhaps, that’s exactly why I should write it. With more murders of Black men and women occurring at the hands of police officers (at the hands of other also), I find myself trying to figure out what I can do to stop these tragedies. As a teacher, I know that it is my responsibility to educate my students about systemic racism and privilege. And I know I need to make sure my students have a voice that they are confident and capable of using it, but I must also teach my students to listen

Listening, in my classroom, will begin not only with my reading and watching everything I can find but will also include having my students read and watch as much as possible. I am fortunate to have colleagues who share incredible readings and videos with me, but I am also a strong proponent of asking students for their input.

The bulk of this post will consist of me reflecting on an experience teaching a race and diversity unit during student teaching at Newburyport High School. I do, however, want to acknowledge that I am by no means an expert on this topic, and as someone who has not experienced this firsthand, as someone with privilege trying to empathize and listen, I want to make sure that it is understood that I am not an expert, do not claim to be, and do not want this post to speak for or over the experiences of anyone.

After spending some time with my seniors at NHS, I was very much interested in teaching a unit on race and diversity with them. With my sophomores, it was obvious that social justice was always on their minds and constantly acknowledged– my sophomores were the kind of students who knew, at such a young age, that they had privilege. However, my seniors weren’t as vocal about this understanding. Because I wasn’t sure how much my seniors had been exposed to the issues of diversity, race, and privilege, I spoke with my amazing cooperating teacher and we agreed to create a two week mini-unit right before I left for the seniors. When we first envisioned that unit, we planned a lot of readings, but we quickly realized just how fast two weeks would pass, so we decided to forgo some of the readings in favor of some videos. For a list of different videos and readings we either did or considered using, check out the blog I created to store everything: Senior Seminar (note: some of the readings we wanted to use couldn’t be posted on WordPress for copyright reasons, so this does not include everything).

I want to talk about one of my classes in particular, and their reaction to this unit. This class amazed me. First presenting the topic to this class, I had them fill out an anticipation guide in which they had to agree or disagree with different statements about race and diversity. I chose 3 to discuss in a 4-corners style activity. Before we discussed I gave them a long speech about respect and the importance of listening and thinking before we speak, etc, etc. I was really scared the conversation would go poorly like another class’s had. But they were incredible. Students who usually made jokes out of class discussions were making articulate points about racism and how they believe it is still a problem. One of my students in particular truly inspired me; this was a student who was fairly quiet– he was clearly a smart, sweet kid, but he didn’t participate a lot in class and was sometimes disengaged. He made articulate point after articulate point, talking about stats he learned from different videos. He later gave me the name of a Vice video (Driving While Black) and asked me if we could watch it with the rest of the class–he thought it was really important. Now this is where the important role as a teacher-listener comes in– you need to be willing to listen to your students and learn from them! We watched the video as a class, and these students continued to amaze me with their discussions and their journals.

Now obviously, this was a class that was very accepting and knowledgable about these issues. I am not naive enough to think that it would go this well with any and all classes (trust me, I saw it go differently as well), but I think not only do we need to talk about these issues in our ELA classes for the students who are already allies, making them even more knowledgable and vocal in their fight for change, but also for the class that doesn’t understand anything about racism and privilege– this class needs to at least be introduced to these issues in hopes that they will eventually see what is really going on in the world. And with a more diverse classroom, reading minority authors and talking about social justice not only allows them to listen to authors with (potentially) similar experiences to them, but also helps them find their voice so they can speak up for themselves and speak out against the injustices and the tragedies occurring in our country.

Please let me know if you have any resources about this topic that you can share. I am listening, and I want to learn more.

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