It’s Better to Light One Candle…

Photo by Djruhavi S. via Flicker. Creative Commons 2.0

Photo by Dhruvaraj S. via Flickr. Creative Commons 2.0

I’ve been trying and failing for a week to write a post about Ferguson and racism and our role as educators in discussing it, or about the need to teach digital citizenship in the wake of incidents like what happened to Zelda Williams on Twitter. But the truth is, I feel helpless and ill-equipped. Deep down, I know that’s not true. My mantra since my days as an over-zealous, left-leaning high school freshman in my school’s Amnesty International group has been “It is better to light one candle than to curse the darkness.” I can do something, even if it seems small. I have the theoretical and pedagogical knowledge I need to to talk about these things. I’ve read the right books. I have a computer with internet access, and so thousands of resources at my fingertips, and the critical thinking skills and background knowledge to weed through it all. So why should I feel helpless? As I’ve been trying to write I’ve come to the conclusion (that as a veteran teacher I’m slightly ashamed of) that while I can discuss these things academically, I really don’t know how to talk about them with kids.

Sure, I nodded my head and was inspired in Social Foundations of Education where we read Beverly Daniel Tatum and Ruby Payne, and all of these ideas have served me well in my career. And yes, I’ve been in situations that have opened my eyes to the privilege that exists in being a white, straight, able-bodied person with a college education and a job that puts me solidly in the middle class, even if there are other aspects of my self that aren’t as privileged. And that understanding has helped shape my interactions with students of color, students with disabilities, students who identify as a part of the LGBT community and at least try to be aware of how my own privilege might color my perceptions. I’ve taught in communities where being profiled by police and store owners was (and probably still is) a common occurrence for my students, and I’ve had serious conversations with these students about their experiences. But the kids I don’t know how to talk to are economically advantaged students I teach now–mostly the white students, but not always–about these things.

That all said I’ve been thinking a lot this week about how I am going to counter racist, sexist, and homophobic comments in my own classroom. And I’m still not sure. I tend to address things head on with my students, but as I said above, it’s been a challenge.

What do I say to the white student who accuses his teachers of being racist against him (possibly because he doesn’t really have the words to express that he thinks his teachers are treating him unfairly because he learns differently)?  Last year after several failed attempts to explain that (1) that’s a really serious allegation in our school, (2) I don’t think you really understand what racism is…let’s talk about that, and (3) perhaps your non-white classmates don’t appreciate it when you say that, I ended up giving up and ignoring. Not the best choice. I’m not sure how to help this student see that racism is a huge problem in our society and something that, in all likelihood, neither he nor I have actually experienced. Like I said, I have plenty of academic sounding language (it probably includes the word “hegemony”) to discuss these ideas with adults, but is that really going to make sense to a 12 year old?

I didn’t have to have these conversations with my students at my previous school, because, well, they knew, and it was my role to listen and reflect. I’ve had many other encounters of this sort–where that phrase I hate, “check your privilege”, seems almost the best response. I don’t want you to think it happens all of the time. It doesn’t. But those few incidents add up.

Part of my issue is that in a skills-based intervention course, there’s not often time to sit and have these deeper discussions, and I need to find ways to make space for it. Often when we’re working on expository reading or writing, I’ll highlight a current event, especially something that will spark that sort of deeper discussion. And I’m going to continue to do that, and try to create more space for that sort of discussion. But part of the issues is that I didn’t anticipate having these issues. I probably should have. But I didn’t. And now that I know I can change things at the start of this year. What I do know for sure:

  • Set clear expectations about how we treat each other and what kinds of language is acceptable is important.
  • Look to find more ways to link my reading and writing intervention work to the concepts being taught in the social justice and service learning curriculum that some of our Humanities teams are trying to add to the curriculum.
  • Don’t ignore, but don’t get into a power struggle either.
  • Address things when they happen.
  • Figure out how to talk like a normal human being on subjects like racism, sexism, and homophobia, rather than like an academic (have you guessed that I’m really bad at this? If you’ve read some of my blog entries you already know I have trouble letting go of my academic voice)

I’m hopeful that I can put these things in place and light my one small candle. Any advice? How do you deal with these things when they occur in your classroom?

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