It is late (okay, it’s 9 o’clock, but to me that might as well be midnight). I am exhausted but I worry if that I go to sleep without capturing the incredible moments in my classroom today, I will regret it. So I am essentially copying and pasting an email I just sent explaining a few moments from my day into this blog post. Hopefully, I will make it all sound better later, but for now I just want to make sure that I capture these moments of hope before they drift too far away.
These humans that we get to teach. They are simply incredible. And this week, they have been the one of the few things that made me believe that there is any hope for this messed up world of ours.
So here was our work today.
We have been engaged in a study of using stories from other people’s lives as both mirrors and windows. We started by talking about stories and books as mirrors and used this to begin to build our community of readers. We learned a lot about each other and we learned a lot about the power of books to make us feel less alone in the world.
We then shifted our focus to using the stories of others as windows into lives that are different than our own as a way of better understanding our world and the perspectives of others. Along with this, I am trying to work in our reading unit on questioning. So we have been looking at the many purposes for questioning. Yes, we can question to clarify and seek out needed additional information, but we can also question to seek out multiple perspectives, search for voices that are not being heard, to look critically at information for bias and accuracy and authenticity, and to engage in discussion with others. (Here is a sheet we have been using to track questions that we can use for these different purposes: QUESTIONING CAN HELP US TO…)
So it is was in this context that we looked at a powerful video today. Before watching the video I shared with students that when we listen to the stories of others whose lives and experiences are different than our own, it is easy to dismiss those stories because they are not what we have experienced. Unfortunately, many adults model this. When someone speaks of something we, ourselves, have not experienced, we often react dismissively and believe that their experience is somehow less valid than their own.
What I want my students to start to learn to do instead, what I want all of us to start to learn to do, is listen to the stories of others and use those stories and those words to better understand the lives of others and ask questions that will lead us to seek information that will help us to better understand another person’s story and perspective instead of dismissing it. In this way, we can use questioning not just to be a better reader, but to help ourselves grow into better people by seeking to understand the stories of others by gaining more information and knowledge instead of dismissing someone’s experience because it does not match our own.
That was our lead up. Then we watched this incredible that was shared with me sometime last year: http://www.wnyc.org/story/people-sometimes-think-im-supposed-talk-ghetto-whatever-kids-race/
We watched it once all the way through. Then I handed out this sheet to help guide our thinking:https://docs.google.com/document/d/1sDMSyksvcjWa1stkTMXHauPom-nVeWzEWt2snQv8XjQ/edit
Then we watched the video slowly and I stopped to model when I heard words that deepened my understanding and when I heard words that lead me to questions.
As we worked on tracking our thinking, we stopped for conversation.
At first the kids conversation was fairly shallow and terribly cliche. Their words were based in a lot of “colorblind” thinking. A lot of, “You should not judge a person by how they look.” I worried we were stuck there. So I kept modeling. A lot of, “Hearing this child’s words made me think…” I also made sure to share how I have been discovering my own many biases. This does not mean that I am a bad person, but it means I have grown up surrounded by images and messages that lead me to believe things about entire groups of people that are simply not true. I kept sharing this kind of thinking and my students continued to also push their own thinking through questioning.
And then there was one of the most powerful moments I have ever had as a teacher. A girl began speaking. She was referring to the part of the video where one of the black boys talks about being afraid of walking down the street and being stopped by a police officer. My student started to say, “A kid doesn’t need to be worried…” and then she literally stopped mid-sentence because I think she knew that she was about to dismiss a person’s story because it wasn’t her own experience. She realized she was about to say that this kid did not need to be worried or should not be worried about simply walking down the street. And then she tried again. She said, “I mean, no one should…I mean he doesn’t…” And then she just sort of looked at me. And I responded, “Are you maybe trying to say that no child should have to have had the experiences that would lead him to be fearful of walking down the street? Are you maybe wondering what has happened to that child in the past that leads him to have to worry about this?” And she simply said, “Yes.”
And from that moment, our conversation changed.
The kids became braver and more willing to question. We discussed the difference between thinking about how we wish the world was (one where skin color doesn’t matter) and recognizing the way the world actually is (a person’s skin color determines so much of the way people experience life in this country). We discussed how we might not mean harm by our words, but that they can cause harm nonetheless and we need to accept ownership of that. We discussed that many of us do have expectations when we see a person. We think we know what a person will sound like or how a person will act. We have these expectations because of the images we have grown up seeing. We have them and we have to acknowledge them and work to break them down.
One girl nearly brought me to tears when she said, “What I am wondering is if I have ever said anything that has made someone feel bad about who they are, what they look like or where they come from.” I was truly left speechless. If only more adults would be willing to reach a place of being able to ask this question. If only more adults had the chance to listen to the words of our students.
Eventually, I had to pause our conversation. Time in our day was running out. We kept our notes and will continue our conversation. Tomorrow, I am going to chart the questions they are left with and allow those questions to guide our next phase of work and inquiry.
I cannot tell you what today did for me. What it did for my heart and soul. I am sure there were a million other things I should have and could have said and yet the words of my students and their willingness to grow and think and be challenged, that was so perfect.
Every so often, it’s almost as if we can hear our world changing within the words and actions of our students. Clearly, this one conversation is no where near enough. But I believe that something important was started today.
So often we are left paralyzed with fear when we think of beginning difficult conversations with our students. So often we worry we don’t have enough answers, that we will say the wrong thing, that we aren’t qualified enough, that we will offend someone, that there will be pushback, we are afraid of a million other things. But there are human beings, so many human beings, that right this moment are afraid to walk down the street without getting hurt or beat up or shot or killed. And so our fear, our fear that pales in comparison to that kind of fear, it can not be what stops us.
Instead we have to allow our fear to serve as a signal that we are about to do something of incredible importance and consequence. We have to allow our fear to drive us to learn more and do better and connect with others who are already doing the work so that we are better equipped to do our own work with our own students.
We have to allow our fear to drive us to do better. Because doing nothing, that perpetuates the problems that our killing too many. Allowing students to grow up without these conversations on race, that is allowing our students to grow up to be the people who continue to do the killing, who continue to ignore the problems that exist, who continue to stop our country from being better.
So today. For just a moment. I think I heard our world changing. And I am incredibly grateful to my students for making me believe again that we can do something to change the world. We just have to get started and then keep on working.