I had a chat with my students this week, and it has been weighing heavily on my heart. It’s not a conversation I think I am ever meant to forget. I wrote a reading lesson surrounding the question, “Have race relations in the U.S. improved, gotten worse, or stayed the same?”by tying in To Kill a Mockingbird as the canonical text of reference. We built on the skeletal themes of TKAM, but what really jarred the students was the spoken word piece “Emmett” I played for them as a warm-up. Most of my pedagogy surrounds validating student voice, and this was the first time I let students in on my obsession with spoken word. I expected my students to roll their eyes or scoff at me for trying to, once again, to be relevant in some way.
Instead, I was floored by their reception. Though I did warn students the lesson would be heavy and they could decide whether or not to participate, most students wanted to talk about racial profiling, even at their own school. One of my students did need a moment outside, but this person was able to come back and contribute so whole-heartedly to the conversation. I’m not saying this is ideal…I know in some way, I was bringing what I believe was a necessary risk into the classroom. We talked about the elephant in the room, even reading “Unpacking the White Privilege Backpack.”We talked about the hurt we inflicted on each other. We talked about how “real” the conversation was, and I ran around the room trying desperately to implement my mentor teacher’s advice–value the student voice. Don’t just talk about what you’re interested. Find what’s interesting to them.
I don’t think it was a raging success by any means. In fact, I think my mentor teacher did one better in his later classes. But…it was a start. I had accomplished something, and for once in my very short career as a novice teacher, I got a glimpse of what it’s like to connect with students through a text. I still failed; I didn’t emphasize the traditional text enough, I probably forgot a formative assessment, and some students who were not PoC probably felt incredibly isolated. I bit off more than I could chew, but I don’t know that I would ever stop talking about the master’s tools and our sometimes futile attempts at dismantling the house of privilege. It was desperately hard. It was desperately needed.
One of my students talked about how a teacher at a school made a microaggressive comment about her living arrangements. Many did not know the details about Emmett Till. When they did, they could not stop asking or crying. Others could not stop talking about the privileges in the backpack. Perhaps it wasn’t solid, capital-D discourse in our class that morning. Perhaps it was a flop in pure academic terms or core ELA standards. But…somewhere deeper, something inside us changed. Up to then, I feel like I was just going through the motions of teaching. Quite honestly, I felt a bit trapped by what I interpreted as limitations – in my experience, my procedures, and my severely lacking teacher voice. Something my mentor teacher said really hit home a few days later. I was complaining about how I was too sensitive and needed to toughen up, something my dad had reiterated many times before.
My mentor said this. “Don’t squash it, use what you have. What do you have? Compassion and passion. Use it.”
I’m still working on developing compassion. I’m still working on sorting out all the gears in my teacher toolbox. I don’t know what “ideal teaching” right now looks like. If you ask any of my students this week, they can probably list a whole, lengthy volume of my shortcomings. I’m not there…yet. I’m not a great teacher…yet. (That sounds very conceited, but a teacher’s gotta dream).
Give me 10 more years. Maybe then I’ll have something for you.
-Humbled & Curious