What Do I Say To My Students?

A teacher friend just asked me how I plan to talk to my students about Charlottesville on the first day of school. The country is on fire. White supremacy has taken over the White House. People are dying in the streets. What am I going to say?

I do have a plan about what I’m going to say to the students in my English classes on Wednesday about the political turmoil in this country.

It’s the same plan I had at the end of the summer of 2016 in light of the murder of Philando Castile and the police officers in Dallas. And the year before. And the year before. I’m entering my twenty-third year in the classroom. There has never been a year in my career that was not fraught with social injustice.

So here’s what I’m going to say about Charlottesville to my students on the first day of school. Ready?

Nothing.

You may disagree with that approach and that’s cool. I have my reasons, though.

  • Kids hate being preached at. Even ones who agree with their teacher hate it when the teacher becomes the preacher.

 

  • The curriculum I teach is English, not Mrs. Wanket’s Political Views. The curriculum of English is vital to ethical and intelligent citizenship. Can’t waste class time.

 

  • On the first day of school, young people are biologically focused mainly on how much they have to go to the bathroom, how hungry they are, how sleepy they are, how cute their crush is, and who they are going to sit with at lunch. They seem like a captive audience. This is an illusion.

 

  • The students who do not agree with me that White supremacy, global warming, and seriously dangerous men in the White House are real are almost surely reflecting the views of their parents. If I say that their ideas are wrong, they are hearing that their parents are wrong and therefore I think they themselves are fundamentally wrong in the cells of their making. This is not a path to trust and rapport, which I need in order to impart the skills of the actual curriculum.

As an educator deeply concerned with issues of social justice, however, I promise that I will:

  • Teach the curriculum of my classes to the best of my ability, using all of my professional skills to reach every learner.

 

  • Enforce strict rules of respectful engagement and give plenty of chances to practice them in classroom debates and discussion.

 

  • Show respect for all students, including those who would disagree with me.

 

  • Allow all of my students, including those who are divergent from the dominant paradigm, know that I am an oasis of acceptance and support for their emotional health as well as their high academic achievement.

We’re here for the long game, teacher friends. Your students will quickly learn of your commitment to social justice and equality by your example and demeanor. Your actions and authenticity will have far greater impact than anything you say on the first day of school.

Anyway, it’s never my business to use my classroom as a soapbox. Not even now. It is my business that my students learn to back up their arguments with fallacy-free logic and fact, not with tiki-torches, mob mentality and murder. Besides, soapbox teachers so often turn their students off, if not to the message then to the source. I can’t teach young people who walk into my classroom already determined to not listen.

What do you teach? Computer Science? Biology? Algebra? It’s all necessary. Believe it.

I’m not suggesting that all supporters of White supremacy are uneducated. Yet White supremacy is built on ignorance, hate, bad history, and breathtakingly flawed logic. The more our students learn to critically think, the better for all of us.

The more academic opportunities for our historically marginalized students, the better for all of us.

Teaching time is a precious commodity. Whatever your curriculum, the work of education is some of the most powerful social justice work we can do right now.

Let’s roll up our sleeves and save the country.

 

8 Comments

  1. Kate Davis

    Thank you Maureen! You said what has been on my mind and heart as I prepare for the new semester starting in another week. I will have 120 freshman in my intro to environmental studies class. They are only a breath away from your high school students. Here is my opening line(s):

    If you stand at the edge of the ocean and close your eyes you will hear, and hopefully feel, the heartbeat of the Earth. If you stand in a forest or on a grassland prairie when a sweet wind is blowing you will hear and smell the breath of the Earth. When you leave my classroom in December I hope you leave with a sense of the beauty of the world we live in and the essential nature of our connection to those salty seas and deep forests and the creatures, large and small, who live there. I hope you leave with new critical thinking skills, leave as better writers, and leave as people with a greater understanding that we are part of nature. This class isn’t just about the damage we have done. It is also about the beauty that surrounds us and lives in us. I hope you leave with a commitment to be better stewards of this Earth because you feel more a part of it than when you sat down today.

    I want them to leave with a sense of beauty and wonder and the idea that they can do something positive. If they leave with sharper critical thinking skills, if they leave as better writers, with a little more confidence in themselves then I’ve done my job. I don’t want them to parrot me any more than their parents. As you said, this is the most powerful social justice work I can do – so I’m with you, my friend, let’s go save the country.

    Kate

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for reading!

      Like

  2. shannon Mooney

    This is one reason you are an excellent educator. My son Nick loved your class (as much as that “sweet” boy could love any school class – that will make you smile if you remember him). Another one of my kids will enter CB this year. I hope he is lucky enough to have you for a teacher during the next 4 years. Look out for him. He tends to be on the quiet and shy side, quite the opposite of Nick. Love reading your blog.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It was an honor to be Nick’s teacher. Here’s to another great school year!

      Like

  3. This is exactly what I’m thinking too! So glad I came across your post. I teach high school English, mostly dual credit. No matter what’s happening, I want my students to be able to think about different perspectives and be able to back up full and complex arguments. Thanks again!

    Like

    1. Have a wonderful beginning to your semester!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Love this, Maureen.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, my friend.

      Like

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