This post is by Matthew Aaron Goodman, a Humanities teacher at High Tech High International.
Let’s say Donald Trump isn’t president and the United States isn’t more divided now than since the Civil War. And let’s say we haven’t seen a wave of hate speech, bullying, and violence hit K-12 and colleges campuses nationwide. And let’s say opinion polls didn’t make it seem as if our political, economic, and racial divisions are eternally entrenched. And let’s say we go about teaching as if the content of our classes doesn’t exist in the current context of the United States. And let’s say we share lessons we believe to be meaningful with our students in science and math and history, and let’s say that our classrooms are beautiful, replete with inspiring posters, in-depth material, deeper learning, differentiation, and love. Lots of love. Let’s say our classrooms are overflowing with love. Even still, all that we do, all of our determination and diligence, is for naught.
Because we are teaching in a time of crisis. I’m not talking about the challenges of acquiring 21st Century skills, lack of school resources and funding, systemic barriers to success, or teacher turnover and shortages.
And I’m not talking about how graduation rates for African American teenagers are predicted to decrease by 14 percent by 2023, or how only 2 out of every 10 Latino children who enroll in college obtain a bachelor’s degree.
I’m talking about life and death. Literally. Because suicide among teens is the highest it has been in two decades. But it’s not just the students who commit suicide that I’m talking about. I’m also talking about the attempts that go unreported, the young people who commit acts of self-harm, and the myriad of ways our young people are suffering. Here’s one: There were 11 school shootings in the first month of this year. So, I’m worried. Because the vitriol and divisiveness that permeates our lives can’t possibly be having a positive effect on our children. But what can we, educators, do?
We must collaborate with students and co-construct classrooms as learning communities that testify to the fact that all of our children, from our most vocal to our quietest, from our richest to our poorest, from our most academically gifted to our most academically challenged, from our brownest to our most translucent matter beyond measure. This may sound impossible. But it’s not. Trust me. It’s just demanding.
Now, I know the word demanding is troubling for educators. It implies that we must work harder and so many of us already work to the brink of exhaustion. But the demanding I’m talking about here is how educators must demand ourselves to be less educators and more students of our students, too many of whom are struggling to grasp the absolute value of their unique life.
Here is where I start. Before I get into any planning or curriculum design, I work to answer these seven questions in a specific and detailed fashion:
- Who are the people in the class?
- What is our context?
- What do we want?
- Who do we--individually and collectively--think we are?
- What skills do we need to thrive in our particular contexts and beyond?
- How can classroom empower us to transcend the unique challenges of our lives and the impositions of our troubled country and world?
And finally, and most importantly,
7. How can the classroom we share save us?
By including myself in these questions and using the plural pronouns “us” and “we,” I remind myself that like the students, I’m a work in process, an evolving, uniquely gifted and challenged human being. Like the students, I have things I want and need. Like the students, I too want to be empowered by my daily learning and interactions. And, like the students, because I am human and that means I am as strong as I am fragile, the classroom I exist within must have the capacity to save me--from myself if I’m bent on self-admonition and harm, and from others, who may knowingly or unknowingly damage me. To combat this crisis, our classrooms must be environments that testify to the innate and everlasting glory that is living. Our classrooms must be anchored in the notion that although life can be a struggle, the struggle is also beautiful.
Now, I recognize that question seven sounds grandiose and may be misconstrued as representative of that teacher-as-savior construct, a uniquely oppressive phenomenon highlighted by the work of critical thinkers of pedagogy and education such as Christopher Emdin.
So let me explain what I’m getting at here. I’m not talking about saving students from the hierarchy of power in the United States; and I’m not talking about saving students from racism or any assumptions we, as educators, might have about their lives outside of school; and I’m not talking about saving students from the ills that infect our nation with murderous inequity, or easing up on rigor, or shepherding students through a room of rainbow love, knowledge that lacks consequence, and inflated grades.
Our children are in crisis. And as educators in this crisis we must accept that no matter how great we are, we have not been good enough for far too long. Confronting this fact, educators must include ourselves in the crisis and embrace all that we don’t know. We must practice not just preach deeper learning. We must be courageous in learning about our students, so that our students embrace their transcendent value and learn to be courageous in learning about themselves, each other, and this troubled yet still beautiful world.
Of course, there are skills we must help students develop. There are systems and structures that must be put in place. Students must become better readers and writers and scientists and mathematicians to compete in this 21st Century global economy. As educators, we must be held accountable for this. But these dangerous times demand more than focusing on students’ academic achievement. Today, we must co-construct spaces that can, if it comes to it, save one life if not more.
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