Education Opinion


By Jessica Shyu — October 12, 2008 2 min read
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I admit, when my students used to misbehave, I occasionally strayed from my consequence plans and would pull a version of the age-old parental guilt-trip: Don’t you know there are children in [insert impoverished country] who don’t even have the privilege of school? Don’t you know they walk miles and miles each day to practice math under a tree using a stick to write numbers in the dirt? And you’re sitting here telling me you don’t feel like solving for x? I’ll tell you: You are lucky to be solving for x. You even have air conditioning.

Much like the traditional parental guilt trip, this strategy only had a 60-40 shot of getting the kids to do what I wanted them to. (“What do you mean you don’t like tofu? Don’t you know you have cousins in China eating only a half cup of rice for their one meal each day??)

But I do think it is critical to expose kids, including our poorest students, to the realities outside of our country. This was something I was very uncomfortable doing when I first started teaching, because I felt that highlighting these facts would make it seem as if I didn’t recognize their own plight. But just because they faced so many challenges didn’t mean I should modify my expectations for them. Doing so would be pitying them, and the last thing my proud, intelligent, witty, insightful, and yes, low-income, students needed was pity. They deserved to understand what else is happening in the world. (Tonight’s thinking was spurred by The New York Times article, “Schools Open, and First Test Is Iraqi Safety.”)

The point isn’t to get preachy on kids or to make them feel complacent about where they are in life, but to give them perspective of our privileges in America (regardless of where you are, because yes, the most under-privileged child living in the mountains of the Navajo Nation has far more opportunities than the average Congolese kid) and to empower them for activism (an element often missing in many of our most under-resourced classrooms where apathy is far more often the norm).

One of the teachers I worked with last year showed her high school students in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas, “Invisible Children,” a film documenting child soldiers in Uganda. This spurred the kids, a normally apathetic group of ninth graders, to start an organization on campus to raise money and awareness about child soldiers in Africa. They convinced their teacher to front money to buy buttons for them to sell publicizing the issue in school, they became part of Invisible Children’s local campaigns, and they recruited students around their community to join in on the efforts-- keep in mind these kids faced very real-world challenges of their own around poverty, immigration and lack of quality education.

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