This post is by Sydney Chaffee, 2017 National Teacher of the Year, 9th grade humanities teacher and instructional coach at Codman Academy Charter Public School in Boston.
Sydney Chaffee supports a student writer.
One email can change the world. At least, that’s what I was trying to convince a roomful of 14- and 15-year-olds last month.
I stood at the front of my classroom explaining our next project to them, which would culminate in writing emails to the U.S. government. We had been learning in my 9th grade humanities class about “how to think like historians.” Using the history of Christopher Columbus’ arrival in the Americas in 1492 as our case study, we’d explored the way history gets written and taught, analyzed texts for bias, debated the reliability of various sources. Now, I told them, they would evaluate the resources about Columbus on the U.S. State Department’s website for English teachers abroad and offer their feedback as critical historians. “Do you think these resources are reliable?” I asked. “Do they tell this history the way you think it should be told?”
Kevin leaned all the way back in his chair and raised his hand. Voice thick with teenage skepticism, he said, “Why are we gonna write to them? You know they’re not gonna write back.”
One of his classmates agreed from across the room: “Yeah, they probably won’t even read it.”
To be honest, I worried that they had a point. Four years ago, my students wrote letters to members of a congressional committee about the prospect of Puerto Rican statehood. They worked for weeks to perfect the letters, and not a single response came back. So maybe they were right. Maybe these emails would disappear into the recesses of the internet, never to be seen again, voices in the void.
Teaching Is a Political Act
As the 2017 National Teacher of the Year, I have traveled around the country and the world talking to people about teaching and learning. Wherever I go, I tell people that education can help us work toward a more just world and that teaching is, therefore, an inherently political act. Helping students raise their voices and step into their own power is activism.
But my students do not always feel empowered. As young people, they rightfully suspect that adults will not take their ideas seriously. They are attuned, as people of color, to the ways a country founded on white supremacy is designed to try to delegitimize or silence them. So it makes sense that sometimes projects like writing emails to the State Department can feel useless.
Over the whiteboard at the front of my classroom, colorful letters spell out the message, “WE CAN CHANGE THE WORLD.” Some days—the hard days—it feels more like a wish than a declaration.
In our current political climate, when white nationalism does not immediately disqualify one from public office, when transgender students’ very identities are threatened, when justice and equity feel far away, we need to believe that our young people have the power to change the world for the better. That means we need to teach them, regardless of our own political leanings, how to work together to create that change. They need to know how to collaborate, how to think critically and creatively to solve problems, how to raise their voices and communicate ideas effectively. These deeper learning skills apply not just to academic work but to activism, too. These are change-the-world skills.
What Kevin’s question reminded me, though, was that all the skills in the world won’t lead to justice unless our students believe that their voices matter.
Student Voice in Action
So what does it look like to show students that their voices are powerful? Last week, I walked around my school listening in on humanities classes. Everywhere I went, student voice reverberated.
In the 10th grade, students were rehearsing for the August Wilson Monologue Competition. They chose monologues that resonated with them from “Fences,” “The Piano Lesson,” and other Wilson plays and worked on bringing the characters to life through their own voices.
The juniors were writing letters to their family members to persuade them which way to vote in this week’s gubernatorial race, having attended a debate and researched major campaign issues.
The seniors typed furiously, drafting “Senior Talks” modeled after Socrates’ Apologia. Their narratives told the stories of their lives, offering life lessons and wisdom to younger students.
And in my room? Dana was telling her classmates about an email reply she’d received from someone at the State Department. “She said I was right,” she explained shyly. “She’s going to look at the book and change it because the stuff in it is old.”
Speaking Up Sparks Hope
If we want our students to be able to work toward a more just world, then we have to ensure that they know the power of their voices. We have to give them opportunities to practice using them—crafting claims, wrangling compelling evidence, wielding rhetoric.
Teaching is political, but it’s also deeply personal. Working with young people pushes us to grow in ways we never could have imagined before we met them. In Hope in the Dark, Rebecca Solnit writes, “Activism itself can generate hope.” For both our students and ourselves, when we unapologetically teach toward social justice, we harness the power of hope. We remind one another of the incredible possibility that lies ahead. We change the world, one email at a time.
Photo Credit: Sydney Chaffee
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