School Climate & Safety Opinion

Where to Begin: Teaching in Times of Tumult

By Christina Torres — February 24, 2017 4 min read
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The biggest thing I remember about my first year of teaching was how high the stakes felt.

I had come to the classroom deeply invested in the idea that education was the silver bullet. I knew that being with students provided me with the unique opportunity to help affect change in the places it was most necessary. It was exhilarating.

It also felt like a heavy weight rested on my shoulders. I was often worried about doing “enough"-- was I bringing up the right subjects in class? Was I doing as much as I could to expose my students to the world and provide safe space? It always felt like there was more I could be doing. It was exciting, but I burned out very, very quickly.

Lately, I’ve been feeling similarly overwhelmed (something which, if I’m being vulnerable, has affected even my writing here). When I returned to the classroom and this blog a few years ago, it felt fast-paced. Every week, there was something new I wanted to tackle, and each week it felt like progress could be made.

This year, while my students still inspire me to action, “fast-paced” seems like an understatement. Between ICE raids and detainments, transgender students being stripped of their rights, or the continued dangerous atmosphere for Muslim students, I admittedly look at the news and feel tremendously overwhelmed. I haven’t known how to begin most days as a person, much less how to try and bring these discussions into the classroom.

Admittedly, I have sometimes been so overwhelmed I’ve just done nothing at all-- one of the worst reactions. Then, this past week, I realized that I was, in some ways, mentally putting the cart before the horse. I needed to start where I knew all things in my line of work begin: with a story.

See, this past year I’ve been researching how narrative writing affects identity through my school. I’ve been having good, but sometimes difficult and confusing discussions with my students about their identities and understanding how perspectives shape the world around them. One of the main reasons I champion narrative writing is because, for me, everything begins with a good story.

The most recent paper my 9th graders are working on has the broadest parameters, and I’ve had a few students struggling with it this year. That’s when I realized I had forgotten something essential: I had forgotten to invest my students in why we were having this discussion to begin with.

So, we took a break yesterday and stepped back for a minute. I had them discuss why storytelling was important to begin with (I’ll share my lesson plan at the end of this post).

Here’s what I’m realizing: when the world around us is crazy, we cannot forget to continually lay the foundational work of love, affirmation, and support for our students by validating their voices and stories. If I want to combat the multiple affronts to equality my students may face in the coming years, I need to ensure they know the space we share is safe for them.

As we move into what I fear are increasingly tumultuous times, it will be common and understandable to feel overwhelmed. Looking at the news, we are in a time of fierce polarization and anger and, unfortunately, our students will bear the brunt of some of that hatred. It would be easy to throw up our hands, say the stakes feel too high, and instead walk away from the game.

We cannot take the easy way out, though. We cannot forget our role not only as teachers but as advocates who fiercely love our students. We cannot forget that part of our job is not only to inspire them and give them skills to enact change and raise their voices but to help reveal the important fact so often lost to them: that their voices are more than worthy of being raised. Their voices are, ultimately, what will move mountains.

  • Before we begin lesson, ask student to silently think about the question, “Why do you think narrative writing or storytelling is important?” They will respond later.
  • Students listen to Inivibilia‘s “Power of Categories” episode (introduction only, about the first 6 minutes)
  • We discuss that categories and assumptions about things are natural and understandable part of how the brain works.
  • Students watch “The Danger of a Single Story.”
  • Students respond to the following questions (for us, this is done in Google Classroom)

    • What does Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie say the problem is with “single stories” (in your own words)? (1-2 sentences)
    • Do you think it’s important for people to tell stories about themselves, their families, or their cultures? Why or why not? (5-8 sentences)

[The Next Day]

  • As students enter, ask them to answer the following questions on the board anonymously. Anyone may come up and write.

    • “What is the ‘single story’ people tell about where you live?
    • “What is the ‘single story’ people tell about you?

  • Students discuss the following question in small group.

    • After hearing “The Danger of a Single Story,” why do you think storytelling and narrative writing is important?
  • Engage in full-class discussion.
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The opinions expressed in The Intersection: Culture and Race in Schools are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.