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Teaching Opinion

Together With Hope: A Teacher’s Holiday Reflections and Local Actions

By John T. McCrann — December 24, 2015 5 min read
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Sarah Koenig’s new season of Serial—the long-form journalism podcast—investigates Bowe Bergdahl’s capture in Afghanistan and subsequent release. “To get the full picture,” she writes, “you need to go very, very small, into one person’s life. And also very, very big, into the war in Afghanistan.”

Teaching too requires us to empathize and analyze on small and large scales. We must grapple to understand the complexity of individual students’ lives and the world as a whole. The opportunity to combat large-scale injustices by working alongside young people is what first drew me to the teaching and continues to make me excited to come to work each morning.

David Sherrin, a history teacher at our school shares this passion for looking at the big questions facing our world through our interactions with students. His work bringing the global to the local was honored with the Robert H Jackson National Award for Teaching Justice and is masterfully explained in his recent publication The Classes They Remember: Using Role-Plays to Bring Social Studies and English to Life.

David often pushes me and our staff at Harvest Collegiate High School to connect what we are doing to the larger world and the issues facing it. He did so beautifully in an email to our staff two weeks ago and I asked him if—in the holiday spirit and in the spirit of challenging educators to think deeply and broadly about our practice—he would allow me to republish it here. I hope you find it as thought provoking as I did. Please ask questions, provide thoughts, and share your own big and small stories in the comments section and on Twitter.

Hi all,

This is a strange email, I think, but one I feel compelled to send. I think it is because Harvest is my current intellectual community...the only place I have to share ideas with a group. In one sense, it is an email about religion, but not about preaching a religion but instead thinking about religion’s place in a very strange and uncertain time.

Since the Spring 2014 when ISIS began taking over large swaths of Iraq I have been taken by a sense of fear and foreboding for what it would mean for the region and the world. Somehow I sensed it was something big. Unfortunately, I was right. For a while the reports were about sex slavery, possible genocide against Yazidis. Then it moved on to terrorism, the humanitarian crisis in Syria, and refugees streaming into Europe. Now, of course, much attention is also rightly placed on the horrible anti-Muslim backlash in the United States (and other Western countries), attacks on Muslim citizens, hate crimes, anti-Muslim immigration policies, and Trump’s discriminatory policy proposals. We seem to be on a collision course and no one is certain how to get us out.

I have a sense of dread about this. Perhaps it is from an understanding that we are no wiser than my grandparents’ generation and their generation was WWII.

It hit me harder today when I had a discussion with my class about whether they were hopeful for the future of the country and the world and their answer was resoundingly “no.” I thought back to the fact that when I was their age it was the mid-1990s...admittingly, I was a teenager in a wealthy suburb, but the future just looked so promising. We were just too legit to quit.

Now we are in the holiday season, which I love, because of all the hope it brings. Hope that families will be together and happy. The festival of Chanukkah is, actually, really a festival of freedom. And while I am an observant Jew, I particularly love Christmas...the lights in my neighborhood are wonderful and I listen to Christmas songs in the morning and evening.

It is hard to balance the beauty of a holiday season in NYC with the despair in which such a huge percentage of our world is living.

As teachers, I wonder whether we need to discuss more how we deal with educating youth in an increasingly scary world. What are the conversations we need to have, ranging from climate change to terrorism to racism? Some of us cover these topics explicitly, like the Climate Change class currently being taught in 11th grade. But when our topics don’t particularly touch on the crises surrounding us, we’re not always sure where or how to have the conversation. Sometimes it seems that we have such a small piece to play in the larger political world. Other times, I’m astounded by the power we have. Just this week, focused work in the LH meeting to talk about one student led me to learn she was no longer living with her mother, led me to have a direct conversation with her, she opened up to me, and then on a side note we managed to totally reframe her essay to make it about something she was interested in. But it could only happen through the work of a team and then the use of a simple question: “how are you?”

In any case, the other thing that got me thinking a lot was a message about an interfaith Chanukah lighting ceremony this Saturday. It occurred to me that so many people in the cosmopolitan bubble of the East and West coasts only have an interaction with religion that involves reading about anti-gay policies, abortion clinic bombings, and terrorism. They rarely get to see the force that positive religious interpretations and wise religious leaders can have on their communities. In the religious/secular gulf in our country and our world, we rarely get to understand the possibility of the religious “other” in an intellectual way as having the potential for positive contributions to social justice and to tolerance.

If our communities can come together with the hope, still, that people of various religions can learn to understand and respect each other, my aspiration is that we can think of ways at Harvest to address global tragedies while still cultivating a sense of hope for a better world among the teenagers that we teach.

Happy Holidays,


David Sherrin teaches Social Studies and English at Harvest Collegiate in New York City, where he was a founding teacher and is the department chair. David is the author of The Classes They Remember: Using Role-Plays to Bring Social Studies and English to Life, which helps teachers learn how to use role-plays to allow students to take on the roles of historical or literary figures, develop a greater understanding of characters’ identities and motivations, and deeply explore and reflect upon key issues and themes. David was named a New York City Master Teacher for 2014-2015 and was the recipient of the 2014 Robert H Jackson Center National Award for Teaching Justice.

Photo: http://free-stock.photo/images/advent-12511.html by Pixabay

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