September, 2017

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The 2017-2018 School Year Begins With Questions

The first day of school, the impression that one gets, is so critical to everyone involved in learning. This year? You may need to rearrange your classroom and your way of thinking. The question to educators at the beginning of this school year should be: how are you going to teach social justice and make students feel empowered at the same time? Teaching tolerance, social justice, and diversity promote further discussion on the topics. Educators need to begin that discussion. But! In order to have an authentic learning experience about such concepts through discussions and student-centered lessons, the classroom must be a safe haven first, as I have mentioned in my Mission Statement. Once the students and the teacher feel safe, begin the discussion; discuss student fear, sadness, and doubt. And ask yourself, ask students, what role can we play to help prevent bigotry and stop the violence in our community and in the United States?

Perhaps you first need to examine your own teaching practices; be aware of anything you think you could change to make the learning setting an anti-racist atmosphere any more than it is. Children and teachers both must have a voice that explores anti-racism together. As Educators, we are obligated to create a positive sharing environment. As I said before, children’s voices are the loudest and most profound. Listen, really listen, to what students say and what they share. They have much to say and would love to be heard.  It is difficult sometimes, or rather challenging, to keep bias 100% out of your learning environment. If we are not careful, we may influence a child to make a different choice because of something we instilled in them. Educators are human. We make mistakes in the learning environment. We do sometimes fail, yet we also succeed. If we can manage to keep bias out of the classroom? We will achieve success in promoting equality for all. What is happening across the US affects everyone living here. That includes students; it needs to be addressed.

The beginning of this school year will be different for a number of reasons, but particularly because of recent events, the air will be heavy with questions, and there must be school responsiveness. There is a cultural upheaval going on, not just events in North Carolina, but across the US and around the world. We also must include Hurricane Irma and Harvey in Houston and all other current events. How do you resolve to teach lessons at the beginning of this school year that is factual and does not involve opinions or bias? As adults, we may feel anxiety, sadness, fear, and anger because of these events. Imagine how an eleventh-grade student may feel on the first day of school. Now, imagine how a second-grade student may feel on that first day. We must be factual, compassionate, understanding, and empathetic when the questions are bound to begin.

Working as a team in the classroom is a significant accomplishment. I really could not figure out what picture to use. I finally selected the photograph above because it is a symbol of what can be accomplished if we work together. As with just about everything, relationships are interdependent. In this photo I am in the middle of a pyramid, working together with my friends to make it work. It took a bit of trial and error, yet we managed to take two pictures. We worked together to get the perfect pyramid, and to us, it was. Just as with my pyramid, relationships in any learning environment should also be symbiotic. Student relationships with their peers, teacher to student relationships, and the learning environment – as a whole – create a classroom dynamic. Working together, students and teacher, in these educational roles, putting forth an honest effort, is crucial to the success of the students. If we didn’t work together to create our imperfect pyramid? It would never have worked. Teamwork is critical.

The teacher and students will then create a safe learning environment. I believe this is important to emphasize beginning on day one. Bring on the team building and icebreaker activities! Show students through lessons and activities that we can depend on one another and trust are needed to create a safe and honest educational setting. Educators must prepare a curriculum that answers the questions that are bound to be asked.

We have to ask ourselves and our students, under the circumstances of our country today, what role does each of us play? We know that racism exists in our communities. To begin, write a letter to the class. Read it to the class on the first day. What you want to do is engage students in discussions about diversity that might not take place otherwise. Define community as it applies to your students. Then, discuss the classroom community using a higher level of thought. Ask open-ended questions. Discuss what is acceptable within our classroom community. This is the perfect time for students to create a classroom constitution that contains rights, privileges, and responsibilities. Wants vs needs and rights vs privileges. The students work together to positively frame sentences that are optimistic and work towards equality in the classroom. You could frame it and hang it on the wall for the entire year, for all to see, upon completion. Refer back to it throughout the entire school year. Help students understand the differences between all three. Record this lesson to show parents, use in student conferences, and take pictures to use for a bulletin board displaying how you worked together as a team to create your classroom constitution.

A great way to explore diversity in the classroom is through anti-racism role playing. You want to have an authentic experience, but will they be their authentic selves? Get to know your students during this time. Listen to them. Make the lesson student centered. Ask the essential questions to get a response that is thoughtful and analytical. Students are typically very expressive. Role playing is a way to be entirely dramatic to get a point across. Students are allowed to express themselves with creativity. Set the scene, and let the students run with it. Guide them if they get off track. Make sure everyone is equally involved. You want the students to understand, given certain circumstances, that anti-racism is the goal. They need to understand what it feels like to be in another’s shoes and be given another’s perspective. How would they want to be treated in these particular situations?

Once your students understand empathy, introduce a book based on true events. The Only Road is a book I recommend. It is intended for ages 8-12 and grades 3-7. I disagree with that. I find the book to be intended for upper elementary at the earliest! Fifth grade through young adult readers is what I recommend. Third grade is too young. It is shocking. I recommend an introduction to the author first, Alexandra Diaz. She is an amazing woman who lives in New Mexico. One more thing that makes the book stand out is her third person narration. It is a must read. There are also many Spanish words in this book; readers will find a Glossary in the back. I love that! In this way and many others, The Only Road, is challenging. This book is incredible. The story involves young teens in Guatemala entrenched in a horrific story to get to the US. There are also suggestions for further reading from picture books to young adult books. Additionally, there are online resources for more information.

Author, Alexandra Diaz, includes a separate section of further reading for teachers that may not be proper for children. Okay, that being said, this is an intense book. I am not saying that flippantly, I mean it. It deals with struggles of death, of violence, and it also happens to be inspired by true events. Read the entire book, of course, before sharing it in class. I suggest it as a read-aloud, in class only, together. Use stopping points, allow for wait time, discuss student answers, answer questions, pre-select your critical questions, and allow time for processing. As I said, this is an intense book and it is shocking; to be used in an older, large group setting

There is a need now, to discuss concepts, to teach concepts, that I have mentioned here: empathy, tolerance, bias, social justice, diversity, bigotry, anti-racism, perspective, rights, privileges, and responsibility. As a teacher, I believe it is my responsibility to do so. Teaching for social justice and anti-racism is some of the most important work we can do as teachers. The whole purpose of working as a team is to understand we will come to an understanding of equality for all, together. When you do? Then the students will be empowered.