Nearly five years ago, I selected One Crazy Summer for my fifth graders’ end-of-day read aloud. In it, three young sisters are sent to spend a summer with their mother in Oakland, California in 1968, amidst intense developments in the civil rights movement. While the themes of the book are many, race is a prominent issue, mostly presented through the girls’ involvement with a Black Panthers day camp.
As I taught in a mostly middle-class white suburban area, I viewed the book as a great opportunity to discuss civil rights. Still in the naivety of second-year teaching, I was surprised when one student started to be picked up about 15 minutes early every day–to avoid read aloud time. When I asked about it, my student explained the family’s viewpoint that “Lil Bobby” Hutton (whose death the girls were to protest in a march with their day camp) was “a thug” that provoked the police.
At first I was shocked. Then disappointed. After all, didn’t the parents trust that we were having open-ended and lively discussions with every issue raised? Didn’t they see the benefit of considering multiple opinions? Didn’t they know that I would never try to indoctrinate my students with my personal opinions on sensitive issues?
Over time, those emotions faded into the swirl of the years, but I never quite forgot the incident. But in light of the tragic recent events in Baton Rouge, Falcon Heights, Dallas, and more, this memory has resurfaced, and with it, reflections turning inward. How could I have handled the read aloud differently to help this family feel more comfortable with difficult subjects? How can I better use my role as a teacher to promote peace in the future? 3 ideas have come to mind:
- I can avoid assumptions. Everyone has a story, and I can’t even begin to understand the intricacies of every family’s background experience in shaping their current perspectives. But it is unacceptable for me to assume a reason for their sensitivity to or withdrawal from something we do in the classroom.
My job is not to help students to “see the light” in favor of my opinions. Rather, it is to encourage them to ask their own questions and to analyze information as independent and confident learners. Some families may misunderstand even this simple motive if their child appears to start coming home questioning their opinions or family values. Which is why the next two steps are so important.
- I can preface potentially controversial topics with reassurances. No matter how much I’ve worked to build mutual trust with parents throughout the year, at no point am I “done” in that endeavor–especially when we are about to ford hazardous waters. No parent is ever going to respond well to what is even perceived as a “teacher knows best” mindset, even more so when the issue might be emotionally charged.
In the future, I will be sure to dedicate a post on our class blog with not just background on the book or activity, but more importantly, with information on differing perspectives and the respect with which we will be treating that diversity.
- I can share student conversations. Once we get going, I can continue to promote transparency by documenting and sharing the discourse. A SoundCloud snippet, a YouTube video, photos of visible thinking routines–the options are abundant for giving parents a window to see for themselves the impact of open dialogue.
Of course, some of those discussions might be more spontaneous; if that’s the case, this sharing would be even more essential for parents to gain insight on the quality of the dialogue happening in our classroom. (In fact, the more I think about it, the more I think it would be worthwhile to replace my inspirational quote of the day component with a student dialogue of the day section…).
I know this is just a start to changes I can make. But any step toward promoting greater mutual understanding, trust, and compassion for students and their families to engage in a safe environment is one step closer to a more peaceful future.
I would love to learn from your experiences or recommendations. Please share in the comments below!
Featured image: Lisa Ouellette