Category: Education

A Million Different Directions

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One by one, tiny pixelated faces began populating the grid on my monitor.

“HEY! LET’S SEE WHO’S HERE! WOWOW! I MISS Y’ALL SO MUCH!” I shove my face towards the camera, checking out my pores and zooming in on my flared nostrils for comic relief. A few students giggle, but most of them seem pretty nervous. Maybe I’m just projecting my own anxiety on them. Probably a combination of both.

For the next thirty minutes we engage in our first ever virtual check-in. The kids who try to dominate class discussion try to dominate the virtual space as well, gabbing effortlessly about the latest news they’ve heard. Some of the less extroverted kids appear only as half moons at the bottom of their video window, the top of their heads stuck like hesitant suns unsure whether or not to rise in the morning. Dogs and babies make appearances. Every now and then a parent walks in and waves. There’s no agenda or clear instructional purpose.

I held this virtual check-in because some parents and kids asked me to. And because I know other teachers are doing it. I know other teachers are doing it because social media is awash in stories, slices of life, and think pieces about the intersections of the Coronavirus and public education.

“HERO TEACHER READS STORIES OUT LOUD TO STUDENTS EVERY NIGHT”

“TEN WAYS TO USE ZOOM TO TAKE YOUR VIRTUAL TEACHING TO THE NEXT LEVEL”

“TEN WAYS USING ZOOM VIOLATES YOUR STUDENTS’ PRIVACY”

Some posts make me roll my eyes, and others make me jealous inspire me to do things like hold the virtual check-in described above. Then there are the posts that hollow me out. The statistics about the percentages of children who rely on school lunch for food. About inequity in instructional practices. About the connections between quarantines and domestic abuse.

I know I’m not alone in my panic. Every morning my inbox is full with frantic questions from students and their families. When will you begin virtual teaching? Can you be virtual during the same hours as the school day? When will you be sending out a detailed list of instructional activities and due dates? Why aren’t you grading anything? Why are you grading anything? How can I make sure my child is ready for 8th grade/high school/college/life?

I have no idea; I’ve never been here before. None of us have. I don’t fault any families for trying to do what they think is best for their child. In the face of so many needs, I just don’t know what to do.

There is a paralyzing amount of information to take in, much less sift through critically and responsibly. What is my charge? How can I best help students right now? And what if what’s best for students isn’t necessarily what’s best for me and my family?

My family, like many, has been fractured by this. My wife must remain tethered to her work computer because her company expects their employees to be online at all times. (So much so that they actually track when someone is online and when they’re not. This is apparently somewhat common among white collar jobs. As a teacher, this combination of surveillance and technocratic accountability gives me the heebie jeebies.)

This means I’m entertaining my 21 month old daughter. The notion that I could hold some sort of virtual class, concoct meaningful lessons that are developmentally appropriate and accomplishable without teacher intervention during this time is ridiculous. Toddlers are anti-routine. The Coronavirus is anti-routine.

I’m incredibly fortunate to have my mom and her partner close by. They have generously agreed to watch Joelle for a few hours during the day. During those precious hours I rush through my daily teacher upkeep (so many emails!), complete my chores, maybe try to fit in some exercise, and do whatever other random things pop up. My ADHD adds another layer of chaos to the situation. I depend on those hours to maintain some sort of status quo.

Right now, my status quo is NOT healthy. It is heavy. It is tempered by the fact that my students and I are all stuck at home. It is bloodshot from the trauma. The statistics. The daily news of a world on fire. Elected officials bartering human life for stock profits. Communities reeling from waves of loss. Everyone being pulled in a million different directions at once.

Against and within this backdrop I wrack my brain for some direction that feels ethical, moral, and just. Right now it’s the best I can do to think small. Reduce the size of my world to something manageable. I can be gentle with myself as I steal away from the country’s obsessions with standards, scores, and scales. Hold myself and those I love close, pick a direction, and move. One foot in front of the other.

Photo by Evan Dennis on Unsplash

Sometimes Parent Teacher Conferences Hurt

I leave today’s parent teacher conferences feeling both rejuvenated and queasy. On one hand, there’s nothing like sitting down with families to discuss their children’s education. I love how these parent teacher conferences make me feel. They make me proud to be a teacher. My spirit is fed by the immense responsibility of guiding children through their formative middle years.

In these meetings talk of goals and life trajectories encircles us. We revel in the shared purpose of enriching our communities and our worlds. The best parent teacher conferences reveal and strengthen the profound connections we have with each other. The resulting sense of shared responsibility and accountability cannot be replicated by standardized test or top-down initiative.

When we’re all on the same side, it feels like we are the village.

But sometimes parent teacher conferences can hurt. In these moments I feel like a spectator, an unwilling voyeur forced to watch a parent spirit murder their young. Words can cut. They can accrete over time, slowly rotting away a child’s identity and confidence until there’s nothing left. I’ve watched parents bully their kids into submission. I’ve watched children shrink before my very eyes. Watched them tunnel into themselves until they become nothing more than a ventriloquist’s dummy mindlessly parroting back whatever they’re told.

When this happens, I have to change tactics. I try to highlight the child’s strengths, relate an amusing anecdote, crack jokes, do anything to short circuit or at least redirect the crumpling gaze of a parent who has lost themselves. Even when I’m able to successfully defuse a situation, I know the relief is temporary. I’m only bearing witness to a sliver of whatever is going on. And there is always something going on.

The possibilities are numerous and formidable: toxic masculinity, inequity, substance abuse, a disastrous lack of social services. Generational patterns of abuse and neglect that leave so many of us broken and gasping for air. During such conferences I become acutely aware of how small I am. How small we all are when the profound love of family and community festers and turns against us.

As I leave the building for the weekend, I struggle to process what I’ve just experienced.  The horrors I’ve witnessed leaking out of some children rests uneasily beside the protective aura of unconditional love emanating from other children. It is a juxtaposition without resolution.

 


The events detailed in this post draw from my multiple experiences at multiple schools across multiple years. 

Point Sheets Make Me Want to Barf

“HERE” Martin thrust a crumpled sheet of paper at me. Before my mind could figure out what I was supposed to do with this botched piece of origami, I noticed the telltale Google Docs table outline that could mean only one thing: a point sheet.

For the three folks reading this who aren’t teachers, a point sheet is a common method used by schools to try and shape a student’s behavior. Teachers and student decide on a couple of academic, behavioral, and social goals to focus on and track throughout the day. The goals are usually pretty standard: completes all classwork, comes to class prepared, etc. The kid carries around the point sheet with them from class to class. At the end of each class, the teacher is supposed to mark off on the sheet whether or not the student met the goals. Point sheets draw from crude behaviorist notions of behavior modification.

I smoothed out the paper on an empty desk, clicked my pen, grabbed my laser pointer, and read. The instructions were clear. Each of Martin’s teachers were to put a “1” or a “0” next to each goal. A 1 meant Martin needed fewer than two reminders, whereas a zero meant he needed more than two redirections.

Martin’s goals were as follows:

  1. Treat teachers and students with respect.
  2. Complete all classwork.

Regardless of the relative simplicity of the point sheet’s instructions, Martin’s sheet was covered with a variety of symbols. Some teachers went with a check/check minus/check plus system; some teachers used checks and X’s, and other teachers filed the margins with last minute explanations and commentary.

My brain poured through its videotape of the class period that had just ended. Doing this with the particular brand of objective fidelity required by the point sheet would be challenging under any circumstances. It was especially vexing in the unadulterated chaos that is the interstice between two class periods.

Martin hovered next to me, hopping from his left foot to his right as he waited and watched. “I did good today, right? Right, Mr. Anderson? I did good today. My mom really wants me to do good today. I’ll get my phone taken away by my dad if I get any bad marks. But I did good today, right? Better, for sure. Right?”

I mean, Martin DID do well today. But here’s the thing: it took an Herculean amount of effort to get him there. I parked myself next to him whenever I could. That way anytime he ran his mouth (which he was forever never not doing), I could steer his monologic flow back towards the assignment. He worked on his handout, but he didn’t complete it. So what does that mean for his point sheet? If I use a literal reading of the goal, then I would have no choice but to give him a zero. But what if I overplanned the lesson? What if the instructional sequence I designed for the day was confusing? Maybe Martin found neither value nor relevance in my lesson. In that case, am I just asking him to do what I tell him to just because? Do I want to be cultivating students who value compliance?

His second goal, being respectful, was equally challenging to capture in a yes/no binary. Throughout the class period Martin required multiple redirections and nonverbal cues to stay on task. He interrupted me, made fart sounds at a student, and shouted non-sequiturs during the warm-up. He was currently flashing the laser pointer he had deftly yoinked from my hand around the room, narrowly missing several students’ corneas.

I spend more energy on him than most of the other students in his class combined. If class were a pinball machine, I’d be the rubber bumpers and Martin would be the pinball. He keeps plummeting towards the bottom and I keep catching him and boosting him back up. The game is played at a feverish pace. There’s no end. I just try to avoid running out of quarters until the timer runs out.

But was he disrespectful? Were his actions throughout the 42 minute period indicative of someone who is unkind and malicious? Martin is a neurodiverse student who struggles to fit into the complex mazes of overly punitive policies that form the core of public schooling. I’m not familiar with his home life, but I’d bet my job on some form of trauma in his family history. I’m not making excuses, just trying to understand exactly what is going on with this intelligent, quick witted, and observant adolescent in front of me.

In many ways, the point sheet can be seen as a synecdoche for school. Despite whatever’s going on at home, despite the energy I’ve spent cultivating a relationship with Martin, regardless of the staggering amount of labor I’ve expended trying my best to create rigorous, engaging, and culturally relevant lessons, at the end of the day, it all comes down to a single mark. There is no room for nuance or complexity. When the needs are so great and the resources are so few, everything is flattened and reduced.

Exhausted, I sign off on his point sheet, grab the laser pointer, and tell him to go to his next class. He looks at my notations and shouts “LET’S GO!” before plunging head first into the throng of students milling around outside my room, knocking down a sixth grader and sending assorted books and pencils flying in the process.

Later that afternoon I pack up my stuff and head out of my room ready to go home when something catches my eye: Martin’s point sheet crumpled up and ground into the carpet. It must have fallen out when he careened into that sixth grader. I shove it into my pocket, telling myself I’ll check in with him first thing tomorrow morning. But I don’t. I forget. Thank goodness Martin doesn’t get to fill out a point sheet for me.

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-For the sake of anonymity, this post draws inspiration from a variety of students. “Martin” is not a stand-in for any particular student but instead a composite of many of the wonderful kids I’ve been fortunate to work with.

Be Curious, Not Furious: On Student Behavior

James* bursts into my classroom late, singing at the top of his lungs. “WHAT ARE WE DOING?” he shouts to no one in particular. I point to the SMART board where the warm-up instructions are posted. He stomps to the middle of the room, stops singing, and starts dancing. “WHAT ARE WE DOING?” he shouts again while gyrating. And again I catch his eyes, point to the warm-up instructions (read independently for ten minutes), and pantomime opening up a book. “WHAT DID WE DO IN SCIENCE CLASS?” James yells out to no one in particular. Most of the class continues to read. I bring over 3-4 books I think James might like. “I HATE READING” he shouts at me. I continue to breathe deeply and slowly, paying special attention to keep the muscles in my shoulders, face, and hands relaxed. James picks up one of the books and then puts it back down.

“HEY WHAT ARE WE DOING IN SCIENCE CLASS?”

This moment has played out in some form or another since September. Sometimes James has in-school suspension. I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that I breathe a little easier on those days. Without James I can spread my energy around to other kids in the class. Kelly for instance has awe inspiring impulse control issues. With James gone I can park myself next to Kelly. It’s the only way I’ve found to decrease her ceaseless flow of colorful commentary.

I’ve met with James, his parents, other teachers, and the counselor in a variety of configurations. His grades are in the tank and he floats in and out of various detentions and suspensions. It’s obvious that James needs a lot of support. The meetings always end the same. We tell James to go to homework club. We tell his parents James can get make-up work from his teachers and have extra time to complete it. But a couple of weeks later everyone is back where they started.

I have a lot of kids who struggle like this. They might not be as disruptive to the classroom, but they’re floundering the same. These are the kids teachers and schools often pathologize as “lazy” or “undisciplined.” Schools and teachers are much better equipped to deal with a “lazy” student than they are a traumatized one. Kids who aren’t doing their work can go to homework clubs. They can get help before, during, or after school. They can get make-up work from teachers. Their progress can then be monitored by parents and counselors via online gradebooks.

In a way, the availability of these resources can make it harder to respond to a child with compassion. You can have a million different hammers, but you’re still out of luck if you have to do anything other than push in a nail. And with students like James and Kelly, it’s obvious there’s more there than a kid simply choosing to ignore their studies.

A Twitter exchange between Shana V. White and Daniel Torres-Rangel sums this up:

BCNF

Social Psychologist Devon Price recommends we respond to a person’s behavior with curiosity instead of judgement. I know how hard this can be. We’ve explained the directions, had a student repeat them, projected them on the wall, and yet some students remain absolutely clueless about what they’re supposed to be doing. The meritocracy that permeates our air often speaks through us. If only these kids would try harder. Concentrate. Behave. Follow directions. The problem is that these demands might outpace the student’s ability to self-regulate.

Executive functioning, the umbrella term for cognitive mechanisms related to self-regulation, can take a big hit when someone experiences trauma. And we know from various studies that a large percentage of children experience some sort of trauma. Trauma can keep the body’s nervous system in a perpetual state of fight or flight. The effects of constantly elevated stress hormones can lead to memory and attention problems

So how can we reorient ourselves, our pedagogies, and our schools to better help students who have experienced trauma? Alex Shevrin Venet suggests starting by sweating the small stuff. Build our capacity to live in the moment and offer individual therapeutic moments to our students. Express kindness and unalloyed compassion. Look beyond the behavior to try and figure out what’s really going on.

There is no quick fix. Schools are filled with hurt and traumatized children. And so many of us teachers were those children. We can refuse to take part in a culture of academic shaming and begin to construct communities of healing that understand and honor the connections between mind and body. Get curious, not furious.

 

* James and any other student mentioned in this post are not real kids, but a composite of multiple students I’ve had at multiple schools across multiple years. This is to preserve anonymity while keeping the spirit of the events true.

 

When Teaching Narrative, Go Realistic Instead of Personal

Personal narratives are a staple of the secondary English curriculum. I love writing about myself, so why shouldn’t my students? Typically I would push the kids to mine their past for meaningful moments. Students understood this to mean write about something painful. I even had the audacity to get upset anytime students pushed back. This is what writing’s about! I would thunder. It’s not really, though. Or at least it doesn’t have to be. It certainly shouldn’t be for every student.

This year I switched from personal to realistic narratives. I decided it was inappropriate to continue to enact a pedagogy of disclosure. Pedagogies of disclosure require students to relive potentially traumatic experiences AND hold them up for critical feedback from teacher and peer. I had to take a step back, remind myself that I’m an English teacher, and that stories are about windows and mirrors. Vehicles through which we find out we’re not alone and that our lives carry significance.

Realistic narratives can do all that. We brainstormed various protagonists, motivations, obstacles, and settings. We used stage directions and acted out dialogue. There was feedback, revision, and editing. All the typical personal narrative skills without any of the icky required disclosure stuff.

My favorite part was tinkering with made-up details that served the piece without setting off the reader’s BS alarm. I told students that realistic narratives allowed writers to shape their past into whatever they wanted. There was capital T Truth (your airtight memory), little t truth (a detail that might not have been exactly right but served the same purpose), and fabrication.

This genre-bending challenged most of my students, and understandably so. Molding raw experience and trenchant observation into purposeful prose takes decades to master.

As always, I wrote alongside them. I chose one of my few middle school memories: an 8th grade party. I delighted in asking them to guess which parts of my narrative were fictional. I included my realistic narrative below. It’s pretty melodramatic, and it’s obviously the work of an amateur. I wasn’t even able to “finish” it. But that’s part of the challenge (and elation) of writing alongside your students. It knocks you off of your pedestal and humbles you before the power of the word, the story, and the audience.

I can’t wait to try this again next year, this time with an emphasis on fabricating and borrowing details. The unit was a success and students reported a high level of enjoyment. Next time you reach for your memoir or personal narrative lessons, consider shifting towards realistic.

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Title: Only in Dreams

Colorful holiday lights hung from the ceiling, casting a warm glow over the room. Red, pink, green, and blue reflected off of our faces as my friends and I alternated between talking in groups, chugging soda, and chomping on chips and pizza. We were all in Cheryl’s basement. She lived in a giant house in the country club hills neighborhood of Arlington. Her parents popped downstairs every 30 minutes or so to check in on us and make sure everything was going well.

I had been dying to ask Alicia to dance the entire night. It was the party for our 8th grade graduation, and this would be my last chance. She stood across the room disappearing in and out of a group of her closest friends. Alicia was about my height. She had an athletic frame from years of playing travel soccer. She was everything I was not. Sarcastic, quick witted, responsible, and decisive. Her ability to talk trash was legendary. No one dared to try and roast her.  I would catch flashes of her dirty blonde hair as she laughed and danced with her friends.

It was one of those moments when you’re trying not to stare at someone, but that somehow makes you stare at them even more. And everytime our eyes locked, my palms itched and my scalp tingled and my heart threatened to jump out of my throat. Every time I tried to approach her, something would happen. A rock song would come on and my buddy Jeff would tackle me. Or two kids would start roasting each other and everyone would crowd around them to watch.

Time was running out. The party ended at 9, and it was already 8:35. Cheryl’s mom had come downstairs and recruited people to move to start picking up. At 8:40 the main basement lights came back on, killing the vibe. I didn’t know what to do.

Peter: (Moping on the floor, sounding rejected) It’s almost over and I still haven’t asked her to dance!

Jeff: (Punching Peter on the shoulder. Speaking with confidence) Just get up and do it. She’s right over there. Come on, man!

Peter: (Stuttering his words) It’s not that easy for me. Girls love you. I’m, well, me.

Jeff: (laughing) Yea. Not gonna lie; that’s true.

Peter: (whispering quickly) Dude she’s coming over!

Jeff: Go on, get up! (Trying to push Peter up)

Alicia: (Walks over confidently. Sticks out her hand) Okay. Come on.

Peter: (face flushing, looking at Jeff who suddenly jumps up and leaves to get some soda) Wait, what? I mean… what?

Alicia: (Sighing) Don’t you want to dance? (Looking over at her friends) Everyone told me you did.

Peter: (Looks over at Jeff by the drink table)

Jeff: (Nods enthusiastically)

Peter: (Nervously) Okay (takes her hand)

I looked back at Jeff as she dragged me into the middle of the room with surprising force. The opening bass riff from Weezer’s “Only In Dreams” started to ooze out of the speakers.  

I didn’t know exactly what to do, and neither did she. She rested her hands on my shoulders and the two of us started to rock awkwardly back and forth. My palms heated up like I was holding onto an exploding star. Strawberry perfume floated up as I felt her place her cheek on my shoulder. Jeff snuck around behind her and started making faces to try and get me to laugh. It worked. Alicia whipped her head up and stared at me. “Jeff’s doing something dumb, isn’t he?” She said.

“Yup!” I replied.

“You guys are idiots,” she smiled. “So where are you going to high school?”

“Yorktown,” I said. “Aren’t you going to some private school in Georgetown, or something?” I knew exactly where she was going, but this would keep her talking.

“Yea. Sidwell Friends. I’m actually pretty excited. They have an awesome girls soccer team.”

“Thanks for asking me to dance,” I whispered.

She tucked a strand of her behind her ear and smiled. “I’m glad we got to do this,” she said.

For the next two and a half minutes, the only thing that mattered was the two of us swaying gently in time to the music. She kept her head on my shoulder and I kept myself from stepping on her toes.

Before the song could end, Cheryl’s mom hollered down into basement that my mom was there to pick me up. I said goodbye to Alicia, Jeff, and my other friends before bolting up the stairs. On Monday at school, Alicia and I said “hi” a few times, but that was it. It was almost like the dance had never happened. A few days later we went our separate ways to different high schools. We ran in different crowds and I never saw or heard about her again.

Trying To Make It Fit: Nine Weeks In The System

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For the last few years, I’ve been one of those “I just close my door and teach what I want” teachers. I’ve outright rejected the pedagogical norms of my school to pursue my own path. I’ve refused to create common assessments. My hermitude became a badge of honor. I saw myself as an outsider fighting the good fight.

It wasn’t until I began working on an essay with Julie Gorlewski that I realized the fundamental error in my thinking. The essay explored the dual roles of teachers: we are both and always agents of the state and agents of change. Closing my classroom door to the world granted me autonomy, but it alienated me and hampered my ability to work with others. I had turned my back on my colleagues and on my community.

So when this school year started, I decided to try and work within the system. This has meant a slew of changes. Some of the switches were small. For instance, I now begin every class by leading students through an “I can” learning outcome. Although I agree with Joe Bower and Jesse Stommel that fixed outcomes cut off authentic inquiry, my administration expects them. Other shifts have been more dramatic. For the first time in years, I’m now teaching what I’m officially supposed to be teaching. I even signed up to be part of a curriculum writing team. What better way to have the social justice and anti-racist curriculum I craved?

The process has not progressed as I thought it would. Faced with more academic standards than could possibly be taught with any level of depth, I’ve struggled with making social justice a priority. Our next unit is 3-4 weeks long. In it we’re supposed to teach students to use context clues; identify prefixes, suffixes, and roots; distinguish between fact and opinion; analyze persuasive techniques in media; identify organizational patterns; make inferences and draw conclusions; identify the main idea; and use text features to skim a text. This is on top of the general English Language Arts stuff of developing a love of literacy and reading and writing authentically.

It’s certainly possible to pursue these outcomes in a way that helps students read both the word and the world, but it takes a committed effort. It has to be the thing, not something extra. Butting heads with my colleagues has given me ample opportunity to reflect on Robin DiAngelo and Ozlem Sensoy’s reminder that “Because dominant institutions in society are positioned as being neutral, challenging social injustice within them seems to be an extra task in addition to our actual tasks” (141).

Making the cognitive and perceptual leap from “we have to cover these standards” to “who benefits from these standards, who loses out, and how can we prepare for democratic citizenry?” is as difficult as it is essential. But until everyone in the room acknowledges the inherently political nature of teaching and learning, ‘finding room’ for social justice and anti-racism is all but impossible.

The way we discuss and envision critical thinking and democracy must also change. In my experience, schools tend to define critical thinking as the process of identifying problems and inventing solutions. This frames students as capitalists and problem solving as opportunities for entrepreneurship. In a social justice context however, critical thinking refers to “a specific scholarly approach that explores the historical, cultural, and ideological lines of authority that underlie social conditions” (1).

And when it comes to democracy, mainstream education casts schools as instruments to educate for democracy. Schools produce democratic citizens by informing students about history, the importance of peaceful protest, and the power of voting. In contrast to this, Gert Biesta discusses education through democracy. A continuous process of learning to value and exist alongside those who are fundamentally not like us (120). Schools can support society in this work, but they cannot create, sustain, or save democracy. And what this would even look like in a public school classroom, I have no clue.

Back inside the classroom, I’ve had a much easier time implementing aspects of culturally responsive/culturally proactive teaching. My students use a variety of discussion and response protocols, combine their out-of-school interests with traditional academic skills, and build knowledge through collaboration and discussion. But most of this gets at the how, leaving the what largely intact. And the what is what I’m interested in changing.

I don’t know how to reorient my classroom around social justice and anti-racist pedagogy, yet. For now, I’ll continue teaching the official units, working with the curriculum team, and looking for ways to exist in that interstitial zone between thesis and antithesis, as an agent of the state and an agent of change.

 

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Photo by Hans-Peter Gauster on Unsplash

Is Empathy Enough? Social Justice and the Antiracist Classroom

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Can empathy save the world?

Cindy O’Donnell-Allen, author of Tough Talk, Tough Texts: Teaching English to Change the World, argues that it can. Tough Talk explores how teachers can use tough texts to build empathy, challenge students academically and, like the subtitle suggests, change the world. O’Donnell-Allen’s book helps children enact democracy by teaching them to read challenging texts and engage in civil discourse in the classroom.

Tough Talk is a superb classroom resource. It combines critical literacy, discussion protocols, and contemporary research. O’Donnell-Allen highlights empathy as a crucial element to civil discourse inside and outside of the classroom. Empathy becomes a way for students “to view both the characters they read and the classmates with whom they interact more compassionately” (31). This post is not meant to disparage O’Donnell-Allen’s wonderful work but instead to grapple with empathy and think through what happens next.

Framing empathy as a potent force for social justice is not uncommon. Last year, my district embarked on cultural competency training designed to build empathy and improve ‘educational outcomes’ for students of color. Over the course of the year, facilitators from central office led us through various workshops. We responded to YouTube videos, participated in reading groups for classic social justice texts, and interrogated our subject positions as teachers. Who are we, where did we come from, and how do these formative experiences shape our daily interactions with students?

I do not wish to discount this work. Helping our students navigate and appreciate the plurality of life is a worthwhile goal. But is it enough? For the critical pedagogue, instructional methods and political power are intertwined. If we begin with Paulo Freire’s declaration that students must read the world and the word, then the social justice classroom should prepare students to analyze, critique, and ultimately challenge society’s vectors of oppression.

In my middle school English Language Arts class, students have analyzed the diversity of my classroom library. We used a diversity wheel to explore the various ways our identities intersect. A privilege walk helped students make concrete the effects of race, class, and gender on our lived experiences. But when it comes to resisting and overturning our white supremacist capitalist patriarchy, I’m not convinced that empathy is enough.

As students are becoming critical readers and thinkers, O’Donnell-Allen states that “they are also learning to view both the characters they read and the classmates with whom they interact more compassionately” (32). Then the best we can do as educators is to plan meaningful learning experiences, provide feedback, and create a space where this sort of vulnerable learning can occur. I’m reminded of education’s perennial debate over inputs, outputs, and the black box of the mind. Will the input of empathy lead to the output of liberation? Will tough talks and civil discourse create students who are ready to resist? We must be proactive. Our classrooms cannot start and stop with empathy. 

In a brilliant essay on the limits of antiracist empathy, Leigh Patel challenges the primacy of empathy in social justice discourse. She contends that

Empathy does not require realignment of social relations. This is not to say that it cannot be a component of social transformation, but in our current context that conveniently confuses dialogues about diversity with material transformation, dialogue for empathy can all too easily become parking lots for emotionality and white fragility, recentering whiteness and irrationally requiring people of color to bear witness to these emotions. (83)

I have witnessed this emotionality among white students in my classes when we discussed issues of privilege and oppression. In fact, my previous blog post can be read as another indulgent display of white fragility. It’s too easy for me to think that such discussions are enough. That my only duty is help students analyze structures of domination in schooling and society.

As a white educator speaking to other white educators, it’s imperative that we guide our students beyond discussion. This coming year, my focus will be on the second part of praxis: action. Inside the classroom I must orient my pedagogy towards social justice work. Because as Patel explains, such talk “cannot be read as politically comprehensive or inherently facilitative of social change” (83). Talk and analysis must lead to student engagement with society. Otherwise,
we risk falling short of social justice’s ability to transform and liberate.