When I opened Twitter on the evening of Saturday, August 12, my feed was full of educators’ responses of outrage at what happened in Charlottesville, Virginia, and the aftermath. I quickly closed my app. The rest of that night, I ignored Twitter, Facebook, even direct personal messages about the event. I didn’t turn on the TV. I couldn’t . . . or, more accurately, wouldn’t. I didn’t want to feel the deep sense of loss and sadness that was sweeping over me. I realized that I was acting out of white privilege, but I continued to shut out the news and my feelings. I could ignore these sad feelings, because for me the feelings would diminish as soon as the headlines found a new interest. For my friends of color, racism isn’t a 24-hour news cycle, but a daily reminder of the hate in our world.
It’s time to stop ignoring what’s going on. As a teacher, it’s my responsibility to help my students make a better world.
I’ve heard too many of my students use the same rhetoric as that coming out of the White House: “Both sides are to blame” or “it’s my job to de-escalate the situation, to keep the peace.” But an educator’s job is not that of peacekeeper. It is that of peacemaker. Peace is not made through a lack of violence, but through social justice, when the righteous are declared and the evil condemned.
Tolerance is a moral stance, not a neutral stance, calling for acceptance of difference but not of evil. Let us not fall prey to the paradox of tolerance; let us teach intolerance of intolerance.
Let us not teach critical literacy and poststructuralism to the point where students trust no one and nothing. Let us teach them to question what they see in order to seek truth. Their history textbooks may read that Rome had peace for 200 years, but a country wracked with oppression, even slavery, is not at peace. Let us teach our students that blanket condemnation of violence does not lead to peace. Peace is living in equality and harmony with others.
In light of recent tragic events in Charlottesville, it’s time to double down on our commitment to education for social justice. To give you the tools to follow through on your commitment to social justice this school year, here is a link to an English Education special journal issue guest edited by April Baker-Bell, Tamara Butler, and Lamar Johnson dealing with racial violence: From Racial Violence to Racial Justice: Praxis and Implications for English (Teacher) Education.
Shea Kerkhoff received her PhD in literacy from North Carolina State University. She now teaches adolescent literacy and young adult literature at Purdue University and is assistant editor of English Education.
Before I begin my tour of the museums here in DC, I want to take a minute to extend my utmost gratitude to a few people. First, the NCTE team in the DC office, Jenna Fournel and Lu Ann McNabb, for being gracious and welcoming. I will miss our little office camaraderie. Second, my family. I was only able to have this incredible experience only because of the support of my amazing mother-in-law, who came down to DC to watch the kids for three weeks, and my sweet parents, who flew out for grandparent duty for the remainder of the time. Finally, my darling husband, who has been alone at home with a screaming cat for over a month. My deepest thanks to you all.
It’s tough to explain to a twelve-year-old the sheer power of words. Ironically, words don’t do themselves justice. As I made my way around the sights in DC, I found myself constantly in awe of the words all around me and the way in which they have shaped, and continue to shape, our country. Below is a collection of my thoughts, lesson ideas, and reflections on five museums, in the order in which I viewed them.
As a teacher of the Diary of a Young Girl, the Holocaust is a topic I discuss with eighth graders every year. The main exhibit experience begins with a large group of people packed into a steel elevator, that makes you instantly uncomfortable. When you exit, you are met with videos taken during concentration camp liberation, and a giant photograph of burnt corpses. The silence in the museum is overwhelming. Two areas in particular spoke to me. The first was the section on propaganda. This year I would like to have students analyze the rhetoric of Joseph Goebbels to answer a common question: Why were people angry at Jewish people? How did Goebbels use words to confuse and deceive? The second section I found interesting was about the League of German Girls. During our unit study, we cover Hitler Youth, but I didn’t know about its female counterpart. Finally, I have tried researching contemporary genocides in the past, but I would like to revisit that this year. The USHMM website has a rich library of educator resources, including a couple of interesting professional learning opportunities.
I uncovered a few neat ideas here. Most important is Wonderplace, a super awesome play space complete with a climbing structure, and kitchen with fake fruit, and the Spark!Lab where kids can be inventors and make stuff. Kiddos were happy for hours. The exhibit Many Voices, One Nation made me think, How do the words of many people, across time, unite to form a country? I could have my students look at the works of the authors we study, Edgar Allen Poe, Richard Wright, Daniel Keyes, and whoever else gets tossed in there this year-to see how each of their unique voices became a part of the narrative of America.
I also saw Executive Order 9066, signed by President Roosevelt, which resulted in the removal of over 110,000 Japanese Americans from their West Coast homes. Another question to pose to students: How have people used words to deprive others of their freedoms? (Check out the Smithsonian’s History Explorer for educator resources. You can search by grade level, time period and/or subject you teach.)
I’ve been a fan of these guys since I met them at NCTE’s Annual Convention in 2014. I’ve used their incredible resources for teaching Shakespeare, and they also offer professional learning opportunities, including a month-long stay here in DC to study Shakespeare in depth. Of course I had to visit! The current exhibit showcased paintings of Shakespeare, the man himself and the scenes from the plays. The library is home to the largest collection of Shakespeare works, as well as other rare Renaissance works. Since I took the tour, I got to peek in the reading room. Swoon. During the tour, our guide mentioned that Shakespeare was not wholly original and that he took many of his stories from other authors. How can words be refashioned into something new and exciting? On an unrelated note, while at Folger I enjoyed learning about Project Dustbunny, dirt from the gutters of books analyzed for past readers’ DNA – wild.
This museum is the newest, opening in September 2016. I noticed a few different ways in which words were important, especially for someone who teaches Richard Wright’s, Black Boy. First, Nat Turner’s Bible and Harriet Tubman’s hymnal were on display. Both struck me, and I thought, How do people find strength and comfort in words during times of pain and turmoil? I look forward to examining this question with my students; it’s a topic that pairs nicely with Anne Frank finding solace in books.
Alongside the reading of Black Boy, my students and I read the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. A question for my students will be, How can we use words to fight for change? This question will be especially useful as we follow Wright on his journey of discovering how authors used words to fight against racism.
The Newseum “promotes, explains and defends free expression and the five freedoms of the First Amendment: religion, speech, press, assembly and petition.” Tons of great ideas here! Around the outside of the museum are front pages from each of the fifty states and around the world. What a great activity for teaching media literacy. I want to pull the day’s headlines from three papers and have students analyze the differences. How can we use the same words to paint a different picture? There was also a neat exhibit on each of the five freedoms. This might be interesting to explore as my students learn about the Bill of Rights in social studies. How are the words of the past relevant today? I want to explore the modern issues relating to each of the five freedoms.
There was also really cool display about the rights of students, which I know mine will enjoy talking about, especially the parts on dress code. A question I will ask is, How can you use words to fight for what you believe in?
And now I, NCTE’s 2017 Kent B. Williamson Policy Fellow, am signing off. I hope you enjoyed following along as much as I enjoyed the journey. Please contact me, I’d love to connect and chat. Peace.
The members of NCTE’s Standing Committee Against Racism and Bias have felt an urgency since we each joined the committee to stand against racism and bias. We have been working on ways to encourage each member of NCTE to speak out against the systemic and individual acts of racism that disenfranchise our students in and out of the classroom.
We know that racism exists in our classrooms and in our communities. We feel that silence on these issues is complicity in the systemic racism that has marred our educational system. We see no place for neutrality and urge each member of NCTE to educate as many people as possible about the ways that systemic racism affects all of us in negative ways.
There is no apolitical classroom. English language arts teachers must examine the ways that racism has personally shaped their beliefs and must examine existing biases that feed systems of oppression. In light of the horrific events in this country that continue to unfold, and the latest terrorism in Charlottesville, Virginia, we would like to share resources that we hope will encourage all NCTE members to speak out against the racism and bias that have been a part of our nation’s fabric since the first immigrants disembarked from European ships.
Our Action Subcommittee has been working this year on creating classroom resources for teachers to use as statements of love and support. Printable classroom posters and bookmarks for NCTE members will be available at the 2017 Annual Convention, as well as available for download after Convention. Until then, we offer this incomplete resource to help continue the daily work that is antiracism. Please share other resources in the comment box below.
“I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”
Raising Race Conscious Children
“A resource to support adults who are trying to talk about race with young children. The goals of these conversations are to dismantle the color-blind framework and prepare young people to work toward racial justice.”
Resources for Teaching in These Times On June 14, 2016, in response to the Orlando shootings, NCTE began collecting teaching resources from its members that continue to build in relevance given the ongoing struggles and critical conversations taking place across the country.
White Fragility, Anti-Racist Pedagogy, and the Weight of History From Black Perspectives by Justin Gomer and Christopher Petrella, July 27, 2017
“One cannot begin to comprehend the relationship between race and racism without historical investigation. A historically-grounded anti-racist pedagogy, rather than a psychologically-oriented one, allows us to see US society ‘in the act of inventing race.’”
Resources for Understanding White Supremacy
Southern Poverty Law Center “The SPLC is dedicated to fighting hate and bigotry and to seeking justice for the most vulnerable members of our society. Using litigation, education, and other forms of advocacy, the SPLC works toward the day when the ideals of equal justice and equal opportunity will be a reality.”
Ten Ways to Fight Hate “Ten Ways to Fight Hate, which has been updated for 2017, sets out 10 principles for taking action, including how to respond to a hate rally that has targeted your town. It urges people not to engage white supremacists at their rallies. Instead, it offers tips for creating alternative rallies to promote peace, inclusion and justice.”
Oath and Opposition: Education under the Third Reich
“The Museum has developed . . . materials . . . to help today’s educators explore the pressures teachers felt under the Nazi regime, the range of decisions individuals made in the face of those pressures, and the relevance of this history now.” (This rich resource includes a number of case studies you could use with your classes.)
Anti-Defamation League (ADL) “Founded in 1913, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) is our nation’s premier civil rights/human relations organization. We have a distinguished history of reminding the world just how tenuous civil rights are and we mobilize people to engage in reasonable discourse as together we find solutions to serve our diverse society.” See their website’s extensive Education & Resources section as well as their definition and historical explanation of anti-Semitism.
Antisemitism and the Bystander Effect
“Students will watch testimonies from survivors of and witnesses to historical and contemporary antisemitism who describe the consequences of the bystander effect in their own lives. Students will construct a social media message for the #BeginsWithMe campaign that describes their own plan to counter bystander behavior.”
100 Days to Inspire Respect “At a time of heightened political uncertainty and polarization, middle and high school teachers are in need of easy-to-use resources that encourage their students to grapple with some of the most difficult but important topics: hate, racism, intolerance and xenophobia. ‘100 Days to Inspire Respect’ provides educators with 100 thought-provoking resources that tackle these challenging topics and more.”
The Charlottesville Syllabus “The Charlottesville Syllabus is a resource created by the Graduate Student Coalition for Liberation to be used to educate readers about the long history of white supremacy in Charlottesville, Virginia. With resources selected and summaries written by UVa graduate students, this abridged version of the Syllabus is organized into six sections that offer contemporary and archival primary and secondary sources (articles, books, responses, a documentary, databases) and a list of important terms for discussing white supremacy.”
7 Ways Teachers Can Respond to the Evil of Charlottesville, Starting Now By Xian Franzinger Barrett, AlterNet “As teachers, our job is not solely to pour mathematics, science, language arts or any other knowledge into the heads of our students. It is our duty to our profession, to our society and to the students to lovingly teach them to learn and grow as complete humans.”
The People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond (PISAB) “The People’s Institute believes that racism is the primary barrier preventing communities from building effective coalitions and overcoming institutionalized oppression and inequities. Through Undoing Racism®/Community Organizing Workshops, technical assistance and consultations, The People’s Institute helps individuals, communities, organizations and institutions move beyond addressing the symptoms of racism to undoing the causes of racism so as to create a more just and equitable society.”
Don’t Be a Sucker – 1947
“In this anti-fascist film produced by [the] US Military in the wake of WWII, the producers deconstruct the politically motivated social engineering of Germany by the Nazi regime.”
Teaching Tolerance Social Justice Standards “The Social Justice Standards are a road map for anti-bias education at every stage of K–12 instruction. Comprised of anchor standards and age-appropriate learning outcomes, the Standards provide a common language and organizational structure educators can use to guide curriculum development and make schools more just and equitable.”
Articles and Other Readings
How Two Teenagers Created a Textbook for Racial Literacy From Facing History and Ourselves by Stacey Perlman
“Winona Guo and Priya Vulchi started the student-run organization, CHOOSE, to overcome racism and inspire harmony through exposure, education, and empowerment. This led them to collaborate with Princeton University on The Classroom Index, a textbook devoted to racial literacy.”
How America Is Failing Native American Students From The Nation by Rebecca Clarren
“When the United States signed its treaties with the Indian tribes, stripping them of their land, it promised to provide public services—including education—to tribal members in perpetuity. ‘For too long, the federal leadership has failed to honor that sacred pledge, leaving generations of Native children behind,’ said Washington State Senator John McCoy, a citizen of the Tulalip tribe and a national leader in Native education reform. ‘Institutionalized assimilation and racism remain embedded within our public schools.’”
Education was not my forte. Given that I am a teacher, that sounds odd.
While in Teachers’ College at the University of Ottawa, I was asked to think back on a teacher that changed my life. Students around the room had stories of joyful teachers with animated birds floating around them who would bestow straight A’s and praise at the blink of an eye. I did not. As hard as I pondered, I kept coming up blank. Sure, I enjoyed the antics of my zany history teachers. And, of course, I recall the English teacher who read Leonard Cohen lyrics and whose class I didn’t skip. But, in all honesty, Leonard Cohen had nothing to do with it. I didn’t skip because I had a crush on her. The reality is that I don’t recall high school classes bringing any sense of happiness or joy to my life.
The teacher who came to mind was Kevin Gildea, my university professor in Canadian Literature. I was not excited about the course. In fact, if it was not a required course at Carleton College, I would never have taken it. Canadian Literature? Why would I want to read a bunch of books about pioneers trapped in a snowstorm? But, Gildea pushed me to think. He introduced me to the world of critical theory. Yes, I remember reading Ondaatje, Birney, and Moodie, but more importantly I realized how thinkers like Marx, Heidegger, Rousseau, and Bakunin could influence how I read. The CanLit canon was merely a means of understanding the bigger ideas at play. Canadian literature wasn’t about a pioneer roughing it in the bush; it was about the individual attempting to understand their sense of self in an unforgiving land that is unloving and soul crushing. Whoa.
Of course, there was no course for this at Teachers College. There was no course that told us to teach ideas that were bigger than the curriculum. There was no course that told us to make students feel awkward, uncomfortable, and out of their depth.
I often share with students the feelings I would have in Gildea’s (and subsequent) classes. In those classes, I would feel lost. The term I find myself using is drowning. I was drowning in a sea of ideas that I didn’t think I was smart enough to comprehend. Week after week I would flail around, my arms swinging to grab something stable, something that would save me. Yet, there was nothing. I was drowning. So, I kicked. I would sit in the library (this was before the internet existed in everyone’s pocket) and wrestle with secondary texts. I would flail. Searching through stacks of sources, each one more confusing than the previous one. And I would gasp for breath. Finding occasional bits of knowledge that would help me to put the puzzle together. And then, as if by magic, I would be lucky enough to grasp the idea. I could suddenly swim.
My job as a teacher, it would seem, is to arm my students, not with the curriculum, but with a sense of fearlessness when it comes to learning. In short, my job is to teach them to swim when the waves feel like they are going to pull them under.
The question is, am I willing to push them into the water? And, perhaps more importantly, are they willing to swim?
Yes, it’s true. I am the teacher who asks you to read “through a lens” and, whether it be feminism, Marxism or post-colonialism, there had better be an “ism” in your analysis somewhere. These ideas come from my post-secondary education at Carleton and my deeply held opinion that without a strong idea, one’s writing lacks power. Of course, these ideas are hard for people to grasp, or at least that’s what people think. Throughout this semester, I have had several students who have written on the topic of a hero in texts like Watchmen, V for Vendetta, Fahrenheit 451, and Ender’s Game. During our initial conversations, the students found themselves trying to force dynamic multidimensional characters into a small, limited, concrete definition of a hero. You know the one I mean—a good person who does the right thing.
Then I introduced them to two other ideas. Joseph Campbell’s idea of the archetype hero, was a good fit for a character like Ender, or even 451’s Guy Montag. However, to try and fit a character like V or Watchmen’s Rorschach into Campbell’s definition is akin to fitting a 747 into a pop bottle. So, I did the unthinkable. I let grade ten students—those “innocent” young minds—loose on Friedrich Nietzsche’s existential hero. Were there questions? Of course, there were. Was there confusion? Of course. Was there fear (and trembling)? Absolutely. But, more importantly, there was a shred of understanding and a degree of thinking that those students didn’t know they could reach in an English class. When I discussed the choice of essays with the students later in the semester, they used words like scary, but afterward, one student said, “I am really proud of myself.” Isn’t this the answer we always want from our students? It should be, but instead, we have created a system that rewards good work, but not always challenging work.
Did these students feel like they were drowning? Sure they did. It certainly would have been easier to write a paper on a less complex topic. They could have done that. They could have gotten a 70 percent and gone home content. Instead, they took a risk. They read a copious amount of writing that was not mandated by the course outline. And, instead of feeling content, they felt “proud.”
What about those who don’t want to swim? What about those who want to stay in the shallow water? Fine. Stay there. But, be comfortable with your average, or even below-average, marks. If you are like I was in high school, you will be fine. But if you are like I was in university, you will hurl yourself into the deep-dark seas and learn to navigate the waves of challenge.
The truth is that by focusing on student comfort, we are forcing kids to think about their marks instead of thinking about the creative and critical ways of dealing with a question. So, instead of challenging themselves and facing a fear, they instead play it safe. And safe, as they say, is boring. Besides, boring isn’t going to create the leaders of the future, and God knows, we need them.
Tom O’Connor plunges into the battery-smoke while waging war on the five-paragraph essay. He is also the Assistant Department Head of English at Jacob Hespeler Secondary School in Cambridge, Ontario, Canada.
The NCTE statement posted yesterday reflects our commitment and deliberate intent to assure and inform you that the Executive Director and Presidential Team were gathering, processing, and conscientiously apprising you of our initial attention and concern about the NAACP’s travel advisory.
What follows is my response to the membership, not explaining why we must continue on into Missouri; rather, what follows illustrates and describes why we must move forward not only to Missouri but also to all states in this Union. Our leadership has made and will always make every effort to assure our safety. Be assured, our visible presence supporting teachers and students must never stop for any iteration of exclusion, oppression, or special interests.
Jocelyn A. Chadwick, PhD YOUR Program Chair, NCTE 2017
There are many Missouris, many places where our children and educators live and work and must traverse sometimes harsh, difficult, and ever-changing milieus. NCTE’s mission and vision of providing learning pathways—moments and opportunities—to foment lifelong literacy dare not slow down, dare not stop, dare not be daunted by anything, ever. We move forward.
I’d like to offer an example from work I’ve been doing with Missouri teachers as part of this fall’s Annual Convention. The project described below will form the core of one of our keynote presentations, bringing the voices of students into the room with one of our beloved authors—a dialogue that will illustrate the very reason why all of us gather each year to grow in this work.
The following quotes are from four classes of Missouri 6th- and 7th-grade students, most students of color, whose amazing teacher and school allowed me to collaborate and work with 60 students as they embarked on reading Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming. This same reading and discussion/writing session will occur again in October with different Missouri students and their teacher reading Another Brooklyn.
The Objective: To focus on sustained critical reading, thinking, and writing skills, utilizing a piece of literature. To encourage students to complete the text.
Until we began this instructional learning approach, the students had not completed an entire novel.
The Process: This summer, every Friday for five weeks, the students and I discussed what they had read, what questions they wanted to ask me—any questions regarding the text itself, and peripheral connections. Prior to each week, I prepared a PPT with primary sources illustrative of historical events, figurative language, vocabulary, geographical locations, even botanical references: The Negro Motorist Green Book, the Great Migration, Johnny Pumps, the dangers of lead poisoning, birch trees, South vs North, poll tax, civil protest, benign/benevolent racism, dialect, the American Dream, and Woodson’s panoply of writers, thinkers, and literary genres, especially, poetry, for example.
Literary Themes: the power of words, writing, reading, using ones imagination.
Social/Cultural Themes: family, sense of self, looking beyond ones own uniqueness and difference to explore and experience new relationships/cultures, death, nuclear and divided families, the import of names.
During the week, prior to each Friday, Mr. Devitt, their teacher, working with reading and analysis tools I provided coupled with his amazing instruction, the students read and discussed. The students sent me videos of their collaborative conversations and responded to questions I posed about the text—verbally and written.
Example of students’ comments:
“Has anyone close to you died?
“What was your family life like in the South?”
“Do you lower your eyes when a white person talks to you?” Why not?
“What was growing up in the South like for you?”
“Do you read a lot like Jackie? “Do you write, too?” Show us some of your writing.
“I guess bad things happen to all people. Maybe that helps us learn?”
“We had a debate and talked about Malcolm X and Martin Luther King.”
“Americans are nice people but we just have to get better at what we do. Her grandparents do alot for their taking care of the children. I think I like it.”
“They called their grandpop daddy because there is not the father in their life.”
“It [the novel] doesn’t relate to any parent I know because Jacqueline’s mom is selfish.”
Result: The students not only read and utilized the Socratic method of inquiry and deep analysis, but also they completed the entire text. For many of them, Woodson’s novel was the very first book they completed. These students, and the ones to participate in October, created questions to ask Ms. Woodson. Woodson, her style of narrative, and her keen ability to weave so much into a text mesmerized and inspired the students.
Assessment: PROFOUND. Over the many years I have been teaching high school and college students (undergraduates and graduates), I have never, never described any experience with students as profound. And I have had the privilege of working with phenomenal teachers and students. That said, the students in this first phase of collaboration on a Woodson text, dug deep; they read, discussed, reflected, inquired, wrestled with the text and its implications as they viewed its relation to them. Metamorphosis transpired among us all.
This is what NCTE does best. The Missouri Affiliate, Mr. Devitt—and the teacher to come in October—the students and we worked together. The students were most assuredly not the same as they were at the beginning of the session. I was not the same. Mr. Devitt was not the same. And we are the better for it.
Not many educational organizations, like NCTE, in our contemporary climate claim to operate in this fashion. The Missouri Affiliate, two willing and invested teachers, and NCTE embarked on a journey along an instructional pathway few had ever experienced. My first attempt at such an approach occurred at Harvard on two occasions—but for a single day. This learning opportunity evolved over weeks.
As Mr. Devitt stated more than once, his students expressed to him their awe of our earnestly caring about them, listening to them. I promised the students I would come to visit with them on 13 November. That is a promise I cannot wait to fulfill.