I was in seventh grade in November 1989. I don’t remember many specifics about what I learned in school that year, nor do I remember what we were studying – or supposed to be studying – in Social Studies that fall. I do, however, have a very distinct memory of my Social Studies teacher asking our class, “Do you guys even get what is happening right now? This is history!” This, of course, was the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the subsequent events that would ultimately lead to the end of Communism in Eastern Europe and the dissolution of the Soviet Union. I can’t pretend to know what her specific thoughts as a teacher were at the time, but I do remember us deviating frequently from our regularly scheduled curriculum that year to discuss in depth not only what was happening, but why it was important and what it could mean for us, as Americans, moving forward.
I was in my second year of teaching in September 2001. I don’t remember many specifics about what my co-teacher and I were teaching that fall. I do, however, have a very distinct memory of speaking with him in the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attacks of 9/11, when we decided that, as Rafranz says, the lesson plan had to change. We did our best to discuss current events with our students, helping them to separate fact from speculation as well as anyone could in those days, and we also helped them to learn some background knowledge that we hoped would combat the rapidly emerging Islamophobia (or anything-that-vaguely-resembled-Islam-to-Americans-ophobia), at least in our little corner of the country. But beyond that, we let the kids talk. We didn’t have answers to everything; hell, we barely had answers to anything. But our students knew our classroom was a safe place to ask questions, speak freely (and respectfully), and otherwise do our best to messily hash out the history that was unfolding before us. Among many, many other topics, we talked extensively about what these events could mean for us, as Americans, moving forward.
In the post linked above, Rafranz says:
Rich discussions are not necessarily born from pre-planned questions. Rich discussions happen when we let go of our personal constraints and just talk. We ask more questions that we don’t have the answers to. We reflect together and maybe we ask more questions. This is how we grow. This is how change happens.
I can’t pretend to know you or your students or the circumstances in which you all work, study, and live. But I ask you this: what will your students remember when they are bursting with the need to share their fears, their questions, and their stories that resemble those brought to the national consciousness recently by the shooting death of Michael Brown by a police officer in Ferguson, MO? What will they remember when they want to share this all with their peers and you, who may be one of the few adults – if not the only adult – in their lives to whom they feel they can open up? What will they remember about that time they wanted to talk about racism and how it has directly impacted their lives and the lives of their loved ones? What will they remember about that time they wanted to talk about their experiences with law enforcement, even if (especially if) their experiences do not resemble your own?
Will they remember how deftly you returned them to the appropriate place in the pacing guide? Will they remember the novel chapter or the algebra problem that was much more important in the moment? Or will they remember the time(s) that everyone got to talk – not as teacher, to students but as human beings, with one another – about institutional racism, or fear of police, or media censorship, and how, even if the teacher didn’t have all the answers, maybe real communication got people to understand each other’s perspectives a little better. Maybe you’ll learn something from your students. Maybe your students will learn something from you. Maybe your students will learn something from each other. And maybe you will all take a piece of that with you, beyond the classroom and beyond the school year, and maybe that will mean something important to everyone, as Americans, moving forward.