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The Darkest Places in Hell

The darkest places in hell are reserved for those who maintain their neutrality in times of moral crisis.              Dante Alighieri 

I used to have a poster featuring this quote hanging over my desk. I annually ordered posters and a calendar from the Syracuse Cultural Workers catalog--on my own dime, of course--because they produced colorful, provocative art that had the potential to stimulate student questions or remarks. I kept this particular poster out of the main traffic flow, in my office, for one reason: the quotation included the word "hell"--and I didn't want to make that particular term the focus of any aggravation. My students were somewhere between 11 and 15 years old, and had heard plenty of genuinely vile language (which this excerpt was not), but I was pretty certain that at least a few of their parents would find the poster definitively (here comes an edu-word) "inappropriate." Which tells you a lot about the community where I was teaching.

In fact, there were any number of history-making occasions during my 30 years in the classroom where my colleagues and I were instructed to keep calm, carry on--and never mention what was happening in the outside world. Off the top of my head: Jim Jones and the mass suicide in Guyana; the assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan; the 2000 U.S. Presidential election; the Heaven's Gate mass suicide where 39 tennis shoe-wearing folks believed they were headed for salvation via alien space craft; Kurt Cobain's painful demise--and of course, the terrible events of 9/11.

Were my students interested in these things? Clearly. Were they teachable moments? I would suggest that teachable moments arise like bubbles in champagne--constantly, at every developmental level, in every subject and every classroom. The goal is to weave the vagaries of life on this planet into Required Content, to push students every day to see a wider perspective, to consider why and how the so-called outside world is shaped by history, language, culture, technologies and scientific advances and the arts. A living curriculum.

Our silo-based, thoroughly standardized curricula can easily become the stated "reason" why teachers are directed to stick to quadratic equations or this quarter's assigned novel, during times of intense social upheaval or watershed moments, rather than talking about what urgently matters to kids. That--and fear, of course.  Fear of conflict. Fear of anger. Fear of losing control over students' beliefs and actions--control that we never had to begin with.

So here we are again, in a time of moral crisis, a time of conflicting messages--when the brute injustices of the American system are laid bare, and the media has for weeks been orchestrating the situation in Ferguson for maximum optics. Kids are watching. Kids are learning. Kids in Detroit, and kids in Grosse Pointe.

Shouldn't we educators be modeling civic discourse, at appropriate levels of understanding? Everything from unwarranted assumptions about someone based on appearance (something even a first grader can comprehend), to the actual purpose of convening a grand jury. There are stories, songs, technical problems to investigate and historical resources available. And there's the old-fashioned practice of classroom discussion, taking turns speaking, honest listening. Treating our students like young adults and future citizens.

I have been listening to a lot of pain and frustration--agony--over what happened in Ferguson and there's no need for me to speak. Any perspective I have is strictly from the sidelines. But to not encourage young teachers, especially, to gin up the courage to wrestle with these issues in their classrooms is wrong. You can't maintain neutrality, or paper over discrimination, without eventually having to stand up for what you believe. That makes you an authentic teacher.

One of my former students, now teaching in the Detroit area, reports (on Facebook) how the discussion went in his classroom--what questions the students had, what values they revealed. Several more formers chime in, and I am pleased by the rational tone of the conversation. Lots of issues bubble up: police violence, alternative means of subduing a young man, the flawed processes of legal justice. Someone remarks that this is the best conversation he's had about Ferguson, and how grateful he is to be talking about this with friends. Another former student, now a police officer, has a different viewpoint. But we're still talking.

And on Facebook, the Grand Central Station of social media. Take that, Robert McCulloch.

As much as nervous administrators and parents would like to control their children's observation of the world, Stuff Happens in schools. All schools, every day. The world pokes its biased and discriminatory head into the classroom. This is, indeed, what democracy looks like.

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The opinions expressed in Teacher in a Strange Land are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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