Unheard Voices: Recentering Discussions in the Classroom
The first step in realizing how problematic privilege is and how important it is to recognize positionality is realizing when you, yourself, are culpable.
For me, that really hit after reading an article in 2014, titled "On #NotAllChristians." While glimpses of my own privilege had come clear to me before, nothing hit me as square on the nose as that article, when I realized that things I had said ("but I'm not like that") had centered on my feelings instead of the difficult experiences LGBTQ+ people had faced at the hands of Christian institutions.
It was an important moment, as I realized that it had nothing to do with silencing me or my opinions, and everything to do with honoring the voices of others. This was particularly true in conversations about those communities. The conversation wasn't about me or my feelings. It is essential to listen to those who are actually oppressed, making sure that their voices—often overlooked or ignored—were brought to the center of the conversation about their experiences and future. Because I was the one coming from a place of privilege, I wasn't being oppressed; I was asked to actively be an ally by listening.
This is the message I hope folks take from the op-ed in The Dickinsonian, titled "Should White Boys Still Be Allowed to Talk?" The author, self-identified as a black woman, notes how frustrating it is that her lived experience is often set aside in favor of, what Michelle Obama called in her book, Becoming, men speaking not because they were more knowledgeable, but because they were "simply emboldened, floating on an ancient tide of superiority, buoyed by the fact that history had never told them anything different."
I understood, completely, what Ms. Fisher was talking about. I had felt it in college discussions and office meetings. I had been interrupted in discussions with, particularly, white men about race and privilege, as they cut off my lived experiences to tell me I was "too sensitive," not caring that their "intellectual exercise" was the marathon of my life.
Ms. Fisher's point is well-taken and her call to very pointedly refocus the conversation off of already privileged voices onto those in marginalized communities is one I try to live by (or, is the voice in my head telling me to shut up when I realize I'm trying to center a conversation on myself).
But what does this mean for me as a teacher?
As an 8th grade English teacher, I see my share of power dynamics and roles already shaping the way my students interact with each other. That said, it would be inappropriate for me to shut down a student's voice (unless it was actively hurtful), since I'm the adult in the room, which inherently positions me in a place of power.
There are, however, some meaningful and important ways we as teachers can begin teaching our students how to consider and recenter power in their critical thinking and discussions as they move forward in and eventually out of our classrooms.
Ask students to critically consider whose voices have power and what that power looks like in your classroom content. There's a photo that floats around in education circles of a classroom sign that captures the questions students should be asking about any text they read. In asking these questions, students can begin critically questioning privilege and positionality not just in texts they read,but in the conversations they have as well. There are a few versions, but these are from Christie Nold:
Who wrote it?
What do they want us to believe about the world?
Whose voice is missing or marginalized?
What would the story be like from the perspective of the missing voices?
Create structures and routines that allow all students to safely share their voices. If a teacher's discussion structure is purely volunteer-based, she will probably get the same voices shared over and over. Some students need to process in writing first, or, because of their experiences in other classrooms, they are scared to share. Using silent discussion structures, introducing the concept of "air time" and other healthy discussion techniques so that student' learn how to allow everyone the space to share their voice, and providing other forms of idea-sharing can ensure that students are beginning to practice these concepts in your classroom.
Find and use teachable moments. I once had a student interrupt his classmate's first-read of her speech after 10 seconds to tell her how to deliver it and why it was wrong. I stopped him and redirected his behavior, reminding him that we had already discussed not interrupting the speaker and that I had told students not to worry about delivery yet. Just because he had some feelings in that moment didn't mean he got to overrule the norms and expectations we had set in our classroom. I would have redirected if any student acted this way, and in doing so, I hope I show them that they don't have to allow someone to talk over them simply because they are loud and opinionated.
I understand the pushback for "allowing for intellectual discussion" and "not silencing students." That's fair, as we don't want to shut down our students as they grow.
Privilege and power don't simply disappear, however, and having students ignore the effect of either in their lives would do a disservice. Instead, we can all learn how to be thoughtful of and understand privilege. It doesn't mean that some people can never share their experiences, but it does means that we teach our students how to be critically conscious allies who are thoughtfully making space for voices and stories they may not have heard.
Photo by Christie Nold, used with her permission.