The Stories We Tell

The Stories We Tell

Live from the other side what you see
A bunch of nonsense on my TV
Heaven on Earth is what I need
But I feel I’m in Hell every time I breathe
Reporting live from the other side what you hear
A bunch of nonsense all in my ear
Rich man, poor man, we all gotta pay
Cause freedom ain’t free, especially ‘round my way
Lupe Fiasco

I took some of my students to Los Angeles City Hall on Friday to attend a hearing on changing Columbus Day to Indigenous People’s Day. One of my students spoke, and she talked about how she does not want to honor a man who unapologetically contributed to the genocide of her people. She does not want other indigenous children growing up to have to recognize this man. Instead, she wants the day to be repurposed to honor the strength of a people who have endured. She wants to change the narrative.

She was one of dozens of children and adults, natives and non-natives, who spoke to their personal histories and our national histories in support of constructing a new story together that emphasizes healing and love over tradition and colonization. City Hall today was, in a way, a Truth and Reconciliation court for the crimes of Christopher Columbus and colonization. It was storytelling as healing for a traumatized community.

Which brings me to Donald Trump and Tuesday’s election.

I don’t need to recap how vicious this election cycle has been. I don’t need to pull any quotes from the presidential debates. We have all lived it. Regardless of who wins on Tuesday, we will have to continue living with it. We can’t vote to disappear hate. As a society, we will have to reckon with the anger that manifested and rose and swelled this year.

We are a nation in trauma. If there is one benefit to the hatred manifested in 2016, it is that we can no longer hide behind myths of justice and equality; we can no longer hide behind an old, selectively-privileged narrative. We have a duty to discuss Trump, but more than that, on Tuesday and moving forward, we have a duty to discuss our national narrative. What stories will we create together?

To be human is to exist in stories. We are the stories we share, the stories we keep, the stories we are told, the stories we create. We are the composite of the stories which surround us.

As teachers, we are professional storytellers. Our job is to make meaning and truth-tell as best we can. Regardless of the subject you teach, every time you write a lesson plan you are choosing which stories to include and which to exclude. No matter how critically conscious or socially just you are, you cannot tell every story. And so you choose which perspectives to include, which lenses to apply, which stories to privilege while striking the best balance you can.

Of course, our ultimate goal is not to determine truth for our students, but to equip them with the tools to decide for themselves. We want them to make our own meanings, construct their own truths. At our best, we are co-creators.



This does not mean that we are pretend to be impartial. There is a time when impartiality is just, and there is a time when impartiality is an excuse that masks injustice. You cannot tell your students that Trump is a qualified candidate whose opinions are worthy of discourse and consideration. You cannot. You cannot tell them that all stories are created equal and some are just more misunderstood than others. You cannot tell them that misogyny is an acceptable feature in a presidential candidate, that dick jokes mean you’re a straight-shooter, or that bullying is a legitimate expression of power. You cannot tell them that Christopher Columbus discovered America. You cannot.

The anger that has created Trump will not dissipate, and it did not come from nowhere. If there is any positive to be gained from his campaign, it is the revelation that our narrative of justice and equality does not hold weight.

As educators, it is our responsibility to help our children construct stories that serve us better, that reflect who we actually want to be. It is our responsibility to help our children speak their truths and co-create stories of healing.

This will not happen comfortably. We will have to look at ourselves, at our communities, at how we as a society treat one another. We won’t like what we see. This process will make you uncomfortable. It will make your children uncomfortable. It will make your families uncomfortable. That’s okay. That’s good. Healing is a painful process. Speaking our truths and naming our traumas requires courage and a dangerous amount of vulnerability. Vulnerability inspires more vulnerability and collectively gives us strength.

Let your students voice their rage. Voice your rage. Be honest with one another. Model what civil discourse looks like, what it means to genuinely hear someone else. Help them see the other, it whatever form that may take. Become better humans together.

As humans, as teachers, as students, as presidential candidates, we are at our best when we are co-creators, when we actively participate in the shared story of community and work on being human beings together.

In my class, we recently started a unit examining truth and reconciliation. We are, among other things, reading A Long Way Gone by Ishmael Beah in order to examine how “othering” happens in societies, and how communities and individuals attempt to heal after trauma.

Our next step is to look at our own communities post-election and ask, how can we heal? We will be our own truth and reconciliation committee, and we will design and iterate ways to share our stories, our truths, our traumas, and our beauty, with the world.

I don’t know what sort of difference this will make. I don’t know what’s going to happen on Tuesday or the days ahead. I don’t know if changing Columbus Day to Indigenous People’s Day will genuinely change anything. I don’t know if a bunch of 12-year-olds talking about the world they want to create will make that world any better. But it’s the story I choose to believe.

Guest Post by: Dan Thalkar (@dthalkar)
Humanities Teacher in Los Angeles, CA

We Fight Back

We Fight Back

When police fight
We fight back
We use our words
– Excerpt from a poem by a 7th grader

At the beginning of the year, when my students and I recapped the summer news, we talked about police brutality, but we didn’t delve to far into the issue. I wanted to build more schema, a deeper understanding of the systems that underlie racism and inequality in our country.

Then Terence Crutcher was shot and killed and my plans no longer mattered. We had to talk.

So, we did.

By this point, I’ve taught through enough heartbreak that I have a formula for days like this. We sit in a community circle. We start with a video, usually a song. On Wednesday, it was the haunting visuals and questioning version of “Where is the Love?” by Black Eyed Peas feat. The World.

Then we read a text, in this case, the heartbreaking words of Terence’s sister (“That big ‘bad dude,’ his life mattered.), and this CNN article.

I give them a few minutes to silently reflect and jot down their ideas, and then we talk.

If you teach middle school, and think that your students are too young, or that families or administrators might disapprove, or that they won’t understand, or think that you’re protecting them by not talking about it, you need to move past excuses. If you’re afraid of what they might say, or feel like you don’t know what to say, you need to overcome your fear. This isn’t about you. This is for them.

After reading the article, one student punched the ground. Many others started silently crying. Most read, reread the facts, scrawled on their papers, “Why did the police do that?”

My first question is, “What are you thinking/feeling after reading this?” By the end of the day, their responses, in their heartbreaking variety, have left me feeling numb.

I’m feeling sad and angry because the man was a father and was going to college.
I don’t know what to think after reading it.
This world is supposed to be peaceful and happy but I guess this will happen because the world is racist.
Why is he a ‘bad dude’?
Why would they judge someone?
I wanted to be a police officer, but now I’m embarrassed.
What I am thinking is that the world is cruel.
Why was the cop so afraid?
The police in my neighborhood are friendly and are part of the community. Why aren’t all police part of their communities?
Why would they do this, we’re all human beings the color DOES NOT MEAN NOTHING.
I’m thinking about my father and my cousins, because what if they leave one day and never come back?
Cops are here for us to trust them, not for us to be scared at them.

We go around two, three times. Students respond to one another, talk about family members they’ve lost, their experiences with racism. Sometimes they just stare at the ground, sigh, and pass the talking piece.

Then we move on to questions and, after warning them that I won’t be able to answer most of their questions, not the big ones, not the ones that matter, we share what we’re wondering. Other than clarifications, the most common two questions are, Why did this happen? And Why doesn’t anyone do anything?



Then we circle back to our opening question, “Where is the love?” That question, I say, is easy. The love is here, in our hearts, in our community, in how much we care in this moment. The real question is how can we, as individuals and a community, take a stand and show our love? How can we move from words and feelings to action and change?

We can show love by making sure the police wait until they actually see what’s going on and do what they have to do.
We can take small steps to make a difference by talking or making a speech about how we can show love.
Making art.
We can show love and make a difference by letting people know what we believe in and we can all speak up. We can take a chance to become friends.
We can write letters to his family.
We can make a difference by being different and as we get older we can make a difference in the word.
We can show love by doing something small and meaningful for the family of Crutcher.
We can make a protest.
Bring justice, send love.

I give students a minute to reflect on how they’re feeling after this circle, and then we check-out. The first text we read this year was the wonderful children’s book Last Stop on Market Street by Matt de la Pena. I reread the page where, after getting off the bus and looking around the neighborhood, our young protagonist’s nana tells him, “Sometimes when you’re surrounded by dirt. . . you’re a better witness for what’s beautiful.”

My last prompt is to say the name of someone whom you love.
My family.
My family.
My family.
My family.
My family.
My family.

So, what’s next? The next day, multiple students told me they went home after school and cried. Parents called and told me they were glad we had the conversation. One student, who hadn’t said a word the entire time, said she felt better after realizing she wasn’t alone. Several students approached me and said they wanted to help, so we’re forming a student task force. Next week we’ll look over their classmates’ ideas and determine our next steps. I’d like to get parents involved and make it more of a community task force, so that we can move forward together.

My lesson was not perfect by any means — I wrote it Tuesday night and gave it on Wednesday — but it gave them facts to work with and an opportunity to share their questions, fears, and hopes. Regardless of what text you use, or what your hook is, the sharing is what actually matters. It’s cathartic, it’s cleansing, and it’s unifying.

I ran my class as a community circle — circle up, ground ourselves, and share around the circle so that every voice has an opportunity to be heard. I gave the kids a handout to reflect on, so that they’d have some think time in order to gather their thoughts, and so that I could gather my own thoughts.

You don’t know what to say? You don’t need to. You need to show that this is okay to talk about, that it’s okay to be angry and afraid, that they aren’t alone. You’re giving them the space to share, to clarify one another’s understandings; you’re not telling them how to think or feel.

If you have suggestions, questions, or different approaches, please share them. We all stumble through this together.

On Friday, we used some students’ ideas and wrote letters to Crutcher’s family. I’d like to close this with one of those letters.

Dear family,

I am writing this specifically to the child of Terence Crutcher. Please excuse me for my bad writing. I am a 7th grader. I can’t imagine how difficult it must be to lose your father, I’m so sorry. Just remember, you are going to have to stay strong and be someone who will group up to lead, to be an hero, an achiever.

You can bring justice to your father, I can, we all can, and to everyone else in the world who has been killed because of police. I want to cry every time, but I don’t see that crying will change anything. The world needs a change.

I want to tell you how much I want to help you and support you. I believe in you as something amazing. I see everyone like that, but what police are doing is wrong. I want peace, love, freedom. I imagine you do as well, that’s why you have to push forward. Overall, I want to send you some love and help you the best I can. Please remember what I wrote, you deserve only good because what happened to you is not right. I hope you can get through this, I know you can.


Guest Post by: Dan Thalkar (@dthalkar)
Humanities Teacher in Los Angeles, CA

Taking Sides: Revolution or Oppression?

Taking Sides: Revolution or Oppression?

“We cannot treat our students as ‘other people’s children’ (Delpit, 1995) — their pain is our pain… audacious hope demands that we reconnect to the collective by struggling alongside one another, sharing in the victories and the pain.” — Jeff Duncan-Andrade

“Why; our backs are now against the wall. Listen all of y’all it’s a sabotage. Listen all of y’all it’s a sabotage. Listen all of y’all it’s a sabotage. Listen all of y’all it’s a sabotage” — Beastie Boys

I went back to work this week. Over the next few weeks, we’ll all be going back, if we haven’t already. Back to vision plans and team norming and curriculum maps and management systems and buzzwords and “deconstructing the standards.” Back to the incessant hum of “there’s never enough time” and “what if this doesn’t work?” Back to waking up from dreams about school and falling asleep by walking through lesson plans and rosters. Back to the pressure of knowing how much good and how much harm we can cause with just a few throw-away words.

As I go back to work this year, there’s a new sense of urgency that I can’t seem to shake. An unsettling conviction that what we do has never mattered more. I don’t need to go through the whys, you know why.

This is not a safe time in America, especially not for brown and black bodies, and my 12-year-olds in East Los Angeles, though they may not understand the why, definitely know the what. At the end of the last school year, I gave my students a survey that included the question, “What are you afraid of?” The far and away top answer was, as one student put it, “a government that wants to get rid of my parents.” This was not a survey about politics. And yet.

The day Philandro Castile was murdered, I received an email from a former student of mine, a brilliant, brave, young black woman. “I’ve been crying and shaking I’m so angry,” she wrote. “I can’t sit and do nothing. I CAN’T SIT BY AND BE SCARED TO HAVE MY STEP DAD DRIVING!.. I need help Mr. T like I need something to do before I go crazy.”

What do you say to that? I tried, did the best I could, cried with her, and knew it wasn’t enough. I didn’t hear back from her for three weeks, until I received a message that began, “I’m so sorry I never responded, I wasn’t strong enough to read it.” She is strong enough, of course. Infinitely stronger than those she fears. And yet.

Our children’s fears indict us all.

As we turn from a summer dominated by brutality and ignorance to the hope inherent in a new school year, we must remember what we stand for. We must remember that teaching is not a passive act. It is not objective. We don’t teach standards. We teach citizens, warriors, scientists, and poets. We teach brilliant, angry, multifaceted, loving, human beings.

Whether we choose to admit it or not, we teach either revolution or oppression. This tension is at the very heart of what we do. We either stand with our children and strive with them to create something better, or we inculcate compliance and tell them that success and excellence are objective metrics to be measured. We cannot teach if we do not ask ourselves why we teach. We cannot teach if we do not ask why our children cry and shake and feel like they’re about to go crazy. We cannot teach if we don’t choose sides.

In Los Angeles, choosing sides is often framed as an argument between charters and the district, between public and privatized education. This argument is, if you’ll excuse me, bullshit. It’s how we avoid the hard conversations. Pointing fingers at other educators is easy; othering always is. It is much messier to question ourselves, to deconstruct a system of which we are all part.

Credit: PhotoPin, licensed under CC by 2.0

In a system where certain voices are privileged over others — those with power versus those without — teaching is revolution. Learning is revolution. Loving is revolution. So, as this school year begins, we must take sides. Revolution or oppression? The choices we make now, the stories we choose to tell now, the vulnerability we share now, will make all the difference in the upcoming months.

My student ended her last e-mail to me by writing, “You push me to want to make a difference.. Thank you.” Let your children push you to want to make a difference. Thank them. Stand with them.

Guest Post by: Dan Thalkar (@dthalkar)
Humanities Teacher in Los Angeles, CA


Originally published at Teacher Voice.

Yesterday Was a Bad Day

Yesterday Was a Bad Day

Yesterday was not a good day. Xenophobia won in the U.K.

The Supreme Court, by deciding nothing, exposed five million lives to fear, uncertainty, and instability. While his city still tries to heal, the police officer who drove the van where Freddie Gray’s spine was snapped can now wake up every morning without fear of consequences. The list goes on.

Yesterday was a day for hate. And all I could think was, I wish we were still in school. Not because I have any desire to add a hatred of summer to the frightening, irrational prejudice that manifested itself yesterday — I profoundly need and plan to enjoy this break — but because the only way I know how to make sense of the word, the only way I know to manifest hope, is with my students.

See, this is why I teach. It helps me not feel useless. It helps me, in the face of dehumanization and othering, remember the profound depths of love of which we are actually capable. It helps me love.

I teach at a middle school in East Los Angeles. My students are predominantly low-income, Latino, citizens of multiple worlds. They, like 12-year-olds across the country, are obsessed with 21 Pilots, try to get away with telling me “Daaaaaaaaaamn Daniel”, and often date and break up without either partner ever actually speaking to the other. They, like 12-year-olds across the country, are afraid of politicians who want them gone, see violence done to their communities which they can not help but internalize, and often feel like the American Dream is not meant for them.

Maybe it isn’t. Maybe it isn’t meant for any person of color. Maybe it isn’t meant for any of us. Maybe this is just how things are.

Or, maybe, not.

My students and I often talk about the Mayan idea of “In Lak’ech” — I am another you, you are another me. It is a beautiful, simple concept that is immensely hard to practice and reconcile with much of what we see happening around and to us. It is even harder when they ask, “How can people have so much hate?” and all I can do is look back at them and shrug. I don’t know.

My students, in those moments when we gaze into the abyss, fill me with awe. They do not accept that this is simply how things are, that oppression and hatred will always win out. They want to fight, they want to know . . . well, everything. We may enter our conversations filled with vast amounts of pain and anger, but we enter them with questions, too. We enter them with empathy. We enter them with hope. Actually, my students are the ones who enter with hope. Thanks to them, I get to leave with it.

My students, like 12-year-olds everywhere, are not satisfied with merely learning about the world. They yearn, passionately, to engage with it. When we learned about Syrian refugees earlier this year, they asked, How can we help? When we discussed the finally-closed Exide battery factory, which contaminated a vast area of East LA and Vernon with lead poisoning, they asked, How can we make it better? When we wrote letters to the Supreme Court Justices arguing in favor of DACA+, they asked How could they not want our families to stay together? When we decided to write our own legal codes and lists of rights, they didn’t even need to ask why. They knew they could do better.

Teaching is about many things, but at its core, it is about two: hope and love. It often seems that our world is painfully bereft of both. Yesterday was not a good day, but there will be good days. Our kids will make sure of that. It is our privilege to help guide them through, to help them understand their positionality, develop their agency, and find their voices in their classrooms, in their schools, in their communities, in their worlds. So, yes, I am very, very glad that it is summer break. But I also can’t wait to get back in my classroom and deal in hope and love again.

Guest Post by: Dan Thalkar
Humanities Teacher in Los Angeles, CA


Originally published at Teacher Voice.