The other day in class, we were scheduled to talk about America’s Great Men, its leaders of revolution — Jefferson, Washington, Hamilton, Adams.
Instead of the Great White Dead, however, we talked about a friend of mine, a former science teacher of my students. He is undocumented and was recently profiled in a New York Times article about undocumented teachers who are DACA recipients.
We cried. We spoke of fairness. What is fairness? We talked about courage and revolution and justice. What is justice? We discussed fighting and change and hope. What is hope?
What is hope?
Oftentimes, I don’t know. I think of the student who sobbed on my shoulder, muttering, “It isn’t fair. It just isn’t fair.” I think of how the day after this lesson, many students, wrote some variation on the theme of “the world is fucked up and I am angry” for their writing journals. I think of how often that thought runs through my head. I think of the one or two students who said they don’t care. And then, before I collapse into a nihilistic puddle, I talk to the kids and we storytell our way into hope.
We had talked about DACA before. On that Tuesday when Sessions spoke for Trump, we discussed immigration laws and the economic impact of the decision. We wrote letters to my friend and our former teacher. But something was different after we read the NYT story, after we saw his picture and read his words. Something broke.
One of my students noticed the change and offered her insight — it was different because whereas before we were discussing news, now we were discussing family. We were opening our hearts.
After reading and discussing the article, everyone wrote a response to the question, “How will you stand up for what you believe?” Their answers boiled down to two central themes: I will stand with others and I will demand that my voice be heard. They felt the impact of their teacher sharing his story, and now they wanted to share theirs.
We’re going to work on a family narrative project soon. We’re going to have a community potluck of cultural dishes (because what tells stories better than food?). For Latino Heritage Month, we’re going to ensure that the brilliant complexity of the Latino experience is represented as best we can. We’re going to leverage social media. We’re going to partner with a school on the East Coast and learn from other perspectives. We’re going to stay angry and, probably, cry some more. We’re going to talk, and write, and talk, and write. We’re going to speak our worlds into existence.
Our students’ voices deserve to be heard. Education is about many things, but I would argue that among the most sacred of its responsibilities is helping students find their voices and ways to use them.
Far too often, the study of history and literature is positioned as a passive act — let’s learn about what other Great People have done. Let’s study their stories, write a compare and contrast essay and analyze theme. Maybe we even take it a step further and have students write their own stories or examine history through the lens of counter-narratives. These are all, no doubt, important skills and techniques. But they are also profoundly limited and limiting. What a wasted opportunity it is to explore our human existence and then not join in the transcendent stream of co-creation.
Be in the world, and journey there with your students. Write letters to congress. Analyze youth grassroots organizing movements. Bring in outside speakers and go on volunteering field trips. Connect with the media organizations in your community. Help the kids develop their own media organization. Mobilize their inherent social media brilliance. Amplify their voices and celebrate their songs.
The student who sobbed, “it’s so unfair,” is right, of course. The situation is fucked. We can stay there for a while, in the place of feelings and frustration and anger, but then we have to process and fight. The oppressed don’t need pity, they need solidarity. They need movement from learning to action.
We didn’t end up getting to Washington, Adams, or Jefferson that particular day (though we did read excerpts from “Common Sense,” Thomas Paine’s brilliant urgent plea to the proletariat), but we did speak of greatness and of revolution. We did speak of courage. We did speak of Great Americans fighting to build a more just, more fair nation.
I’m worried for my friend. I’m worried for my students and my families. I don’t know that anything I do will make a difference. I do know, however, that I’m not alone in that fear. I know that if we hang together, we will not hang separately.
Eventually we did learn about Washington and Jefferson and Hamilton and Adams. I wouldn’t be a very good American History teacher if we skipped over these guys. We explored their ideas and ideals, their hypocrisy and their courage. And we questioned how they hold up against the Greatness around us, and if their courage and might could match ours.
What is hope? It’s the story we tell.
Written By: Dan Thalkar