Sunday, March 18, 2012

"Why Can't Separate Be Equal?"

My last class of the day is reading Night right now. In addition to a basic overview of the Holocaust, we also spend some time talking about the eugenics movement pioneered in the United States. We talked about what was different and what was similar between Eli's experiences in Night and the experiences of African-Americans, Catholics, and other minority groups in the U.S. During the course of our conversation, my students said some pretty horrific things:

"I don't believe it should be a law or anything, but I think it's better when the races are separate so that there's less fighting."

"It just doesn't look right when people who are white marry people who are black."

"Why can't separate be equal?"

My students made this comments very matter-of-factly. They spoke one at a time. They used people-first language like we have talked about and they've also worked on the terms they often use to describe people of color. They even asked me what I thought about interracial marriage and when I indicated I didn't have a problem with it, one boy noted that's probably because I live in a city a ways away from where I teach and that I'm used to seeing "people who are more diverse." No one yelled. No one talked over top of another. No one went nuts when I told them that we'd tried separate but equal and it hadn't worked. But no one advocated for racial harmony either.

A couple of weeks ago, we were reading The Odyssey in my first class of the day. We reached the part where Odysseus shoots one of the suitors through the nipple. The class of mostly fourteen-year-old boys lost it. I don't mean there were a couple of chuckles and then we kept reading, but they could not continue for several minutes. I don't mean to sound like a fuddy duddy or that I never want to have fun or laugh at silly things in my class, but I have spent a lot of time talking to my students about finding that line between having fun and still being able to do meaningful work.

One incident is horrifying and the other makes it hard to do my job, but I think they are both related. I love my students. I have such affection for each of them and their unique talents and strengths, even when they drive me crazy with their chatter or their parroting of views they hear at home. But days like the two above just make me wonder what am I supposed to do? How do I teach tolerance and maturity?

I think that job belongs to teachers whether or not parents have abdicated their role in teaching those virtues. I think that any one who works with young people takes on the task of being a person who helps raise those people. I'm just having a really hard time figuring out how to incorporate those virtues in my classroom. We stop and talk a lot and I like to think those times plant some seeds. We've also started doing weekly community meetings where we can talk about things that are bothering us. I'm interested to see if these help matters any. I'm reading so much about teaching kids how to advocate for themselves and be proud of their heritage. I haven't stumbled across any material about how to teach character in a way that works with a student-directed English curriculum. Any ideas, teachers and laypeople alike?


Katie said...

what a heartbreaking question. have you ever seen this PBS program? it strikes me that sometimes we romanticize kids as kinder or more goodhearted than adults, but they really do have the same capacities for cruelty that we all do, I think... they're just more impressionable. Which is why it's so good that they have your influence, even if it doesn't feel like it... I have no answers, by the way, but I hope you find some. (and that maturity thing really resonates, it truly bedevils me with my 4th grade reading buddies - I lose them for a fifteen minute stretch if a book has a word like "pooh-pooh'ed". what a challenge it must be day in and day out!)

Katie said...

(even accounting for the differences between 4th graders and 14 year-olds... Steve used to have the same problem when he taught juniors and seniors at Fork Union. can we just blame boys?)

Maggie said...

I do think it's interesting, and I meant to mention, that this class was entirely white and had only one girl. I'm not sure what that means, but I do feel good that everyone showed up the next day and went to work again even after I told them how little I care for racial divisions. I've heard some good stuff about and the Southern Poverty Law Center's work on teaching the importance of equality to kids. I'm also going to do some work with them talking about how our own people, the Scots-Irish, were pretty oppressed when we first got to the US.

I think you're right, Katie, that teenagers aren't any less human than adults -- just a little more teachable. Thank goodness!

Heather B. Quinn said...

Maggie, last year I taught the book Warriors Don't Cry by Melba Patillo Beals which is about desegregation in Little Rock. I used this lesson plan from Rethinking Schools and I think the role play aspect really helped:

Warriors Don't Cry is a great book but I do not have students read the whole thing all the way through due to content - I pick and choose chapters and use interviews and other primary sources to fill in the blanks. At the end of the unit I showed the movie The Ernest Green Story.

There is an excerpt about Thurgood Marshall and the Brown vs. Board case in our literature book that I also like to use when teaching about "Separate vs. Equal" that I'd be happy to scan and e-mail you if you'd like it.