Establishing a classroom environment through challenging questions.
In January 2017 I began to publish my writing. Clicking the publish button creates a mixture of apprehension and elation. Every time. Today as I write this post, it is heavy with thoughts from my previous pieces of writing. The journey of writing and being vulnerable to an audience has both humbled and released me. My involvement in activism in public education with the March for Public Education Blog and the Bad Ass Teacher’s Association (BATs) has both enlightened and inspired me professionally. The role of teachers and public education has never been more integral to a democracy. Ultimately, this journey has solidified my resolve: I don’t just teach in the United States, I teach America.
In just four days I will meet my new crop of sophomores. They will be anxious about getting lost in their new, big high school. They will not want to stand out too much or be perceived as weird. They will struggle with their lockers, and then realize lockers were so ninth grade. They will fuss over their outfits and their hair styles. They will enter room 811 and hope that Mrs. Brown is not a mean, nasty teacher. Some of them will arrive having previously enjoyed history, others will have been bored by it. My job is to offer them a safe place to explore the best and the worst of the human story — a story of which they are a character.
In teaching them Global History I am teaching these sophomores about their place in this world. A world of hate and hurricanes. A place of extreme polarization and incredible humanity. Every seventy-five-minute teaching block has really only one objective: to make the students give a fuck about the world in which they are a member. Sure, they will learn about words, places, people, and events — that is just the materials that make up the plate on which I serve the food. The “food” I serve them is the analysis, synthesis, evaluation, and evidence-based discussion that I will force the students to undertake. In a time of hate and hurricanes, that “food” must be served every damn day. This new bunch of sophomores will be eligible to vote in 2020. These adolescents must begin to fill their minds with diverse opinions, creative solutions, and large amounts of historical knowledge connected to current world issues. In a time of hate and hurricanes, the social sciences have never been more relevant.
In a time of hate and hurricanes, I will scrap my usual opening day activities of corny ice breakers and rule recitation. No, I will not waste our collective time. Instead, I will prepare tough questions where I can observe my new students’ responses. I will write these challenging questions on large, neon pink paper and they will write their responses on their own sticky-notes to answer quasi-anonymously. As they travel around the room reading these difficult questions, I will listen to their chatter and notice their body language. I will begin the process of getting to know them as humans and as learners. Although they might not think they have answers due to their limited life experiences, I will push them to have efficacy — hoping to show them that their voice matters.
In a time of hate and hurricanes, these seven challenging questions will kick off our journey this school year:
- What are the issues concerning North Korea? What should be done about North Korea’s aggression?
- What did Hurricane Harvey demonstrate to you about your country?
- Which two countries celebrate their 70th anniversary this year? How does their shared story cause problems and create opportunities?
- Should monuments of Confederate leaders be removed? If no, why? If yes, what should happen to them?
- Is the news fake? Which media source do you turn to when you want to know about news or information?
- Where else in the world experienced intense flooding, destruction, and death at the same time Hurricane Harvey was impacting Texas? If you didn’t know about this world event, why do you think you are ignorant?
- And, then just for fun (we will need some levity): Did you attend the New York State Fair this year? If so, what is your favorite fair food, ride, and or attraction?. (The New York State Fair is located in our city.)
Teaching the humanities in a time of hate and hurricanes can be daunting. However, as I wrote in my earlier post, “I can’t even get my tomatoes to line up straight,” one of my goals in my last ten years of teaching is to make every teaching moment meaningful. The individual students and their stories are the most important component. I want to teach them about the past, but I must also show them their place in the future.