When Students Become the Teachers

For some additional graduate level credits and CEUS this year, I am taking a class called SEED offered through my district. We meet once a month, talk about equity and education topics, and rotate each month who teaches.

My group was up this month, and our goal, which I think we achieved, was to offer hope for future generations, and a chance to hear multiple perspectives when it comes to the very tense relationship of law enforcement and (specifically) unarmed, young black men through the reading and discussion of The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas.

We started the three-hour long class by asking everyone to take out their phones and show a picture of people they love to the people they were sitting by. I love seeing faces light up when people get to talk about something (or someone) that is special to them. I think this is an important place to start when we start talking about the importance of human lives.

Then, with phones already out, we played a kahoot that my students have taken during units on analyzing systems. It includes 26 words that many of us, especially in education, toss around (think race, racism, prejudice, privilege, discrimination, tokenism, minority, bigotry…) but gets us to think about how well we can actually define them.

After discussing if any of the terms surprised us, we turned the floor over to our school police liaison officer, who answered tough questions about her job in law enforcement for almost 40 minutes. She actually read the book on her own time too in preparation for our discussion! My first main takeaway was her honesty in describing her reaction to news of police shootings. At first, she says, she thinks “Oh, here we go again”, we won’t ever get to know the whole story, but I was glad she admitted that one of the perspectives that will definitely not be heard is that of the victim. My second main takeaway was how she really sees herself as a human being who is a police officer and works hard to maintain the self-care required to get help for traumatic experiences rather than take them out on citizens. I admire her courage for participating in this conversation. I willingly admit the growing distrust I have towards cops (stereotype I know I hold), and she challenged me to remember that like I’ve said before, “Being a teacher is not bad, but some teachers are bad at their job. Being a police officer is not bad, but some police officers are bad at their job.” I don’t necessarily need to be wary of each cop, but cop culture is still something I question strongly, just as I do the culture of schools.

After her Q&A, we had a dinner break with book club questions to guide discussions at tables- mostly just to get participants thinking about their favorite, shocking, and uncomfortable parts of the story. We also set up a table of artistic student work inspired by the book, which you can see here.

And after dinner, my favorite part of the night began. Eight tenth grade students from my class and my colleague Claire’s class (who also taught the book) made name tents and willingly took part in a student panel that lasted an hour. The group’s racial makeup was: one black boy, two black girls, two white boys, one white gender non-conforming student, and two white girls.

Students discussed their experience reading The Hate U Give in school; how they had all read more of this book than any other assigned book; how they appreciated when their teachers brought up race and differences because it became easier to trust them and easier for them to have the discussions; how they feel they gained more from this than say, Lord of the Flies and writing about savagery; what their parents would think if they started dating someone of a different race; how the two black girls would not really want to become teachers; if the book should be required reading for high school students; what defines a classic; naming some of the privileges attached to being white in our district (like being stopped less in the hallway); and how many of their largest takeaways from the book was largely around the same theme: If you have a voice, you should use it.

I felt so encouraged as a teacher when one of the audience members asked the panel if they would recommend this story to her family. One of the black female students offered a story of how one day she was reading a part that felt so real to something she and her mom had been through, so she brought the book home and she and her mom switched off pages, reading it aloud together. My Reading Specialist/English Teacher heart began a fireworks display. Isn’t this the whole point?

I also felt encouraged when a teacher of color offered a specific comment to one of my white, male students. Using his name, she told him how impressed she was that given his age, he was already able to acknowledge and discuss what his white skin meant when it is such a hard thing for so many adults to do.

After the panel wrapped up, the teachers uploaded flipgrids talking about what they could take away from the book and discussion for their practice. Hands down, videos talked about how important it is to keep having courageous conversations about race with our students.

I made a comment that I am looking forward to the day when the prejudiced and bigoted viewpoints are truly the minority, and I think despite the many things that go wrong in a school building, this is something we’re doing right.

Overall, I’m quite pleased with how the evening went. Multiple educators in the room agreed that they were feeling hopeful about this next group of young people. I’m so grateful to have such resilient, honest, critically thinking students who gave up an evening to come and talk to teachers out of the strength of their hearts, a bit of extra credit, and some pepperoni pizza.

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