Put a Ding in the Universe!

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Dec 01 2012

That disconcerting moment when true education really happens

Education is all about opening minds to consider other possibilities.  It’s so easy to get focused on meeting the daily objective and aligning it with the Big Goal.  Then along the way, once in a blue moon, almost as if by accident, something happens that’s quite disconcerting to both teacher and class.  A true teaching moment occurs.  The real possibility that a life or an attitude might change isn’t neat or tidy.  In fact, the one that happened today seemed kind of like chaos.

I’m going to open up here and share some personal things, things I’m not altogether comfortable talking about.  You see, I’m still a work in progress just as much as the children are and I’m still a student of life’s lessons.  I hope any commentators on this article will be kind and understanding, because this is new ground for me.

Today was the conclusion of a pretty ambitious week.  My class is a semester-long remedial reading course.  I’ll only have this group of kids for another two weeks.  Our work this week pushed them and they responded to the rigor better than any week we’ve had yet.  Today, on Friday, I planned to give them a bit of a break by reading and discussing an article about something novel: Bigfoot.

Now, before you think I’m crazy, you have to understand my class and its focus.  The text we use is very scripted and it talks about endangered species.  It consists of informational articles that the kids are to pick apart, paraphrase, summarize, and practice skills like figuring out words in context, making connections within the text, etc.  I’m sorry, but in all honesty, my classes of Mexican teens who live in neighborhoods where shootings, gangs, and drug dealers dominate, don’t connect with stories about panda bears going extinct.  I have to augment their reading with things that engage them.  One of the things I’ve discovered that this group of kids loves is urban legends, folk tales, and scary stories.

The nice thing about urban legends is that there is often a connection to folk tales, rich in cultural contexts.  The kids have enjoyed folk tales from Native American culture, Mexico, Japan, and other places around the world.  They’ve enjoyed learning about urban legends like the “Roswell Incident.”  They loved the legend of “La Llorona” and a current event story about the ten most haunted places in Oklahoma.

In today’s lesson, I hoped to accomplish a couple of things.  First, I wanted to pay tribute to the last day of Native American History Month.  A couple of my students are Native Americans and they love hearing and sharing stories from their culture.  I found a cool, relatively academic article about stories of Bigfoot-like creatures that originated among pre-Columbian Native American cultures.  One of the points that the article mentioned is that some Native American groups regard Bigfoot as a spiritual symbol.

At the beginning, I announced that our objective was to read, form opinions, and to share those opinions in an atmosphere of respect.  After all, the whole point of reading was to fill our minds with worthwhile ideas to discuss.  I started the lesson with a discussion about symbols and how various cultures assign different meanings to the same symbols.  That led to a brief discussion about values and that we assign symbols to things that we value.  We discussed things like the American flag to start with.  Then we proceeded to discuss other symbols.  Some of the kids brought up various religious symbols.  One mentioned the Christian cross and another one mentioned a pentagram.

Without going down a potentially contentious path about religion, I showed the students how the same symbols can have different meanings for different groups.  For example, I showed how the swastika, which is commonly associated with the Nazi regime, has been a sacred religious symbol for Hindus as well as the Navajo for thousands of years.  The kids totally (and unexpectedly) got into this and they asked questions about all sorts of things ranging from the Star of David to the Illuminati “all seeing eye.”

The intended plan was to segue into the article and discuss Bigfoot as a symbol of hope for Native Americans.  They commenced reading an article that was relatively challenging and they did so with an unaccustomed gusto.  Each class took surprisingly different paths as the students took charge of the discussion.  We ended up talking about colonialism, the European invasion of America, how Mexico came to be a nation, the recognition of La Raza as a source of pride for Mexicans, the culture of power, and religious tolerance.  We went into more controversial places than I ever imagined we’d go.

In the sixth period of the day, that’s when chaos broke loose in a manner of speaking.  This group of eighth graders is the most rambunctious one of the lot.  They are like an explosion that is waiting to go off at any moment.  I was concerned about how this discussion was going to go with them.  Right before this period, I covering another teacher’s class on the other side of the building.  When I arrived at my class, my students and the rest of the kids were watching a police helicopter hovering over the neighborhood like it was in a search pattern.  Once I got them into the class, and started getting the premise of the lesson established in their minds, things went crazy.

The principal came to the door and told us he was declaring a lockdown—not a drill, but an actual lockdown.  I guess the police were looking for somebody with the helicopter and perhaps the administrators had received word to lock down for safety.  I quickly responded with all the necessary protocols, but the kids started to flip out.  Some realized that this was for real and they became very serious.  The ones who never pay attention to anything thought this was just a drill, and they started playing around.  I jumped down their throats and chewed them out, threatening to send him to the office when the lockdown was all over.

After getting everyone quiet and in place, the principal came by about 10 minutes later and called off the lockdown.  I had to get the class refocused on the lesson all over again, which seemed nearly impossible.  Once we got back into the reading and the discussion of symbols, things took a really unexpected turn.  One of the guys made a disparaging remark about gay people and I took the moment to correct him.  Others reacted with disbelief that I would defend homosexuals.  One of the guys, whose declared personal ambition is to go into the cannabis industry, defended his homophobic views by stating, “but it’s against the Bible.”  I guarantee that this kid probably has never cracked the pages of a Bible in his life, but has heard this said by others.

The discussion that ensued from there was interesting.  I reminded the kids that the Bible also says that children who disrespect their elders (and teachers) should be beaten with a rod, and that eating shrimp was a capital offense.  In other words, they should know what’s in the Bible before they use it to support whatever opinions they have.

One of the kids asked, “But you’re a Mormon aren’t you?”  I replied that I was indeed Mormon and that I believe in the Bible as well as the Book of Mormon.  “Then how can you support being gay?”  Here’s where it gets uncomfortable.  Although I’m Mormon and a believer in Jesus Christ, nothing in my religion compels me to treat gay people other than with respect and kindness, just like anyone else.  Then the question comes, “Well what do Mormons believe, then?” Knowing that the class isn’t the place for religious debate or teaching theology, I simply reassured them that I believe in many of the same things that they believed about Jesus and the Bible.

I managed to turn the discussion toward the topic of tolerance, and respecting the views of others.  I emphasized that people can have vastly different views and still get along.  I tried to explain that one of my best friends is a Baptist minister who thinks my religion is a cult, but we’re still friends.  I have gay relatives and colleagues for whom I have great respect and affection.

We ended up each class with a discussion of what symbols we want to represent our values.  Are our values represented by materialism or intolerance?  What if an archaeologist 5,000 years in our future discovered and managed to view a video game like “Grand Theft Auto” or a movie like “The Dark Knight?”  What things would that scientist think were valued by our culture?  Violence?  Dishonesty?  Crime?  Vigilantism?

Then, out-of-the-blue comes another unexpected question.  One of the girls asked me, “If there had been a real danger during the lockdown, what would you have done?”  Without engaging in any hypotheticals, I just replied, “I would protect you.”  There was kind of a stunned silence.  What did that mean?  One of the kids, who knows I’m a black belt in judo said, “What?  Would you judo them or something?”  Again, without any hysteria or dramatics, I simply replied, “I would do what was needed to protect you.  Don’t worry about it.”  I don’t think those kids have ever had anyone tell them that before, that someone would protect them.  In their dog-eat-dog world, I think it was a truly novel moment for them to consider that.  There was the tiniest moment of silence and then things went back to the normal ruckus.

In the end, I think I made some of the students truly uncomfortable in the sense that their horizons expanded.  Their world shifted somewhat.  The Christian kids came to learn that Christmas trees were pagan symbols that had nothing to do with Christmas.  They understood that the desire of a Native American holy man to touch a bigfoot creature was as noble a desire as a pilgrim on his way to touch the Kaaba in Mecca or the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem.  The Mexican and African American kids saw a penitent white middle-aged teacher acknowledging that terrible injustices were done by European invaders of this continent.  Some of them connected with the idea that the way for them to defeat the culture of power is to become educated and join in the battle for justice in the world of ideas.  They connected with some realizations that their assumptions about the nature of life and the people in it aren’t always what they expect.  And a white, middle-aged Mormon stood up for the rights and dignity of gay people, which gave me a lot to think about after the fact.

In the end, I suppose that’s what learning is all about.  Instead of just meeting a Common Core objective today, these students actually had their brains turn on for a brief time and they considered possibilities that had not occurred to them before.  It was crazy, chaotic, exhilarating, and to be honest, just a little bit frightening.  When the next week rolls around, it will probably be back to business as usual.  The challenge will be to see if I can arrange another appointment with such “chaos” again in the next two weeks.


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YOTFAO BACTAG = You only teach for America once, but always challenge the achievement gap.

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