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Empowering Learners, Spring 2005
Extra-Classroom Teaching Handbook

Teaching is SO Much More Than Lesson Plans
and Getting it Right: The Complicated Reality of Emotions, Identity, and Emergent Learning

Heather Davis

In the classrooms that I am in as an extra-classroom teacher, the only thing I can say for sure is that I come away with more questions than answers. Things come up in the classroom that can not be expected, and as a teacher I respond the best way I know how. Students will often bring up issues which, if I took it and ran, I could not adequately address if I had an entire year with them. More importantly, I do not have the answer; there is no “right” way to respond. Often these things that come up leave me doubting my ability to connect with the students, and therefore my ability to offer them material that relates to their realities. But, while it is important for me to acknowledge the limitations of my knowledge and influence, it is imperative that I take the opportunity the students offer and engage in a dialogue which we can all genuinely learn from. This takes openness, honesty, and patience. For future extra-classroom teachers, I can offer a taste of these experiences and the questions that arose from them.

I teach in two different English classes, one ninth grade and one combined 10th to 12th grade special education class. In the ninth grade I co-teach with three other college students, and we divide the class of over 30 students into 4 groups to work with them on lesson plans we devise on literacy and language choice. The special education classroom was a placement I had not planned on being as intensive as it is, but the first day I went to observe the classroom teacher told me that I could teach her class on Wednesday mornings. Although I have observed and interacted at various levels in numerous classrooms, this is the first time I have regularly taught a class from my own lesson plan.

“He’s a fag!”
The first time that I taught the special education class, I brought in a mini-chapter from “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” for them to read. The book is a memoir by a man who became quadriplegic after having a stroke, leaving him with the little more than ability to blink his left eye, which he did to communicate and to write his book. At one point in the chapter, he looks at his son who is visiting him in the hospital, and describes his sorrow and mourning over his lost ability to touch his son. After reading this, one of the students laughed and said, “He’s a fag!”

What is the right thing to say/do in this situation? Of course I am offended, and have a negative gut reaction to his suggestion. My impulse is to reprimand him, to tell him not to use that offensive word. However, the truth is that he has provided an opportunity for learning for the entire class. While my bringing up “gay issues” or “sexuality” may have come across as inappropriate or irrelevant in the eyes of the students or other teachers, he provided me with a golden opportunity to address an issue in a way that is relevant to their lives.

What I did do was basically to bring the topic back to the story. He obviously missed the point. The dad is not gay: he just misses touching his son. How could I have brought this topic into relevancy without taking it out of context, in a way that the students could feel unthreatened so that they could challenge their perceptions? Moreover, how can I distance myself enough from this issue so that the students don’t feel attacked, while staying true to my commitment to equality for GLBT people in the school and the world? How real/personal can I be with the students? Is addressing the issue straight-on too controversial to be useful? And, if I do “open the bag” to talking about the issue straight-on, how do I deal with the situation if it becomes overwhelmingly negative and I am the only one offering a gay-friendly opinion?

Beyond, or perhaps underlying, the issue of homophobia is the issue of male affection. Obviously the fatherly affection expressed in the narrative was so unsettling or unacceptable or abnormal for the student that he had to distance himself from it. When one student did offer a more sympathetic opinion, he had to qualify that his gay friend was a girl “because,” as he said, “if a gay guy tried to talk to me, that would be unacceptable.”

I don’t know the answer to any of these questions. There is obviously no one right answer, and I can’t erase homophobia or machismo within my classroom single-handedly, even if I worked at it all semester. But I can take the opportunity to challenge assumptions the best I know how.

Question: How will you use potentially problematic or offensive subjects in the classroom and turn them into an opportunity for learning?

“Oh-sorry! Caucasian people.”
In one of the first classes I taught in the 9th grade classroom, the students read an excerpt from the article, “Nobody Mean More to Me Than You and the Future Life of Willie Jordan,” which addressed through a true story “Black English” versus “Standard English,” and the power dynamics implicit in society’s use of language. After trying to engage the students, all of whom are African American (and I am a white woman), in a discussion about the article, one student said “It’s about black and white people.” Then she looked at me sheepishly and said, “Oh-Sorry. Caucasian people.”

I made some kind of gesture to communicate that the term “white people” is fine by me, but it caught me off guard and I don’t know if I did a good job of making it a safe space, a space where they felt they could bring up race issues in front of me. How can I constructively address such an important issue which affects our lives and our world, while acknowledging my identity as a member of a historically oppressive group? How can I acknowledge my identity without making our differences seem insurmountable?

Question: How will you bring up issues of race (and acknowledge them where they exist) in a way that addresses the students’ realities and identities, while maintaining a safe space where the students can feel safe to question social inequality and their own perceptions? How will you be an anti-racist role model for students?

“What God do you serve?”
Last week in the 9th grade English class, I brought in a piece of artwork by Barbara Kruger. She wrote many questions on top of an American flag, some of which were: Who is housed? Who is beyond the law? Who speaks? Who is silenced? Who prays loudest? Who dies first? Who laughs last? I asked them why they thought she wrote those questions on top of an American flag, and then what they thought about the questions. Only three students were there, so it was a small group discussion. When we discussed the question, “Who prays loudest?” one girl said that in times of slavery, the slaves prayed the loudest. After the discussion fizzled a little, she asked me if she could ask me a question. Then she asked me, “What God do you serve?” I was suddenly put on the spot, about something which I had no preparation. I was so shocked that I looked around, almost looking for someone to intervene or thinking of something to say without quite answering her question. But no one was there to mediate except me, and I could not think of anything diplomatic to say. I said a bunch of “um-s” and then said, honestly, “I don’t know.” They proceeded to talk about different religions, about “agnostics” and “atheists.” And the student who asked me what God I serve was crossing the line of being preachy, saying, “I pray to the God in heaven, whereas other people pray to other Gods.” And when another student asked how she knew her God was right, she said that her God made things happen faster than if you were to pray to another God. Then another student asked her how she knew: had she tried? She suggested doing an experiment where for a year she would pray to a different God, and see how fast things happened.

I was enjoying this conversation, and was very glad that they were discussing things that were obviously relevant to their everyday lives, and also rich with context and consequence. But, I did not know how to mediate the conversation productively. I let the conversation run pretty freely, except for jumping in to tell them that some people believe in more than one God. When the student became more “preachy,” I told them, as respectfully as I could, that there is no “right” belief, that we have to respect everyone’s beliefs, and then I told them the reason that “I don’t know” is because religion has caused a lot of violence and wars when people think that only they are right. The students seemed to understand this, and began to talk about war. I did not want to make this student question her faith. But, in an effort to maintain a space where all beliefs were welcome, I discouraged her from “teaching” the other students what she “knows,” and perhaps left her more unsure of her opinions.

This conversation was not what I had planned. Although completely unexpected and unplanned for, it was both relevant and worthwhile. This is a teaching moment which I am sure happens often. How can I take the important experiences and perspectives of the students seriously, and encourage them to relate personally with texts, while maintaining a balance of subjects and opinions in the classroom so as to not silence anyone’s opinions? And, how much should I bring in my own beliefs and opinions?

Question: How will you allow space for students to express themselves, including their beliefs, while maintaining safe space for different ways of living?

As a student-teacher, who feels unsure about myself in front of a classroom, it is hard to be confident when things come up which threaten a sense of control. Not having a plan, and not even knowing where a conversation should be going, is scary. It is often my gut reaction to stop these interruptions right after they happen. But my advice would be to pay attention to them. A student’s comments and questions, even those offensive to us, can be revealing both of the student’s understanding and experiences. By listening to what the student is telling us about herself, and reflecting on our response, student teachers can share a learning with the students that is relevant to their worlds.

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