Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Teaching Individuality, Diversity, and Acceptance in a Hate-Filled World

Last summer, when the Supreme Court ruled that same-sex couples have the right to marry anywhere in the United States, it stirred up heated conversation with the people in my life, as I'm sure it did to many. I found myself discussing the ruling at length with one lady, in particular. She is someone I greatly admire. She is an amazing mother to her children and has taken on the responsibility of being their primary educator in life - even more so than every other parent - by choosing to homeschool her children. She is intelligent, creative, and capable; she is one of those women who will be very successful in homeschooling. I truly respect her, because she is doing what she knows in her heart is right for her family.

It is also worth mentioning, I think, that her family is very religious and very conservative. She is someone who was quite upset by the Supreme Court's ruling. She is not a hateful person; she is a godly woman and she had trouble accepting this ruling because it goes against something she believes strongly. So when I mentioned that I was glad for the ruling because it would give me a cue for how to handle such topics in the classroom, she was appalled.

I'm paraphrasing here, but our conversation was something like this:

"What do you mean about handling those topics in the classroom? Those topics have no business in a classroom," she said.

"Well, those topics do come up quite frequently, as most any topic will in a public school classroom."

"That's why my children won't go to a public school. Teachers have no business forcing their beliefs on students. That's just wrong."

And that's when I got a little steamed, to be honest.

To me, we teach a lot more than science and math and grammar in the classroom. Most of us try very hard to teach empathy, broadened horizons, courtesy, tolerance, and compassion. We teach students to celebrate differences, not to belittle them. Character education is not "forcing my beliefs on students," because that would be wrong. You don't have to be religious to teach morals, to teach right from wrong.

And it is wrong to hate.

It is wrong to bully.

It is wrong to terrorize.

It is wrong to victimize.

She agreed with me that those things were wrong. But...

"Teachers should just let parents do the parenting."

Not all kids are blessed to have amazing, involved parents. If their parents won't teach them right from wrong, who will? I try to celebrate all walks of life in my classroom because, frankly, I might be the only Jesus someone sees all day (as Elizabeth from Teaching Sam and Scout so eloquently put it once... that phrase has stuck with me in a profound way). I refuse to be part of the problem by saying, "Not my kid. Not my problem."

* * *

So why am I bringing this up a year later?

Because, teachers and parents, it is time for us to up our game.

So many atrocious acts motivated by pure hatred have happened in the world this summer. France is a nation under attack as innocent people are being slaughtered in public venues. Bombings in Baghdad and Istanbul have created an enraged and frightened populace. And then there's the United States, where hatred has taken the form of gay night club shootings, racism manifesting among some of the people we should be able to trust with our lives, and the favor being returned in malicious acts of violence against innocent men who just so happen to wear the same uniform as their bigoted colleagues.

If we, the teachers and the parents of young and impressionable minds, choose to say, "Not my problem," then when and where will the hatred ever end?

Okay, so Daenerys isn't exactly the poster child for kindness to all people, what with setting her enemies on fire and such, but the quote is solid.

According to this article from Simply Psychology, there are four main explanations for prejudice and discrimination: authoritarian personality, realistic conflict theory, stereotyping, and social identity theory, with conformity being a possible fifth explanation. And according to this article from American Psychological Association, "racism in all its horrific forms is transmitted across generations and is manifested in individual behaviors, institutional norms and practices, and cultural values and patterns." It would appear according to these articles that prejudice, discrimination, and racism can, to a great extent, be extinguished in a community, but this takes a great deal of time and effort. Parents and teachers are the people who have the greatest influence in a child's life. It is our responsibility to change the world for the better, and we can do that through our children and our students.

Teachers, we must teach our students to be good. We must teach them to be kind. We must teach them that a person is a person, no matter how small. We must teach them to appreciate their own individuality, to be fascinated by diversity, and to cultivate a heart full of acceptance.

If you're on board with me, you may be wondering how. How do we do this big, giant thing? We teach it the same way we teach most things - we question, we analyze, we model, we think critically, we discuss. We powerfully enforce kindness by creating a classroom environment called Love One Another or I Will Destroy You and insisting that "everyone... has value and beauty and a story that would make you cry if you knew it." (Teach is so much more eloquent than I will ever be.) We teach books with diverse characters, and we study the ugly sides of history and wonder what went wrong and why people hated other people the way they did. We look at 2016: The Summer of Hate with our students and we question it and we discuss it and we create solutions that we can start enacting in our own classrooms. Teachers, we have the power to make a difference in the lives of our students and in our communities.


* * *

I am upping my game this year, and I need help doing it. I have developed a literature circles unit called "Stepping Into Someone Else's Shoes: A Diversity Study via Literature." I need help making this happen for my students. I have created a DonorsChoose project to get the novels I need for this unit of study. If you have in some way been helped by the free materials or the posts here at Eat.Write.Teach., I would be eternally grateful if you would contribute a teensy weensy donation to my cause (seriously, any little bit helps) or if you would just share my project with folks you think could help me out.

If my project becomes a reality and we are able to do the literature circles unit, I will share the entire unit (adaptable for use with any books about individuality, diversity, and acceptance) and all materials that go along with it COMPLETELY FREE both here and on my Teachers Pay Teachers store.

Click here to help my classroom!

Guys, I have a heart for this. I am truly passionate about this topic. As the mother of a little boy who is part of this big world too, I believe in this. As the friend and bridesmaid of a dear friend of mine who was able to marry her girlfriend and love of her life last December, I believe in this. As the teacher of 170 students in a rural little community who needs a bigger window into the world, I believe in this. As the director of forty drama club kids who don't fit in anywhere else and who have been victimized time and again because of ignorance, I believe in this.

I hope you believe in this too.

With love,