Failed Attempts and Silent Accusations
I have my 4th period divided up in groups and sitting in fours and threes around the room. We’ve been reading and writing about the question and how it applies to the various texts we’ve explored for the majority of the beginning weeks of school. I’ve started with Chimamanda Adichie’s TED talk, “The Danger of a Single Story” and ended with JR’s TED talk on how art can change the world. It is a Friday and we will play MLK [high school in football] away tonight.
We had a terrific discussion the day prior on JR’s speech. The kids engaged with one another, came to a consensus on their ideas about the speech, and then shifted smoothly into a whole-class discussion like they’d been doing this with me for weeks. This had actually been our first attempt at group discussion. I had a student sitting on the top of the back of his seat, trying to get as in on the whole-class discussion as he physically could. Those who typically might sit silently and let others speak for them offered up their ideas. As the end of class came, the excitement of our discussion and what we’d just generated permeated the room and left smiles on most of our faces. I made sure to tell them how awesome they’d done and how well the discussion had gone.
Then came Friday. It just happened to be the very next day. Same groups. Same desks. Same kids. Different energy. I’ve got several who look as though they are ready to shut down and go back to bed. Two girls are arguing over something that has nothing to do with the text. The boy in the group ducked his head to stay clear of their dispute. I kept coming over to provide proximity control only to find that I was distracting the other group sitting by the bickering girls. I tried to refocus them all and moved away.
They were supposed to be examining a portion of A House on Mango Street called “Those Who Don’t.” Because the shifting of the text can sometimes be difficult, I asked students to consider some guided-reading questions. Our somewhat functional groups seemed to wonder what race the people in the text were. The guided question that led them there, I think, said something to the effect of “Whom is the narrator speaking about in the first paragraph?” Then the lines “all brown all around, we are safe” were referenced as evidence for their interpretations. I knew this would be the question at the heart of our discussion, so we shifted to a whole-class discussion.
We jumped into the question of race and the kids all had their reasons for thinking that the narrator was Black or Hispanic. Then I asked if the race of the narrator really mattered and asked them to look at the last line of the text, “That’s how it goes and goes.” We discussed what they thought that meant and whether it was true. So far the whole-class discussion was going well. Someone suggested that perhaps the narrator was a hypocrite, since she seemed to criticize those who came into the neighborhood and passed judgment, but then she did the same passing of judgment in other neighborhoods. This is when my senior who is repeating the course and another White student at his group began to voice their opinions.
They seemed to feel that it was common sense when you go into a bad or dangerous neighborhood that you take certain precautions. Jeffery explained that he would put his wallet in his front pocket when he headed down to the game tonight against MLK. Jeffery is one of four White students in this class. I understood his intentions with this comment were perhaps harmless because I understood his perspective was shaped by the context in which he lived as a White young man from the suburbs; in his way of thinking, he was being cautious.
His explanation, however, didn’t go over well with the rest of the group. No one really verbalized their discontent with what he was suggesting about Blacks and Hispanics in the inner city, and perhaps unintentionally about his Black and Hispanic classmates, but the feeling in the room shifted and conversations went to the tables or shut down all together.
As the White teacher, if I defend his statements or say anything that may sound like I’m aligning with his comments, I’ll lose the rest of them. If I allow for a statement to be made and just let it hang there in the room, how will further discussions on sensitive topics go? If I allowed for the kids to press him on what he meant, how will that build community? If I press him, how will he feel entering the room again tomorrow? I don’t recall what I said exactly, but I know I left with a feeling that I hadn’t said what I could or what I wanted.
Madison County High School
Reprinted by permissions of the Publisher, From Bob Fecho, et al (eds.), Teaching Outside the Box but Inside the Standards: Making Room for Dialogue, New York: Teachers College Press. Copyright ©2016 by Teachers College, Columbia University. All rights reserved.