Teacher of the House?

This past week has been a tough week so I will process it the best way I know how–writing. There were a lot of reasons this week was tough. First, I ended up working what felt like 16-hour days all week, leaving the house at 7 AM and returning to scarf down some food and go to sleep. The reality is that I did have long days every day this week, I’ve been fighting a bad cold (despite the fact that I usually only ever get stomach bugs—teacher immunity—I managed to get this cold), and it’s just been emotionally draining in every aspect of my world. I’d like to wallow in this misery, but I have decided it’s healthier to find some bright spots in my week. And I have to say, I’ve had some AMAZING bright spots this week.

First, my seventh-grade students are in a nonfiction unit right now. This week we looked at our first whole-class text, which was an excerpt from Russell Freedman’s book, Immigrant Kids. As they read, I asked them to focus on the primary sources in the text and how they affected their reading of the piece. In our discussion, the kids were giving typical answers, “The primary sources helped us understand what it was like for the immigrants.” Okay, they are correct, but there’s a bigger picture here. They’re reading about immigration through Ellis Island, which is now museum less than 50 miles from our school (and sadly a scant few have been there—thank you budget cuts). Most of the students have relatives who passed through Ellis Island in their journey to a better life, but four or five generations have passed since that happened, so it’s simply not part of their family story anymore.

I kept pushing them to go deeper, and to every response, I asked, “So what?” They were getting frustrated with me. I just sat back, waited, and asked “So what” time and time again. Finally, one young man looked up, raised his hand with trepditation, I nodded at him, and he warily replied, “So we can understand what it’s like for immigrants today and why they come to the US?” At this point, yes, they were answering my questions with questions because they were really uncomfortable with the line of questioning I was using. I beamed at the student, and another young man (I seem to only have boys this year; I don’t want anyone thinking I’m favoring my boys. In this class, I have 4 girls and 14 boys. My other ELA classes: 3 girls 16 boys, 5 girls 13 boys, 4 girls 14 boys) said, “We can have empathy for them. Then he held up his independent reading book Refugee by Alan Gratz, whispering to me that it was so good. He told the class the book focused on these same things, and we needed to be able to put ourselves in other people’s shoes.

I am excited that Refugee is our One Book, One School book this year. In seventh grade, I plan on pairing it with our core text Inside Out & Back Again, and hopefully, adding in the graphic novel Illegal to further complexify the issues surrounding immigration and why people flee their countries. My students are starting to realize the tough issues we grapple with are not simply a binary: right or wrong. They are muddy and challenging, and it’s not easy to find a “right answer,” despite what our leaders might tell us.

This happened on Tuesday. On Friday, I received an email from a former student who is now in 10th grade. She began the email: “Hi, Dr. Schmidt! Remember when I almost got a C in your class? Yeah, good times!” She continued on, stating that she had just gotten back an analytic paragraph about Chapter 10 of To Kill a Mockingbird, and she got a 99% on it. She was really proud of herself, and she shared her response with me. She had every reason to be proud of herself. In the paragraph, she explored at Mrs. Dubose and her desire to kick her addiction to morphine before she died. She discussed Jem’s relationship with her and why Atticus had Jem read to her and the struggle of kicking an opioid addiction. She had such maturity of thought and insight. She was able to put herself in the shoes of all three characters. She looked at this point in the novel from many sides and illustrated to her reader that she understood how each felt. Yep. Empathy. She was a student who didn’t particularly like reading (she read because she had to and didn’t read deeply), and she wasn’t a fan of writing. At the end of the email, she shared how much she loved writing now, especially analysis and argument. She thanked me for pushing her in seventh grade (she was a student I only had for one year and didn’t loop with me to eighth grade), to which I responded that she did the hard work. She had a choice—rise to the challenge or resist. She chose to rise to the challenge. This work she’s doing now was work I knew she was capable of then. While I know that math is her strength and she would probably have a bright future as an engineer or something in STEM, having her tell me how much she enjoyed writing analysis and argument, seeing a current sample of her writing, seeing how she is able to trouble an issue and come up with a compelling argument for her position made me tell her that she might consider a future in law. And with the turn our judicial system took on Saturday, we need people like her to be the future of our country.

Since I “peopled” so much this week—so much that this introvert was maxed out by Wednesday night—I took yesterday to lay on the couch and read all day. (I never even got out of my pajamas. Don’t judge, dear reader.) One of the books I read was Parkland Speaks. This was a tough book to read. A really tough book. The book is edited by Sarah Lerner, MSD English teacher and yearbook advisor. The writing was really raw. It was honest. It was heartbreaking. And at times, it was typically adolescent. The student voices were loud—even when it seemed like they wanted to simply hide from the spotlight. For me, it was a reminder of the power of writing and words. I can’t imagine being a teacher who experienced a school shooting. I pray I never have to be. Lerner, and I’m sure countless other teachers both ELA and not, gave the students space in the months after the shooting to process their emotions. Even the simple act of recounting that day in what I think of as a “bed to bed” narrative was incredibly powerful. It was a book I had to put down many times while I was reading.

When I finished, I thought about empathy. I thought about the argument for gun control, and how it is often taken to a binary. I thought about what it would be like if this book were mandatory reading for all those in government. Maybe this should be a One Book, One Senate or One Book, One Congress.

When did we, as a nation, lose our ability for empathy? To put ourselves in someone else’s shoes? To try to understand their experience?

Then I thought that perhaps each day Congress should start with an Opening Writing Activity (OWA) to help them process the issues of the day.

Perhaps the Speaker of the House, should not be an elected member of the House of Representatives but a teacher of humanities (I’d say ELA, but I know that my fellow social studies teachers and art teachers are also teaching a lot of the same strategies as ELA). This Speaker could perhaps take time away from lobbyists and use that time for reading and writing. Perhaps this could bring back the idea that all people have the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—not just people who look like our elected leaders or are of the same social class or worship in the same way.
For now, I will remember the words I wrote at the end of my dissertation:

Teaching, when done correctly, is a subversive, political act. While I feel that the leaders of my state may have stifled my political voice, I know that it is not silenced. I have the power to teach a generation of students to question authority and help them develop the literacy skills to enable them to function as critical thinkers and life-long learners. If we teach our students to engage in critical literacy and question text, then we have the power to change existing systems within our society.

And that brings me hope.

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