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An Ally for Sara – Using Positionality and Teacher Identity to Support Students

My principal came into my classroom during a planning period. While not unheard of, this was pretty rare. She usually skipped past empty classrooms during her walkthroughs.

Typically I could count on my principal’s consistent smile and energy, so when she came into the room with a demeanor of quiet seriousness I knew something  was amiss.

“Sara wants you to be at this meeting we’re having with her parents tomorrow, are you available?”

Innocently, I responded: “Sure, what’s the situation? Why me?” Sara was a reasonably strong student, if a bit goofy in class. She was at an awkward phase (as if any 6th graders aren’t) and she was moving between friend groups so there were a few social concerns. That said, there were never any major issues in class so I figured any sort of parent meeting would be fairly innocuous. I didn’t think I’d established a particularly close connection with Sara so I was surprised that she would ask me to be at a meeting that wasn’t specifically related to my class.

“Well…” my principal hesitated, looking a bit uncomfortable.

This was completely out of character. Just the year before this principal had stared down a student with a handgun while six months pregnant, successfully getting him to hand her the weapon. “There was an issue with another student drawing swastikas on Sara’s notebook. She’d like you to be there when we talk about it because she says you’ll understand.”

Things started to click into place. We’d been studying the Holocaust by reading Daniel’s Story in our social studies class as part of a larger unit on World War II and Sara was one of very few students who proactively identified as being Jewish. When starting the unit we made sure to contact parents and notify other 6th grade teachers because the topic was emotional. As expected, there’d been some parent and student questions about Judaism, Nazis, and anti-Semitism in my class and others, but nothing out of the ordinary by my colleagues’ accounts. This was clearly more serious.

I also started to get a sense of why Sara would say that I’d understand.

 

My Identity Matters When I Teach

That was my first year of full-time teaching and I had four sections of 6th grade social studies. We had a big unit on 20th century Europe focused on the two World Wars and when we started the shift in topic from World War II as a political conflict into specifically studying the Holocaust as a genocide I took a moment to acknowledge that students may get uncomfortable.

Genocide and The Holocaust are uncomfortable even in an abstract sense and I feel strongly that studying genocide, and other forms of oppression like slavery or racism, should handled with respect to students’ age, but can not be sugar coated. We owe our students the truth when we study painful subjects. As such, I had no intention of sanitizing the Holocaust and I let the students know that we would be examining uncomfortable materials including stories and pictures. I told them that is was reasonable to feel discomfort and that they would have opportunities to examine what made them feel uncomfortable. Think of it as a trigger warning before the term came into fashion.

I also told the students about my Jewish ancestry and acknowledged that studying the Holocaust made me uncomfortable every time even though I’d done it before.

It’s also important to clarify that my Jewish ancestry is not obvious to an external observer. I don’t wear a yarmulke or a Star of David around my neck. I haven’t been Bar Mitzvahed and I’m not a regular at the Synagogue. In fact my last trip to temple was for my cousin’s Bat Mitzvah.

I’m the child of an Belarusian, Jewish, mother and an Irish/Scottish, Catholic, father. My last name is McCormick, and with the name for context, I look like I stepped right off the Emerald Isle. The Belarusian genes are more subtle without the Kabakov for context. Essentially, I came out to my students in a small way. I positioned myself for them and gave context for the seriousness with which I planned to take discussions of the Holocaust as related to my identity.

 

It Didn’t Seem Like a Big Deal

I didn’t really plan to tell my students about my background ahead of time. I didn’t write a speech or even play it through in my head. It just seemed like a good idea. I knew I had a couple Jewish students and probably a couple like me who weren’t obviously Jewish. I said it once and didn’t really make a bit deal about it in any sort of ongoing way. I figured f I could teach this stuff, even though it’s painful, then they could learn it alongside me. I didn’t think it would matter outside the classroom.

Sharing my identity in this way worked beyond my expectations. It worked well enough that when a student scrawled a handful of crude swastikas on Sara’s notebook during lunch, she asked for me for moral support. I was the first ally she thought of.

The parent/principal meeting went smoothly. To date that middle school principal is still the best boss I’ve ever worked for. She handled the situation with gravity and compassion without ever letting up on her deep sense of respect for everyone involved. She listened to Sara with the utmost respect with no attempt to downplay Sara’s pain.

The student responsible for the swastikas was treated appropriately for an eleven year old who didn’t really understand the seriousness of his actions. There was no radicalized Neo-Nazi or White Supremacist agenda. He learned the seriousness of his actions and the reason for their unacceptability. All of us were able to move on without further incident.

In the meeting I didn’t do a whole lot. I ended up pretty much just being there for moral support for Sara. The principal handled the whole thing and I learned a lot about mediation. The key was that Sara had an ally. Someone to corroborate her pain. Every time she described how hurt she was she would look at me and say: “you get it right? I mean, you’re Jewish too.” She could confirm that her feelings were justifiable by checking them against my feelings. No one could tell her that it wasn’t a big deal of a teacher agreed with her.

My small act of revealing my Jewish ancestry was just that. A small act. A small risk to share something that was previously invisible. That small risk on my part helped Sara feel more comfortable in class and established a powerful level of trust . I didn’t even know how important that revelation was to Sara until we had the incident with the swastikas because Sara didn’t need to rely on me before that.

Sara told me later in that year that as soon as we started the World War II unit she was worried about studying the Holocaust. She was worried that she wouldn’t be able to handle it, that she would be too upset to stay in class. When I told her I was Jewish that helped her feel confident that I would handle the subject with sensitivity and propriety. (I’m paraphrasing a bit here from 6th grade speaking patterns.) Throughout the unit Sara did have some issues and even had a few nightmares about Nazis coming for her. Each time it happened either she, or her parents let me know and we gave her the option to sit out the class. She only took that option once and she stuck through some of the more emotionally challenging lessons that had some other students feeling overwhelmed.

 

Beyond Sara:

When I shared my Jewish heritage with my class I couldn’t predict that it would become so immediately important for one of my students. I couldn’t predict that another student would leverage Sara’s Judaism against her leaving her desperate for an ally. I shared anyway, without a specific plan or strategy.

There are numerous other times when I’ve shared other aspects of my identity and in most of the cases I wasn’t sure which students would latch on to which aspects of my identity. Will any of my students care that I lived in California? Who knows? Will any of my students care parents got divorced? I have no idea. That didn’t stop me from opening myself when the time felt right. I’ve absolutely mentioned my parents’ divorce when a student’s family situation is making it hard for them to stay focused in class. I think of it a lot like fishing with the philosophy that I could catch more fish by casting more lines into the stream. Without casting my lines of identity I stood a much lower chance of making connections with my students.

That said I am also mindful of when I cast which lines. Like any other professional, educators need to use the right tool for the right situation and the goal is not to share everything. In her excellent book on the power of vulnerability, Daring Greatly, Brené Brown draws a sharp distinction between effective vulnerability and over sharing. I am not a complete open book with my students and there are definitely pieces that I elect not to share and questions that I won’t answer. Students don’t get to hear about my relationship with my wife and they don’t get much about my sister. My general rule of thumb is to be as open as I hope my students to be. If I expect students to write about a challenging academic or social experience in our AVID class, I should be able to provide them with my own example. If I am unwilling to share about my biggest mistake in life I shouldn’t expect my students to be that open with me. As a general rule my AVID class got more than my history because of the content of the class itself.

Educators won’t always have such an obvious area of connection between themselves and a student that ties directly to curriculum. I didn’t plan that by revealing my Jewish ancestry that I would be able to help a student through a difficult experience. I just thought my students would be more attentive and respectful of my own emotions when we discussed a charged issue. I definitely made sure to mention my ancestry again when I taught the Holocaust for a second time.

I also never hope for students to experience harassment due to curricular connections, yet it happens. The country is seeing a rise of hate crimes and emboldened Neo-Nazi and white supremacist organizations since the presidential election that schools can’t ignore. Educators should expect this to continue as racist and hateful rhetoric become more common on the news and across the country. If sharing some of our identities as the adult in the room can help students feel safer in the classroom then we should do that. It is a small risk for the adult with explicit authority to open themselves when the reward could be protecting a vulnerable or targeted child.

If educators can’t prevent examples of hateful speech, graffiti, or actions from appearing in schools (and we have never been able to prevent this) we are responsible for addressing those issues head on. While I think the concept behind wearing safety pins is an admirable one, I think more concrete examples of solidarity will prove to be more effective over the long term. Authentic alliance requires authentic connection. If you as an educator can make an authentic connection to your students this will help them see you as an ally. When I told my classes about my Jewish heritage I immediately became an ally for Sara. I’ve had similar experiences by sharing that I speak Spanish, read comic books, and listen to hip hop along with countless other facets of my identity. I’ve made myself an ally for students battling with substance abuse, gang affiliation, and teenage parenthood. If anything I was shocked at how easily it happened when I allowed it.

As an educator I encourage you to make a strong human connection with your students. Allow them to see you as the full human you are – particularly if you think you can make a connection with a student, or group of students, who may feel isolated or targeted in your school community. This could look like my example with Sara where I connected an aspect of my identity to the curriculum. This could also be early in the school year when you are introducing yourself. You could also use it as a bridge when a student is experiencing difficulty in your class. There is no perfect way to open yourself to others. You’ll need to take a risk and put your line in the water. You won’t catch much otherwise.

StrangeFruitCoverIn Strange Fruit: Uncelebrated Narratives from Black History Joel Christian Gill collects nine snapshot biographies of exceptional, yet largely uncelebrated, black men. The stories are situated in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and predominantly focus on black experiences in New England, where Gill felt the need to stay out of neighborhoods in Boston after growing up in the South. Gill’s explicit goal is to “cut the rope” off of the lynching tree and harvest the strange fruit referenced in the title by shining a spotlight on stories of black excellence under highly oppressive circumstances. Gill’s mission is sorely needed in the U.S. History classroom that has a tendency to portray sweeping universal narratives that lack human complexity.

Gill’s book is essential material for any U.S. History class due to its overall mission and the highly accessible presentation of material. This would be useful for any class working in the time period, or on the black experience in America more broadly. The comics medium allows students of varying reading abilities to jump right into the stories and Gill makes the stories extremely poignant without removing the narrative’s clarity. Strange Fruit also broadens the story of black experience during slavery, reconstruction, and early Jim Crow eras. Gill’s work acts in direct opposition to history’s tendency toward the single story; a highly valuable resource for the classroom.

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It is easy to tell stories of oppression in black history. There are innumerable resources, but oppression alone is too simplistic to be an accurate representation of human experience. We need stories excellence and defiance alongside stories of oppression and Gill provides that much needed complexity by helping readers explore how black people excelled despite systematic oppression, thus adding strength to their already remarkable feats. It is incredible to be a dominant cyclist, even more so as a black man in the 1890’s like Marshall Taylor. This complexity is further highlighted in the story “Richard Potter’s Greatest Illusion” in which a mixed race man presents himself as an Indian magician to great commercial success, bringing up issues of skin color and the concept of “passing”. Other success range from mastery in chess, excellence in law enforcement, and the recovery of a man’s daughter during the Civil War. By exploring a range of successful of black experience, Gill also brings humanity to the narrative of black experience, something often lacking in the U.S. history classroom’s focus on great men and great wars.

Gill’s work on New England’s black history, much like Jack Jaxon’s work on Texas History, stands as a strong example of comics as a serious historical product. Gill is not out to tell children’s stories or invent fictions. Gill and Jaxon both explicitly identify their motives and intentions through the introduction and afterwards as well as by providing a bibliography. Gill sets a strong example that students could easily follow by creating snapshot biographies of their own. There is strong educational research on the power of summary to help students understand material, and creating an illustrated snapshot biography, that is highly accessible to many audiences, would take a great deal of research and summary to produce. With appropriate structure and support students should be able to produce highly engaging work that requires the development of research, narrative writing, and historical analysis skills. There is no shortage of potential subjects.

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The structure Gill presents could also be easily extended into a research project for other groups of people and other historical time periods. What would it look like for students to actively research stories of how Native Americans excelled despite consistent oppression? How powerful would it be for students to investigate the myriad of experiences involved in the Tejano experience in the American Southwest to overcome the narrative of all those of Mexican descent as being immigrants? This could even be focused to a very narrow time period and location to provide much needed depth to U.S. History and an excellent vehicle for local history projects. Time constraints and curricular guidelines can often lead to teachers covering history in broad brushstrokes  and leaving details aside, but by including more individual stories students can better understand the complexities of history and marginalized groups can be brought into more deliberate focus.

If there is any major fault in Gill’s work, it would be that he includes no stories of women. There is one story that focuses on a community off the coast of Maine, but the other eight stories are all stories of black men. This does not at all take away from the qualify of Gill’s stories and I’m hopeful that in following volumes Gill spends time with stories of black women as well.