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malcolmxmovieposterI’m pretty sure I first discovered Malcolm X through Spike Lee’s biopic starring Denzel Washington. Somewhere around 1995 in the 6th grade. I have some vague memories of my parents explaining things to me before the movie, but not too much.

In Ms. Kramer’s 6th grade class we had to do a “Famous American” project. The assignment was do some research, read a biography, then put together a snapshot biography of that person’s life highlights and give a presentation as that person in a way that illustrates why they are an important historical figure. The culminating event was called the “Night of the Notables” in which we all dressed as our notable person and had to represent the person to visiting parents.

I picked Malcolm X. 12 year old white kid in the suburbs was about to research, write about, and present as one of the most polarizing political figures in American history. What could possibly go wrong?

What’s strange is nothing went wrong. I picked Malcolm and I don’t remember my teacher batting an eye. I don’t remember anyone questioning me or giving me a hard time. No comments like “why did you pick a Black guy?” I wanted Malcolm X, I got Malcolm X.

I read the Autobiography of Malcolm X as the biography and did research. I made the snapshot biography. When it came time for the presentations I wore a suit (maybe glasses?) and presented. No fake facial hair, no blackface. It didn’t even cross my mind and thankfully no one suggested it. During the Night of the Notables I was right next to a girl who studied Ayn Rand as her notable American. My 12 year old self didn’t get the irony. I don’t remember any reactions from other parents.

As I think about the 52nd anniversary of Malcolm’s murder, which comes a few short days before my own birthday, on February 21st it strikes me that ever since that project I’ve felt an unspoken affinity for Malcolm. I’m not black and I didn’t grow up with his experiences, but I identify nonetheless. As a 6th grader I took on his persona and  had to put myself in his shoes – to cross identify with why he said what he said. I had to figure out why this man would call people “white devils” or felt the need to speak so strongly for uplifting Black people in this country. Somehow even in his early and most militant stages I never felt like the target of Malcolm’s fire and I’d like to think that this early experience helps me be a more understanding adult.

malcolmxbookcoverI’m also struck, in this current racially and politically charged moment in my lifetime, at how normal it all felt to me then. As I’ve gotten older and as I’ve taught high school, I realize that a white kid in the suburbs even knowing of Malcolm X is not that common. Reading the autobiography? Taking on Malcolm’s persona for a presentation? That’s quite rare. Someone probably should have told me that those are all strange or that I was taking a risk, but no one did. And I’m glad. I might not have done it.

My parents, teachers, and peers all helped normalize the idea of cross-identification for me. I have no idea how much of that was intentional, or accidental. I can even imagine a situation where all the other parents at the Night of the Notables were too stunned to even bring it up, whispering behind closed doors about this strange kid, potentially wondering if my “commie-pinko-hippie” (my words) parents had pushed me to make the choice as a way to “make a statement.” They didn’t. They all let me make my own choices.

My proudest moment of the whole experience actually came a few months later when I showed the snapshot biography  to my older cousin. (I still have it, but it’s buried in storage at my Mom’s house. It’s one of the few school projects I’ve kept.) We were going through the book I made and on the page covering Malcolm’s Hajj I wrote about how he changed his name to el-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz. This helped her understand who was being referred to in Lauryn Hill’s verse in “The Beast” when she rhymes: “The subconscious psychology that you use against me / If I lose control will send me to the penitentiary / Such as Alcatraz, or shot up like el-Hajj Malik Shabazz / High class gets bypassed while my ass gets harassed” When she told me that I helped her learn something I was over the moon. (This was about 1996 so it’s a pre-Wikipedia, pre-Genius internet.) When she later bought me the album for my  birthday “The Beast” quickly became my favorite track. More than anything that interaction cemented in me the idea that I could teach things to people older than me through study. This wasn’t part of the original lesson.

The fact that I could choose to study and portray Malcolm X as a 12 year old white kid in suburban America significantly shaped my life. I hope that as an educator I’ve learned from the model that Ms. Kramer set for me in 6th grade. I hope that when my students took on potentially risky academic choices that I was able to support them and help normalize their ideas in a positive way. I also hope that now as a teacher educator I can help teachers feel comfortable supporting their students in these areas.

Even twenty three years later I look out for anything that relates to Malcolm X and I have a personal connection to his work. The experience was one of a handful of truly memorable school assignments and there are so many ways that it could have been stifled. My teacher could have encouraged me to pick a safer choice. My parents could have raised concerns about me portraying a Black revolutionary. My peers could have made fun of me. Instead I was allowed the space to make my own choice and I poured myself into the project. As a result that lesson sticks with me forever when so many others are gone.

 

 

 

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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.

Pop quiz, hotshot.

There’s a conversational bomb in the classroom. You have  thirty students and they’re talking about racism. Things might get out of hand. Students might get angry. Students might get offended.

What do you do? What do you do?

Well, if you listen to Judith L. Pace then you lean right into that discomfort and let the students keep talking, providing some guidance here and there to address misconceptions. You let things get messy and difficult. In The Charged Classroom:  Predicaments and Possibilities for Democratic Teaching Pace covers how teachers can effectively let the classroom environment get tense (or charged) in order to promote student learning.

Structurally, Pace segments charged issues into four categories: communicating academic expectations, discussing provocative topics, competing curricular demands, and framing performance. In each chapter Pace summarizes relevant research, relates a series of classroom observations (including effective and ineffective examples) and then discusses the feasibility of moving forward in support of democratic education. This structure works well with Pace’s straightforward writing style and each chapter could also stand on it’s own if so desired. The text is quite slim and Pace doesn’t waste any words in getting her point across. Each section is valuable in its own right and the is very little of the repetition that can plague books about education.

In addition to the basic structure described above Pace also carries a thread of educational equity throughout the text highlighting how traditionally underserved populations (low income, urban, rural, racial minority) also typically experience reduced access to the highest levels of democratic education of which they are likely in the highest need of.  This allows the text to be used effectively alongside other works related to equity or antiracist education, even though from the cover the text is not obviously connected to those issues.

chargedclassroomPace’s background is in examining humanities education and that bias is present in The Charged Classroom. Despite this focus, the text is relevant to any level of education because of how Pace examines universal issues. Every educator has a responsibility to communicate academic expectations in a way that respects students’ emotional state while also communicating honesty. The math teacher handing back exams would benefit from this chapter and educators across all disciplines and grade levels would benefit from Pace’s descriptions of how educators effectively provide very difficult feedback to students while also helping those students save face in the classroom.

Additionally, the chapter on discussing provocative topics focuses on humanities classrooms, but no classroom is exempt from controversy or provocation. Pace’s example is same sex marriage, but could just as easily be evolution, racism, or whether girls can do math. In this chapter in particular Pace makes a strong argument that discussing controversial issues is critical for student learning and educators who take her advice on how to approach these issues will likely be more confident in both intentionally bringing up controversy and when issues arise unexpectedly.

The last two sections are similarly universal as all educators have to balance what they know about high quality education with the demands of standardized testing or curriculum. Pace provides no perfect answer here (spoilers: there isn’t one) but she lays out the challenges with enough clarity that a group of educators could discuss how they want to approach the issues given their specific contexts. I think these two chapters would be very effective if read and discuss with a department or grade level team at a school.

As with most texts about education that I read, the section on solutions is quite slim and offers little in the way of novel solutions. We need Better teacher preparation and more professional development. Conduct fewer initiatives, and give them more time.

One area of novelty though is that Pace acknowledges teaching as an inherently difficult undertaking that becomes even more difficult when we ask teachers to specifically address provocative and controversial issues. This is a fact well known to teachers, yet it is not part of the national dialogue about teaching. In fact in the United States teachers are often subject to shame and lower status.

And so while I long for different solutions, perhaps the solution really is as simple as acknowledging that teaching is difficult and training teachers as if that’s the case instead of pretending that we can create effective teachers in shorter and shorter licensure programs.