A snapshot from a Facing History seminar. During the summer, we lead educator seminars for three to five days at a time. This week, Stephanie Carrillo visited our seminar on "Identity, History, and Adolescent Choices in Literature" which provided a Facing History lens to explore "The Diary of Anne Frank," "The Giver ," and "Red Scarf Girl." She brings us this story.
Because I've been a high school history teacher for 20 years, it can be tempting to think I've got this "educator" thing down pat. True, I've taught various courses over the years, and while the topics change, the methods and strategies are fairly consistent. Last week when I agreed to attend one day of a seminar geared for Middle School English teachers, my first thought was, "I have no idea how to teach literature! It's been 15 years since I taught middle school, do I even remember how 7th graders learn and what they can handle?" Like so many students who have sat before me in the classroom, I came to the seminar hoping to conceal my shortcomings and doubts. Will it be completely obvious that I am totally out of my element? Will I be outed as the person who hasn't a clue how to teach literature? Will people think I'm a loser because I forgot to bring any of the books and only got around to reading one of texts? And yes, I'll admit it, I even took a tried and true page from my student's playbook and decided, I'll just grab a seat in the back and hope no one notices me.
But if a teacher is truly effective, noticing the student is the foundation on which everything else rests. Seeing our students for who they really are is how we reach and teach our kids. Not just the ones we can't help but acknowledge, but the ones trying to blend into the scenery too. While the seminar promised to "teach about adolescent choices, responsibility, and the impact of history on individuals [while meeting] ... the Common Core State Standards" this description doesn't do justice to what else I learned. Can a teacher design a lesson to engage a student who lacks confidence in the subject, who didn't do the homework, and who only has a minimal understanding of the larger context? And if a person did design a lesson like that, could it actually teach something meaningful and profound? Speaking from the experience of being the "deficient student" for a day, I can answer those questions with a resounding YES.
When you're struggling to connect to everyone in the room, and crossing your fingers that all the kids will "get it", what's the magic key that will grant all students access? Identity. We all have the experience of being convinced of our uniqueness, of trying to define who we are and who we are not. As adults, we may assume that this is the terrain of adolescents (a crisis of identity- that's so middle school!), but upon closer inspection we realize that identity isn't just for people; it applies to families, organizations, institutions, and even countries. By asking our students to look inward, they start in a place where they are the expert. And when we get students to think critically about themselves, their internal conflicts, their choices and the consequences of those actions, we can leverage that knowledge. By understanding their own identity formation and by acknowledging its fluidity, the students have a template to access the complexity of group identity formation in Nazi Germany, China during the Cultural Revolution, or even in the fictionalized misguided-utopian society of The Giver. Indeed, the deeper you take your students inward, the further you can move them outward.
It might seem counter-intuitive, that introspection will improve one's skills of global reflection, and yet I experienced this reality today. I was asked to think critically about myself and once I did that, I could draw comparisons in the text to my own experiences. I was asked to express this understanding in a variety of ways, through discussions, journaling, graphic-organizing- I was even asked to physically place myself on a agree-disagree continuum. And through it all, I felt confident that I could fully participate, be seen and be heard. Because even though we were talking about three novels simultaneously, we were always, in some way, talking about ourselves.