Friday, November 16, 2018

The important work of teaching inequality, encouraging students to speak about justice at NJEA

We were privileged to offer a session this year at NJEA, the teacher’s convention in Atlantic City sponsored by the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA). This was our second time presenting at NJEA, and once again we found the educators to be incredibly engaged and committed to their fields and to professional development.

This year, in keeping with the theme of the convention, we offered “Teaching Inequality to Encourage Students to Speak about Justice.” 

We opened the session with a survey/word cloud generated by our latest favorite tool, Mentimeter

When we asked our attendees, however, how successful they felt they were in creating space for conversation about inequality and justice in our classrooms, the responses were less sanguine.

And why? 

Clearly our attendees were well aware of the obstacles: lack of resources in our schools, administrative or institutional obstacles, push-back from different constituencies, and most importantly student emotions. The latter point – registered in the words “student emotions,” “triggering trauma,” and “offending” – illustrates the difficulty we face in doing this kind of work. Conversations about inequality that are not conducted with skill and empathy can do more damage.

Yet these conversations, we contend, are more important now than ever. We always stress the important of foregrounding purpose in the language arts classroom. Students need to know why we are reading and discussing these particular texts and ideas. As Cris Tovani notes (2000), it is all too common that without a clear purpose for reading, even relatively diligent and well-intentioned students learn to “fake-read” early on, as she did, and are able to get by doing so all the way through high school (4-5). Unless we foreground the big ideas and essential questions we hope to address in relation to the text (Wiggins & McTighe 2014; Burke 2010), students are likely to have little sense of the purpose of their reading. And if we are going to harness student engagement, our purpose needs to be authentically and creatively connected to the students’ lives and interests.

So while making explicit our purpose has always ungirded our teaching practice, linking that purpose to discussion of difficult issues – like inequality and justice - seems more important now than ever. If students don't learn how to engage in thoughtful, evidence-based, civil discussions in a classroom full of peers with whom they have to relate on a regular basis, then the only place they are likely to see or hear discourse about such issues is via cable news, social media, or 2nd or 3rd hand from family or friends. Our media universe is full of people talking or shouting past each other without engaging in evidence-based, civil discussion. We need to find ways to make our classrooms a different, safe space, where students can practice engaging in difficult but critical conversations (Chadwick 2016) about the troubling world we live in.

In our session, we talked with our attendees about ways to do that work: with intellectual rigor and civility.

Interestingly, in a first for us, our session was called out for opprobrium in the broader media universe. As part of an editorial for the NJ101.5 website, Jeff Deminski made his case against the benefits of the NJEA Convention.

And our session was caught in Deminski’s net. He wrote:

There we are, from 9:45-11:15, talking about teaching inequality and justice. Why not just teach language arts, Deminski’s asks. We are! 

The math teachers are also just teaching math, but they are doing so by amplifying student interest in Moana in order to engage students in math. I suppose the math teachers could teach math without any context or application – as simple numbers. But why would we want that? How would we expect students to succeed given that pedagogical approach?

And what would it even mean to just teach language arts? Our session explored teaching ideas and strategies for The Great Gatsby. This is a classic text of the English curriculum, beloved by teachers and students for decades. It is also a text centrally concerned with inequality and justice. Gatsby opens with a rant from the wealthy white bully Tom Buchanan about the threat of immigration to the continuance of what he sees as the rightful dominance of the white race. Tom cites a prominent white nationalist from the 20s, Lothrop Stoddard to justify his ideas. Teaching language arts means teaching students to think carefully and critically about how a text works and about its language and ideas. We need to read Tom’s words closely and then think critically about how they function in relation to the novel. Hence our session.

We also need to recognize that in 2018, teaching language arts, even with canonical texts like Gatsby, is more and more difficult. We live, as our attendees noted, in a world structured by inequality – by privilege, educational inequality, educational inequality, voting restrictions, and poverty. Even when we are teaching traditional canonical texts, addressing issues of inequality and justice requires more skill and care than ever.

Our attendees were well aware of the obstacles we all face in doing this work well. For us, this session offered something new: a superficial and wholly uninformed dismissal of our work from a random opinion writer. Not nice. But both the dedication of the teachers in our session and this bit of negativity reinvigorate us to continue this work – onward to Houston for NCTE and CEL!

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