If we can solve it in the classroom, we can solve it in the world.
This is what I have come to believe after 12 years in the American classroom. It was reaffirmed Monday as I watched children in backpacks hurling rocks at the “rule of law.” People (young and old) don’t attack communities of which they feel a part. They attack communities from which they feel estranged.
I started teaching in Baltimore city when I was 23. Over a decade later I remain certain that though schools didn’t cause the VAST majority of problems our students bring with them to the classroom, there is no better place to begin solving these issues not FOR the students…but WITH the students. Mind your pronouns. They matter.
Over the last few days I have been inundated with love and questions from present and former students about this event. Today I received the following email from a former student that illustrates the tremendous roll civic classrooms can play in the lives of our young citizens:
Yesterday on my way to school I had a lot of thoughts and emotions about what is happening in Baltimore and I wondered which class I would be able to express my feelings. I walked through my day in my head and I got really sad when I realized I’m not taking any classes at UMBC where I can have that close connection with the students and faculty like I did in Signature. I kept thinking back to the day we had in class after the Boston bombing and I remember everyone expressing their feelings and Gaby crying and everyone understanding where she was coming from. I think when a traumatic event happens, it’s good to have a community around you that you feel comfortable enough to express your feelings with and I think that’s a big part of what Signature is; a caring and understanding community.
I feel really grateful that I got to experience this community. The people that I met along the way helped me grow as a person and taught me numerous lessons, but most importantly to always listen to what someone has to say even if you don’t agree with it because you might be able to learn from them. I’ve been thinking about the people rioting a lot and there’s no way I can fully understand the pain and suffering they’ve been experiencing for years but I do sympathize with them. I also don’t blame the people who are rioting. I realize it is not the most productive way to handle a situation, but then I remember that when I’m stressed and angry and bottle it in for a long time, I do end up exploding after awhile (aka, my meltdown in the Signature office senior year). These people have been oppressed for decades, I can’t even begin to imagine the kind of pain and anger they have in them. But I’ve been wondering if there was a place for these people to be heard and properly express their feelings without judgement, like we had in Signature, what kind of a difference that would make in their lives.
Public schools are public space. They are where America meets itself. They are the first society where our young citizens learn how to become active or disengaged. Empowered or helpless. Every teacher (whether they realize it or not) is the community organizer of their classroom reinforcing or renovating the social infrastructures of that their students will go on to replicate in the world beyond.
It is time we understand the classroom as a direct reflection of the community it serves. It is time we recognize both teachers AND students as CIVIC engineers. It is time we start pursuing COMMUNITY core, not just the Common Core. It is not about propaganda or politicizing the classroom. It’s about understanding the classroom as the microcosm of the society we will live in 20 years from now.
Rebuild the classroom, rebuild Baltimore.
Here are just a few glimpses of students seizing their citizenship in the classroom…