The Jewish holiday Rosh Hashanah is nearly upon us, which means I’ve been preparing to take two days off from work in order to pray and celebrate. I explained to my students why I would be missing, and as usual, the revelation that I am Jewish brought about some interesting results.
Last year, a student asked me if Jews were the ones who visit the cemetery on Halloween. I said no, that would be Mexican people who do that. A couple of kids have also asked if I celebrate Thanksgiving, 4th of July, etc. This year, one girl told me she had never met a Jew before. And a senior, who first said “I know this is going to sound bad...” asked me, “If you’re Jewish, how come you have darker skin?” That time I just had to laugh a little bit first (I’m only human) before gently explaining to him that he’s probably met European Jews before, and that while some of my family is from that region, my mother is Middle Eastern, and that Jews can come from all over.
These stories certainly make me laugh, but they also worry me. This is only example of these kids being sheltered. The community I teach in is very un-diverse and largely a blue-collar town, so there isn’t a whole lot of exposure to different cultures and ways of life. While the town I grew up in is certainly pretty white, I grew up in a household where my parents talked to me about different religions, ethnicities, and cultures. And I suppose being different myself made me naturally more curious—my ‘otherness’ made me want to understand people as much as I wanted them to understand me. Plus, I attended a charter school for most of my life, and the school had a lot of diversity along with teachers committed to educating us about the world.
The great contrast between my upbringing and that of so many of my students has made me even more aware of the impact I can have on their lives. I am not just teaching these adolescents to read and write. I must also help teach them about the world and give them the tools to explore it. They need to be able to ask questions (which is why, though some might view their questions as offensive, I try to use them as “teachable moments), because if they feel they can’t, then their curiosity will be stifled. In their mission statements, many schools talk about making students better citizens. This can be achieved in a variety of ways—teamwork, student council, critical thinking skills, etc. We just have to make sure that teaching them about the world is an essential part of that. I enjoy seeing my students’ curiosity snowball once they start asking questions. They begin to realize just how much they don’t know, and while this can be overwhelming, it is also exciting.
Okay, so we teach them these things, but then what? Should we stop simply at understanding? I think that taking it to the next level—social responsibility—is also a valuable endeavor. Last year, when I taught my senior CP2 (which is the lower level) World Lit class Elie Wiesel’s Night along with stories and articles about the genocides in Rwanda and Darfur, they were outraged that such horrendous acts had happened, especially because the latter two have occurred in their lifetimes. We talked about why history keeps repeating itself, and why hate is such a powerful force. At the end of the unit, I assigned a project—they could either create a presentation and write a short report about a genocide, which had to be presented to the class and to at least 5 people outside of class, or they could write a letter to a politician (they all chose President Obama, partly because they wanted to aim high, and partly because they don’t know of any other politicians) and argue how and why they think our country’s stance on Darfur and genocide in general ought to be different. Some of the presentations were good, but it was the letters where I really saw some passion emerge. All of a sudden, they had an authentic audience—this wasn’t just another paper that only I would ever see. Some of them achieved an eloquence in their writing that had not previously emerged, and it was truly a beautiful sight to see. And when we got a letter back from the president a few months later? That was some damn good buttercream frosting on top of a delicious cake. I really want to figure out how to do more of these “authentic audience” projects in order to get my students to further engage with their world. It’s tough to figure out how to do this, and will certainly require a lot more thought and planning than just another essay. And lord knows I have my lazy tendencies. But if I can get these students a little more interested and involved in issues bigger than themselves, isn’t it worth the effort?