As a middle grades teacher of predominantly black and brown special education students, one of the core subjects I taught was Social Studies. In my first year, I was given no textbooks with which to teach or issue to my students. I also taught Language Arts, without texts as well. During the early part of that momentous year, my instruction was pretty much guided by the grade-specific ‘scope and sequence’, and I went “by the book”…but without the appropriate accompanying textbooks.
My students were quite a handful, and presented behavior challenges to most teachers, especially myself. Most days, my students were terribly distracted, ‘disruptive’ and disengaged from the ‘by the book’ lessons until….
During a language arts lesson, for which I had no real lesson planned,[don’t ever come unprepared] I turned to one of my personal classroom resources- a set of books about prominent or at least, important Black people who left a mark on this country. Incidentally, those whose life stories were told in my set of books had never been fully taught in public schools. In fact, they were never taught at all- to my students. My students had not heard of any of the African-American figures who made tremendous and oft ground-breaking contributions to society and the world.
On this day, the figure that I chose was Jackie Robinson, baseball player. I was in awe that these children didn’t even know who he was; he was black like them. Since there was but one copy of the book, I knew that we all couldn’t participate in guided or independent reading. So, I decided to read his story to the class. Thinking to myself, this isn’t going to go well at all, the group surprised me. It was a stroke of genius, and incredibly engaging to my students. They hung on my every word, and more than that, they asked questions.
I had found the key to engagement of these restless adolescent ‘learning disabled’ black and Hispanic learners. Light bulb moment! Cultural relevance, thinking outside of the box, and beyond the textbook! It was a moment of awakening. Someone who looks like them, also had a life in which they also faced challenges-some similar, some not so similar. In the end though, this man still triumphed over adversity and set the world on fire. Do you know how freeing that is, and was to them? How stories such as the one that we read that day can engage, motivate and validate these children, your children, your students? I felt it, too. I felt their excitement, and their hunger for more stories. Certainly, they didn’t even realize that they were learning, because they were so engaged in the tiny piece of history, their-story that was given to them.
My takeaway from 40 instructional minutes with my ‘bad’ kids[ all of whom I loved dearly], is this:
Once students begin to see themselves in school, in texts, in stories, concepts and context, they will respond and feel that sense of ‘belonging’ that is vital for maximum achievement. They feel connected to the material, they will offer their undivided attention, learn and acquire new vocabulary, and it increases the motivation to develop their reading and literacy skills. Fewer disruptions. In fact, during that class, not one of my students were disruptive, except for their moving their desks closer to hear more clearly.
A big part of the role of teachers in school settings, not only Social Studies and History teachers, but all teachers have a duty to every student to bring education to life. With each concept, conqueror, conquest, or contribution to society, there is a story. Every notable personality, prominent and historical figure, the never before explored or taught in school or home, has[d] a life, and lived in an important era in society, whether American society or elsewhere. Though American History is the story that needs emphasis, it/our national history must be re-told and taught beyond the standard textbook accountings.
Our children need a more full picture of American history, and a more accurate picture that’s delivered unafraid to look back and explore the past, as it was lived by all. Children sit bored in school and in their classes, disrupt learning, and disengage. When we wake up and ‘smell the coffee’, we will realize or admit to ourselves that we, too, would be equally bored. Sitting in classes where learning is didactic, monotone and not connected to life, any life, every life, and surface exploration of content, is not effective teaching at all. Teaching the traditional, telling the same stories robs students of critical thinking, compassion and empathy. Moreover, we can’t successfully raise achievement and improve schools-curriculum, behavior, policies, climate- without changing the way we teach and what we teach without respect for diversity.
Teaching outside the textbooks means to embark upon an expedition where life is explored, examined, questioned, and affirmed IS to facilitate learning and deep understanding. So, back to MLK, be brave, responsive and adventurous as we commemorate the day with students. Give them images of life-past, present and help them to love learning as they prepare and plan for the future.
Like it or not, your students’ futures really are in your/our hands! Give them their stories-you’ll be glad you did, too!