Something magical happens halfway through the curriculum – my students start to realize it can be interesting. This is because we’re learning about political parties, elections, and the influence of the media. The first thing I present to my classes is the concept of the political spectrum – liberal, conservative, moderate, and the extremes. This year I had my 8th graders participate in one of the oldest activities in the book – debate starter. I posted signs for liberal and conservative on either side of the classroom, and began calling out issues. After reading each side’s platform on the issues, students chose which side they agreed with the most. I am always surprised at their responses – here are the most memorable:
1. On the issue of the military, all of my classes were overwhelmingly conservative. They support a strong military with more government spending on defense initiatives. I informally surveyed to see how many of them are in military families – about 80%.
2. Taxes are always an interesting topic, especially when my students make the connection between tax dollars and welfare programs. 75% of the students at my school are on free/reduced lunch, which means they receive some form of government assistance. On the issue of taxation, they were split in every class almost evenly. Those who took the liberal side argued that it’s the government’s job to help those who cannot afford to help themselves. Those who took the conservative side argued that individuals have the right to keep more of their hard-earned income. In every class, someone chose a side because of a personal circumstance. If I had a dime for every time a story began with “My uncle didn’t get his check last month…”, or “My mom works hard and it’s not fair that her money gets taken away…”
3. Gun Control Laws. I am terrified. 99% of my students agree that everyone should have the right to own and carry a firearm for protection. Nothing wrong with that. Most of them believe it should be mandatory for everyone to carry a weapon because it would make us all safer. One brave student chose the liberal side in one of my classes, arguing that guns are not necessary in a modern society like ours; moreover, she argued that firearms only endanger people more. Many of them did agree that we need more stringent licensing laws and waiting periods for purchasing firearms.
4. Marriage. I could see the anticipation in their eyes leading up to this question: “Do you believe that same-sex couples should be allowed to marry?” My first observation in every class was that my students were divided almost evenly on this issue. My next observation was that in nearly every class, every student who chose the conservative side on this issue was male. Of those males who chose the conservative side, almost all of them offered a religious reason for their argument. One male spoke up for the conservative side, arguing that “man-on-man is just gross.” Of those who sided with the liberal argument (to allow same-sex unions), nearly all were female. Most of the liberal arguments began with “If two people love each other…” I also learned that three of my students were adopted by lesbian couples, and one has a gay uncle who she believes should have the right to marry.
All in all, I was extremely proud of my students for their participation and their respectfulness during this activity. I think they were also pleasantly surprised at how interesting school could be. At the end of each class, someone would inevitably raise their hand and ask, “What do you believe Mrs. Russ?”
I’ll never tell.
Today I lost track of the number of times someone said to me, “You just have to teach to the test.”
After just five years in education, I’ve seen a lot of changes. When I began teaching, we were being trained in things like assessment writing, project building, and curriculum design. Now we’re being told how to implement someone else’s lesson plans, how to fill in someone else’s paperwork, and how to teach to someone else’s test. Most days I feel like a factory worker, assembling the next big doodad that someone else far far away created.
What about my ability and need to create? What about the fact that I know my students? And why are we paying people (good money) to write curriculum if we’re “just teaching to a test” that isn’t based on any curriculum at all?
What will our students learn? Who decides what they learn? How will they learn? And what is my role in that as a teacher? I thought after 5 years I would have solidified all of this, but each year I find that more gets taken away from me. It’s a terrible feeling.
Other phrases I wrestled with today were as follows:
“We have a test today?”
“She get that from her mama.”
“I’ll just call you ‘white girl’.”
When someone asks, “how was your day?”, a wide range of experiences pass through my mind. There are only a few worth sharing.
Sometimes I feel like “that girl” who breaks the news that there is no Santa Clause. I spend so much time lauding the merits of democracy – rights, freedoms, voting, consent. And then I get questions like the one Shermane asked me today:
“Mrs. Russ, what about convicted felons? I mean, I know sometimes they can’t vote when they’re in jail, but what about when they get out? Can they vote or run for office?”
I told him what a great question that was, and that it depends on the state. I explained that some states don’t let felons vote in prison, but other states don’t let felons vote even after they’ve done their time. And that means they can’t run for office either.
His eyes fell, as if I had delivered really disappointing but expected news. “Oh. I don’t want you to think bad of me or nothin, but I have several family members who have felonies on their records, so I was just wondering.”I told him that I understood, and that I get that question a lot. On his way out, he asked if I could send a progress note to his dad.
The news of impending government shut-down provided some interesting material for class discussion. After taking a few minutes to review the Federal budget process as well as Congressional powers, I led my students into a seminar on the shut-down. Thankfully many of them were watching the news over the past several days and were somewhat aware of how a shut-down would impact the public. Others had a more creative view…
“So if I kidnap someone and take them across state lines, the FBI won’t stop me?”
“Does this mean no one has to pay their taxes?”
“We’re gonna get blown up, aren’t we?”
“It’s time for Canada to make their move.”
After being asked about US debt as compared to other countries, I came across this chart. One of my students pointed out that the top debt-holders are also democratic nations. An interesting thought…
I read a post on Facebook tonight from the President of the local NEA chapter. He shared a link to a story about a “Grade-In”, a new trend sweeping the country. The Grade-In seeks to show the public what teachers really do, that it’s not all fun and games, and that we teach because we love it.
What an incredibly refreshing idea – teachers making a statement by doing what we do best rather than leaving our posts to rally at state capitals. I would never deny or disparage someone’s right to peaceably protest, but some of my colleagues make me ashamed to be an educator when I see them yelling on the news…in the middle of the school day.
If we are to bring about a positive change, why don’t we try being positive about it?
Many thanks to the FCAE for posting the story on Facebook, and for hosting their own “Grade-In” on April 30th in Winston-Salem, NC.
Video from a Grade-In that took place in New Jersey: