If I had to boil down one essential element of my ninth-grade English course, it would be to encourage students to always ask, “Why?”
It’s easy and natural to have a visceral reaction to difficult topics, and visceral reactions shouldn’t be ignored. However, I think the role of a thoughtful citizen is to question why they react a certain way to a situation when other people react differently. Case in point: Colin Kaepernick’s decision to remain seated—now, to kneel—during the national anthem.
My students are, of course, entitled to their opinions, but calling for Kaepernick’s resignation from the NFL or questioning his citizenship are not the types of discourse I want my students to engage in during class. Rather, I want my students to think about why Kaepernick opted for this method of protest and what Americans’ various responses to the act of dissent say about the ways we understand citizenship and freedom of speech.
Kaepernick’s protesting entered our national dialogue as my students began to read Sherman Alexie’s groundbreaking young adult novel, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. The protagonist, Junior, provides ample evidence of the U.S. government's mistreatment of American Indians both in the past and present. Whenever I teach this novel, I see my students grapple with the tension between Alexie’s realistic depiction of Native American issues and the often-whitewashed version of Native history found in school textbooks. They see how the American government systematically attempted to eradicate the cultural knowledge and political power of the various tribal nations. Although some students show reluctance when engaging in the ideas of systematic racism, by the end of the book, they’ve come to better understand how their own relationships with privilege paint their experience with rituals like reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, and how that ritual might feel very different to someone like Junior.
We then listen to an episode of the Code Switch podcast “You’re a Grand Old Flag,” in which Native American veterans discuss the nuances of choosing or not choosing to say the Pledge of Allegiance. Our discussion focuses on why some veterans opt to say the Pledge while others do not. Students discuss their perceptions of the Pledge’s purpose and why so many institutions and elements of their lives—schools, athletic events, graduation ceremonies—socially pressure people to stand and recite. These conversations inevitably lead to discussions about insiders and outsiders in our country and how dominant cultural narratives reinforce who is considered an American and who is not.
This year, we will extend the conversation beyond Native American veterans and the Pledge to discuss Colin Kaepernick’s protest. Some students may initially balk at Kaepernick’s method, and some may even question his patriotism. And we can certainly talk about and analyze those reactions. But we will also discuss the why—Kaepernick’s explanation for his protest and how it fits into the long history of resistance to social and institutional marginalization of citizens who are not white, cisgender male, able-bodied and straight. I will teach them that we can never understand or discuss an action without looking at its broader sociopolitical context. It is not necessary for students to form a certain judgment about Kaepernick’s decision to not participate in a long-held tradition. However, it is essential to understand why he made that decision.
Since Kaepernick’s protest became national news, students around the country have reportedly chosen to remain seated while their classmates say the Pledge of Allegiance. Whether students choose to say the Pledge or not is their decision. My goal is to have them think critically about the world around them and not rely on their immediate reactions as their primary interpretation. I want students to understand that our varied lived experiences shape how we think about concepts like patriotism, citizenship, fairness and loyalty. In short, students need to recognize that no single ideology owns concepts like patriotism or what it means to be American.
Miller teaches ninth-grade English language arts at P.K. Yonge Developmental Research School, the University of Florida’s affiliated K-12 laboratory school. He is also a recipient of the 2016 Teaching Tolerance Award for Excellence in Teaching.