Teaching as Activism, Teaching as Care

I have begun to feel helpless during this time. But I never felt helpless as a teacher.
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I have begun to feel helpless during this time. But I never felt helpless as a teacher. 

Teaching, for me, has always been a vehicle. A vehicle for freedom, for truth telling, for hell raising. It has long been my understanding and approach to solving complex problems that diseases and illness must be dissected, studied and understood so that we can act upon them. The classroom was, for me, in many ways a sanctuary, a laboratory and a place where the helplessness that I might begin to feel as a person who belongs to protected classes was put to bed. 

I always taught from that place. I asked for students to bring their fears, their criticisms, what they loathed, the problems in the world that they wanted to see fixed, despite the powerlessness they often felt to fix them. My classroom was a space where students would learn to be critical and conscious beings, but also a place where they would empathize and ultimately become active participants in society.

Teaching is great power. 

That is why in these times and always—because there is always the existence of pain, oppression, indifference, hunger, lack, inequality somewhere—I find the most encouragement and the most hope in teaching and in teachers. We have a reach and an ability unlike any other because we deal with the minds and hearts of young people. We get to shape change-agents. 

And the ending of the physical gathering of our classes does not mean that we cannot still teach critically in critical times.

Where do we begin to insert conversations or allow our children to ask questions about the current climate? As that is a part of being culturally responsive. About health care and about this country’s leadership? Where can we insert conversations about ability and about the election? Where do we leave space to allow students to share or to write or process their feelings? That is the deepest learning. Where do we dive even more deeply into shifting what teaching and learning can look like, especially when embracing the kind of teaching that is rooted in justice, in care, in activism? Our current climate has given us ample material to do so. 

This pandemic, as plagues did centuries ago, has laid bare this country’s deepest injustices against the least of these. The poor, the silenced, Black people, immigrants, Black women.  It has exposed this country’s crimes against humanity, the disparities that exist because of racism, sexism, classism and ableism. It is showing how individualistic, capitalistic attitudes have literally cost others their lives. It has rolled back the curtains that too often hide the realities of race and class in this country. This is not something that we have to ignore now. In many ways, we should press into it. 

And because these questions and wonderings and lived realities can be hard—even depressing—I have learned to teach with an emphasis on exposing and an emphasis on action. 

In these times, we have to move to a place of teaching with care and utilizing teaching as a tool of activism. In the article “Why I Will Not Be Teaching About Charlottesville,” I explained that teachers can balance teaching both joy and resistance. We can and must teach the history and current realities of oppression while celebrating joy, which also is a tool of resistance. This is particularly true for teachers who are responsible for teaching students of color—those whose families and communities are hardest hit by this pandemic and its fallout.

Teachers can teach hard history—and the present—and teach the ways that marginalized groups have always worked to honor their dignity and humanity. Teaching and exposing the realities of what is happening now may be very difficult for students, so balancing teaching the “hard stuff” with action or activism helps. Teachers can teach lessons that expose oppression and also teach lessons that are rooted in action, activism, care, joy and healing. 

When crafting lessons and curricula—even now—I ask teachers to look for the holes, the gaps, the voices in the text that are silenced, the current events that can be transformed into powerful lessons that lead to critical thinking and action. What do we do, today, in the moments of pause and wonder and frustration when we can remember those who are, in fact, without? Those who we feel we are unable to reach from our homes, from our reclusive places and spaces. Where do we pair stories within the stories? 

We can transform our teaching by reimagining stories like The Little Engine That Could by likening its plot to the struggles of oppressed groups who have long been resisting and pressing on in this country. We can expand our definition of a crisis by considering how our current and momentary inconveniences are the daily lived realities of people in other countries. 

We can ask our children to think of and to be grateful for those who must continue to work and, in many ways, daily sacrifice their health and well-being for the good of humanity. We can acknowledge that the people who are often deemed “unsuccessful,” those often forgotten in society, are now the “essential” workers. We can use this time to redefine and reconsider who we revere as heroes. 

For older students, this may look like incorporating current events into reading assignments. Teachers can allow students to apply critical lenses, such as critical race theory and Marxist theory, to the reading of news articles to allow students to think more deeply about who is being most affected and why. Students could consider the types of stories that are being published. What voices and communities are being represented? Which communities and voices are not? 

Students in science courses can study viruses, yes, if this is not traumatic for them, but students could also begin to understand the links between public health and racism by looking at the rates of death and infection in marginalized communities. This can be connected to the history of the Tuskegee Experiment and the truth of Henrietta Lacks’ life. Science teachers could dive into allowing students to understand the importance of mental health, disparities in mental health, or how students and families can find ways to cope during this time. 

Here are a few suggestions for teachers who are ready to dive a bit more deeply into activism and caring now:

  • Provide journal responses, or space for free writes, for students to reflect or share their feelings on what is happening. Allow students space and time to process difficult feelings and emotions that are coming up for them now.
  • Check in with families and students whose lives may be even more difficult right now, asking them what they need. 
  • Create and send care packages to family and students. 
  • Choose texts that can open up a conversation around what is happening right now. 
  • Provide space and time for mindful moments for students (as many students may be completely worried right now). 
  • Create project-based assignments and lessons that allow students to use their social media platform to bring light to injustice, disparity, and to communities and their leaders
  • Develop writing assignments wherein students write to public officials to raise awareness about their communities. 
  • Teach about elections and the importance of elections, given the disparities that are deeply exposed now. 
  • Have students write letters soliciting donations for families or other children who may be in need. 
  • Allow students to guide what their learning might look like now. Carve out time to listen in to students’ thoughts, feelings, fears and frustrations, as well as their sources of joy. 

This is not at all to add more to the overflowing plates of teachers, though a shift in paradigm may feel like more work. Instead, this is a moment to respond and press into the aspects of humanity that are broken and that have been further exposed by a global pandemic. It is a time to re-engage with this powerful profession and work that will lead to necessary change. It is a time to move away from the notion of “returning to normalcy,” a normalcy that was rooted in oppression and brokenness. This is a time to re-approach and reimagine teaching as a tool for action and as a vehicle for care. 

And it is important to know that teachers can have the hard conversations and teach the hard lessons while caring for students and caring for ourselves, especially if our students are among the marginalized and most impacted. This is human work. 

Teachers now have ample material to dive more into teaching for social justice, teaching as a vehicle for care or teaching in ways that will lead to change. Dear teacher, you have chosen to work in a profession that has led to unequivocal change. How can we lean a little bit more into teaching in ways that will lead to new and long-lasting forms of resistance and healing?

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