Struggling: When the Need for Social Justice Never Sleeps

Have you ever found yourself struggling–emotionally, physically, spiritually? By the book, you’ve had the hours of sleep you need. You are happy with yourself and your life. You know what drives you, what your values are, and fight for your beliefs. Your boxes are checked, but you see something, hear something, think something, and there you are: struggling.

I am struggling today.

I haven’t written in a while. I’d blame it on lack of time, but we’re all busy. It is easy to hide behind guest posts and occasional blurbs, but there are words to be said and I’ve sat silent. Behind silence is privilege and cowardice. A colleague and mentor, Bettina Love, often writes: “White silence is violence.” I am beginning to understand the gravity of those words today, especially since I began this post four weeks ago, and here I am, finally posting.

I have so many incomplete posts that will live forever in the purgatory of “unpublished drafts.” Yeah–it is easy to get lost in life; lost in the day-to-day, but despite being busy, I can still find time every Sunday to watch yet another Black man die on The Walking Dead so, in short, let’s talk about our world in and outside the classroom (and everywhere in between). I am not necessarily going to start with Ferguson and end with what is going on today, but I’ll start with my class and we’ll go from there. Please join me in this dialogue.

I was reading an article about the school-to-prison pipeline with my seventh grade ELA students a little while ago. As you’ll see (if you click the link), I added annotations to encourage active reading. Here is a link to the original piece. Previously, my kids and I were knocked around for poor grades on benchmark tests addressing nonfiction texts, so we read, analyzed, and responded to articles discussing this topic, income inequality (there are fewer annotations here because they were instructed to come up with questions and answers of their own), the American dream (or, mostly, lack thereof), and more.

Needless to say, their test scores did not improve much, but the way they read and responded to texts did, so I call that a win. Since then, I have had more students willing to speak out and about “controversial topics,” including race relations, gender issues, income inequality, the disillusionment of the American dream, and more. I have seen and heard them relate “single stories” to their own experiences. I am amazed by these kiddos every day. They are brave and tenacious.

If you’re reading this piece and thinking I underestimate(d) my kids, you’re probably right. This year is my first working in a middle school (and eighth year teaching). For some reason, before I began, I pictured my students as much younger than they actually are. I am surprised often by how little I know and how little I’ve experienced in comparison to them.

This year is also my first time teaching in a rural school district. I assumed these topics–ones of race, class, gender, sexuality, etc.–would be difficult to address in my classes. They aren’t easy, of course, but my students are extremely receptive to discussing various ideas, despite where their opinions land on the spectrum of possibility.

Most of these surprises are positive ones. My students are critical thinkers who are eager to learn–that discovery is both inspiring and uplifting to me as an educator. However, despite how great things may be going, there is always something on the horizon that stops me in my tracks–and then I struggle.

Today I learned that three White men, allegedly White supremacists, shot and injured five people in Minneapolis who were participating in a peaceful #BlackLivesMatter protest. Here is the story. These people were protesting the murder of Jamar Clark. According to NPR, “Police say they shot Jamar Clark in the head because he interfered with paramedics who were treating his girlfriend. Demonstrators say this is yet another case of police using excessive force.”

I was in Minneapolis this past week/end for the National Council of Teachers of English Annual Convention. At the convention, I joined others from the CEE Commission on Social Justice in Teacher Education in a protest against Pearson’s unethical, profit-hungry policies that hurt our students, teachers, and the educational system as a whole. While I still believe this protest was a necessary act and raised awareness (that even caught Pearson’s attention, since they took down much of the footage online), little did I know something else–something bigger–was happening on the other side of town.

In other news, I also learned earlier this year about a young woman who was assaulted in her own school, own classroom, and own desk by a school police officer:

In international news, we have seen Paris’s struggle. Not only was the attack on Paris horrific and unbelievable, but I am also ashamed at the media’s coverage thereafter. We have reentered the arena where Syrians and Muslims are terrorists, look a certain, stereotypical way, and are unworthy of our help and refuge. Even more? The media has all but ignored the attacks in Beirut and Kenya, where other brutal attacks occurred around the same time as the ones that hit Paris.

Many, many more social justice issues and events have happened recently, but despite what has happened, how do you talk about these things with middle schoolers (or any students for that matter)? It has been fairly easy to discuss general social justice issues–race, class, gender, religious differences, etc. However, as I enter discussions about specific events, I struggle–and my students struggle.

How do you explain a broken world, but encourage hope and action in your students without merely bursting their dreams before they’re even formed? How do you put a face on injustice–and why am I being forced to do so over and over again? To clarify, I am not arguing against social justice pedagogy, and I am especially not arguing against teaching for social justice. On the contrary, I am struggling today because I’m looking for a light in this world, but we keep entering a further state of darkness.

I’m struggling because I’m angry.

I’m struggling because my students are angry.

I am struggling because the world is angry, and sad, and hurting, and when people stand up for what they believe in, they’re deemed as: whiners, radicals, crazies, extremists, wrong–and some are even shot or murdered for their beliefs. How do I inspire these kids to stand up for their own values if others are being physically and emotionally harmed for demonstrating theirs peacefully?

This post is not a resolution. It is not meant to be a radical rant. It is simply a post from a struggling teacher living in a struggling world. Any suggestions?

JJW

One thought on “Struggling: When the Need for Social Justice Never Sleeps

  1. There is only one hope, and you are it. But not you alone – you work in concert with every teacher, every mentor, every parent who is willing to have these conversations with young people, conversations that help them speak out about injustice, question the givens, stand with those who are being oppressed and vilified. You are helping them see that this isn’t always easy and that’s why some people just don’t have the strength or courage or perseverance to address these wrongs. I”ll bet you share with them videos and historical records and movie clips (I just saw Suffragette for example) and everything else you can find that shows people like your students in acts of every day bravery. And of course they see you, a teacher who values them enough, trusts their intellect and humanity enough, to have these conversations instead of reading canned info texts.

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