― Chinua Achebe
― Chinua Achebe
“Walls turned sideways are bridges.”
I realized the other day that I’ve barely breathed since 2am on Wednesday, November 9th. That panicked, tight feeling in my chest and stomach hasn’t left since I woke up in a haze and realized what happened. I haven’t taken a deep breath, haven’t cried or exhaled completely since that morning. It’s almost like my body and mind don’t want to let me mourn. Every time I try to write, all that come out are questions: How might we empower our students to keep our schools hate-free? How might we best support marginalized students and colleagues who are living in fear? How might we open civil but meaningful dialogue that makes room for multiple perspectives without veering toward bigotry? How might we combat the “isms” in our communities, even learn to honor indigenous values and varied ways of life around the world? How might we avoid normalizing Standing Rock, hate crimes and other forms of systematic oppression and marginalization? And how might our students be a part of constructive change-making and community-building efforts beyond their school walls?
As the indices of hate crimes began to rise immediately post-election, particularly in K-12 schools, I found myself thinking of every young person who has a reason to feel marginalized and threatened by the increased legitimization of all our worst social “isms.” I thought of my former students, of all those amazing young people who are beyond the schoolhouse walls now, using their gifts to make the world a better place. I thought of my Dreamers, undocumented students from Latin America who gained access to college through the Dream Act and now find themselves dangerously visible. I thought of the children of immigrants who passed through my classroom, many of whom fear deportation or forced registration of the hard-working parents who sacrificed for their sake. I thought of my Muslim-American students, of the stories I keep hearing about Muslim mothers begging their daughters to ignore their faith and stop wearing hijab in public to keep themselves safe. I thought of my African-American students and my constant fear of unwarranted violence against them, of my Japanese-American students whose grandparents experienced internment in this country and who know just how dangerous divisive thinking can be (see the extraordinary artwork of my former student, Sarah Fukami, on this blog). I thought of my differently abled students, my gay students, my transgender students, all of whom fear mockery, violence and legalized exclusion now more than ever. I thought of the struggling public school I just started working with, a school filled with immigrants and refugees where teachers and administrators dream of equity and inclusion–and are working hard to get there.
I thought of myself, too, and what it felt like to grow up Jewish in the United States. Last week, I told my mom for the first time of the little blonde boy in 2nd grade who told me Hitler’s body had never been found, that he could be alive and might come back to kill my family. That early experience with feeling othered and threatened was so intense that I can still picture the scene down to the quality of light in the room when he said it; that little boy placed the first crack in the protective veneer of my childhood, and I have felt “other” ever since. I thought of my trip to Los Angeles on November 10th this fall, of how my inner 2nd grader felt that same vulnerability and threat as I moved through public crowds in airports as an adult. I saw a woman laughing as she watched election results on Fox News in the United Club in Denver, and I couldn’t breathe, much less respond. I am the child of activists; I was raised to always take unapologetic non-violent action to promote social change. I’m the last person to keep my mouth shut in a moment of injustice; I believe in living my values out loud. Yet that week I found myself scared and silenced, walking through crowded airports wondering who wished my family and I would just “go home” to the countries we escaped three generations ago.
We find ourselves at a crossroads in the United States, in a country divided. As educators, our responsibilities are overwhelming, and many teachers are still trying to figure out how to talk to their students about what comes next. Much as we saw in the weeks following 9/11, many educators feel paralyzed and unsure of how to confront division and discord in a way that honors all perspectives but also encourages dialogue toward inclusion, community, and what Buddhists call “right action.”
At World Leadership School, we decided that our best line of action was to send out resources to support the teachers and administrators in our networks. These curricular resources for post-election classrooms come from an array of excellent educational and social justice organizations, and we hope you find them helpful. World Leadership School renews our intention to support schools as they find ways to challenge bigotry and teach understanding and acceptance. We believe in the power of teaching students to lean into discomfort and connect across all that separates us, and in the importance of working together to build diverse, safe, and thoughtful learning communities.
As I pack my bags and prepare to leave for Atlanta, I find myself grateful beyond words for the PoCC. As I wrote after the conference in 2013, the People of Color Conference community is, for me, the best demonstration of Naomi Shihab Nye’s “shared world” I’ve ever been a part of. I feel honored and blessed to share this common vision and purpose with all of you, with so many extraordinary people who care about the needs of students, teachers, administrators and families. I can’t wait to exhale, to breathe out in community, to let myself mourn with my PoCC family. Our students need these days together, too. Helping to foster community and a pride in who they are is the least we can do, and I hope their experiences this week will have constructive reverberations in our schools and broader communities for the next four years and beyond.
I come home to the PoCC this year ready to laugh and cry and strategize together; ready to craft plans to keep our communities safe, inclusive, and focused on constructive change; and ready to breathe in the power of our collective educational vision for the children in our care.
In the schools of Bumpe, I quickly discovered, Paolo Freire’s notion of “banking education” is the norm. Students obediently write down everything the teachers say. When asked what they think, only the most mature offer answers beyond those modeled first by the teachers. One of the participants in my workshop, a Peace Corps volunteer halfway through his second year teaching English Literature, told me that the students are either misbehaving or learning passively most of the time; it is rare to see them engaged and curious. The exams they face every year ask for no independent thought and require no skills beyond test taking and rote retention. It’s no wonder that Freire resonated for so many of the teachers in my workshop–very few had studied his work, but everyone saw parallels to Socrates immediately, whom it seemed all had studied at some point in an educational system originally conceived by British colonists. Socrates and Freire had similar ideas about educating independent thinkers, suggesting that the best philosophers and educators ask questions, have dialogue, and encourage risk taking in their students–they don’t offer answers but equip students instead to look for answers themselves.Context can’t be underestimated, given Sierra Leone’s painful history. As recently as the 1990s, rebels were destroying everything they touched in this region of the world, and “Bumpe Town” appears several times in public documents from the Special Court for Sierra Leone. According to the Special Court, many individuals in the region were captured, tortured, and had limbs amputated. Community members who resisted were beheaded, and their heads were displayed in the town center to discourage resistance. According to the stories I heard during my visit, community members were raped and killed; children were executed in front of their parents; entire families were burned alive inside their homes. I don’t know whether the culture of passive education pre-dates the rebel war, but it’s certainly not surprising that Sierra Leone’s post-conflict educational culture includes so much obedience and so little independent thought, given the consequences they faced when they thought for themselves during the 1990s.
I was welcomed to Bumpe with celebrations and smiles, but there was no way I could forget the past each of these educators had lived through; even if there hadn’t been chickens roosting in our workshop room and we’d been in a North American workshop space with plumbing and electricity, I’d have been constantly and keenly aware of the horrors these teachers had undergone, the experiences that every Sierra Leonean under 20 remembers well enough to be left with layers of pervasive trauma. Bumpe’s schools and homes were looted and burned to the ground. I knew that these teachers had fled with their families, that they had tried to keep Bumpe’s schools going even as they’d fled from village to village in search of safety from the rebels. They’d taught out of remaining schoolhouses in other communities during off hours, moving again and again as the conflict required. There were teachers in the room who had lost family members, who had been captured and tortured themselves. Each of the teachers in my workshop had chosen to return to their town, to continue the work of educating their community, in spite of the fact that it was the site of unspeakable horror for every one of them. I couldn’t help but feel the weight of this history on every teacher in the room; it clung to us like a dusty haze, though no one spoke about the past directly.
I spent the whole day overwhelmingly conscious of the dangers of acting out some dreadful imperialist or colonialist paradigm by suggesting I had anything to teach these educators, individuals who had borne–and survived–so much I couldn’t imagine myself enduring. They had come back to a ravaged village to rebuild their communities and schools, were doing the best they could with almost no resources. How could I possibly know what it means to be an educator during and since times of war and atrocity, to work with the children of a generation of deeply scarred and traumatized adults? How was I going to talk about global enrichment when most of their students would never see the world beyond their direct environment and didn’t have enough to eat? How could I encourage collaboration with students around the world when the local schools had no electricity or running water, much less computers or internet connectivity? Many of the teachers in my workshop hadn’t been paid in years, and all of them struggled to put food on the table; who was I to teach them anything? Who was I to think that a summer teaching poetry in the West Bank qualified me to walk alongside these educators?
But when we worked together to craft a sense of our ideal global graduate, the challenges and distances between us melted away. It was the same list I’ve seen generated by teachers in schools across North America, what every educator wants for their students–and their communities–no matter where in the world they might be: that our students feel loved and know how to love others, that they have a sense of purpose and feel the urge to be engaged in creating change, that they be collaborative and creative problem solvers who know how to communicate their vision to others. It reminded me of the first time I heard Sting’s “The Russians Love their Children Too,” just after I left Israel/Palestine in 1985; it reminded me that wherever we live and whatever we experience, our hopes for our children are the same–and that those hopes have everything to do with our youth thriving and becoming good people, and nothing to do with their succeeding on standardized exams.
So no, I didn’t have enough time to take my teachers on a deep journey into all of the nuances of Project-Based Learning, but I didn’t need to try–all I needed to do was open a few new ideas about what student-centered teaching looks like, and they got it. Each teacher explored how the Buck Institute for Education’s Eight Essential Elements of Project-Based Learning might be incorporated into their teaching strategies; each teacher chose at least three elements as goals for growth of practice. In the developing world, where so many traditional paradigms of rote learning and teacher-centered education prevail–perhaps in part because of poverty and conflict–it is enough to increase student choice, to develop students’ 21st Century Skills, to allow learning to be born from a deeper sense of passion and purpose. We did the same with global competency matrices from Asia Society and World Savvy, and they loved the idea of Asia Society’s matrix providing a design strategy for classroom experiences–several teachers even came up with interesting ways to focus units on investigating the world, recognizing perspectives, communicating ideas, and taking action.
My favorite moment came during Building Utopia, a critical-thinking and collaboration activity I developed for World Leadership School, which asks teachers to organize the targets of the Millenium Development Goals into an order of priority, whatever that means to them. We were walking around after the exercise, listening to each group present what they’d prioritized and why, when an argumentative high school social studies teacher asked if listeners were allowed to disagree with presenters. In the shouting which followed, one voice rang straight through: Mr. Samba, the oldest teacher in the room, insisted loudly that all answers were correct, and within seconds the rest were echoing his sentiment loudly, wagging index fingers at the one who wanted to argue politics and pushing him back from the table. I nearly wept, both from laughter and joy, as this incredible group of educators demonstrated that they’d understood and were embodying the heart of student-centered learning in just under four hours.
Bumpe isn’t a big place, and every teacher I saw after the workshop told me enthusiastically about the changes they were already making in their classrooms. They weren’t developing huge projects, but they were already working toward the goals they’d set at the workshop: they were finding small ways to offer more choice, to ask questions more than offer answers, to talk less and listen more, to move away from the “sage on the stage” and toward the “guide on the side” as educators. Many of them expressed concern over how unsafe their national exams make it for kids to “fail forward” and learn from trial and error, and they were eager to continue the dialogue about how to lower risk aversion inside the classroom and get kids to try new things without fear of connected grades destroying their academic futures. The teachers were excited to share what they’d learned with colleagues–so excited that they actually fought ferociously over my left-over materials at the end of the workshop.
It was no accident that I chose to start from Freire; young people in Sierra Leone need to develop their own conscientização–the personal conscience that leads to innovation, liberation and change–and that can only happen through student-centered learning. Bumpe Town will probably never do a total flip to inquiry-driven, student-centered learning, but a few inspired young leaders will emerge from this beautiful part of the world, as they do wherever young people are encouraged to think for themselves, to collaborate with others, and to find new solutions to their communities’ challenges. Just as my host Hindogbae Kposowa has been fostered as a community leader through his work with international organizations like TakingITGlobal and World Leadership School, so all young people deserve to have constructive support as they develop their talents and passions. I don’t do this work because I think I have the right answers, but because I believe that every community in the world contains young people who might, particularly if their answers are fostered in classrooms which honor their voices and capacity for innovation.If my experience running a workshop with students in Bumpe is any indicator, these emerging leaders will find ways to rebuild and protect the future of their communities and country in ways their teachers and I have yet to even imagine.
It’s interesting how long I’ve held strong opinions about global women’s rights without ever really confronting the realities of practices I’ve criticized. Perhaps this is innately human, to assume we know without knowing, to assume we have a read on other people’s realities. It’s disconcerting to be reminded of how little I know–not just because I like to think I know a lot, but because the complexities and nuances of life around the globe are so intense that they render me speechless sometimes.
For years, I taught about women’s rights in Africa through Mariama Ba’s So Long a Letter, a brilliant novela which explores the experiences of women in a changing society in Senegal. My students did deep explorations and debates on polygamy and female genital mutilation, among other topics. While I always suggested that students take on the challenge of arguing the pro side, providing well-researched opposition myself to increase the authenticity and depth of argument on both sides, I have to admit that I always did have a right answer in my head (which I’m guessing my students realized the whole time). Clearly polygamy was an atrocious practice which disempowered women. Clearly no little girl should ever have her sexual organs cut, sewn up or removed. As a student-centered teacher, I wanted my kids to explore the issues for themselves… but I’ve realized recently that I actually wanted them to come to my own conclusions the whole time.
Walking through the rural southern village of Bumpe in Sierra Leone, an old man told me proudly that he has three wives. “Do they do that in America?” he asked me. I nodded and told him of small pockets of polygamous communities in the U.S. I said nothing critical, smiled a lot and asked if he was taking good care of all of his wives, as the Koran orders. His answer astonished me slightly: “They take care of me and I couldn’t exist without all three of them,” he told me. He pointed to the cook fire. “I am that pot over on the fire, held up by three stones. If you remove one of them, I will fall.”
My host has uncles and aunts spread all over the village—and the world. The explanation? His grandfather had 30 wives, and multiple children with each. It’s extreme enough to bring back memories of old testament classes and my confusion over Solomon’s harem of wives. But who am I to question thousands of years of communal traditions in a culture so much older than my own? I think of my ex-husband in Costa Rica, whose grandmother bore 20 children with an alcoholic husband–can I really say it would have been worse to have multiple mothers raising those children so they might have been better nurtured? Certainly questions of population and economics apply, and small families are easier to maintain, but how different is the polygamous family from the socialist communities of Israel or other parts of the world, where it is believed that it takes a village to raise a child? The single father is the only difference, I’m coming to realize–beyond that, the issue is more a moral one. And if a puritan moral mindset claims that marriage must be between one man and one woman, then yes, it deserves to be questioned not just for LGBTQ couples, but for anyone else who defines marriage differently.
Female cutting (also known as female genital mutilation or female circumcision) is a tougher issue for me to wrap my head around still, and I haven’t been able to get anyone to talk about it. What I know is this: Sierra Leone has one of the highest rates of female excision (removal of the clitoris and labia) in Africa, and the practice is tied to the poros, secret societies which use excision as part of initiation. When I asked my host about it, he said that most Sierra Leoneans belong to poros; he was initiated into one in his teens and he speaks of it with nothing but pride. He warned me against asking any of the women in his village or family about their own initiation experiences. But the question lingers–if most members of this community belong to poros, then that means most of the girls and women have undergone cutting.
The guide book in my pack tells me that initiation generally takes place during a young person’s teens, that men as much as women bear some sort of scar from their initiation process. There are questions raised about how safe and hygenic these practices generally are, but the book suggests that most Sierra Leoneans won’t talk about excision with foreigners because they know the west sees it as bad and they don’t want to get embroiled in arguments about a practice they are proud of.
I didn’t realize how much this underlying question was bothering me until I started interviewing teenage students at the high school. I found myself wondering briefly about the initiation scars the boys might carry, but each time I found myself talking to girls, I was gripped by the realization that most of them have probably had their sexual organs excised. Sitting with my host’s mother, who I have come to adore, I am deeply pained to think that she has gone through such a practice. The two young nieces who run around the house and dance for me will undergo it one day.
My own Jewish culture has circumcised baby boys for thousands of years, but female cutting feels different still, and that confuses me. I’ve seen documentaries on indigenous initiations rites for teenagers which usually include incredibly painful rituals. Things like this happen all over the world, a sort of pain-based transformation from teen to adult. Some of those young people have the choice to walk away; others don’t. Who am I to judge female cutting as apart from these rituals, as something inherently wrong, given the pride with which my host speaks of his own initiation?
I am left with more questions than answers. Does being a constructive and engaged global citizen mean I work to end practices I think are wrong around the world? I know my first goal should always be to understand why the practices exist and where they come from. Should my next goal be to accept them or to change them? I used to ask my students to come up with their own answers about where the line was for them: When is a cultural practice something we should try to end, and when should we accept it for its cultural importance to others? But the more I explore the world, the less sure I am that I have the right to judge anyone else’s choices.
“COMMONSENSE HAS TRAMPLED DOWN MANY A GENTLE GENIUS WHOSE EYES HAD DELIGHTED IN SOME TOO EARLY MOONBEAM OF SOME TOO EARLY TRUTH… COMMONSENSE AT ITS WORST IS SENSE MADE COMMON, AND SO EVERYTHING IS COMFORTABLY CHEAPENED BY ITS TOUCH. COMMONSENSE IS SQUARE WHEREAS ALL THE MOST ESSENTIAL VISIONS AND VALUES OF LIFE ARE BEAUTIFULLY ROUND, AS ROUND AS THE UNIVERSE OR THE EYES OF A CHILD AT ITS FIRST CIRCUS SHOW.” –VLADIMIR NABOKOV
Still one of my all-time favorites, “Yellowbird” is Andrea Gibson’s swan song in support of arts and creativity.
This is Sonya Renee Taylor’s favorite performance of her poem “Beautiful,” and the revelations are mind blowing.
Excellent resources for globally-minded educators cross my desk fairly often these days, so I’m going to make an effort to share my favorites every few weeks. This week, I’d like to share three new favorites. #1: Barefoot World Atlas is an incredible application for elementary-age students to explore the world. While it is only available for iPad, iPhone and iPod Touch, it provides an incredibly interactive and compelling way of exploring the world. Incorporating music, culture, animals, history, geography and MUCH more, this is a must-try for any iPad classrooms or homes trying to go global. I certainly know that my nieces can’t put it down once they get started exploring the world!
#2: If It Were My Home is an awesome tool which allows students to compare countries and understand economic and social differences. This very kid-friendly site offers endless classroom applications for many grade levels, and can really help our students understand how much the “accident of birth” impacts our experiences.
#3: We Found Love is a compelling, moving glimpse of the way music allows us to connect across cultures in authentic and powerful ways. As a child of the arts myself, I find these kinds of resources not only serve to give kids an authentic sense of people and places around the world, but will also stir their hearts, connecting them emotionally to the larger human experience.