Monday, November 8, 2010

What Do You Do With A Problem Like Maria?

Last week, I got really, Really, REALLY angry. I'm the sort of person who is high-energy, type-A and as such, operate with strong (read loud) convictions and opinions about all sorts of things. Having said that, it typically takes quite a bit to actually get me angry, and when I do, I don't go "hot," I go to a coldly furious place. I don't simmer; I freeze. Instead of buzzing about, I coldly calculate my options, I weigh my outcomes, and I play one heck of a hand.

Because, when I'm angry, I play to win.

A student I teach -an 8th grade student- made a severely racist drawing and then proceeded to share said drawing with the student body; many of whom were offended and/or are of the race depicted in the drawing. The creation is so foul, I feel uncomfortable even describing or repeating it here; just suffice to say that large national freedom groups and protests have been held over far less. I will say it didn't happen on my time, or in my class, but that I am the teacher that students felt comfortable coming to in order to "tell."

Look, kids are going to do stuff like that; they are testing boundaries and learning all about what society will and will not tolerate. As such, I'm not so much upset that the creation was made, as I am about how it was handled. Basically, it wasn't. Nothing. NOTHING. has been done about the situation at all. And, the student who created the drawing is now bragging about how s/he hasn't gotten in trouble.

The thing is, it isn't about getting in trouble, it is about LEARNING why such a thing might be offensive in the first place.

Unsure of what to do, I called in the big guns: I asked my professors. They have 30+ years of experience, and I wanted to know what they would do in my shoes, and what they thought my ethical responsibility might be. My professors are wonderful, and they not only pointed out some of the flaws in my personal reasonings, but also gave me some insights into what actions I might want to take.

So, here is what I have begun, and what I plan to do.

1. We started a unit on Romare Bearden with the 8th graders and discussed what it might feel like to be oppressed, and why the Harlem Renaissance occurred. We talked about how Western art has only begun to accept that women and non-white persons can make art within the past 100 years.

2. Students were instructed to find a topic for which they have strong convictions, and to create a collage about the topic.

3. Today, I ran experiment similar to the blue eye/brown eye one done by a teacher on Oprah years ago. I told students that research was published this past week saying that people with a longer ring finger than index finger have higher I.Q.'s, stronger physical skills, are more emotionally intelligent, and live longer and are overall "better" than those with shorter ring fingers. I allowed students to measure their fingers and proceed to behave as they would. I monitored for "bully" behavior. ALL of the students believed what I said; none argued against. Some said they didn't agree, but all of those were students whom -according to my bogus statement- were less intelligent. One student even told one of these students that they wanted to believe the research was bad because they were less intelligent. After 15 minutes I stopped the argument and told them it was all fake. They were very relieved, and then really embarrassed. We spent time discussing our actions and why it is soo important to critically think about what we hear.

4. Next, students are to tell me their chosen collage topics, I will post these to the class wiki, and next class the student will be have to stand up and defend his/her topic against the rest of the class who (no matter their personal feelings) will be against the student. I want my students to learn to base their convictions on what they read and learn, not what they gossip and/or overhear.

Here is what I have learned so far:

1. My students feel comfortable making racist comments and/or drawing racially charged images because they don't think racism exists anymore. They don't see their own actions as racist.

2. They don't know what the word "conviction" means. I know, I asked. We are learning more about that now.

3. They are eager to believe anything they hear.

I'll keep you posted on what else I learn, and I'll post their artworks. I'm excited; I feel like we are really learning!!

I won't be doing more posts on this issue; I'll be updating this specific post. So, if you want to know what happens bookmark this specific post.

Class One Update
WOW. Here are the topics my students chose to make their collages about. These are their "conviction" themes.

1. Teachers aren't always right.
2. Racially equality is important.
3. Caging animals in zoos is wrong.
4. Video games dehumanize people.
5. Nature should be left alone.
6. Dog fighting is bad.
7. Women should have equality in 3rd world countries.
8. Video games cause people to lose out on their personal and emotional lives.
9. Environmental conservation is necessary for planet survival.

Class Two Update
Guys. It just keeps getting better. The kids were really thinking about their "conviction" themes and we had some great in-class discussion. I modeled how the "debate" for next class would go and let them be "anti drug legalization" while I was "pro drug legalization." It made for a very inspiring debate.

Here are the 2nd class's chosen topics:

1. Animals have rights too.
2. No one should drink and drive (actually really proud of this kid because he almost always is defiant by not doing anything).
3. The new basketball rules are bad.
4. Mass censorship in China is wrong.
5. Freedom of speech is very important.
6. Concerts need to be more PG so everyone can participate.
7. Ideals of beauty need to be reinterpreted to include everyone.
8. The Obama is killing the performance car industry because of the new emission standards.
9. People are cheating more often in sports and it is wrong.
10. Obama's healthcare plan is bad because it will cause the price of doctor's visits to go up.
11. Music can be religious, inspiring, and still good to listen to.
12. Animal cruelty is wrong.


  1. So much to think about here - I don't know where to start. Thanks for your insightful treatment of a tough subject.

  2. If you had been my 8th grade teacher I would have remembered you forever. I love your creative approach.

  3. Thanks guys. I'm learning just as much, if not more, than the kids are.

  4. This is GREAT but I have a question. How did you go about prompting thier ideas for their conviction collages. I just dont think most of my 8th graders would come up with stuff like that! Although I could be surprised! I'd LOVE to hear more!

  5. Julie - I asked the kids to think of something in their world that really bothered them. I expanded it to think of something they think is unfair or wrong and/or something they would change if they could. I explained that it did not have to be a humanitarian effort, but that it SHOULD be something for which they have a strong feeling. Then, I asked the kids to throw out some ideas. It helped that this all happened right at the election time, because the kids had some strong feelings about some of the local legislation.

    Next class, I called each student over to me, and we sat and had a mini conference about their conviction idea. In this way, I was able to help them narrow down their idea to just one topic. For instance, one student told me that he "hates Obama." When I asked him to explain why, he didn't have much to say. I figured he is probably repeating something someone he admires says. So, I pushed harder and said, "well, is there something that has happened since Obama has been in office that really bothers you?" He thought and said that the healthcare plan really bothers him because he thinks it will drive up the cost of care for some individuals. Okay. Well, I explained to him that would be a great conviction topic. Then, he got really nervous and said: "Well, but, I don't know THAT much about the healthcare plan. I don't know much about anything!" So, I explained that was the point of the assignment. That through studying our convictions we may learn that we think the way we do even more strongly OR we may change our minds. I encouraged him to talk to his parents about the healthcare plan and to look online -I gave him so resources- to prepare him for the debate (which happens two days after this meeting).

    And, that is pretty much how it went for most of the kids. A few of them are very politically minded, and already had very concrete convictions. The students speaking out against censorship in China and the treatment of women in third world countries, for instance, already had their topic "nailed" down.

    I've learned so much about just how articulate my students can be when they are pushed. They do have great ideas, and they WANT to share them; they are just nervous. I think I'll be doing versions of this project for years to come.

  6. I'm coming into this conversation a year and more after the fact, but I have to echo Paige's comment. You would be one of my most memorable teachers after this lesson. Kudo's to you my dear!