I spent the better part of a seven hour drive today thinking about how I would talk about the events of Charlottesville to my own children. One is a rising sophomore where I teach and she’s bright and perceptive and has a great sense of self.
It took about ten minutes to finish that mental conversation with her. Why? I know her. She knows me and she knows she can ask me anything. Plus, she knows how I feel.
My other child has a developmental delay. Children with Down Syndrome sometimes process events differently. But ironically, he seems to instinctively know the concept of love, tolerance, and inclusion better than anyone I know. In fact, he teaches me daily.
He also has a unique understanding of seeking to be understood and advocating for oneself. Because he still is trying to develop his oral communication skills, he resorts to a variety of ways to communicate with me and his family his needs. There is sign language, tone, facial expressions, actions, lack of action, pointing, rise and fall of voice, and sometimes physical contact.
All of that involves the use of language in a variety of forms.
I primarily teach a rhetoric and argumentation class. If school actually convened tomorrow, there would be no way that class could carry on without touching on what occurred this past weekend.
I begin each first class of the week with what I term “The Items of the Week.” It is a list of topics that made headlines, political cartoons, printed ads, and possible video clips that highlight what happened the past week in the world.
“Charlottesville” would be the first item. It may be the only item.
AP English Language and Composition invites students to consider the world around them, especially the part of the world that is not within the close confines of their own environments. It is a course that examines how people use language to convey a message for a purpose considering audience, style, tone, and strategies.
And what I mean by language is many times beyond the verbal.
So, we as a class look at why the items of the week made news and how those events could be interpreted by a variety of audiences. Political cartoons are visual arguments as are ads and we talk about intent and appeals.
But in this case, it would seem as if one event (or series of events that occurred in one locale) would dominate the “Items of the Week.”
And I would let it. For the whole class if needed.
It is not my job to tell students what politics they should have or how they should feel about certain things. But it is my job to allow them to voice their concerns and discuss openly anything that may be pertinent to their learning. And in my class, this certainly qualifies. It is also my job to expose them to how language can be used to achieve a purpose. Again, this qualifies.
When I became a public school teacher, I took an oath to teach whomever came into my class regardless of race, creed, gender, religion, etc. and maintain as best I could an atmosphere of safety and tolerance. If someone posed a threat to that, then actions had to be taken. The idea of community is sacred in my classroom.
When I became a parent, I took an oath to teach my children the best I could between right and wrong and how to treat others and to be part of a community.
And as a teacher and parent, I have a responsbility to stand up for people and to stand against hate.
That’s why “Charlottesville” would be the first and only item on the list for tomorrow’s hypothetical class.
Maybe, I would show them the variety of statements made by people in power concerning the events from this past Saturday and make a list of the charged and weighty words they used like “white-supremacists” and “bigotry.”
Maybe, I would show them news accounts from different news outlets and let them see how the same events could be interpreted and presented in a variety of ways. What CNN posted and what Fox&Friends talked about his morning were almost polar opposites.
Maybe, I would show them interviews of eyewitnesses.
Maybe, I would let them read commentary or op-eds from a variety of sources.
Maybe, I would remind them that they had all read books that dealt with hatred like Night by Elie Wiesel.
Maybe I would show them tweets and Facebook postings.
Maybe, I would show them a list of people who had not issued statements concerning the events who normally make comments about almost all events. Our current president comes to mind. Amazing how loudly silence speaks.
But I would not field any comments or invite discussion until I had the class do one thing.
On a piece of paper that I would not take up or force them to read in front of the class (unless they wanted to), I would ask them to define the word “HATRED” – its connotations, denotations, and actions associated with it.
Then we would start class.