Teaching Students About Speaking Truth to Power

A MiddleWeb Blog

kids_cusp2I’ve never considered myself to be a fearful person. Sure, I have been afraid. It’s just that I never experienced a genuine fear of the future.

Like all human beings, I have a life that involves scheduling time to enjoy family, focus (happily, I might add) on “work,” and still find some time to relax and unwind.

Being afraid of loss or any other variation of heartache is natural. But I can’t say I’m paralyzed with fear at the thought of my future as a teacher. I do my job well. I’m not afraid of losing it.

What scares me is what I am learning about the world of education as a whole. And, truth be told, I’m a little afraid of speaking out, of telling the world what I see going on, from a teacher’s perspective.

If I tell the world how I feel, then I am saying it out loud. By doing this, the whole thing becomes uncomfortably real. The thing is, if nobody says it out loud, then nobody gets informed. If nobody gets informed, making changes will continue to follow the path of the pendulum.

Finding courage in others’ words

When I am afraid, there is a need for inspiration. Inspiration from many different sources gives me the courage to just keep speaking.

teaching wit fire cover 180This week, that courage came from an old stand-by, Teaching With Fire: Poetry That Sustains the Courage to Teach, a compilation of poetry with commentaries by teachers who have found strength in the words of others. It’s one of a series of similar inspirational collections co-published by the Center for Courage and Renewal; others include Teaching with Heart and Leading from Within.

In order to throw a little faith into the mix, as well as some semblance of order (I am a teacher after all), there is a procedure I follow in seeking this inspiration. It’s not very complicated. I grab a book from the coffee table or somewhere nearby, close my eyes, and open it.

Where our minds are without fear

Rabindranath Tagore

Rabindranath Tagore

The poem I turned to this time was one written by Rabindranath Tagore entitled “Where the Mind Is Without Fear.” The name sounded familiar. The researcher in me kicked in. It turns out that Mr. Tagore was not only a Nobel Prize winner but a friend of Ghandi. Now there’s another man with a message of inspiration!

Here’s an excerpt from Rabindranath Tagore’s poem:

Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high
Where knowledge is free
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments
By narrow domestic walls
Where words come out from the depth of truth
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way
Into the dreary desert sand of dead habit.

This was no coincidence.

Moments before opening the book, my eyes had been focused on my “blog basket.” I keep it tucked in the corner of my living room for easily accessible inspiration. It is a mishmash of ideas and possibilities. Front and center was a stack of papers, clipped neatly together.

“I’m Not Afraid to Tell the World How I Feel”

Staring out at me was a photocopy of a speech that I have been using sporadically throughout the years with my students. We used it this year as a tool for combining environmental topics with beautiful prose and a look at persuasive writing.

Severn Cullis-Suzuki speaking at Rio, 1992

Severn Cullis-Suzuki speaking at Rio, 1992

This speech, “I’m Not Afraid to Tell the World How I Feel,” was written by a group of school children from Canada. In 1992, using funds they raised on their own, the four girls (Vanessa Suttie, Morgan Geisler, Michelle Quigg and Severn Cullis-Suzuki) traveled to the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development held in Rio de Janeiro.

Approximately 200 world leaders had gathered to discuss and “find solutions” to the many fears that were growing about our planet, our care of it, and the realities of global sustainability.

Speaking for the group, 12-year old Severn questioned the decisions being made by the grown-ups in her world, as she delivered an incredibly well-written and effective speech to a room full of these grown-ups. Boy, did she lambast them! I was embarrassed to be a grown-up after hearing her speak her truth.

Rewind: Critically thinking about Severn’s brave words in class

With Earth Day coming soon and only three weeks to teach until more PARCC testing returns, I have decided to revisit her speech.

When we first met this courageous young woman, we listened to an audiotape of the speech. Simply listening to it had quite an impact on this year’s group of potential “Severn Cullis-Suzukis.” I’m looking forward to showing them the video clip.

Our previous study of this brave girl’s presentation before an audience of global leaders contained many valuable teaching moments and opportunities to explore our own voices. Here’s how we used our critical thinking skills to formulate our own opinions (supported by some new resources I discovered along the way).

Day 1

  • Anticipatory Set – Ask the kids what topics they feel strongly about. Brainstorm a class list. Then, ask them if they would be brave enough to give a speech about one of these topics to a room full of grown-ups…200 or so. After a brief discussion about this possibility, introduce Severn Cullis-Suzuki and give a brief background history.
  • Listen to the speech (or watch the video clip). The kids enjoyed this year’s “listening version.” I turned off the classroom lights and invited them to close their eyes and put their heads down (if they were so inclined), so they could just listen.
  • Ask a few kids to share what they thought about her speech.

Day 2

  • Distribute a copy of the speech to each child. While playing the audio of the speech again, ask the kids to highlight any quotes they find particularly inspiring or thought provoking.
  • Distribute the speech response activity and ask the kids choose three quotes to copy down (using proper punctuation and capitalization, of course!)

Day 3

  • Write Around activity using my own pre-selected quotes. This is a great way to begin modeling the art of discussion. The kids are asked to respond, not only to the speech, but also to each other’s thoughts about it.

Day 4

  • Discussion activity for small groups. The kids use the quotes they chose to have small group discussions. Fish bowl modeling with a small group of kids first is a good way to start them on their way.

Day 5

  • Use vocabulary from the speech to write elaborate sentences that contain context clues. (see vocabulary list)

Day 6

  • Watch the youtube clip, and experience her bravery one more time (In this year’s case, I am doing this many, many days after we first met Miss Cullis-Suzuki and her determined friends)
  • Writing prompt…answering 4 questions using “evidence” to back up our ideas.

Global KidsA meaningful Earth Day

For Earth Day this year, we will once again meet Severn Cullis-Suzuki. We will watch her speak her mind. I know my students will enjoy seeing her “live.” I know she will inspire them, once again.

And I’m sure she was a little afraid to step up to that podium. She did it anyway. Now there’s a lesson I want to help my students learn. I want them to be inspired to tell the world how they feel.

Severn Cullis-Suzuki links:

Severn Cullis-Severn today

Severn Cullis-Severn today

Full Transcript of 1992 Rio speech

1992 Transcript and 2012 Democracy Now interview

2012 video of Severn Cullis-Suzuki addressing Green Cross RIO+20 event

Severn Cullis-Suzuki’s current website and bio

Some Other Lesson Plan Ideas:
Putting it Together: Analyzing and Producing Persuasive Text, 7th/8th grade

Mary Tarashuk

Mary Tarashuk teaches 4th grade at Wilson Elementary School in Westfield, New Jersey. Mary has been an educator for over 20 years. She has served as content writer and creative consultant for the national, award-winning initiative The Walking Classroom since its inception in 2005. Mary’s work has been published in Education Digest and was honored with the SmartBrief Education 2016 Editors’ Choice Content Award. Trying to balance her old-school teaching style with New Age methods that integrate ever-changing technology keeps her on her toes. She believes that fresh air and exercise enhance learning and engage students of all ages. Follow her on Twitter @maryrightangle and visit her personal blog (launched in 2021) Behind the Doors of the Teacher's Room for some adult conversation.

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