A MiddleWeb Blog
It has been heartening to talk about the news every day with these eighth graders, to see their interest in everything from ISIS to gay marriage. It feels as if we’ve had breakfast together each day, reading bits of articles aloud as we finish buttering our toast.
But this morning, I realized why I’m sadder than I thought I’d be: Some unrealistic part of me expected us to solve at least a couple of the issues we’ve discussed.
Yet, of course, the issues are still there.
The world is always with us
In a presentation this morning, Robbie reported that Islamic State has taken over more territory and that U.S. officials are staying the course in their strategy against the group.
Winston talked about reforms in the San Francisco police department following the release of a series of inflammatory texts.
Many students were upset by a story about military-style dress and gear for urban police, which President Obama wants to limit. “Why do they need camo?” Sydney said. “They’re in a city!”
Police brutality still exists. The Islamic State is forging ahead in its dream of a modern caliphate. North Korea still has nuclear weapons and doesn’t seem to be downsizing.
Two steps forward and one step back. One step forward and two steps back.
Throughout the year, I’ve consoled myself by thinking that if students discussed such issues in class, reflected on them in essays, and talked about them at home, that would be enough.
Maybe it is.
And I always tell my students that I expect them to solve such issues when they grow up.
But what can we do right now?
Looking ahead to my next classes
For next year, I’m wondering if there should be more action to go along with the discussion. If so, what might such action look like? Some possibilities…
- Participate in Model United Nations, either within our school or at a local competition, to discuss world affairs and write policy resolutions.
- Draft a letter to the editor of a newspaper or to a member of Congress.
- Write an opinion piece about a current issue, incorporating substantial research and building upon their English teacher’s guidance about the structure of a persuasive argument.
- Encourage activism in a political campaign.
- Require students to visit, with their families, one place in L.A. that speaks to the power of citizenship, such as the Japanese-American National Museum or the Museum of Tolerance. Then write about it.
- Read together more memoirs, such as Elie Wiesel’s Night or Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston’s Farewell to Manzanar, that show what the individual can do, personalizing one citizen’s stand against history.
- Read together more literature, such as Jamie Ford’s Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet or Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, that tackle similar issues.
- Take more field trips. This year we visited the Los Angeles Times newsroom and City Hall to see the press and the government in action. We could travel to dozens of other places within thirty miles, from the Watts Towers to the Autry National Center of the American West.
Living the questions
Beyond these action steps, I’ll also keep in mind the questions we as history teachers always wrestle with: ideas versus experience, theory versus practice.
How much should we live in our heads by studying, for instance, the inspirational words of Lincoln’s Second Inaugural to “cherish and achieve a just and a lasting peace, among ourselves and with all nations”? And how much should we live in reality, going out into the community to truly strive for that peace?
How much intellectual content do middle schoolers need to understand the broader impact of what they do in the community?
Where on the continuum of service learning do I want my classes to lie, and how do these goals fit into our school’s daily schedule and into other teachers’ curricula and long-term projects?
How can I live out these ideals of citizenship best in my own life, as a model for students?
Perhaps the definition of a good teaching year is to leave with more questions than I started with. As Rainer Maria Rilke writes in his Letters to a Young Poet, my students and I can “live the questions now. Perhaps [we] will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”
If you have found a way of “living such questions” that works for you, I would love to know about it!