Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Pen Pals

            During the summer before my freshman year of college, I received a letter in the mail with the name and telephone number of my soon-to-be college roommate. When I called this young man, I learned that he hailed from a rural community in eastern North Carolina that was hundreds of times smaller than the New York City borough from which I hailed. On paper, we were clearly coming from two different worlds.

            Once we arrived in Chapel Hill, my roommate and I talked about the numerous differences between life in Blounts Creek, N.C., and life in Staten Island, N.Y. We also discovered many things in common, such as a love for late-‘80s pop music, a craving for pizza, and a passion for baseball and Carolina basketball. By early December, we were decorating our dorm together with holiday lights and watching Christmas Vacation.

            My old roommate still lives in North Carolina, and I’m back in the New York area now. We still keep in touch via Facebook, and share a friendship that connects back to those formative days when we were embarking on the early stages of adult independence together. As we stand in our mid-40s now, staring at the divided nation around us, I think there are pieces of what my roommate and I experienced back in 1989 that all of my students could use today.

            Not everyone gets to be a rising freshman with a roommate who grew up in a different part of the country. But teachers can help their students find “pen pals” in different parts of the United States. All it takes is a little communication, and that’s one thing we know our students are well-equipped to do. Whether it’s email, Facetime, Snapchat or even – gasp! – regular mail, a 17-year-old New York City kid can connect with a 17-year-old from Wyoming. A 15-year-old from Massachusetts can meet a 15-year-old from Alabama. A 13-year-old from Chicago can meet a 13-year-old from West Virginia. These pen pals can spend time sharing their stories, asking questions, and listening. They also can agree to discuss politics, and learn more about why their areas have been leaning in different directions politically.

            There is a lot to unpack in the aftermath of Nov. 8. But as we move forward, it may benefit us to encourage our students to reach beyond individual political figures and seek a better understanding of one another by connecting with peers around the country. It’s just a tiny step toward a deeper understanding, but tiny steps can go a long way.

Dialogue, the Declaration, and Democracy

           In American schools, English and social studies teachers spend considerable time and effort teaching about civil rights and the struggle for equality. History units focus on slavery, women’s suffrage, the Holocaust, the Civil Rights Movement, World War II internment camps and immigration. English teachers read books ranging from To Kill a Mockingbird and The Color of Water to Night and Maus to The House on Mango Street and The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Many of my most memorable lessons as a teacher have involved discussions about equality, in which I’ve asked tough questions and heard amazing, insightful answers.

            In a lot of ways, these discussions are part of the greatest American dialogue we can have. Back in 1776, a group of leaders issued the most famous press release in history. Billed as the Declaration of Independence, this document did more than just announce plans for a revolution – it also promised the type of country this revolution would bring. Thomas Jefferson borrowed some of the wording from other documents, but when it was all put together he had crafted the most important sentence in American history: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

            The story of America is the story of a country that is constantly moving toward and away from the promise of that sentence. The Declaration is not a law; it’s just an announcement. But it has become the closest thing to a sacred document our nation has, and that’s why it’s been quoted and cited by leaders during times when increased equality was within sight – from Abraham Lincoln in his Gettysburg Address to Martin Luther King Jr. in his “I Have a Dream” speech to Barack Obama in his Second Inaugural Address. The Declaration will continue to serve as the barometer by which we measure our democracy.

            Teachers have a responsibility to continue holding the kinds of discussions that students and, frankly, all Americans have been having for these past 240 years. If there are questions raised about where we measure up against the Declaration’s promise, we need to ask them. What is different in 2016 is that instead of discussing issues of equality in an institutional sense, we’re also addressing them in the context of the Oval Office. Does our president-elect value equality and justice for all? That is a fair question, and it is not disrespectful toward him for us to ask this question in our classrooms.

            In my last post, I wrote about the importance of caring deeply for all my students, including those who support different political candidates and hold different political views than I do. That is unquestionable. But it is equally essential that our classrooms be used to continue the dialogue that fuels our democracy. To refrain from asking such questions out of fear would be an insult to the words that established our nation. This is no time for English and social studies teachers to hold our tongues. That’s not a matter of pushing an agenda; it’s a matter of fulfilling a curriculum.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

The Red Hat

            In the fall of last year, a student in my 12th-grade English class walked into my room wearing a hat I knew about, but had only seen through the news media. But now here it was on the head of a young man in the first row – a bright red cap, with the words “Make America Great Again” printed in white letters. The student, with whom I’d been developing a nice rapport thus far in the year, saw me look at his cap and asked me a question.
            “So, Mr. Hynes, what do you think of Donald Trump?” he inquired.
            I smiled, and gave him an answer: “I like Donald Trump for real estate, but not for the White House,” I said.
            Throughout the year, we talked on and off about the presidential campaign, and listened to each other. When we studied rhetoric, the student wrote about the ways in which Donald Trump was using pathos to engage his listeners’ emotions, just as successful candidates had done in the past, from Kennedy to Reagan to Obama. He quoted Trump speaking in South Carolina saying, “People are fed up. They’re fed up with incompetence. They’re fed up with stupid leaders. They’re fed up with stupid people.”
My student understood the power of emotional language – in this case, words of anger – to connect with individuals more deeply than facts sometimes can. He knew that factual evidence, or logos, wasn’t Trump’s calling card. “Donald doesn’t use facts very often,” my student wrote. “However when he does, they are usually yelled, are slightly vague, and tend to be large numbers.
Later in the analysis, the student summarized that Trump was angry, and so was he and a lot of other Americans. Trump’s words were connecting with that anger and resonating, the student wrote.
My personal preference is for words that seek out avenues of fellowship, not anger. But this was no time for me to share that preference; I did so every day through my behavior in the classroom, after all. What I did was help my student analyze Trump’s rhetoric, and discuss the power of pathos with him and all my students as we shared our analyses.
I also spoke with all of my students about the issues in our nation when the time was right. As we read Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner, we talked about our world’s refugee crisis, and where America should stand on that issue. When we watched and analyzed Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, we discussed race in America on a number of different fronts. Throughout this time, my student remained an ardent Trump supporter, but he engaged in all of these discussions with respect and an open mind.
In the first half of the year, he asked me to help him with a college essay he was writing. As I read it, I learned that he had struggled with a family crisis not unlike one I had experienced as a teen. I shared this with him, and helped him with the essay. Later in the year, while modeling a presentation assignment that asked students to connect Hamlet to their own lives, I shared some of my teen-struggle story with the full class in making a connection to the play.
After I’d done this and the bell had rung, my student walked up to me in the back of the room and held out his hand. “Mr. Hynes, I just wanted to say that I really respect you for sharing your story like that with the class,” he said. I shook his hand and told him I respected him for writing about his experience as well. You could tell that he felt empowered through the sharing of stories.
I stood there, watching him walk out of the room, and thought about how things might have turned out had I shut him down because he supported Donald Trump. Several months later, I still think about that moment. As one of the more than 60 million voters who supported Hillary Clinton last week, I have every right to be deeply disappointed in the election results. Crushed, even. But as a teacher, my obligation is to every student.
A month into this school year, that student stopped by my classroom while home from college and checked in on how I was doing. We chatted, and I’m sure we will do so again when he stops by during his Thanksgiving weekend or winter break. He wasn’t wearing the hat this time, but we didn’t get into politics. We had something deeper to guide our conversation – a mutual respect for each other.

Friday, November 11, 2016

November 9, 2016

            I knew I needed a game plan for connecting with my students on the day after the most divisive election in modern history. But because I was paying so much attention to the polls, I had prepared only for a Hillary Clinton victory.

I had planned to start each class by asking my students to reach beyond partisan differences and think about what a Clinton victory would mean to the countless women who have faced gender discrimination, and to a country that took so long to give women equal rights. Focus on the history being made, I told myself, and find a way to make it about all of us.

But then, as we all well know, Hillary Clinton did not win. And so my school day began with a jittery, nervous vibe in the hallways. And by third period, I was looking into the eyes of students who were bawling in the back of the classroom, fear stretched across their faces. These girls viewed a Trump victory as a violation of sorts, and they were terrified. This scene would repeat itself at different times throughout the day, and of course not just in my classroom.

So what to do? In private conversations, I spoke honestly. “I’m afraid too,” I told them. “But we’re going to be afraid together. I’m here for you.” I shared my political stance with these students because they needed to know that they were not alone. But at the same time, I did not tell them “It’s all going to be OK,” because I did not feel confident in that myself. Yet, I could – and did – tell them that we have one another, no matter what goes on in this world.

Later in the day, I began teaching more of the students who had told me they supported Donald Trump. I had helped some of them write persuasive essays about why they supported Trump. One student had written about the news media’s failure to recognize the importance of the issues Trump stood for, and we talked on Wednesday about how accurate his viewpoint had turned out to be.

I also cautioned these students not to treat the Trump victory as though their favorite team had just won the World Series or Super Bowl. I had seen other students doing that earlier in the day, and it reminded me of the way I had behaved when my preferred candidates won during my middle and high school years. But we all could see how deeply many students were impacted by this election; it was no time to gloat. I also encouraged the students who had supported Trump to turn their talk to the issues at hand. After all, when your candidate wins, that’s when the real work starts. What will he do, and what do you expect from him? They nodded at my advice, and got back to their schoolwork.

By the end of the day, I was truly exhausted, and was looking forward to heading out to the gym. But in my last period class, I had another student crying uncontrollably, and as we stood in the hallway I gave her a hug, and listened to her fears. After school, another student sat down to talk with me about a school matter, but then broke down. She said to me, “I’m gay, and I’m afraid of what he might do.” I listened, told her we’d walk through this together, and gave her a hug as well.

There are challenging days in the classroom, but this one was near the top. I tried, throughout it all, to heed my first instinct as a teacher – to be present for all my students, no matter who they are, what they believe in, or who they would vote for were they 18. I saw it all on this day, and it spoke volumes about the fragile state of our nation right now.