Opening a Dialogue by Changing the Subject

Forums 2023 Summer Seminar On Austrian Soil 2023 Summer Seminar Responses: due MAY 30 Opening a Dialogue by Changing the Subject

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    • #31827

      Two years ago, I took a summer school position teaching 7th/8th grade humanities in a diverse urban school in North Portland. From the first day, the divisions on the playground and in the lunch room based on race were very apparent. In my classroom, this division created conflict during my first lesson. I struggled for the first week with reworking my curriculum to not only engage all of my students, but also to diffuse the tension that was getting in the way of class participation and actual learning. My idea was to try out curriculum I was writing on Boarding Schools for Native Americans and First Nations students.

      The buy-in was immediate since the first lesson was reading primary sources on hating school. Every student had at least one experience that related to this topic! On top of that, the white teacher was not trying to teach ethnic history to minority students. The difference was that on paper, none of my students identified as Native American. Every student could share indignation at the awful treatment. Students learned about cultural genocide. They learned about the fallibility of colonizers around the world, including friendly Canada to the north. They engaged in group writing activities and participated in discussions about the impact of these hateful policies. Several staff members at my school and then several administrators from the district sat in on my class by the end of the summer session and were impressed by what I had accomplished.

      As I read Sondra’s book again, I was struck by the decisions she made to dive into the difficult discussions when the outcomes were not clear and the potential pitfalls were great. Had I avoided conflict by changing the subject. By identifying a clear other that all the students could agree on, had I missed out on an opportunity to develop dialogue between the students right in front of me? Would the outcome of teaching my original curriculum on social justice have had a greater impact on their immediate lives? Had I ever asked the students what social justice meant to them?

      I still recall the experience as being very positive, but I still wonder if I had changed the subject and lost an opportunity for meaningful dialogue.

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