A few weeks before school started 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick began a quiet protest. He started refusing to stand for the national anthem, which is played before every sporting event in America. At first he sat, and then he decided instead to take a knee. He is protesting the killing of innocent men by those charges with protecting them. He's saying the anthem doesn't speak to his reality. Talking heads lost their minds. How dare an athlete use his fame to protest, they say, hiding the copy they wrote praising Ali after he died. Slowly, other athletes, both within and outside of the NFL, have joined him. Not all take a knee, but they signal that they too feel the United States and its anthem is not speaking to their reality.
I have a lot of students who play football and watch football. I teach fifth grade outside of Portland, Oregon. My class is mostly a mix of white and Mexican students, and I have some students of color as well. Oregon is not known as a place with a lot of people of color, but we're also not as blazingly white as you might expect. Mostly. Anyway, I was fully expecting one of my students to bring up Kaep by now. I know last year I had at least three kids who would have. We would have had that conversation in the first week, probably after the first assembly, which is the first time in the school year they would have stood for the anthem. I don't do the anthem or the pledge in my class, you see. Having children face a flag and pledge allegiance to it doesn't work for me. Never have done it, not in eleven years. Unless it's at an assembly when the whole school is doing it. And even then I don't say it. I stand respectfully, hands clasped behind my back. And in eleven years no one, not a student, fellow teacher, or administrator has ever asked me about it. I'll let you guess reasons that might be.
I expected it to come up. "Mr Robertson, have you seen that Niners QB who won't stand? Why do we have to?" I was ready to wade delicately into the conversation, letting them lead and research.
No one has mentioned it though.
And neither have I.
I slip a lot of social justice into my class. I do it on a regular basis. It's not hard. We teach LifeSkills and talk about bullying and you can fit pretty much any social justice topic until that umbrella. Be smart about it, let the kids come to the ideas, don't preach but allow conversation and research. But I don't feel like I can directly bring up this particular protest. I can't find a way to naturally fit it into the conversation and flow, while still being able to use the standards and curriculum to defend myself if a parent goes to my principal with concerns (which has never happened to me but never say that out loud). And I'm pretty confident in this choice. Later in the school year I'm going to read a wonderful books called One Crazy Summer and that will bring up a lot of the topics that would come up by talking about Kaep. The kids will be older, and the might be more prepared for the conversation then. That's why I hold the book until after Christmas. There's a lot of growing that happens in fifth grade.
Students should learn about protests. There's a much longer post in here (that'll probably someday grow into a book chapter) about suffering from what Dewey Finn* called stickittodamanitis, while also being The Man. And this is where I hand it over to Christina Torres, who delves deeper into this idea.
When I first started teaching, my biggest fear was the same as most new teachers: What happens if the kids don't do what I tell them? What if there was mutiny in the classroom? What if they realized there were 25+ of them and only one of me?
I look back at that teacher and can't help but laugh. At the time, I was acting under the same patterns that I had been educated under: teachers are the authority in the room, fiving us knowledge that we held onto as students. For that to happen, it meant we needed to be obedient and attentive.
Now, the face of education has shifted a little. We hear buzzwords about "flipped classrooms" and "student-centered learning." We push on with the notion that giving students the chance to read through the powerpoint or lesson they made is the education of the future.
Don't get me wrong: I think the concept of student-driven learning is, in fact, the future. My concern is if we only look at this at its shallowest level, such as letting kids design the rubric for their paper. That's an important practice, but in fact truly student-centered learning means focusing on the whole of a student, not just their actions in your class.
Furthermore, we know that students are affected by so much more than what they see in our classrooms each day. The way they, their families, and their communities are treated absolutely affects how they perceive their worth in the world. As teachers, we must not forget that the act of educating other was, at times, considered a revolutionary act. To educate the disenfranchised gave them power, which meant that, at its roots, being a teacher inherently means disrupting or questioning some aspect of the social order.
So, what do we do when students realize they may not be getting a fair shake?
What scares us when our students want to discuss things like the demonstrations in Charlotte or Ferguson or on a field filled with football players?
What scares us when our students express interest in taking action themselves?
In many ways, organization and order are needed to help a school run effectively. Having that stability can be an important anchor for many students. It's important to ask ourselves, though, if we are willing to give up the revolutionary act of educating our students for the sake of ease and control. We need to realize that "student-centered" is so much more than a lesson plan; it's a mindset that allows us to make spaces where our students can feel empowered enough to think, analyze, criticize, and even actively disagree with us.
So, here's my question: How do we create schools and policies that allow students to fight injustices, challenge each other, and see their power and potential?
Christina Torres currently teaches 7th and 9th grade English and Drama at University Laboratory School in Honolulu, Hawai‘i. She previously taught in Los Angeles, and worked on Teach For America – Hawai‘i staff. Christina holds a Masters in Education with a focus on Digital Education from Loyola Marymount University, and more info can be found at christinatorres.org.She’s also writes ‘The Intersection,’ a weekly column for EdWeek Teacher.
*SCHOOL OF ROCK is one of the best movies about teaching ever made