I sat yesterday after school watching the news, Twitter and my email, mortified by the actions unfolding in our nation’s capital (and across the nation), as Trump supporters arrived in D.C. to protest certification of the electoral votes, and later stormed the halls of Congress. Unlike many, I am not in disbelief. Under the current administration, I definitely can believe it is happening.
As a social studies teacher who has been reflecting on history and thinking about the events of the last year, I feared this was coming. Like so many others, I have been carefully watching, reading, listening and evaluating the media that I have seen in the last months. I have been critically analyzing it and comparing it to other time periods in history. Most importantly, I have asked my students to do the same. That has not come without a price at times. You see, in my profession it is more common than people realize to hear parents accuse teachers of “telling students what to think.” That is not happening on my watch, but there are things I absolutely will tell my students without hesitation.
Critically analyze everything you see and hear and step back and pause before you decide to leave your own digital footprint online.
Analyzing media should absolutely be a mandated lesson in all classes just like the citation of a source—and it’s our job to help them figure out how to critically evaluate a source. Let’s be frank, it is even more critical as of late. Our students are constantly online, bombarded by various bite size pieces of media throughout their day in a remote learning session or on social media.
Kids are already thinking about what they see and hear. Let's give them the tools to do this correctly so that they can be intelligent consumers and producers of media. Let’s teach them the lasting impact of their words and actions, both in person and in the digital space. In this way, they can share their thoughts and ideas in a way that is respectful, powerful and appropriate. Let’s teach them to have the courage to seek, as one colleague so aptly stated, “truthful and objective reporting instead of falling to the plague of lies and disinformation.”
Freedom of speech is allowed under our Constitution, but unlawful acts are not.
Our Constitution guarantees our citizens the right to free speech and the right to express their opinions. But if they are inciting violence and promoting acts of violence that put the safety of others in harm's way, then they are not protected.
Plain and simple, our students need to understand that words and actions have distinct consequences. The events of the past year have shown this time and time again. Unfortunately, many of the citizens and leaders in the United States have had little respect for our legislative system, including many of those who are elected. Words have been used to spread hate, and are not a reflection of the founding ideals that established this country or our Constitution.
We need to continue to teach our students to read and write effectively. They need to learn to communicate their ideas in ways that are powerful and direct, but respectful of the dignity of others. Let’s teach them how to advocate for their ideas effectively and have the courage to lawfully stand up for what they believe using the freedoms guaranteed under our Bill of Rights.
We must continue to teach and learn the whole story, and understand that all of us have a role in changing how our history is interpreted and shared.
Could there be a more meaningful lesson? Probably not. As an educator, make a commitment to your content area, regardless of subject, to continue to bring diverse voices to your units of study and include the important places, events, landmark moments, and people—especially those whose voices have been previously suppressed.
Recognize the importance of all voices being heard in a lesson and discussion, while also recognizing that many viewpoints are missing.
Challenge students to identify the stories that are not present in the common narrative, and then empower them to use inquiry to find the stories themselves, expanding their lens in the subject they are learning about.
Create lessons that illuminate the stories and voices that are not traditionally in a textbook, literature collections or stories shared in learning.
Don’t just say you will later. Do it now.
Be the change, now not later, because democracy truly starts with us.
In the changing narrative in our country, one that has been both positive and hurtful, we have to teach our students to actually be the positive change that will carry our democracy forward. How do we do this? We teach our students to understand our Constitution, and what it does for our country.
Encourage students to understand their rights, and use them to advocate for a peaceful, hardworking republic—a nation of citizens who do not always agree, but who work together for a solution.
Understand that privilege exists and cannot be ignored. Many in their community have either more or less than others, and so many are not granted the rights or opportunities that others may take for granted.
Give them opportunities to advocate for positive change, chances to participate in the democratic process even before they can vote, and teach them that—regardless of age—they must have the courage to speak up because their voices matter.
Today, as we look forward to the peaceful transition of power in our country in a tumultuous time, we must all work toward a vision of a better country—one in which all citizens are truly equal, oppression and hate do not exist and together we all work to make the world a better place. This takes courage, and courage can and should have a place in our classrooms.
Michelle Pearson is the 2011 Colorado State Teacher of the Year and a member of the National Network of State Teachers of the Year. She is is a middle school social studies teacher in the Adams 12 Five Star School District in Thornton, Colorado, where she has been teaching for 25 years.