A Day in the Classroom

Back in the fall, I had the privilege to spend twelve weeks as a long-term sub for a good friend and former teaching peer while she took her maternity leave. In English II, our students studied culture, exploring their own backgrounds and heritage before reading Robert Lake’s essay, “An Indian Father’s Plea.” It’s not a piece that students love, but it serves as a study of persuasive writing and a segue into some important conversations about cultural conflicts.

Lake, AKA Medicine Grizzlybear and Bobby Lake-Thom, is a member of the Seneca, Karuk, and Cherokee Indian tribes. He is a native healer and university professor who writes his son’s kindergarten teacher a compelling letter about the systemic racism his five-year-old son Wind-Wolf has faced during his short time in public school. The teacher wants to call Lake’s son Wind, insisting that Wolf must be his middle name, and the other students laugh at him. The teacher also labels him a “slow learner,” yet in Wind-Wolf’s home experience he is learning several Indian languages.

Wind Wolf does make a new friend at school, but when he invites the child to his house, the friend’s mother responds, “It is OK if you have to play with him at school, but we don’t allow those kind of people in our house!” Another little white girl who is his friend at school always tells him, “I like you, Wind-Wolf, because you are a good Indian.”

This is a non-fiction piece. Wind-Wolf is five, and he doesn’t want to go to school. His father advocates on his behalf. Sometimes we all need advocates in our corner.

After reading the essay together and jumping through the hoops of the curriculum, I asked students to put their heads on their desks and close their eyes and answer a yes or no question by raising their hands. The question, I borrowed from Ms. Ranmal, my Canadian/South Asian/Muslim/first-year-teacher/friend next door: Does white privilege exist? I tallied the results.

Two of my three sophomore classes were equally divided by race. In those classes, the black and brown students voted yes, and most white students voted no. The students wanted their voices heard, and they went on to have eloquent, civil dialogue to support their opinions based on their own life experiences. My last sophomore class had a white majority. The one-sided conversation fell flat. Instead we watched Bryan Stevenson’s Ted Talk, “We Need to Talk about an Injustice.”

Overall, the student discourse on the topic of race was the best I had witnessed in my twenty years of classroom teaching (Thank you, Ms. Ranmal!), and students left feeling empowered that day. Do I need to say this makes me sad? Sad, not only to hear so many stories of discrimination, but also because of my own missed opportunities to intentionally structure these conversations into lesson plans for the past twenty years. The interchange is imperative from K-12. Our educational system can do better.

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In the days ahead, I’ll be featuring voices other than mine here on the blog. Thank you for listening and learning along with me.

29 thoughts on “A Day in the Classroom

  1. Good teaching moment for sure. If the light on white privilege does not go on for us until we are old and grey, how can we expect young folk to understand? We all need to be reminded of examples to illustrate. Understanding will come slowly. Thanks for sharing Crystal. Allan

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  2. Thank you for sharing this experience, Crystal. We need to find as many ways as we can to insert these kinds of discussions into school classrooms. Bravo. This is exactly what’s needed – among other things!

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    1. Thank you, Jane! This was one of those experiences that became more powerful as time passed. Our school systems are so focused on standardized testing that often lessons on ‘being a good person’ fall to the wayside.

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  3. Hello Crystal, There is a great story coming out of Columbus, Ohio. A seventeen year old mixed race high school senior named Markel Davis, who has wanted to be a policeman since age three, has been cooking one hundred meals a day to feed the police who are working at the protests. He said,”I understand both sides. Not all policeman are bad. This just seems like the right thing to do.” You may be able to find the story on WSYX 6 News Columbus. This story would be one good teaching moment. What a great kid – what a great Mom who backs him up 100%. Have a great day. Thanks for doing your part to solve the problem. Jerry

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  4. I appreciated this post. I really believe that education changes attitudes. I respected my teachers and liked them, but I was a nerdy kid. I think the changed attitude to smoking came out of education, and it is effecting attitudes towards drugs also. Adults need education also. I think I would have liked being a student in your classroom Crystal. – have a great day. – David

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    1. Hello Dave! You just made my day. That’s the best compliment. I’m not teaching at the moment, so I’ve sort of just expanded my classroom through the web and with adults. You would be the student who always says, Goodbye and Thank you! (I really have had wonderful kids through the years.) Thanks for visiting and sharing your point of view. Take care!

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  5. I find it heartening that you posed that question. I can only hope there are many that are also posing that question to young people. Those are questions that once planted evolve the answers through experience. Thank you.

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  6. Hello Crystal, keep your blogs coming, I always am inspired by your thought processes . After teaching for 20 years, my former students are still teaching and amazing me 👏I loved my school kids!!

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  7. Wonderful, insightful learning opportunities. You are right. It’s so important. I am working on bringing more representative voices into my ELA curriculum, as the majority of my students are at-risk and there is a huge disconnect between what they are learning and what they are living. 💕

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  8. Thank you for sharing!!… “The teacher who is indeed wise does not bid you to enter the house of his wisdom but rather leads you to the threshold of your mind.” Kahlil Gibran

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