This morning I had a frustrating discussion with a student from another class (whom I know from teaching in our after-school program).
Let me preface by saying that from June to September of this year, my department wrote a new short story unit of study. Although the goal of the unit was to introduce close reading strategies and routines for independent reading, we carefully chose stories based on our overarching theme of justice, injustice, and oppression, and we paired each story with a corresponding nonfiction current events article. For example, Joan Bauer’s “The Truth About Sharks,” about a teenager wrongfully accused of shoplifting, was paired with an article about wrongfully accused convicts and the compensation they receive (or don’t receive). Langston Hughes’ story “Passing” was paired with an article about Rachel Dolezal and discussions ensued about how the time period of each caused main character Jack and Dolezal make the choices they made. It’s a pretty challenging and engaging unit that I’m proud of and that most students have really been enjoying – and that’s saying a lot because middle school students don’t often express their pleasure in what they’re learning.
So this morning, when this student came to tell me that we should consider reading things that are less dated, I was shocked. When I asked what he meant his reply was…interesting. One direct quote: “You mean to tell me, that in the whole big, gay United States, that gay people are oppressed? When they can get married now?” He felt the same way about black people. Racism? It just doesn’t really exist anymore. I did try to explain that he is lucky that he lives in a very diverse section of New York City where he doesn’t directly see acts of injustice against minorities on a regular basis, but that they do exist. His arguing was relentless. I literally had to pull up news articles to show him that, yes, gay and transgender people are bullied and murdered, black people are killed and oppressed, etc. “Yes,” he said, “but out of how many people? That’s not really a lot of people then, is it?” His basic argument was that we know all this stuff already, so why do we have to learn about it. “School is supposed to further our knowledge,” he said as if I wasn’t doing my job.
At first, I felt super combative. “So what you’re saying is that you should never read anything you know something about?” I asked. And, “So it’s okay for transgender people to be killed as long as it’s a small percentage?” And, “It’s going to be your job as you grow to educate people who don’t know as much as you do.” I realized I was wasting my breath because he just kept saying that we know about gay people and black people, and I switched the focus, explaining that his job was to become a better reader, and the strategies he was learning were going to help him do that. That regardless of whether or not he agreed with the content, the goal of the unit was to teach him close reading skills of fiction and nonfiction so that he could apply those skills to help him understand difficult texts.
He said okay, but that he still didn’t think we should be “reading about things we already know.” I sent him back to homeroom because the bell was going to ring. I spent a good part of the morning trying to figure out if his argument was really about familiarity with these topics or about feeling uncomfortable with them. Should I have pursued the argument further? I don’t know if it would have made a difference, and I had a class of 30 waiting for me. How can we convince students like this that there’s a greater world out there, and we’re part of it. That we can’t ignore what’s going on just because we don’t see it or it doesn’t affect us directly? I’m surprised that with all the access we have to media, some kids are still living in a bubble. It worries me.