Carson came to my class today. Via the wonders of Skype, I was able to bring my dear friend and esteemed colleague over 1,600 hundred miles and across a time zone to come and talk to my kids about the effects of decolonization. My goal was to give them an historical perspective on the destabilizing influences of decolonization in the hopes that they would better understand the memoir we’re reading that recounts the experiences of a child soldier in Sierra Leone.
As usual, it was awesome.
Well, to be more specific, it was awesome for ME. My problem is this; I think that I get FAR more out of Carson’s lectures than the students do, and I feel that this happens with most of the guests I invite into my classes.
Here’s the thing: I try to make sure that I get a lot of different voices in my class, and I try to get other people in to talk to my kids as often as possible. I teach in a ridiculously tiny school. No, really; we have about 80 kids and only 6 full-time teachers. I want to make sure that my kids get exposure to a number of different perspectives and ideas, and I want for them to have the opportunity to hear those things from people other than me.
I go out of my way to invite incredibly smart, articulate, and engaging teachers to speak to my kids. I want them to be sucked into these talks as much as I am, so I make sure to choose people who a) know their shit and b) know how to deliver it. Some of these people are, like Carson and my colleague Tom from the Holocaust Center, teachers by profession. Others, like my friend who grew up in Nazi Germany and speaks about his struggles with identity and forgiveness, are people who speak from their own experiences. Either way, though, these people offer incredible gifts to my students. The problem is that my kids really aren’t in any intellectual position to truly appreciate them.
Take today as an example. I invited Carson to come and talk about how the withdrawal of a colonial government is often an incredibly destabilizing influence in a country. I wanted him to give the kids a more complete picture of the political implications than I could, as most of my experience with colonialism and imperialism have come by way of their influences on a culture’s literature and not on a nation’s government or social or economic systems. My hope was that the students could take this information to help them form a better, clearer picture of the underlying conflict in the background of the memoir we’re reading; the book is written in the perspective of a 12-year-old boy who doesn’t understand why his country is struggling through a civil war, so that information is necessarily absent from the book. I felt that understanding some of the causes of that conflict might help them to better connect with an experience that, thankfully, none of them will likely ever have to contemplate beyond this reading.
Carson did a gorgeous job with the time we were able to share. He gave the kids a lot of really great, easy-to-understand examples of what drives colonialism, and what historically happens when a colonizing power withdraws from a country, and how those effects could be lessened through more careful policy. He was incredibly engaging – sometimes even funny – and he asked all the right questions.
In a room of 18 kids, I saw maybe two or three who had any glimmer of an idea of what was going on. Only three students had anything to say (the same three who always have something to say) and I can say with some pretty solid certainty that none of them had any clue what jingoism means.
This isn’t a big surprise. In fact, it’s something that I’ve been lamenting about since I came to CHS last year; before just this school year, there wasn’t
any a strong focus on raising the academic bar in the school and, as a consequence, the kids have had no reason to go beyond the barest minimum they’ve been expected to do up until now. I’m thrilled that’s changing, and I recognize that it’s going to take some time to get that bar up to a level we’re satisfied with, but sometimes it’s really, really hard to be patient. I want it to happen NOW.
I spoke to one of my colleagues about it this afternoon, and he reminded me that patience is exactly what’s required. “It’s like boiling frogs,” he told me. The idea is to get the kids comfy in the academic “pot” and then gradually turn up the heat such that they’re able to acclimate without too much protest. My friend is, of course, right about this; I’m already meeting huge resistance to the work I’m expecting from my kids (because they’re used to what used to be asked of them, which was the academic equivalent of finger-paint and cookies at snack-time). That he’s right doesn’t diminish the fact that I’M still profoundly dissatisfied with what I can ask – and expect – my kids to do. I feel a sense of urgency that they understand MORE, and understand it BETTER. They miss out on so much of what we have to give them because they’ve not been taught – nor expected – to do any intellectual heavy-lifting. We have so little time with them as it is; to send them out into the world as ill-prepared as they are feels patently unethical to me.
In order for us to do any good, though, we have to keep them in the pot. I’m already concocting plans for turning up the heat, little by little, when we get back from Thanksgiving break. More than a hope, I have a need to see that CHS kids graduate with a far deeper, richer, and more nuanced understanding of their world than they currently have, and I’ll take all the help, advice, and suggestions anyone can give me on how to make it happen.