Part 1: Last Year
I teach middle school and junior high English, and I am fortunate enough to be able to create my own curriculum. I try to focus on what students will need in the future, and that includes a look at diverse perspectives.
Last semester (fall 2021), I taught The Lemon Tree: Young Readers’ Edition by Sandy Tolan, and it was an eye-opening experience for me and my 8th graders. If you haven’t read it, I can’t recommend it enough, both for teens and adults. The nonfiction book tells the story of a female Israeli Jew and male Palestinian Arab who meet as young adults in the 1960s and the difficulties of their friendship. It looks at the Six-Day War, as well as the SuperSol bombing and other attacks, through a human lens from both perspectives. It’s not an easy read and will stay with you long after you put it down.
Students read the book over four weeks, and we spent roughly 90 minutes of class each week discussing it. They were especially horrified by the use of torture by Israeli officials, and many times I had to remind them that there is a difference between the actions of a country’s government and its citizens. They were unable to fathom how people could deny the Holocaust happened; in fact, before it was addressed in the book, none of them were aware that was even a theory. When we discussed the discrimination by Jews of different Jewish groups (e.g. Ashkenazi, Mizrahi, Ethiopian, Sephardi, etc.), they were in disbelief. They had a fairly shallow idea of racism and a rudimentary understanding of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. They left the semester with a very different perspective.
Those students all lived in America, and only 30% of students identified as people of color, although some clearly had deep connections to their parents’ home countries. The White students had mostly considered racism as White vs Black; my non-White students primarily saw it was White vs non-White in general. Both groups had a very American view of the world. To learn about within-group racism and international xenophobia opened their eyes to new categories of hate.
I worried that I was doing more harm than good. Adults–in any capacity–have the responsibility to protect the innocence of the next generation. These teenagers are already living through a pandemic, climate catastrophe, and rising levels of hate speech. Is it really necessary for them to be aware of even deeper levels of religious, ethnic, and national discrimination? Perhaps more importantly, was I creating students who would hate Jews or Muslims simply based on the terrible actions of two nations?
Every discussion was difficult, but honest. Every chapter made them think and see the world differently. Despite every student saying “This isn’t a book I would have read on my own,” months later, they continue to compare it to other things we’re reading. “This reminds me of the part of The Lemon Tree when…”
As difficult, and sometimes careful, as those discussions were, that is my goal–my responsibility–as a teacher. I must help kids read the books they wouldn’t read, teach a curriculum that will continue to impact them months (hopefully years) later, and guide them in making the connections that are always around them. It is my duty to introduce them to non-American, non-White perspectives.
Creating the curriculum for the second semester (spring 2022), I spent hours trying to find the perfect combination of texts that would encourage those new perspectives and tough discussions. Overall, I think I did fairly well, but it’s already created challenges I didn’t foresee.
Part 2: This Year: “I Have a Dream”
This semester, roughly 30% of my 8th grade students identify as people of color, and 100% are American, just like last semester. (For the record, my classes typically average 45% and 90%, respectively.) At times, this does affect their responses in discussions.
We started the semester reading a historical fiction book by a White American woman that gave me the opportunity to introduce information about the Civil Rights Movement. When we started the book, I asked students what events they knew from 1963. A couple of them knew about the assassination of President Kennedy, and one mentioned the Vietnam War. (If you didn’t catch that, America hadn’t actually sent troops to Vietnam, yet.) A student of color mentioned the Civil Rights Movement, but no one could specifically think of the March on Washington or Birmingham demonstrations.
When we began learning literary devices, I used eight lines from King’s “I Have a Dream” speech to teach extended metaphor. Here is the passage I used:
In a sense we have come to our Nation’s Capital to cash a check. When the architects of our great republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir.
This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the ‘inalienable rights’ of ‘life liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given its colored people a bad check, a check that has come back marked “insufficient funds.”
But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. So we have come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and security of justice.
Ask any middle school or high school English teacher; this is one of the best examples for teaching extended metaphor. I was feeling proud of myself for thinking of it, but that pride didn’t last long.
The first day, I taught the first four lines, thinking that would be easier, and maybe it was. Yet, there were challenges that, when the class was over, made me put my head on my desk.
On the positive side, everyone knew who Martin Luther King, Jr. was, and everyone knew the “I Have a Dream” speech existed. Because we had briefly talked about the Civil Rights Movement, they remembered that the March on Washington was an event in 1963.
I was more than a little surprised when I realized most students didn’t know what a “check” was. Thanks to debit cards, credit cards, and bank transfers, not only does this generation not need to write checks, they don’t even see anyone else write them. A couple of students had received checks from their grandparents or older relatives, but that was it. So before they could understand the metaphor, I had to explain the following words/phrases: check, promissory note, bad check, insufficient funds, upon demand, and cash a check. Most of them also didn’t know what an “heir” was.
Not knowing what a check is should not be a judgment on teenagers. For those of us who can remember writing checks every time we wanted to buy groceries, the debit card was a welcome technological advancement, and not having to write checks and lick envelopes (and stamps!) to pay bills is wonderful. Thus, spending 10 minutes explaining the financial system of previous generations is amusing, not deflating.
Many students didn’t know the U.S. was a republic (which happens often) and confused the Declaration of Independence and Constitution. Additionally, King uses the word “men,” and I had to address that this speech was about all people, all Americans, not only Black and White males. Furthermore, the word “citizens” complicated things. Do immigrants not deserve these same rights? Do the families of my immigrant students matter less than those born in the States?
When we arrived at “the bank of justice” and “vault of opportunity,” I ran into new obstacles. There was a momentary question about whether the bank is literal or figurative, but they caught onto these terms fairly quickly, but not for the reason I thought.
How many times have we heard that America is “the land of opportunity”? Apparently not as often as I thought because students seemed surprised by that notion, and that took me aback perhaps more than any other aspect of this lesson.
I don’t know the political beliefs of most of my students’ families, and I’m fine with that. My current refugee and immigrant kids are pro-immigration, and I know there’s an occasional anti-vaxxer family. I was more aware of some of the strongest opinions during the 2020 election, but now most beliefs are a mystery. But for kids to have never heard that America is “the land of opportunity”? I didn’t know what to think.
My head went to a dark place, unfortunately. Was I about to unearth anti-immigration bigotry that I would have to address? Were many of my students so privileged that they had never had to consider that access to opportunities was limited? Or was this simply a “check” situation in which they’d never been exposed to that language?
I hoped for the third option, but when the lesson was over, I was leaning toward the second. Some students seemed genuinely surprised that the opportunities available to Black men in the 1960s–and people of color today–were fewer than their White counterparts. It wasn’t hate-filled ignorance; it was simply a lack of consideration.
Then a student said, “This reminds me of The Lemon Tree when…” and I smiled a little. Okay, I reminded myself, you accomplished your goal today.
Part 3: This Year: Nelson Mandela
Currently, we’re analyzing Nelson Mandela’s Inaugural Address. We’ve barely started, so I’m not sure what types of challenges I’ll face, but I’ve already stumbled onto one: Students didn’t know who he was.
They might have known his name, and by a slimmer margin, they might have known that he was president of South Africa. No one knew more than that.
“He wasn’t a president of South Africa,” I told them. “He was the first Black president of a country that was and is primarily Black.” They seemed to absorb that a little.
“And he won the election with 62.6% of the popular vote, more than 12 million votes.” I could tell they were relatively unimpressed. “By comparison, FDR won the 1936 election with 60.8% of the vote, and he was wildly popular, one of the most popular American presidents ever. And Mandela wasn’t running against just one other person.” That seemed to get their attention.
Ultimately, that was the technique I used repeatedly; to help students understand, I had to compare Mandela–a hero who won the Nobel Peace Prize–to Americans. “He and King were both fantastic orators,” I said at one point, and while I’m glad I was able to connect my lesson material, I feel a little sad that I had to explain that at all.
The speech reportedly had one billion global viewers, which means that approximately 18% of the world watched a wrongly-convicted Black man promise progress and hope, and 28 years later, my students not only haven’t heard of him, they struggle to identify with him.
“How would opening the first Black law practice and constantly defending Black people, most of whom are charged with crimes that shouldn’t exist, affect him and his speech?” I asked them. “How would serving 27 years in prison–after giving his 'I Am Prepared to Die' speech–and experiencing the prison system affect his speech? How would knowing that your speech is going to be seen by your enemies, of whom there are plenty, as well as your allies affect your writing?”
There were long pauses between these questions, and I often rephrased, trying to find a way for them to connect the difficulties of apartheid with the difficulties of America in the 1960s and the world today. Ultimately, we spent the better part of an hour on these topics, and most students were able to address at least some of them.
And again, I struggle with how much to tell them. I’m teaching the middle grade version of apartheid in an effort to shield them from the true horrors, and I’m wondering if I’m doing them a service or an injustice. We’ll be analyzing the speech for three weeks, so I have time to battle those questions with myself and try to find a line.
Part 4: This Year: Black Americans and Indigenous Peoples
I’ll teach poetry next, and I included mainly classics, in an effort to help them prepare for high school. Nevertheless, Langston Hughes’ “Dreams” and Amanda Gorman’s “United We Win” poems made the list, and I’m looking forward to teaching them.
However, I knew Gorman was a risk, and I avoided “The Hill We Climb” for two reasons: 1) It would have been hard to keep the attention of teenagers for that long, and 2) I didn’t want to wade into politics. The poem she wrote for United Way is about unity and giving back, and that’s the message I want to instill most.
It’s the final text they will read that I know will be this semester’s Lemon Tree. They’re reading What the Eagle Sees: Indigenous Stories of Rebellion and Renewal by Eldon Yellowhorn and Kathy Lowlinger. It’s rated for students as young as sixth grade, but I’m unlikely to teach it to that group because it is such an emotionally taxing read.
The nonfiction book looks at the struggles of Indigenous Peoples in North America, primarily in what is now the United States and Canada. Throughout the book are “imagine” boxes that attempt, in only a few sentences, to put the reader in the mindset of an Indigenous person during a particularly terrible moment in history. Scenes of watching your friends die on a cramped slave ship and surviving a slaughter by White invaders were particularly memorable for me, and they will be for my students, too.
The book shatters the rose-colored story of Pocahontas that students are likely to know from the Disney movie, gives detailed descriptions of some lesser-known battles, and even touches on the Sixties Scoop, which is a different kind of terrible. Without using the word “genocide,” that is exactly the picture it paints, and obviously for good reason.
In this book, George Washington and Andrew Jackson are true villains; I know this will be a different side of history than what my American students have ever heard, and assimilating that information is going to be difficult. Will this forever change their perspective of America’s founding? Almost certainly. In high school, when they’re taking civics and American history, and Washington is presented as a hero, will one of them say, “Actually…”? Maybe.
I read the book during winter break, sometimes in public. I watched (probably) White people stare at the cover and debate whether to ask anything. I put it in my lap and rubbed my hands over my face when it became particularly difficult to bear. I read pieces of it to a White American friend and listened to them rant about how awful White invaders were and White Americans are.
And without realizing it, they were confirming one of my worst fears: Am I still teaching hate? Because, honestly, there is no way to read that book and not genuinely hate the actions of White people in the past and in the present. And, obviously, replacing one hate with another is exactly the opposite of what I want. But hating the actions of a group and hating the people of a group are not the same thing, as we discussed last semester.
Last week, I read the final paragraph of Mandela’s “I Am Prepared to Die” speech to my students.
During my lifetime I have dedicated my life to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons will live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal for which I hope to live for and to see realised. But, My Lord, if it needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.
I emphasized that Mandela never wanted Black Africans to be superior; he only wanted equality among all people in his country. We should all want the same.
In addition to questioning how to teach the book without furthering racism, I am at war with myself about whether to share my own heritage with students. My light skin allowed me to sidestep that conversation during The Lemon Tree, and it would allow me to avoid it again with What the Eagle Sees. It’s not that I am ashamed of any part of my mixed heritage, but my background shouldn’t be a factor in how students comprehend or respond to texts that are important and can stand on their own merits. Should it?
For their assignment to go with the book, students are writing a research paper on a historical event–any historical event–from two perspectives. Arguably, it would be easiest to choose an event between Indigenous Peoples in North America and White invaders that is mentioned in the book. For my students from last semester, I expect the Six-Day War will be chosen at least once. I also suggested the American space program during the 1960s, “discoveries” of new lands, and civil rights movements, among others. However, there are no limits. If students want to show World War II from the perspectives of Germany and France, that’s equally okay. The goal is for them to see the world through multiple viewpoints and to appreciate that no action is one-dimensional.
Last semester, while we were reading about the Palestinian exodus in The Lemon Tree, one student (of color) said, “This reminds me of the Trail of Tears.” I was thrilled that she made that connection; it absolutely exists. However, I don’t think any other student knew the reference. I explained it, and reminded myself that we would certainly come back to it the following semester.
There is no way to read What the Eagle Sees and not have students say, “This reminds me of The Lemon Tree.” In fact, students receive bonus credit if they write a paper comparing the two books. In addition to their screaming similarities, there is one comparison that should not be overlooked: Both books stay with the reader, perhaps forever.
Part 5: My Role
I feel very honored to be able to design the curriculum I teach, and I feel an enormous responsibility with the choices I make. Right now, I’m considering a ninth grade curriculum and debating replacing standard Romeo and Juliet with A Raisin in the Sun, and I’m genuinely conflicted.
I know parents want their kids to read Shakespeare; it’s a rite of passage in high school. But what can I teach with Romeo and Juliet? What’s the moral, the lesson that they’ll apply to their adult lives and choices?
Teaching A Raisin in the Sun lets me discuss the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and lets them read a work by Lorraine Hansberry, the first Black American female author to have a play performed on Broadway. I can teach about the predatory contract for deed agreements that left optimistic Black Americans homeless or displaced in the 1900s and the legacy that created. I can discuss the changes the USDA is making in an effort to apologize for terrible blunders to BIPOC landowners even after laws were created to limit discrimination. Perhaps most importantly, I can teach about systemic racism and its effect on people of color and general society. Isn’t that a better lesson than two kids committing suicide because their (White) families didn't like one another?
Here’s another example: I love the poem “The Fight” by John Montague, and I know I could apply it to a larger context. But John Montague is a dead Irish male poet. If I only have time to teach a few poems, should his poem supersede one by Joy Harjo (Indigenous American) or Momtaza Mehri (Somali British)? Montague’s poem is in the Pre-AP English I book, so maybe my college-prep students will need to know it more, but is that enough of a reason to pass up authors who call attention to discrimination, racial apathy, and poverty? I would argue students need those lessons significantly more, regardless of their future academic or career goals.
I know that it’s my responsibility to prepare students for elite high schools and colleges. I know that some of my students have high dreams like being a Supreme Court Justice or earning a Nobel Prize in physics. I want to encourage those dreams and give them the tools to pursue even the loftiest goals. If a student tracks me down in 20 years to tell me they just earned their doctorate or found a cure for cancer, of course I’d be proud and honored.
But more than that, I want a student who reaches out to me in 20 years and tells me that they still think about The Lemon Tree, and that the books I taught made them see the world differently. I want to hear from the student who, regardless of career or academic achievement, has become a compassionate, empathetic advocate for their neighbors. I want them to put forth kindness but still say “Actually…” when someone says something ignorant. I want them to be accepting and to see the world through perspectives opposite of their own.
I want them to see the other side.
Creating that student is my role as an educator. That’s what I’ll be doing this year to foster kindness and inclusivity, and it’s what I’ll be doing as long as I continue to teach.
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