Why Every American Should Take My High School English Class

In the early hours of of November 9th, 2016, our country started to spin into chaos.  This election was about as close as it could get, and it’s becoming more and more obvious just how polarized we are.  My social media feed blew up with comments full of hate, boasting, fear, name-calling, shaming, intolerance, entitlement, belittling, prejudice, apathy, assumptions, blaming, racism, swearing, stat-skewing, and whining from both my liberal and conservative friends.

I saw few calls for hope, prayer, or understanding.

I teach language arts at a diverse high school in northeast Kansas.  It’s known as the “rich” school in the area, but that’s a bunch of B.S.  It’s true that I have students who live in the most expensive homes in the county, but I also have students who have been evicted from their trailer park home.  In my 13-year career there, I’ve had approximately 2,000 students walk through my door and sit in one of my desks for a 47 minute class period. Among them have been kids who are Jewish, transgender, Muslim, homeless, Mexican, gay, Asian, homophobic, Catholic, immigrants, African American, orphans, Hindu, pregnant, Mormon, atheist, Wiccan, in foster care, National Merit Scholars, and drop-outs.

It’s about as a diverse as my collection of friends on Facebook.

Our school had a mock election on November 7th.  The results:

  • Trump – 44.87%
  • Clinton – 38.95%
  • Johnson – 9.96%
  • Stein – 1.87%

A school divided.

On November 9th, there were students flying Trump flags from their pickup trucks—high-fiving each other before the 8:00 AM bell.  There were others who wore black as a sign of mourning and were in a slump all day.

It was like watching a little microcosm of our nation right before my eyes—millennial style.

In this situation, what do you do with approximately 160 young, impressionable minds who come from all walks of life, who disagree, and don’t understand each other?

We didn’t talk about the election that day—I forbade it.  Instead, I did what I always do—I used the strongest weapon against ignorance.

Literature.

When students have me for a teacher, you can bet they’re going to learn where to place a semicolon, and they sure as hell are going to learn the difference between how and when to use good vs. well {come on, one’s an adjective and one’s an adverb—gah!}.

But literature is the heart and soul of the class.  It’s why English teachers become English teachers.  There isn’t another subject in school more powerful.  We don’t read literature because it’s fun, entertaining, or cute.  It teaches us about life, about others, and about ourselves. Through literature we also learn history, philosophy, and psychology.   And we don’t just read.  We discuss.  We listen.  Socrates believed that one truly gains understanding through dialogue, observations, and questioning.  When a class of 28 diverse students share their perspectives, new light bulbs go off, and the paradigm slightly starts to shift.

So, in my class . . .

We read Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” to learn about the perils of blindly following traditions.  Hmm . . . this is kind of like how it can be dangerous to only cast a party-line vote instead of researching each candidate.

We read Orwell’s Animal Farm and discuss the pros and cons of capitalism and socialism. We also study propaganda so that we are not easily fooled by the media or candidates.

We watch Lisa Gossels’ documentary My So-Called Enemy about six Palestinian and Israeli girls who work through their differences and actually become friends.  Seriously now, if these girls whose families have been taught to hate each other for thousands of years can build a bridge, surely Trump and Clinton supporters can, right?

We read Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Wife’s Story” to make us realize that sometimes we are considered someone else’s enemy, and we don’t even realize it.  We also discuss how it is difficult to empathize with others who are different from ourselves.  So, when those minorities from the cities and the blue-collared rural citizens tell you they’re scared, hurting, or frustrated—they are.  And they have a right to be.  Don’t discredit one just because you can’t relate.

We read excerpts of Reading Lolita in Tehran and Persepolis 2:  The Story of  a Return to understand the oppression women face in the Middle East, which leads us into a discussion on Maslow’s “Hierarchy of Needs.”  Why would someone care about bettering themselves or their community when they have no sense of safety?  Now do you get why people who aren’t like you might be protesting?

We read Romeo and Juliet—not from the perspective that it is the greatest love story of all time {because it’s so not};  we read it to understand the detrimental harm of prejudices, stereotypes, and learned hatred.

We study the life of Gandhi.  We analyze Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech and his “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”  Take note, kids, these men were real leaders who changed the world without violence.  Peaceful protests work, and there is a time/place for civil disobedience.

We then read Robert Kennedy’s eulogy for MLK and soon realize the power of words. Kennedy urged the crowd that night not to riot in response to King’s assassination because that would go against everything he stood for. As a result, Indianapolis was the only major city in America that didn’t.

We study the case of “Texas v. Johnson” from 1989 and the paradoxical idea that our First Amendment rights permits the burning of the American flag.  Is it okay the burn the flag? Do you understand why some people would want to?  Do you understand why it can be offensive to veterans if you do?

We learn through Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird that “Folks are folks.”  Thank you, Scout. You’re like, six, and wiser than all of us.  Through her wisdom we realize that when you take away the labels, we’re all way more alike than different.  We all just want to be heard, feel loved, and be accepted.

We read the poem “Without Title” by Diane Glancy and discuss the difficulty of having your heritage stripped away from you.  Is it okay to impose your “progressive change” on others who don’t agree with you?  Is it okay to require immigrants to adopt our “American ways”?  Do you understand the issue with a certain pipeline right now? 

We read Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 to recognize the dangers of censorship and the manipulation of information.  This isn’t just a creative dystopian sci-fi novel; this is a book that allows us to look into the future of what our world could be if we don’t do something first. Heck, half of the plot has already come true!

Most importantly, we study “The Allegory of the Cave” from Plato’s The Republic.  We all live in a “cave”—some are deeper than others—but it’s essential to get out as far as possible, kids, because knowledge is power.  Travel. Read.  Talk to people who are different than you. Learn everything you possibly can.  Let the “light” hurt your eyes and recognize the shadows around you.  Don’t be comfortable in your ignorance, and don’t be hostile when others point it out to you. And when you get out of the cave, don’t neglect your duty to go back in, and pull the others out, too.

So if it’s of any encouragement to you, please take heart knowing that while it seems the world around us has gone mad, scores of 15 and 16 year olds in my English classes are having deep, life-altering lessons and discussions through the power of the written word. We don’t decide who is right or wrong.  We ask ourselves if we are right or wrong.  We learn how to think, not what to think.  We try to see life from different perspectives, and we try to value other opinions.

It’s not just my class.  I have no doubt my colleagues and other English teachers around the country are doing the same.  I’m not implying that we’re changing the world, but we’re at least attempting a stamp out a bit of ignorance and encourage understanding.

So, to the rest of America, let’s stop acting like we’ve lost our ever-loving minds.  Let’s not preach fear, name-calling, or bigotry. Pause. Breathe.  Shut out all the media and dig into an eye-opening book instead that’s going to challenge you—then talk to your family about it around the Thanksgiving table.

Oh, and if you’d like to join in on one of my classes, I have a few open desks.

 

Love,

Screenshot 2015-07-26 at 11.57.14 PM

“You should never read just for ‘enjoyment.’ Read to make yourself smarter! Less judgmental. More apt to understand your friends’ insane behavior, or better yet, your own. Pick ‘hard books.’ Ones you have to concentrate on while reading. And for god’s sake, don’t let me ever hear you say, ‘I can’t read fiction. I only have time for the truth.’ Fiction is the truth, fool! Ever hear of ‘literature’? That means fiction, too, stupid.”
― John Waters, Role Models

“When I look back, I am so impressed again with the life-giving power of literature. If I were a young person today, trying to gain a sense of myself in the world, I would do that again by reading, just as I did when I was young.”
― Maya Angelou

“The books transported her into new worlds and introduced her to amazing people who lived exciting lives. She went on olden-day sailing ships with Joseph Conrad. She went to Africa with Ernest Hemingway and to India with Rudyard Kipling. She traveled all over the world while sitting in her little room in an English village.”
― Roald Dahl, Matilda

 

 

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