From Celebration to Participation

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I receive the ASCD Smart Brief newsletter every so often.  Today this article  jumped out at me.  I was drawn to the title:

Are We Creating a Generation of Observers?

This is a good question and although I struggled to understand most of his smaller points, I want to see if I can summarize his message:

We celebrate things like “Black History Month” or “Deaf History Month” in an effort to educate students about our (their) history and hopefully tie it to the present; however, these celebrations often result in a rehashing of the same information each year.  When students hear the same stories every year about Martin Luther King Jr or Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet, they do not draw from it a sense of purpose; they don’t see the relevance.  Why do we celebrate Black History Month? It can’t simply be “lest we forget.”   Is there a way for us to take a celebration and create an experience that allows students to celebrate themselves rather than simply observe the celebration of others?  Can we push students to take history and make history?  Can we convince students to use celebration to bring about true social change?

My students are about to read To Kill a Mockingbird, but first I’m having them research the time period to get a better sense of the setting and themes  in the novel.  Many of my students had not seen or heard of Plessy v. Ferguson or Brown v. Board of Education or they had on a very superficial level (oh that was featured in our textbook or on a poster somewhere).  I was completely shocked by this.  When we began discussing the separation of blacks and whites during that time period, I was struck by how apathetic my students were.  They get that it was hard, they get that life sucked for black people back then, but it wasn’t relevant. They might as well have asked, “What does that have to do with me?”  And they are right, we don’t spend any amount of time answering that question.  We simply expect that they will show respect for a history that has made certain freedoms possible.

That doesn’t mean that the history that students are currently living in isn’t without it’s own obstacles to overcome.  My students are deaf and hard of hearing.  They are constantly being encouraged (and in some cases drilled) to have a sense of “Deaf Pride” and “Deaf Empowerment” but the image they are encouraged to portray is based on a historical definition of what it means to be Deaf.   Our students live in a world where cochlear implants are becoming the norm, more and more hard of hearing students are joining schools for the deaf, students have mixed language abilities that include Sign Language, spoken English, and in some cases a blend of home languages or sign systems (Spanish, SEE, creoles, etc.).  My students also come from a variety of cultures and ethnicities.  Students are unsure of who they are or what labels they want to attach to themselves. Shouldn’t they be the ones to define their own self pride?

I am reminded of when I was in high school.  I grew up around white people with very little exposure to the black community.  I often got picked on about this and was often told that I wasn’t “black” enough.  I was expected to label myself as black, but being bi-racial, I was also white.  I wasn’t allowed to recognize this part of myself, doing so meant I was somehow disrespecting my black side.  However, during black history month, I felt the power of the message more than my friends on both sides of the coin because it hit me that without the struggles fought during the civil rights movement, I would not have been born.  This relevance has made the celebration more valuable, I felt valuable in my light skin and I wanted to make a contribution to society.

Perhaps we should spend more time celebrating our students as they are. I’m not saying give up Black History month or Deaf History month, but instead find ways to make it relevant and purposeful.   While it’s nice that students look back in history and can identify who invented the cotton gin, perhaps it’s more important that we tell students that right here and now YOU matter-right here and now you can make a difference. How else will we build the Martin Luther Kings of the future?

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