Over the summer I came across two tweets in the wake of the Charlottesville tragedy that caused me to stop and immediately reflect. This was during a time where again the top of headline news was injustice. The tweets pictured below felt true, sincere, and were a call for action.
Personally, I have been struggling with silence. More specifically, with battling my own perceptions of who is silent around issues of injustice and who is not. I have been struggling with jealousy of people who could choose to be silent and their day not be affected. Because for me, silence has been the cause of deep pain.
So when I read these tweets and others like them, I knew I did not want a classroom community where silence was the status quo. I did not want children who live in the same world as I do, hear the same headlines, and live the same truth as I do to feel silence from me. Most importantly, I didn’t want children in my classroom to feel the sting that silence can bring.
I made a promise to myself and the community of learners that would soon walk into my classroom that I would not be silent. Rather I would be a careful listener and a patient facilitator ready to slow down and welcome critical conversations as they arise.
Well it wasn’t long before I had to make good on my promise. The second day of school while reading, Rulers of the Playground by Joseph Kuefler, a student raised their hand and states, “Mrs. Burkins, the author said ‘he’ and called him a ‘king’ and that character is a girl it should be ‘she’ and ‘queen’.” This comment sparked a lively conversation on gender stereotypes and gender qualifiers that didn’t end with students agreeing. Students made comments back and forth suggesting what girls and boys can do, should wear, and be like. Students dissected the character’s names and tried to make claims around what constituted as “girl” names and “boy” names. At the tender age of 7 these children had strong ideas
around gender and the role gender plays in their lives. In this conversation my role was that of a careful listener and patient facilitator ready to help guide the conversation with questions like these: What make you say that? Who gets to decide what “girls” and “boys” can wear? What in the illustration and words made you feel this?
The very next day while reading Jabari Jumps by Gaia Cornwell, the opportunity to discuss presented itself again. As I turned to the second page of the story a student states, “Mrs. Burkins, he has black skin like you.” There was an immediate feeling in the room that I couldn’t read. I just knew it felt different than when we started the book. During the pause another student said, “She doesn’t have black skin her skin is brown…see!” “No”, the student replied, “her skin is black she has black skin”.
I then waited. The conversation continued. More students joined with their ideas and feelings. Most students seemed to struggle with what they wanted to say. I asked, “What does it mean to have black skin?” Then one student said, “look at this shirt…it is black. Her skin does not look like this.” I walked next to the shirt and the conversation shifted. I then asked what they noticed? As the conversation continued students started to talk about skin being brown but then asked why people say “black people” when no one has “black” skin? We left the conversation with that question and decided to think about it. One student even suggested maybe we could read about it. Which we will do.
In both instances the conversations didn’t end with the issue solved and wrapped up. They ended inviting more room for continuous thinking about the issues and wonders we are all having as we hear and see things in our world. I’m not sure where our journey will take us but I am committed to constant reflection, allowing space and time for conversations, and supporting the conversations through critical questions.
My roles in these conversations are that of a careful listener and patient facilitator ready with questions that help guide thinking. I don’t take a silent stance but rather a stance that invites healthy reflective conversations around issues that matter to the group. My hope is that our budding classroom community feels welcome to have conversations that are pressing on their minds and it’s a normal part of the way we live as a community to slow down and have them. There are many ways not to be silent. What does not being silent mean to you and the community of learners around you?