First Person

Finding the four children of the Passover haggadah in my classroom

One of my favorite parts of the Passover seder has always been the discussion of the Four Children. The traditional seder discusses four children — The Wise Son, The Wicked Son, The Simple One, and The One Who Doesn’t Know How to Ask. Each of these sons has his own question, and the haggadah explains the appropriate response for each one. Since entering the classroom, I’ve had my own thoughts about each of these children, and their manifestations in my own classroom.

The Wise Son asks, “What are the laws and statutes by which to fulfill the commandments of Passover?” This son is exalted, because he seeks to learn more about the rituals of Passover. Furthermore, this question is considered wise, because it shows understanding of the story of Passover and seeks deeper meaning from the seder.

A wise child in the classroom hopefully offers the same sort of questioning for the teacher. A wise child is not content with the cursory understanding of a topic or a strategy, but asks for more information. While too many children are willing to absorb knowledge passively without further elucidation, a wise child asks for more.

More often in my classroom, however, it has been the “wicked” child who challenges me as a teacher. The response to The Wicked Son’s question, “What does this ritual mean to you?” has always bothered me. The haggadah instructs us to “set his teeth on edge.” Had this child been alive during the time of the exodus, the haggadah explains, he would not have been redeemed. Harsh.

The haggadah’s interpretation that this child has excluded himself from the community and rejects the tradition of Passover only partially explains the reaction to The Wicked Son’s question.

I know the frustration and anger all too well of a child who scoffs at the rules and routines of the classroom community I’ve created. However, a child who refuses to include himself or herself in a classroom community is also one of the sadder experiences I’ve felt. Is a violent rebuke really the best response?

I’ve also felt that this child’s questioning is also equally valuable as the wise child’s. What does this mean to you? Whether it’s the story of the exodus, or reading, writing and math strategies in a classroom, we all should feel obligated to understand and explain our own connection to a community. This isn’t to absolve the Wicked Son of his disrespect, but all rituals, whether religious or pedagogical, are ultimately strengthened when they are challenged and questioned.

The third child, the Simple Son, is perhaps the most prevalent in the high-needs classroom. But while the Simple Son of the haggadah is implied to be too young for rebellion or wisdom, the “simple” children of our classrooms are not the youngest. Rather, these students populate our classrooms because of a number of factors that yield huge gaps in reading, writing and mathematical skills.

When presented with tasks that require higher-order thinking, their response echoes that of the simple child, “What is the meaning of all this?” These children require more than the equivalent of the haggadah’s instruction to explain the core meaning of Passover. We as teachers are challenged to create scaffolds and tiered lessons that allow these children to engage in critical thinking consistently until they too are challenging us in the same ways as the wicked and wise children.

Finally, we have the children who do not know how to ask. These are the children in our classrooms who suffer most needlessly. Without the means to attract attention via rebellion like the wicked child, or loquaciousness like the wise child, these children fall through the cracks. Too often, the quietness of these children is lauded as good behavior. They may be partly or completely lost, but they’re scared or unable to verbalize this confusion. As a result they become practically invisible.

The essential challenge of a teacher is to recognize and help all of these children learn in the classroom. The haggadah offers some ideas for how each child demands a different response, but the reality of our classrooms is very different than that of a Passover seder. There are no one-sentence answers for these children. Rather, our classrooms require a sophisticated, diligent approach that makes all children feel welcome and able to learn. I’m not sure it’s possible to create a classroom that erases these sorts of differences in one year, but I’m reminded of the words of another figure from the seder, Rabbi Hillel, who said, “You are not obligated to complete the task, but nor are you free to desist from it.”

First Person

To close out teacher appreciation week, meet the educators whose voices help shape the education conversation

From designing puzzles to get kids fired up about French to being christened “school mama” by students, teachers go above and beyond to make a difference. Chalkbeat is honored to celebrate Teacher Appreciation week with stories of the innovation, determination, and patience it takes to teach.  
Check out a few of the educator perspectives below and submit your own here.

  1. First Person: When talking about race in classrooms, disagreement is OK — hatred is not by David McGuire, principal at Tindley Accelerated Schools and previously a teacher in Pike Township. McGuire is also a co-founder of a group called Educate ME.  
  2. First Person: What my Bronx students think about passing through scanners at school by Christine Montera, a teacher at East Bronx Academy for the Future in the Bronx. She is also a member of Educators 4 Excellence-New York.  
  3. First Person: What 100 ninth graders told me about why they don’t read by Jarred Amato, High School English teacher and founder of ProjectLITCommunity.
  4. This fourth-grade teacher doesn’t take away recess or use points to manage the class. Instead she’s built a culture of respect by Liz Fitzgerald, a fourth-grade teacher at Sagebrush Elementary and Colorado Teaching Policy fellow.
  5. First Person: Why I decided to come out to my second-grade students by Michael Patrick a second grade teacher at AF North Brooklyn Prep Elementary.
  6. Meet the teacher who helped organize the Women’s March on Denver, a profile of Cheetah McClellan, Lead Math Fellow at Denver Public Schools.
  7. First Person: At my school, we let students group themselves by race to talk about race — and it works, by Dave Mortimer, and educator at Bank Street School for Children.
  8. What Trump’s inauguration means for one undocumented Nashville student-turned-teacher a profile of Carlos Ruiz, a Spanish teacher at STRIVE Prep Excel and Teach for America fellow.
  9. First Person: ‘I was the kid who didn’t speak English’ by Mariangely Solis Cervera, the founding Spanish teacher at Achievement First East Brooklyn High School.
  10. First Person: Why recruiting more men of color isn’t enough to solve our teacher diversity problem by Beau Lancaster, a student advocate at the Harlem Children’s Zone and  Global Kids trainer teaching, writing, and developing a civic engagement and emotional development curriculum.
  11. Sign of the times: Teacher whose classroom-door sign went viral explains his message a profile of Eric Eisenstad, physics and biology teacher at Manhattan Hunter Science High School.
  12. First Person: How teachers should navigate the classroom debate during a polarizing election year  by Kent Willmann, an instructor at the University of Colorado Boulder School of Education. He previously taught high school social studies in Longmont for 32 years.
  13. First Person: I teach students of color, and I see fear every day. Our job now is to model bravery by Rousseau Mieze, a history teacher at Achievement First Bushwick charter middle school.
  14. Pumpkin pie with a side of exhaustion: Why late fall is such a tough time to be a teacher by Amanda Gonzales, a high school special education teacher in Commerce City, Colorado.
  15. This teacher was a ‘class terrorist’ as a child. Now he uses that to understand his students by Andrew Pillow a technology and social issues teacher at KIPP Indy College Prep Middle.
  16. What this teacher learned when her discipline system went awry — for all the right reasons by Trilce Marquez, a fourth-grade teacher at P.S. 11 in Chelsea.
  17. Here’s what one Tennessee teacher will be listening for in Haslam’s State of the State address by Erin Glenn, a U.S. history teacher at East Lake Academy of Fine Arts and Tennessee Educator Fellow with the State Collaborative on Reforming Education.
  18. An earth science teacher talks about the lesson that’s a point of pride — and pain a profile of Cheryl Mosier, a science teacher at Columbine High School.
  19. A national teacher of the year on her most radical teaching practice: trusting kids to handle their bathroom business by Shanna Peeples, secondary English language arts curriculum specialist for Amarillo ISD.
  20. How this teacher went from so nervous her “voice was cracking” to a policy advocate by Jean Russell, a literacy coach at Haverhill Elementary School,  2016 Indiana Teacher of the Year and TeachPlus statewide policy fellow.

First Person

I’m a black man raised on the mistaken idea that education could keep me safe. Here’s what I teach my students in the age of Jordan Edwards

The author, Fredrick Scott Salyers.

This piece is presented in partnership with The Marshall Project

I worry a lot about the students in the high school where I teach. One, in particular, is bright but struggles in class. He rarely ever smiles and he acts out, going so far recently as to threaten another teacher. As a black, male teacher — one of too few in the profession — I feel especially compelled to help this young black man reach his potential. Part of that work is teaching him the dangers that might exist for him, including the police.

The killing of Texas teenager Jordan Edwards proves, though, that it’s not just black boys with behavior issues who are in danger. Jordan — a high school freshman, star athlete and honor student — was shot dead by a police officer last month while leaving a house party. As he rode away from the party in a car driven by his older brother, officers who’d been called to the scene fired multiple rifle rounds at the car. One bullet went through the passenger window, striking Jordan in the head. Murder charges have since been filed against the officer who fired the fatal shot.

It’s a near impossible task to educate black children in a society that constantly interrupts that work with such violence. Still, it’s incumbent on educators like me to guide our students through the moment we’re living in — even when we can’t answer all their questions, and even if we’re sometimes confused ourselves.

I began teaching in 2014, the year the police killings of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and Tamir Rice dominated headlines. The tragedies have piled on, a new one seeming to occur every month since I first stepped into a classroom. I currently teach ninth-graders at a predominantly black charter school in Brooklyn, and I often find myself struggling to make sense of the events for my students.

I’ve shown them clips from popular films like “Selma” and “Fruitvale Station” and prepared lessons on the civil rights movement, and I’ve done my best to ground it all in the subjects I was hired to teach — American history, composition, and college readiness. My hope is that these films will encourage my students to connect today’s police violence to our nation’s history of racial injustice. And, because there are no easy answers, they’ll simply be encouraged by the perseverance of those who came before them.

I can’t help but worry I’m sending them mixed messages, however, teaching them lessons on resistance while also policing their conduct day to day. As an administrator and one of few black male teachers in my school, I’m often charged with disciplining students. I find myself having a familiar talk with many of them: “get good grades,” “respect authority,” “keep your nose clean.”

It’s instruction and advice that can feel pointless when a “good kid” like Jordan Edwards can have his life cut short by those sworn to serve and protect him. Still, I try in hopes that good grades and polite behavior will insulate my students from some of society’s dangers, if not all of them.

The Monday after police killed Edwards, I asked the students in my college readiness class to watch a news clip about the shooting and write out their feelings, or sit in silence and reflect. Many of them were already aware of what happened. I was proud that so many of them were abreast of the news but saddened by their reflections. At just 14 and 15 years old, many of them have already come to accept deaths like Jordan’s as the norm, and readily expect that any one of them could be next. “Will this police officer even be fired?” one asked. “Was the cop white?”

The young man I worry about the most was more talkative than usual that day. During the class discussion, he shared his guilt of being the only one of his friends who “made it” — making it meaning being alive, still, and free. The guilt sometimes cripples him, he said, and high-profile police killings like Jordan’s compound that guilt with a feeling of hopelessness. They make him think he will die in the streets one way or another.

I didn’t know what to say then, and I still don’t have a response for him. I’ve always taught students that earning an education might exempt them from the perils of being black in America, or at least give them a chance at something more. I was raised on that notion and believed it so much that I became an educator. But deaths like Jordan’s leave me choking on the reality that nothing I can teach will shield my students from becoming the next hashtag.

In lieu of protection, I offer what I can. I provide a space for my students to express their feelings. I offer love and consideration in our day-to-day interactions and do my best to make them feel seen and, hopefully, safe for a few hours each day.

Fredrick Scott Salyers teaches at a charter high school in Brooklyn. He began his career in education as a resident director at Morehouse College. Find more of his work here.