First Person

How a refugee father gave me hope — and a new outlook on teaching U.S. history

PHOTO: Via Flickr Creative Commons

Stephen Lazar is a teacher at Harvest Collegiate High School in Manhattan and a longtime Chalkbeat contributor. This past Monday was the last day of a class he teaches called American Stories. His students were anxious about the election and still reeling from the death of one of their classmates 10 days prior and his funeral over the weekend. Here is what he told them.

lazar

I normally don’t give speeches to end my class for the same reason I normally don’t share who I’m voting for: I don’t want you all to learn to look to authority figures for answers to big questions that matter. I want you to find those answers yourselves, alongside your peers.

But given that, this past Saturday, many of us attended the funeral of one of our students and friends, and given that tomorrow this nation could potentially elect Donald Trump president, I’m going to make an exception today.

It’s always easy to become cynical. Given Saturday, and what could happen tomorrow, it’s even easier now. But what I want to think about today, and what I hope that you all will take away from this class, is hope.

I want to share with you all two stories about why I choose to continue to have hope despite all the terrible things we experience. The first is about teaching, the second is personal.

The very first class I taught was in Providence Summer School when I was 21. Here I am, this white Ivy League guy with two other white wannabe teachers, teaching a diverse group of students about U.S. history. We decided to teach a class about all the problems of U.S. history — racism, sexism, and classism — and how some have tried to fight against those things.

Toward the end of the first week, we had a parents night, and I’ll never forget one father who asked a question. He was a refugee from El Salvador who had come to the U.S. with his family maybe 10 years earlier. After we explained our plans for the class, he asked us, “What do you plan to teach my child about liberty? What will you teach him about freedom?”

I don’t remember how we answered that question, but I do remember the conversation we had after. This man, who was very well educated and clearly knew more about U.S. history than I did, told me that he and his family had escaped civil war in El Salvador, a war that had killed much of his family. He told me how he now raised his family in this land where, despite the very real problems that he knew about and that we intended to teach about, he knew his children would have a better life here than they possibly could have dreamed of back home. Here, they had hope.

That conversation changed my outlook on how I teach U.S. history.

The second story is a personal one. As you know now, when I was 16, one of my best friends died suddenly. The night before Josh’s funeral, there was a gathering at the local Jewish Community Center to help prepare people for the funeral. Hundreds came, and the session became overwhelming for the group who were closest to Josh, and we left to go cry in another room.

Coincidentally, a very famous rabbi named Harold Kushner was speaking at the JCC that same night, and someone thought to bring him over to speak to us. Rabbi Kushner is famous for writing a book called “Why Bad Things Happen to Good People.” At that time, one day after losing one of my best friends, the only thing I could imagine worse than that was losing your child, as I would later learn Rabbi Kushner had years before.

I remember the rabbi talking about how for a long time he was angry at God for taking his son. How he didn’t know how he could get out of bed, let alone be a rabbi to his community, with that knowledge and that anger.

The answer he came to, which I share not because I believe it literally but because he did, is that God wasn’t responsible for the death of his son, or war, or the Holocaust, or other terrible things. Rather, God is what allows us to find comfort in the hug of a loved one, gather the strength to get out of bed, and feel the power of community in terrible times. God is what lifts us up and makes us able to continue.

There, I realized if this guy, who had lost his son — the worst thing I could imagine at the time — could have hope, I could find it too.

So here’s what I want to say to all of you as we end our class together. My hope, more than anything, is that you all will choose to find hope of your own. In times of tragedy, I have been able to find hope in the comfort of friends, family, and my community. And even if Trump wins tomorrow, I will choose to find hope in the fact that this country is constantly changing, and still values liberty and freedom.

More than anything, I find hope in you all. I have no idea how to solve injustice, but I have hope that you, who in 20 years will have thoughts and experiences I can’t even dream of yet, will do something to make this world a better place. I have hope because we don’t know what you will do with the future, and I choose to have faith that you all will do wonderful things to this world you will inherit.

So if you take nothing else from me, I hope you will take this: that no matter what happened to our friend who is gone, that no matter what happens tomorrow, choose to find hope.

First Person

A national teacher of the year on her most radical teaching practice: trusting kids to handle their bathroom business

Author Shana Peeples speaking at American Jerusalem High School in Jerusalem while touring as National Teacher of the Year.

This whole national conversation about who we should and shouldn’t let go into which bathrooms got me thinking about the most controversial thing I ever did as a teacher. I’d love to tell you it was teaching a banned book or something intellectual, but it was really all about the bathroom.

I allowed kids to quietly leave class whenever they needed to go without asking my permission.

My principal hated it; some of my colleagues viewed me as some sort of hippie. It made people question my professional judgment, my classroom management, and even my intelligence.

“So, you just let them leave when they want to?”

“If they need to go, yes.”

“Without a pass?”

“My hall pass is on a hook by the door so they can quietly take it and then replace it when they come back.”

“I bet you replace it a lot.”

“Actually, no. It’s the same one. I keep it around because it has a picture from my first year when I looked a lot younger and skinnier.”

Usually, people walk off before I can tell them any more of my crazy commie ideas. They’d die if they knew kids could take my pass to the nurse or their counselor if they needed to go. My only rule was that they had to show the same decorum that they would at the movies: no one gets up in a theater and loudly announces their business.

And in 15 years, no one used it as an excuse to skip the class or wander the campus or otherwise engage in shenanigans. Actually, no — one kid took the pass and didn’t come back until the next day. But that was because he was an English language learner on his second day who didn’t quite understand that it’s not meant as a “go home in the middle of the school day” pass.

When I began teaching, it was in a seventh-grade classroom in a portable, which is really just a converted double-wide trailer. The bathrooms were the separation space between my classroom and the reading teacher’s classroom. It seemed mean to me to control the bathroom needs of children in 90-minute block classes seated so close to one another. That was the origin of the policy.

Years later, one of my students wrote about me in an essay. I was prepared to read some sort of “Freedom Writers” love letter about the magic of my teaching. What she wrote instead was: The first day in her class I learned that she had the best bathroom policy ever. She treated us like human beings who could be trusted to take care of our own private needs.

I kept scanning the essay for the parts about the teacher magic, but that was really the only part about me specifically. The best bathroom policy ever. That’s my legacy.

But seriously, kids really can be trusted to take care of their own private needs. Especially those who are teenagers who drive cars. Or who are responsible in their after-school jobs for locking up a store’s daily receipts in the safe. Or who are responsible for getting four siblings to school on time because mom works the morning shift.

People complain to me, when they find out I used to teach high school, about how “lazy and irresponsible kids are these days.” That just irritates the fire out of me. What if so much of that behavior is because we don’t allow kids to try on trust and responsibility with little things like taking care of their bathroom business?

And maybe what looks like “laziness” is really a trained helplessness and passivity borne of so many rules and restrictions against movement of any kind. Don’t get up without permission, don’t talk without permission, don’t turn and look out the window without permission, and for Pete’s sake, don’t you put your head down on your desk and act like you’re tired because you were up all night at the hospital with your father who just had a heart attack.

Trust is a thing we create through small daily interactions. Simple things like extending the same courtesies to them as we would want for ourselves. I’m always so appreciative of professional development presenters who take the time to tell you where the coffee, water fountains, and bathrooms are. That communicates respect and consideration.

As teachers, we have to be willing to be the first to extend trust. When we do, kids will return it.

Shanna Peeples’ teaching career, all in Title I schools, began as a seventh grade writing teacher at Horace Mann Middle School in Amarillo, Texas. She later taught English at Palo Duro High School, and as the 2015 National Teacher of the Year, worked to shape the conversation in this country about working with students in poverty. She now serves as the secondary English language arts curriculum specialist for Amarillo ISD.

This piece first appeared in Curio Learning.

First Person

I’m a teacher, not an activist. Here’s why I’m joining the March for Science this weekend

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Jeremy Wilburn

I became a science teacher because there’s nothing I love more than talking about science. This Saturday, I’ll march for science in Cleveland because there’s nothing I believe is more important than defending science in our society and our classrooms.

My love affair with science goes back to my seventh-grade teacher, Mr. Hurst, who took a hands-on approach to science education. Through labs and real-world investigations, my classmates and I discovered the complexity of scientific discovery. While I originally pursued a career in lab research, I soon realized that my true passion lay in teaching – that I could fulfill my love of science by delivering the same quality of teaching that I’d received to the next generation.

I’m marching for science on Saturday because every student deserves such a strong foundation. A well-rounded education should be a reality for every child in America – and that must include science, technology, engineering and math. Without it, our country won’t be able to solve the very real crises looming just over the horizon.

The world’s population is growing exponentially, consuming a limited supply of natural resources at a faster pace. We rely on nonrenewable forms of energy that we’ll inevitably exhaust at a great environmental cost. Medical advances have slowed the spread of infectious disease, but our overuse of antibiotics is leading to a new generation of drug-resistant pathogens.

Our children need to know what they are up against so they can design their own solutions. They need an education that enables them to think analytically, approach a problem, tackle new challenges, and embrace the unknown. That’s exactly what good science education does.

Still, I understand that some may wonder why teachers are marching – and even if they should. Some will inevitably accuse teachers of “politicizing” science or stepping “out of their lane.”

But marching for science is distinct from the kind of political statements I dutifully avoid in my role as a teacher. To me, marching is a statement of fact: without science teachers, there is no science education; without science education, there is no future for science in America. Science teachers and their classrooms are the agar in the petri dish that cultures our students’ scientific minds. (Did I mention there’s nothing I love talking about more than science?) In any movement for science, teachers have a role to play.

Marching, like teaching, is to take part in something bigger. Years from now, if I’m lucky, I might glimpse the name of one of my former students in the newspaper for a scientific discovery or prestigious award. But by and large, it’s my job to plant seeds of curiosity and discovery in a garden I may never see.

On Saturday, I’ll be there alongside doctors and nurses, engineers and researchers, and citizens from all walks of life who love science and want to see it valued and respected in our country. We might not see the fruit of our labors the day after the march, or even after that, but the message we send will be clear.

If you’re a parent or student – maybe one of my own – I hope you see that passion for science on full display around the nation this Saturday. I hope you see why having committed science teachers like myself and my colleagues is inextricably bound to the fate of our world. I hope that recognition grows into action to support teachers and demand universal access to an excellent science education, like the one I strive to provide every day in my classroom.

Sarah Rivera teaches engineering, biology, biomedical science, and environmental science at Perry High School in Perry, Ohio. She is also a member of 100Kin10’s teacher forum.