Be Seen. Be Heard. Be Known: Mentoring Students to Use Their Voices

Cardboard Man by Jamie Stayoch, grade 6

I recently watched The Hate U Give with my daughter. I’d already seen the movie by myself on its opening night because I loved the book so much and wanted to see if I could ever teach it in my middle school. I plan to take my younger son to see the film this weekend. It isn’t just a good movie based on an amazing book by Angie Thomas; it’s more than that. Not only does it address issues that most of my students and own children may not know about from our comfortable lives in suburbia, but it also empowers young people—everyone really—to use their voice to disrupt injustice.

If I can teach my own kiddos and my students one thing, it would be just that. Use your voice. The movie and the book are very good at tackling one of the biggest issues of teenage lives that might go overlooked: If you choose to speak up, to use your voice, you can and often will become a target and/or have to deal with the repercussions of going against the flow. Teen Vogue’s review, “The Hate U Give” Reckons With Staying Silent or Speaking Out Against Police Brutality does an excellent job of outlining this struggle. It is not easy (when you are just trying to survive a play audition, a new blemish right on your chin for the world to see, hormones, and knowledge that someone is talking about you behind your back) to stand up for yourself, much less anyone else. The drama of growing up is real. If teaching for the last two decades has taught me anything, it is that this is hard—all of it.

In fact, it was this realization that students need a caring, involved, empathetic, and sometimes bold mentor to help them not only find their voice but also encourage them to use it that led to the creation of our school’s online literary arts website, aptly named The Voice. Our motto? Be seen. Be heard. Be known. My goal when working with students to launch this site was to make sure that when they were bursting with thoughts, art, songs, videos, poetry or any artistic endeavor, they’d have a place where it was cool to share. This blog from last year explains how Teaching Tolerance’s grant is allowing me to create both the physical space for the club and the online presence for some otherwise silent students.

How is it going so far? Tricky. Because the club is open to the entire school, many of the students who are coming to the meetings and submitting their work don’t know me yet, so it’s been a slow process of gaining trust. My own students know how the space of Room 255 works, but those who aren’t familiar with me or my classroom aren’t really sure what to think. Word is getting out, and we are going to have a big official “reveal” party in March where we will have a gallery walk exhibition, a formal introduction of the website, and a celebration of who we have become together. The best thing though is that the club has a huge number of sixth-graders who took the step to come to an after-school club and get involved. Now, they will become the mentors for next year’s students; and within three years, an unofficial mentoring structure will be in place.

Another message of the movie and book is that there is strength in numbers, a lesson that our members of The Voice are learning right now. As they become seen, become heard and become known, they will spread the word that there is both joy and power in being who you really are and encouraging everyone else to do the same.

If you are interested in using The Hate U Give in your class or school, there are some great resources available to help you. This ADL book discussion guide, this Socratic Seminar from Sophie Johnson and the When Hate Is in the Headlines collection are good places to start.