By Tricia Baldes
In all my years working in human rights education, I have always been careful to steer clear of bringing anything too political into my classroom. My primary motivation for this avoidance was fear. Fear of disputes between students. Fear of administrative pushback. Fear of community backlash.
Watching the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School speak truth to power in protests, interviews, rallies, town halls and on social media, I knew that I would be returning to my classroom with a different sensibility. As I embark on a unit of social action with my students, I will not skirt the issue of gun violence in schools. I know it is something that my students will name as an issue in the world that matters to them, and I will encourage them to look back at the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the document that we base our social action around. I will ask them if they can discuss this as a human rights issue. And I know they will be able to make the connections to discuss gun violence in schools as an issue of their rights being violated.
Fear will no longer be part of the equation for me.
I am too angry to be afraid. Angry to see the statistics of gun-based violence in American schools compared with other countries. Angry that our politicians continue to talk about mental health and media being to blame. Angry about the suggestion that teachers should carry guns.
I am too inspired to be afraid. Inspired to hear students like Emma Gonzalez, Sarah Chadwick, David Hogg and Cameron Kasky speak with fury, passion and determination. Inspired to see the student movement growing, with persistence and perseverance. Inspired to see students in my middle school return to classes, seeking out teachers and administrators asking how they can get involved.
I am also too afraid to be afraid. Afraid to not be genuine in my own teaching, where I have always held up models of young people taking action. Afraid that if I do not bring this issue, these students and this movement into my classroom, I will be grossly failing my students. Afraid to be another hypocritical adult in the lives of young people who need and deserve honesty in action.
I was proud to see my school support students who chose to exercise their civil liberties and participate in the nationwide school walkout on March 14. I was even more proud of our students, who engaged in this protest with maturity and solemnity.
The administrators at my school have been working closely with students on our No Place for Hate Committee to develop a schoolwide unity event that will be held April 20, the 19th anniversary of the Columbine tragedy. The plan is for the committee members, with the help of administrators, to circle the school with orange yarn. After an announcement is made, students and teachers will silently go out, stand in front of the yarn, picking it up so as to form a circle around the school. The idea is that the event will promote unity and kindness with the circle representing how the student body stands together to protect the school.
I deeply appreciate the work that students and administrators have done to come up with this beautiful plan.
We would love to hear about how your schools participated in the March 14 walkout and any plans you have for future student engagement.
Please email us at [email protected] with the word “Kindred Spirits” in the subject line or share in the comments below.
By Jess Burnquist
Fear was the last thing on my mind on the day of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. I was finishing instruction for my AP Literature students in San Tan Valley, Ariz. It had been a great class. Students were leading discussions about 1984 and participation was high. Because it was Valentine’s Day, they exchanged poetry that reminded them of each other. Just before the bell, students ended up near my desk and filled me in (unprompted—the best!) about their jobs, relationships and their general disbelief that they were so close to entering the fourth quarter of their final year of high school.
As they filtered out after the bell, my phone rang. My husband regularly calls me at this time to check in—sometimes we make plans for dinner. Mostly we tell one another about how the day has been going and discuss the lives of our teenage son and daughter. This day was different. “Did you hear the news about Florida, honey? It’s bad. Really, really bad.”
Photo credit: By Formulanone (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
I hadn’t heard the news. But I guessed correctly. Statistically speaking, school shootings may be rare, but to any teacher or other school employee, it doesn’t feel that way. Our safety routines have been altered to prepare for such incidents and, worse, they’ve been normalized. After saying goodbye to my husband, I closed my classroom door and went online to check news footage. Like so many other Americans, I didn’t sleep well that night or for many others that followed. Like so many other teachers, including my kindred spirit, Tricia, I lay awake wondering how I would approach this with my students and thought about why it mattered that I do so with more authority than I had in the past. How would I confront these unnamed fears that often led me to silence in the face of such news?
You see, depending on where one teaches, there are subjects and topics considered too taboo for the classroom. Some administrations are overtly vocal about this while others have a way of subverting the desire to “go there”—that is, to bring up the difficult topics—because such topics may be extremely political and/or divisive. Gun control is one such topic. I am not supposed to voice my opinion on this issue as that would be considered inappropriate and a form of brainwashing. Yet, I am expected to devote time in every class to discuss with my students where they should situate themselves low on the ground should an active shooter show up on campus. I am expected to discuss lockdown procedures as if they’re some kind of an extension to a fire drill.
And, to be clear, I am expected by most of society to martyr myself to save the lives of my students. And of course I would. But why should I have to? More important, I asked myself as I lay awake, why can’t I talk about this with my students? Really talk.
I recently watched an interview on “60 Minutes” with Emma Gonzalez, a survivor of the Stoneman Douglas shooting—the incredibly articulate young woman who has been launched into the national spotlight with several of her peers, a result of their demands for gun reform in America. The interview included a segment with Emma Gonzalez’s mother, Beth.
Photo by Barry Stock [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
She commented about how troubled she feels when adults tell her that they stand behind Emma. She stated:
“Somebody said—you know, ‘Please tell Emma we're behind her,’ which I appreciate. But we should have been in front of her. I should’ve been in front of her. We’re all adults; we should have dealt with this 20 years ago.”
This quote haunts me. And, as a teacher, I think it’s my obligation to get in front of this issue with my students. It is my obligation to create a space where they can research controversial issues. It is my obligation to create a space where they can learn to agree to disagree. It is my obligation to create a space where they can risk changing their minds, or hold firm to an opinion based on fact, not spin. It is my obligation, as a teacher, to “go there.”
Full disclosure: I am leaving my teaching career in May. I am honored to have been asked to direct Rock Your World, a human rights education portion of the social impact, media-based nonprofit, Creative Visions.
I absolutely admit that the decision to tackle human rights outside the classroom and on a global scale has infused my teaching with new courage, but I also feel a new sense of urgency. What do I want to imprint upon my students before I step beyond our classroom walls?
Mostly, I want them to feel secure in their right to question authority appropriately and to understand that our democracy is theirs. I suppose I want them to know I am in front of them as well as behind them. Isn’t that the kind of support they deserve from their educators? It certainly seems more logical, even ethical, to arm my students with thinking skills than to arm myself and my colleagues with guns, or to suffer another headline in awkward, unguided silence.
How will you help navigate your students through difficult issues in the future? Please feel free to continue the discussion in the comments below or to email us at [email protected] with the word “Kindred Spirits” in the subject line.
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Tricia Baldes earned a master’s in English from Lehman College and has been a middle level educator since 2001. Her passion for human rights education has led to her writing curriculum and consulting with nonprofit organizations like Creative Visions, Speak Truth to Power and KidsRights. She co-authored the Rock Your World curriculum and currently works with the team as a program coordinator. In addition to presenting at national conferences for NCTE and ACSD, Baldes has led various teacher trainings and programs for students. She teaches eighth-grade English in Westchester County, N.Y.
Jess Burnquist earned her MFA in Creative Writing from Arizona State University. Her writing has appeared in the Washington Post, Time.com, NPR.org, and various online and print journals. She is a recipient of the Joan Frazier Memorial Award for the Arts at ASU and has been honored with a Sylvan Silver Apple Award. She teaches high school English, creative writing and AP Literature in the greater Phoenix metropolitan area and is the Director of Rock Your World. Her poetry chapbook You May Feel Your Way Past Me was published in 2017 Dancing Girl Press.