“It takes a village to raise a child.” So goes the African proverb. But who raises the village? In our world of fractured communities, broken families, rampant individualism, and social isolation, I have been inspired to become a teacher who is attentive not only to each child, but to their communities. I have a passion for working with populations facing crises of community, including: indigenous people, religious minorities, sexual minorities, refugees, persons with disabilities, and those experiencing poverty or homelessness. Firmly convinced that our communities are only as strong as its weakest members, I am devoted to inclusion that does not compromise excellence; every person deserves to become the best version of themselves.
I. LIVING THE QUESTIONS
“You are so young, so much before all beginning, and I would like to beg you, dear Sir, as well as I can, to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.”
– Rainer Maria Rilke
In the classroom, I organized a spoken word workshop (In Pursuit of a Noble Life) and Poetry Café (“I will not…”) Students were tasked with choosing a topic related to the given themes and crafting a short story or poem to perform through spoken word, dance, rap, and the like.
Some parents complained to me about the harshness of the content. However, the students chose the particular issues to address, not me. Other parents were awed and inspired by their children’s embrace of difficult topics, such as: child soldiers, abuse, Indian slums, and child brides. The students are to be commended for tackling these topics with empathy and creativity.
Too often teachers and parents pretend that young people are ignorant of things. This does not serve them well as students must grapple in their own lives and in the world with real injustices that touch them personally or that affect those who are close to them.
I try to honour their engagement by making a special program of it. Sometimes I bring hot chocolate and we decorate the room. I invite guest speakers to share their impressions with the students. This validates the students and demonstrates that I find their voices are worthy of attention and appreciation.
II. RESISTANCE TO TYRANNY
“Rebellion to Tyrants is Obedience to God” – Benjamin Franklin’s Great Seal Design
How can a community threatened by insecurity and instability still flourish? It may sound daunting, but I am reminded of the news story this summer about Syria’s Secret Library.
The founder of the library, Anas Ahmad, said, “We saw that it was vital to create a new library so that we could continue our education. We put it in the basement to help stop it being destroyed by shells and bombs like so many other buildings here.”
Even in war-torn Syria, reading books is a precious form of resistance. This inspired me to organize a Banned Book Project. I gave students a list of age and reading level appropriate books that have been banned in the past. Each student freely chooses a book from the list. Parents sign a permission slip and then students complete a series of assignments related to the chosen text. The students explored censorship. I took a photo of each student with his or her book and a jail sign with the words: “Caught reading banned books!” and posted these in the corridors for all to see.
The willingness to challenge conventions and fight for freedom of speech raises a community of critical thinkers and discerning learners.
III. MY BROTHER’S KEEPER
“We are inevitably our brother’s keeper because we are our brother’s brother. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.” – Martin Luther King Jr.
How do we raise a generation of Good Samaritans? Many young people might not have an opportunity to engage in service projects with their own families. School offers a good context for service to the community-at-large.
I always bring my students to the local Drop-In Centre. There, they make sandwiches, learn about the shelter, and sort donated clothing. One year, my students and I raised money to make hundreds of sandwiches. Rather than making a homogenous batch, we took into consideration the diversity of those at the shelter and prepared Kosher, Halal, Vegan, and Gluten-Free sandwiches). The students learned the importance of respecting a diversity of needs, whether in a shelter or not.
Are one-time service trips meaningful? Or, are we merely “dropping in” to the drop-in centre rather than forming true relationships with those in need? These are the sorts of questions that these experiences make me ask myself. Are students necessarily limited in their capacity to form relationships with vulnerable populations given their vulnerability? And how can we balance safety and audacious service to others?
IV. TEACHING NOT TO THE TEST, BUT TO THE BEST
“A man who has never gone to school may steal from a freight car; but if he has a university education, he may steal the whole railroad.” – Theodore Roosevelt
What is the best way to live? How can we be happy? What experiences will students remember long after they have written their Provincial Achievement Tests?
Ultimately, education is a failure if it does not form moral human beings. Many of the senior officials in the Nazi party had a university education. Yet, they were ignorant of the most fundamental truths about the human person and the ability to distinguish between good and evil.
I brought my Grade 4 and 8 Muslim students to a local synagogue (Temple B’nai Tikvah) to listen to Rabbi Howard Voss-Altman speak, in addition to two survivors of Auschwitz. The students followed up this visit with novel studies of Hannah’s Suitcase and Maus.
There was initially reluctance on the part of parents and the administration, but I eventually persuaded them. The students were highly engaged with the novel study work and the fieldtrip. Following it, the Grade 8 students wrote essays and I received comments from them saying: “I was always taught to fear the Jews, and now I realize that we are so much alike and they have suffered so much” and “I always thought that all Jews must die, and now I feel ashamed.”
As for the Grade 4 students, they went up to the survivors and kissed the tattoos on their wrists. When I ran into those same students three years later, they still enthusiastically brought up the novels that they had read and the trip.