When I was in elementary school, I was chosen to read aloud a poem I wrote about Martin Luther King, Jr. It was during a school-wide assembly to celebrate the United States’ Black History Month. I remember reciting my poem and the celebratory feeling in the room. The sense that we were united by the legacy of this wonderful man and our enlightened accomplishments as a racially diverse school community. Even then I understood that my presence onstage was meant to be evidence of that enlightenment and progress.
Ebony Davis, a Facing History Teacher Leader and Facing History Leadership Academy member from Miami, Florida is highlighted on the Teacher Practice Network as part of the Center for the Future of Teaching and Learning at WestEd. She reflects on how Facing History has helped her grow as an educator:
The horrific attacks, claimed or inspired by ISIS in Beirut, Paris, and San Bernardino – and the fear they have instilled in many – reveal the polarized atmosphere of the world beyond the walls of our schools. As educators, we know that we are responsible for creating a safe space to talk about these issues with our students, but how? Many of us fear that we don’t know enough, or that classroom conversations will break down into anger, myth and misinformation.
Recently, I drove from Facing History’s office in the East Bay to Silicon Valley to attend a youth civic hackathon. As I passed by the giant “like” sign at Facebook’s sprawling campus on One Hacker Way in Menlo Park, I found myself thinking about hacking, technology, social media status updates, and also about empathy.
The philosopher Hannah Arendt said that the essence of being human is participating in moral discourse with others. "The things of the world become human for us only when we can discuss them with our fellows. We humanize what is going on in the world and in ourselves only by speaking of it, and in the course of speaking of it we learn to be human." In a reflective classroom community, students work together in an engaging study of our past, and of our world today. Knowledge is constructed, not passively absorbed. And students, with both hearts and minds mobilized, are seen as subjects actively engaged in a community of learners. A trusting classroom atmosphere like this creates the space for deep, democratic learning. The creation of an environment like this requires a thoughtful approach.
Over the last few weeks, South Africa has been rocked by xenophobic violence.
According to The New York Times, approximately five million immigrants have settled in South Africa since the end of the apartheid in 1994. Many are refugees, or are pursuing economic opportunities in the country, which has become a relatively stable multiracial democracy. Many native South Africans are greeting these newcomers with prejudice, hatred, and violence—destroying local businesses and in some cases committing murder. Today, South Africa’s immigrant population lives in fear.
Unfortunately, the trend is not new. In 2007, a year before xenophobic attacks would break out nationwide, violence erupted in the small township of Zwelethemba, about two hours from Cape Town.
A Facing History teacher at the local high school recognized that his community was in crisis.
Adults often ask students to be upstanders, to speak out against bullying and other social problems, and to go against the tide. But we should also help students change the tide.This means changing social norms so that young people feel respected not when they degrade other students, but when they include others.
The news around the world has been grim recently. During times of conflict and difficulty, we look to history and remember the inspirational words from upstanders of the past—those who shared our goal of creating a better, more informed, and more thoughtful society.