Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Meaning in the Message: Teaching Literacy to Build Community

Benedict Cumberbatch, saturnine star of Sherlock, is officially a "devastated" "idiot." If you are a fan of the actor's work, like me, then you are probably wondering why these words might be used in conjunction with the talented Brit. The reason Cumberbatch must take his turn on the hot coals of public opinion has to do with a recent interview with PBS's Tavis Smiley. In the interview, Cumberbatch said the following phrase:
I think as far as colored actors go, it gets really difficult in the UK, and I think a lot of my friends have had more opportunities here [in the U.S.] than in the UK, and that's something that needs to change.
Americans recognize immediately the unfortunate use of the word "colored" in his statement. As a result of this gaff, the star has had to come out publicly and flagellate himself with his own words, hence the "devastated" way he feels about offending some people. If you click on the link above and read the article, you can see the stream of anti-Cumberbatchian sentiment streaming in from the Twitterverse and political activists. What you may miss is the reference to Tavis Smiley's defense of the actor, tweeting "Those who saw Benedict Cumberbatch on @PBS, know he feels persons of color are underrepresented in ." Now, why would Tavis Smiley say such a thing? Why not jump on the fever train to public disapproval?

Let's concede that the word "colored" carries with it connotations of segregation, summoning ghosts of white-hooded men and starkly-lettered signs. Let's concede that the word brings back the sentiments of the separate but equal world of the pre-Civil Rights United States. Let's concede that it could be an act on par with deification of the stars-and-bars. Let's also concede that the entirety of the sentence speaks counter to any sentiment allied with racism.

At this summer's Teaching Shakespeare Institute, Dr. Ayanna Thompson stopped in to talk with the group about race and the teaching of Shakespeare. We talked about casting, performance, and a variety of topics associated with race and the theater. Something that will always stick with me is the way she described the stakes of continuing to play Shakespeare in a racially one-dimensional way: she noted that the audiences are getting older and remaining generally the same complexion, so who will support these arts as the older white patrons die out and the subsequent generations become less and less homogeneously white? It is a fair question. I was always conscious of the complexion of audiences before, but I failed to consider what that might mean for the future of the art form.

The idea applies to more plays than those written by Shakespeare. I saw a production of Death of a Salesman featuring a black actor playing Willie's neighbor and friend, Charlie. The scene where Willie refuses to take Charlie's money or job offer takes on an entirely new dimension of meaning when Willie is white and Charlie is black. It becomes something much more than simple personal pride. Even Bernard, played by an actor of mixed racial background, becomes more than the successful son. In short, racial considerations are never invisible to American audiences despite our protestations of colorblindness.

So, outside of the wording, what is wrong with Cumberbatch's desire to bring to light the lack of opportunity faced by actors of color in the UK film industry? Instead, the substance of his utterance is lost in the maelstrom of public shaming. The Hollywood and UK Film communities could probably benefit from the discussion of under-representation of minorities in parts that do not fall under facile ethnic stereotypes (read this as person of color = villain/terrorist/or other marginalizing part). The Clark doll experiment taught us that separate but equal is inherently unequal, yet we still give the role of hero to far more white actors than actors of color.

That is where we come in as English teachers. First, I would like to abolish the cliche of our time: tolerance. Think about it. What does it mean to say to someone that you tolerate them? Say it to someone you care about and watch the reaction. Now try saying it with acceptance as the goal. Nowhere in the definition of acceptance does the dictionary declare that accept is equivalent to approval. I may disapprove of so-and-so's life choices, but that does not mean that I do not accept so-and-so for who he or she is. Sorry for the digression, it is just a pet peeve.

How do we frame out discussion of teaching acceptance? We don't have to. There are plenty of examples in the world around us. Take Benedict Cumberbatch. Teach this article and ask students to read for contradiction and complexity as a start. There is something befuddling in organizations that vilify and praise an individual in the same reductive sentence or sound bite.

Another option: take a look at the school's arts programs enrollments. I am married to a choir director who also teaches on the high school level. I am always mystified at the relatively homogeneous make-up of the choir. What's shocking is the number of students of color I see daily who love music, but are enrolled in no musical arts classes at school. Have this discussion, perhaps grounding it in a larger work about race (i.e. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks or Invisible Man).

For the advanced educators: tackle discussions of covert vs. overt racism. The Implicit Attitude Test through Harvard University's Project Implicit allows teachers and students to measure their unconscious biases, including racial bias. I've posted about this tool before and you can find it by clicking on the link here.

If we create an intellectual discourse of acceptance around difference, we can create a community willing to listen to the content of our utterances rather than cherry-picking phrases from the discourse. This responsibility lies heavily upon us as ELA teachers because we are the last stop before students head out into the world to live on their own, a place where these sentiments can have immediate, concrete consequences. Believe it or not, the millennial generation is perhaps the least educated generation on racism. If you look at the article, you will notice that they are also a generation that wants to learn. If we build upon this enthusiasm now, encourage acceptance and real listening, the content of our students' utterances may be allowed to carry the conviction of their open hearts.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Which Line to Tow?

by Dan Bruno, M.Ed., NBCT

I hope this post offends no one, but, given the subject matter, that is highly unlikely. I have been troubled lately about the unrest that seems to be rippling across the country and wondering what role we, English/Language Arts Teachers, have to play in it. There are a number of rich themes that any one of us could spend an entire year teaching: Freedom of Speech, Race, Violence as a Way of Life, Public Service, Corruption, the Power of Fear, etc. As Secondary Level educators, I feel like we have an even more urgent responsibility than our cousins at various other points in the educational spectrum. Elementary schools are generally concerned with building foundational skills and teaching young children who really cannot think deeply on moral puzzles of this many jagged, disjointed pieces. Middle schools could begin to broach the topic in civics courses, but the students still may not be ready to full understand the topic or fully empathize with all of the individuals involved. By college, students generally have a very specific way of seeing the world that they developed in high school.

No, we are the stage at which the most higher-order moral development occurs. In the development of identity, students begin to decide for what they will stand and for what they will fight. They develop fully formed images of themselves as certain types of people. To paraphrase Kohlberg, high school students are postconventional moral thinkers. Mix in the hormones and physical changes of adolescence, and that postconventionality becomes highly significant. The way they see the world colliding with their own moral principles and how they react to these collisions are things we can teach through the medium of literature. But should we? If we should, which works should we choose?

Something there is that subverts the common order. Oftentimes, teachers are forced to mend the very social walls that hem in their practice, silence their hearts, and limit the ways they can serve the students with which they have been entrusted. But these walls are important, too. Not all teachers have the best interests of students at heart: some wear their students down until they mindlessly accept the teacher's view of the world; others are just not worthy of the responsibility of teaching young people. So where does that leave the rest of us?

The truth is that I don't know, and the fact that I don't know is the truth. This personal conflict is what we as teachers should model. I have friends and colleagues whose friends and family are police officers. To expect them to take a counter-cultural stance that excoriates their loved ones is myopic and naive; however, if they spoke about the way the current unrest affected their lives, we might be able to communicate something distinctly human to students in the midst of a social storm that has gone far beyond the control of its progenitors.

Isn't the human what we teach? Don't we ask our students to have literary experiences with us to try on the shoes of another, not find a comfortable pair and go for a walk in isolation? There has been tragedy and death, grief and anguish, shame and a loss of faith. What has shocked me is that there hasn't yet been a voice offering sincere condolence, a gesture of real human reconciliation, a brief moment of mutual understanding. Instead, death is answered with death. Reconciliation is met with silence. And our students must be sitting there wondering why the adults who taught them to play nicely together cannot seem to learn the same lessons.

So, as the media outlets publish stories about Macklemore's impending child and the ways in which Downton Abbey can teach fiscal responsibility (seriously, that is a real story on CNN.com as I write this), I am renewing my commitment to showing my students the way to understanding other people's journeys, of living up to the promise a literary experience can deliver. But I have to be careful not to simply make intellectual clones of myself. In fact, I think Kahlil Gibran said it best:  "The teacher who walks in the shadow of the temple, among his followers, gives not of his wisdom but rather of his faith and his lovingness. / If he is indeed wise he does not bid you enter the house of wisdom, but rather leads you to the threshold of your own mind." I only hope that we can be examples in this tough time through our faith in what we teach and our love for our students.