Friday, September 28, 2007

Can Language Be Violent?

As a professional in conflict resolution, as a student of history, and as an educator, I think the connections between language and violence are incredibly salient. I want my kids to understand that language--language the dehumanizes and demeans and stereotypes--is linked to all kinds of "real" violence, including rape, assult, even genocide.

With a little help from, I had Oprah "visit" class today, featuring part of the town hall she hosted after Don Imus referred to the women of the Rutgers basketball team as "nappy headed hos". I dislike even typing the words, but there they are. We watched several clips featuring different perspectives on hip hop, race, treatment of women in our sexist culture. My kids overwhelmingly agreed that language can be violent, sometimes even worse than physical violence. Yet when it came to connecting that with the language Imus used--and the language that hip hop, rock and roll, movies, use to define and lable women, but especially women of color. I was amazed to hear some of the students (and a couple of staff! yikes!) suggest that Imus's comments didn't make sense because there were white women on the team. I was saddened but frankly not amazed to hear that especially many of my male students felt that that language was OK for women who shake what they've got on videos (but not all women, they hastened to add--only the actual hos). I opened the floor for discussion, but of course had my say as well. Wanting them to understand the connections between those attitudes and staggering rates of domestic violence and rape in this country, I mentioned the actual case of a judge turning over the conviction of a man who had raped a young girl. I believe the victim was 7; she might have been 10. Either way, the judge overturned the conviction because the girl was "dressed provocatively".

The problem we have in this culture is far larger than Snoop or Nelly or any of the others. We have a culture that finds it OK, even admirable and funny, to belittle and dehumanize. And ultimately, such language is precisely what legitimizes violence.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Isn't Radical Bad?

As we finish up our essay responses to Dr King's amazing speech, "Beyond Vietnam", one of my students honed in on King's reference to himself as desiring a "radical revolution" of American values. (Amen!) "Isn't radical bad?", he asked. I waited a couple of beats before answering, in the hopes that another student would pick up from his comment, and sure enough the response came from the kid next to him: "Depends on what you're radical for?"

This struck me because I so often reflect that if we were more radical sometimes--more bold, more audacious--we'd possibly be so much closer to the vision of "a brotherhood of man" which Dr. King describes in this speech. He identifies "militarism, materialism and racism" as three main causes of war, and my students overwhelmingly agreed that these are still problems today. Identifying the social values so many people (not just Americans, I rather suspect) have internalized, such as militarism and materialism, as linked to war is a truly radial, even revolutionary thought now. Recall the way so many of us who spoke out against the Iraq War in 2003, calling it a false war for oil, were ignored and disparaged. Alan Greenspan, by no means even centrist left alone liberal, just said the same (about four years too late).

So no, ladies and gentleman of Room 5C: radical isn't bad. Your classmate had it just right. Depends on what you're a radical for. Given the authoritarian culture we continue to absorb, though, isn't not surprising that some kids would think so. Nor is it any wonder that MLK's "I Have a Dream" speech is so often taught--but not so the speech where he presciently calls the US government out on the major foreign policy mistake of his day.

If they learn nothing else from me, I want them to learn to think for themselves. That is truly both a survival skill and a skill of peace building.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Jena, LA

So I called another audible today, and I'm glad I did. As I've mentioned, my students and I have been reading literature focused on civil disobedience, nonviolence, peace and justice. Given the rallies and demonstrations on behalf of the "Jena Six" today, and the all-day coverage of it, I decided to just turn on CNN. We watched and discussed. Needless to say, my students (a good 97% of whom are black or Hispanic) had a lot to say. Much of it was simple disbelief and sadness that there are still schools where nooses can be hung on trees. Unbelievable. As an educator, I shared with them how upset I was in particular that a fellow educator (the principal of the school, if memory serves) would refer to hanging nooses on a "whites only" tree as a prank. That simply cannot be. I was also gratified that many of the detention staff joined in the conversation. Tomorrow we'll return to MLK's amazing and under-taught speech on Vietnam.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Responding to MLK

We have finished our creative exercise on MLK's Letter from a Birmingham Jail today. The kids had four choices: be a defense lawyer and write Dr. King's Defense, be a journalist and write an article covering the story, respond in a creative form like poetry or write a letter back to Dr. King.
While the kids made different choices, poetry was the most popular by far. Several students were asking to present to the class, so I called an audible (as they say) and made time for that. The poems were tributes to King, really, on his courage and how much strength and the word I'd use is godliness it must have taken to respond to violence with nonviolence. There were kids who took prodding and several who spent more time sketching than writing, but over all, I'm so pleased. When I asked them if they'd ever been asked to do something like this before--that is, respond in some creative written way to a piece of literature--most of them said no. I'll continue learning about these kids as time goes on, but it would not stun me to learn that most of their assignments have been worksheets they were to fill in.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

MLK's Letter from a Birmingham Jail and Suicide Watch

We began today with an all-staff suicide watch training. Apparently a bit ago there were a couple of suicide attempts made by a some of the kids here that were not handled quite as they should have been. I'm familiar with some of the warning signs, such as not enjoying any more things a kid used to love. But I have to say, learning that suicide was the 2nd cause of teen deaths was shocking, although perhaps not as shocking as learning that it's 2nd to the leading cause--which is homicide! I ask again: why is there not peace and conflict resolution education, explicitly and unapologetically, in every single school?

When classes did start after the training, we continued reading the amazing and inspirational letter by MLK, written during his time in jail in Birmingham: "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere." The kids were actively discussing, ideas like slavery, just and unjust laws, and civil disobedience. This was especially rewarding since discussion was a bit more like pulling teeth yesterday. I especially loved the observation by one student that hate is really about fear of the unknown.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Addressing Stereotypes

I was rather horrified the other day to hear a news story on CNN about protests against a public school in NYC teaching about Isalm and teaching the Arabic language. Naturally, the rhetoric against it is peppered with use of the words, "madrassa", "terrorist" and "immigrant". (The linking of those two itself could be the subject of a dissertation!) I showed the kids the video clip of the story and printed out copies for each student to read. As I'd hoped, this lead to discussion of racial stereotyping and fear of the unknown. For example, I was pleased that my students, in the writing activity I designed to prepare for discussion, wondered whether a public Arabic school would be a problem for people at all before 9/11.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

The First Day

First impressions can mean everything. Committed to establishing from day one that my classroom would be about exploring peace and peacebuilding, I decided to establish a "baseline" with a written response to the question of "What kinds of things do you think cause conflict or violence in our world and our communities?" I was so pleased with much of the thinking that I got in response. The kids identified alcohol, drugs, gangs, sexism, racism, stereotypes, oil, war, poverty, miscommunication and "trying to change people" all as possible causes of conflict. They also even asked if conflict had to always be thought of as a negative thing, leading to some disucssion of nonviolent conflict. I hope that laid some good groundwork for looking at the lives of men and women like MLK and Gandhi.

Tomorrow we'll take the next step and do some written reflection and discussion on what then can be done about violent conflict? I also have an article that profiled kids from several places around the world (including a U.S. city) working against the violence in their communities.