Thursday, February 28, 2008

Debating American Justice

As we begin reading 12 Angry Men, I invited my students into a debate and put the following claim on the floor: the U.S. justice system is the best in the world. Given that my kids have direct experience with the American juvenile justice system, I knew this would be relevant and look forward to hearing what they think of the play, which I consider to be a powerful look at human weaknesses and biases, as well as human courage and integrity.

I think I was most impressed with the balance many students brought to the discussion. Many students thought that, while certainly not perfect, the U.S. justice system offers much that some other countries don't. One student raised the point of an article we'd read earlier on a woman in Saudi Arabia who was sentenced to 200 lashes for being raped. Another noted that when U.S. soldiers commit abuses or war crimes, they are (usually) charged. Certainly, students brought up the racial and class prejudices that weaken our justice system. If they hadn't, I would have. One student even noted that he sentence, he felt, was lighter that someone elses might have been since his family had the money to hire an excellent lawyer. But I was impressed with the ability to see both the positive and negative aspects of such a complicated and, for many students, personally painful subject. Not every student--or every person--has that ability. Not every student is willing to make a claim of what she or he really thinks and try to back it up; that takes some real mental courage. It's a risk to be real. But building critical thinking skills cannot happen otherwise. Growing as a writer, reader and as a person can't happen otherwise. This is the heart of why I give so much time in my classroom to discussion and debate, even though the "product" is results in is intangible.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Perceptions of Poverty

As a part of my unit on the connections of hip hop to other kinds of poetry and to peace and social justice movements around the world, I show my students several video clips (god bless YouTube) on the hip hop movement in Uganda, a country of course torn by a terrible civil war. The hip hop artists there call for peace, and work to educate orphans, raise AIDS awareness and empower Uganda's poorest citizens. Here at home, local groups like Peaceaholics and others strengthen community peace building and raise awareness about homelessness.

As I'd hoped, this lead to come revealing discussions on homelessness and povetry, and who is responsible for it. Especially in the Uganda clip, my kids (many of whom are by no means rich) were shocked by the sight of kids so malnourished that their stomachs were distended, or kids who had one pair of shoes, and those were broken plastic flip flops! Interestingly, a lot of the kids (reflecting what most Americans believe, I fear) felt that homeless people were homeless by choice, and could just get a job if they wanted. This was obviously a teachable moment; I pointed out that not all educations are created equal (as they know) and that mental illness is a major factor in prevented a lot of homeless people from being able to hold a job down. Yet despite our continuing lack of a living wage, we blame the poor for their poverty. We also romanticise overwork, such as when President Bush beamed proudly and spoke so highly of the woman who was working three jobs to support her family. Like many others, he seemed to have completely missed the reality that it shouldn't be necessary to hold down three jobs! I hold more the view of Sen. Obama, who recently said, "If you work in America, you shouldn't be poor in America!"

Friday, February 1, 2008

Living History

The student of Room 5C revceived a visit today that I don't think any of us will forget for a long time to come. Ms. Schiff, a local Holocaust survivor who volunteers with the National Holocaust Memorial Museum, came to tell her story. She shared her memories of living in a forest for nearly three years as they dodged Nazi soldiers. She told of hunger and cold and still, some 60 years later, not knowing for sure what became of her mother, father or sister. She's the only member of her family to have survived. She explain to my students about how indifferent the world had been as entire towns were rounded up and murdered. To my delight, she also noted that much the same is now occuring in Darfur and the Congo. She spoke of her love for American and the second chance it, and a good education, offered her. Knowing that my students are all, of course, currently detainees, she challenged them to seize the second chance they will all have when they leave and stressed the role of education in making that second chance real.

I think what I loved the most was seeing the thoughtful and respectful questions they had for her. What was it like not knowing the fate of your family? How did you first make it in America without speaking English? Having faced such racial hatred yourself, what did you think of the segregation of whites and blacks in your new country? (This elicited a story of how her husband, who was then in the Army, once refused to be served dinner because the restaurant wouldn't serve some of the other men in his squadron who were black.) Have you met other Survivors? Didn't Jewish people fight back and if not, why not? One student didn't have a question, he just wanted to shake her hand. Privately, some students shared with me their surprise that she didn't mind coming her (to a detention center) to talk with them. Mrs. Schiff was warm and kind and a gifted speaker, able to share vivid details of a living nightmare. To judge by their response writings, what impressed them most was the courage she finds again each time she tells her story to essentially relive it. Along with reading and writing skills, a major goal of mine is to teach tolerance itself, and so I especially enjoyed a young Muslim student of mine referring to Mrs. Schiff (who is, of course, Jewish) as a "godly woman".