Defending Our Values
Defining documents or speeches are often reduced to single phrases. These famous quotes become our internalized overview of entire texts. For example, as I prepare to teach the The Diary of Anne Frank, I remember "in spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart." And I wonder how my personal absorption in that line impacts how I teach. From the Declaration of Independence we hear it often repeated or isolated on posters or video graphics, "all men are created equal." What American-education social studies teacher couldn't identify "that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from this earth" as a defining line from The Gettysburg Address?
We anchor ourselves to these lines because they are symbolically rooted in the things we value from that text or moment in history. Whether our decisions are intentional or not, what we love in our course material (or even the conditions of our environment) creates a bias in how our students learn. No matter how much we try to remove our personal tastes from interfering or influencing a student's path, we have (at the very least) core values behind our decisions in the classroom. Yet, I wonder, how often do we (unwittingly) compromise core values for external mandates (which have no core values). By that I mean, content, curriculum, mandates, are impotent and feckless without a teacher and learning environment built on core values. We truly fall into the trap of just trying to fill students up with content--information so easily found---and we risk neglecting the values behind everything we do, all of the decisions we make,
Do we risk forgetting our values when we do not connect with our values?
For example, I teach middle school. The number of times I have referenced (or have been a part of group discussion) "This We Believe" in over twenty years in the classroom could probably be counted on one hand. (And I am not sure I would need all of the fingers.) This powerful, grounding, document has been reduced to a memory of isolated phrases--even single words--in my mind much like King's groundbreaking speech from the March on Washington in 1963. Known as the "I Have a Dream Speech" historical documents tell us that King did not title his speech as such, nor had he mentioned "a dream" until a gospel singer, Mahalia Jackson, yelled from the crowd for King to tell them about the dream.
And King spoke extemporaneously of "the dream." He moved away from his prepared remarks. King could do this because he had been writing and speaking about "the dream" for several years. He revisited it. He turned it around in his brain and his heart. He reflected on it often. He connected with it and delivered this idea of a dream in previous speeches. The dream and everything behind the dream not only became his value but also the value of a national movement.
Yet, many often only think of, or know, the words "I have a dream..." and forget (or never knew) the contents of the rest of that powerful speech.
Similarly, from This We Believe, I recall (and I may not be correct): challenging, collaboration, student advocate, and developmentally appropriate. My goal is to reopen that document and talk about these values more--either what they mean for adolescents or how we might work with them. I want to do this with colleagues and in written reflections for myself. I want to keep a copy of This We Believe nearby, much as I do other professional texts. I have never marked it up, written in the margins, dappled its pages with post-its. That has to change too. If I don't engage with the text enough, I fear it will not be a part of my practice.
I risk my memories of This We Believe becoming like old files buried in a cabinet. I'd never throw them away...in case I need them someday. But I do not really take them out and look at them either. I can't let that happen to a document so relevant to the teaching of adolescents. If we do not make time to reconnect with what we value and love, what we value and love becomes more of a memory than a mode. Values become ideas. And ideas, well, ideas are disposable.
Extracting one small section from the This We Believe Study Guide provides me with rich opportunities for reflection and growth over the next twenty-four hours:
There are at least five specific roles teachers who are committed to serving young adolescents play: — Student advocate — Role model — Supporter of diversity — Collaborator — Lifelong learner • How do you see your role in terms of each of these five areas?
Maybe my next blog post will a response to something that thinking bubbles up within me. Students will be returning to my classroom in just under two weeks...it's time to reconnect.