Accepting Students For Who They Are and Not Who We Think They Should Be
Recently, I was at a conference in Washington DC and heard presenters introducing themselves with pronouns, which caused me to do some research. I was not familiar with this introduction.
Additionally, as I was wandering through a bookstore a few weeks ago, a friend recommended the book, Beyond Magenta: Transgender Teens Speak Out. The courageous teens who shared their stories both humbled and inspired me. Consequently, it also made me reflect on how I identify myself.
I am considered a “female” by traditional society’s standards and am treated as such. I wear dresses, heels, makeup, accessories and am attracted to men. I have never felt like I was born into the wrong body. I have never been made to feel uncomfortable shopping in women’s clothing stores. I have never been made to feel like I am going through a phase or that something is wrong with me. I can find movies, television shows, books and magazines that cater to my preferences and I can relate to. As my literary tastes have changed, I have always been able to find characters like me.
Reflecting on all of this, do our students feel the same? Are we allowing all students to be who they are and not what "traditional society" expects? Do we embrace our students for who they are and not what we expect them to be? In our classrooms, do we provide them with characters and books they can make connections to?
Our students are not lexiles, they are readers. When we ask why they chose a book, it should not be because it was at my reading level.
I had two experiences in the past month discussing book choices with seventh grade boys. One of them I recommended War Child: A Child Soldier’s Story to. I asked him how he liked it. The response was, “I liked how he went to jail to become a better person.” This led into a conversation about sometimes we have to make difficult choices to better ourselves. The other student was reading Shadow Boxer. When asked what he thought about it, he replied, “I like it because it’s about a father and son’s relationship.”
Our students need to be able to see themselves in literature. They get lost in a text because of characters like them, social issues they are dealing with, conflicts that are happening in their lives and seeking solutions to problems. How diverse are our classroom libraries? Do we shy away from particular texts or genres due to our discomfort?
In addition, are we using literature to build empathetic global citizens? Close reading and comprehension is more than just synthesis and integration of text. It is asking questions that allow students to feel what others are feeling. A few examples I have posed to my 7th grade students are:
- How would you feel if your village or town was destroyed by rebel soldiers and you were forced to flee?
- How would you feel if your family or loved ones were missing and you did not know where they were or what happened to them?
- How would you feel if you were forced to move to a country you knew very little or nothing about?
As we proceed through the year, I am noticing a change in their responses. They are able to see situations from another’s perspective. However, this does not just happen. As educators we have to give our young people the skills and strategies to do this.
Even more importantly, they need to have the vocabulary and ability to express themselves. Recently I had an “aha” teaching moment when we attempted to create a class anchor chart of emotion/feeling vocabulary. What did I discover? Many of my 7th graders did not have the language to express feelings or emotions beyond the basic happy, sad, angry, depressed, etc. As a former speech therapist, it is incredibly important to me that students can express themselves and have that internal word bank to access.
If we want empathetic, caring, kind global citizens, we must find ways for them to connect to and accept others.