Monday, November 16, 2015

Notes from the Classroom: The American Dream, Deferred

Méindeg, 16 November.

As you know, one of my teaching assignments is at a local high school, where my role in the classroom varies from course to course. I was given quite a bit of freedom in one of my classes and decided to organize a semester-long course that would give students a thematic introduction to American history and culture. (It's called, creatively, "American History and Culture: A Thematic Introduction.") My goal is to teach them about some of the historical and cultural themes that will allow them to understand why the United States is the way it is today.

So far, we've spent our 50-minute lessons discussing the American Revolution and Civil War and studying the evolving interpretation of the phrase "all men are created equal" through textual analysis of the Declaration of Independence, the Gettysburg Address, and the Declaration of Sentiments. (Did I mention that these are some smart kids?!) Last week, we began a discussion about the Civil Rights Movement with a lesson called "The American Dream, Deferred."

At the beginning of class, the students completed a listening comprehension activity in which they answered comprehension questions about a four-minute audio on the history of the Civil Rights Movement. (This led to some rather unfortunate, albeit amusing, responses about "Jim Crow's laws" and the "separated is equal mentality" ... but given that I'm asking them to listen and respond to an audio in their FOURTH language, I think I'll cut them a little slack.)

Now that the students have a stronger grasp on the historical context of the Civil Rights Movement, we will be using the poetry of Langston Hughes (specifically "Harlem" and "Dreams") as well as Martin Luther King, Jr's famous "I have a dream" speech to talk about the ways in which minority populations have been -- and continue to be -- denied access to equal rights in the United States.

As we move forward with this lesson, my hope is to encourage the students to move from looking at the Civil Rights Movement as a historical event to examining it as an ongoing struggle in 21st century America. We have already studied the expansion of the phrase "all men are created equal" -- from referring solely to white, property-owning men to encompassing all citizens, regardless of race or gender. Now, I want the students to consider the asterisk on the end of that definition. In which ways are certain people or groups of people in the United States STILL denied equal treatment under the law? Why?

While looking up materials for class, I stumbled across a New York Times article from 1965 that could not have been more appropriate for my lesson.

The author, James Baldwin, addressed the reality of "the American Dream" for African Americans. He describes the moment in which African American children realize they are seen differently than white children: "... from the moment you are born every stick and stone, every face, is white. Since you have not yet seen a mirror, you suppose you are, too. It comes as a great shock around the age of 5, 6, or 7 to discover that the flag to which you have pledged allegiance, along with everybody else, has not pledged allegiance to you. (...) It comes as a great shock to discover that the country which is your birthplace and to which you owe your life and identity has not, in its whole system of reality, evolved any place for you. The disaffection and the gap between people, only on the basis of their skins, begins there and accelerates throughout your whole lifetime."

Isn't that such a powerful image?

But Baldwin isn't done. He addresses contemporary events (specifically, the Selma to Montgomery marches) and theorizes about the future. It is a lengthy article, but well worth the read and definitely worth more study and reflection than I have thus far given it. However, it is Baldwin's observation at the end of the article that I found the most striking and that made me decide I had to share it with my students.

In addressing violence against Civil Rights activists, Baldwin states: "This is not being done 100 years ago, but in 1965 and in a country which is pleased with what we call prosperity, with a certain amount of social coherence, which calls itself a civilized nation and which espouses the nation of freedom in the world. If it were white people being murdered, the Government would find some way of doing something about it."

Take out 1965, replace it with 2015, and I promise you that you can find this message reiterated in every newspaper and website and op-ed in the country. I hope that Baldwin's quotation -- almost eerily applicable to our own society, fifty years later -- will provide a good way to transition to a discussion of civil rights in 21st century America.

So why am I telling you all of this? I haven't even done the lesson yet!

And in fact, that's just it. I haven't done this lesson yet. I'm not posting this blog to share with you how the students reacted to my lesson plan or my Schoolhouse Rock videos (although, in different news, "No More Kings" was totally a hit). To be honest, I feel like I am a little outside of my comfort zone in teaching this lesson. Although being an American may make me marginally more qualified to speak about these issues than the average Luxembourgish teacher, I know that I can by no means explain to the students what it is like to grow up as a person of color in 21st century America.

This is an important issue and I think that the stakes are high for me to get it right. So let me know what you think! Are there specific articles, texts, or quotations that would be beneficial to a classroom discussion of the Civil Rights Movement, then and now? Are there certain events, people, or points of view that I should make sure to mention? What ideas are the most important for the students to take away?

Please send me a message or let me know in the comments!

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