Marc Aronson, in “Consider the Source: Cracking Open,” urges us to “show kids your true feelings.” Marc describes meeting with two groups of students at a public library, 8th graders and high school students, and how they responded to a passage he read from his book Race, “… in which I admitted I hadn’t been able to forgive the Germans for what they did during World War II. I wasn’t trying to justify my feelings; I was simply stating what I felt in my heart.” According to Marc, the students were animated by this statement and eagerly debated it with him proving for him that, “…Because I dared to show my true feelings, they dared to engage with the content—and history suddenly mattered to them.”
Marc prefaced this account with some discussion of the latest survey to prove kids know nothin’ ’bout history. (My own take on the survey is here.) Now while I agree that it is important to make history matter to kids, this is not the way I’d do it. I think teachers can show passion and excitement about historical topics without bring raw personal stuff into it. The sort of stuff that might excite some of the students, but simply upset and shutdown others. (As a teacher I do bring my personal history and experiences in as I see fit, just not this sort of thing.) No matter how well I know my students (and Marc probably did not know the ones he was talking with as I’m assuming he had just met them), I can never know what is deep in their hearts, what may trouble them, personal family history, or what pain may be triggered by bringing up a difficult topic so personally.
You see, if I had been one of the kids listening to Marc I would have felt miserable. I would have most likely stayed quiet and said nothing. But I would have gone home in a funk and stayed in one for days. Why? Because I’m both German and Jewish. My grandfather was killed by Nazis, my parents left Germany because of them, but other relatives stayed. We have friends who helped my family, friends who are as close to me as family. I’ve lived there, I grew up eating German food, playing with German toys, and otherwise experiencing life in a very German way. I’ve discussed what it was like for my friends and relatives during the Nazi time and after. And so I hate German jokes, Nazi jokes, stereotypic Germanic fun-making. I don’t find it fun. I cringe.
I moved to New York from the Midwest when I was in 10th grade in 1968. I was horribly shy, but one day in history class we discussed the horrors of Nazi Germany and various students weighed in as Marc did on their hatred of the Germans. I finally couldn’t stand it anymore and stood up and noted that we Americans weren’t behaving so well just then in Vietnam. Decades later I’ve run across people who remember my doing that. The shy new girl speaking up the one time. I will never forget it; I can still feel the incredibly discomfort and pain of listening to those comments.
Because of that experience, because of numerous other ones that I and others have had (say a colleague who read a picturebook about slavery causing tremendous distress for one of the two African-American children in her class), I can never assume what people feel and think. In the case of my students, I am the responsible one. I want them to think hard, but not to shut them down and make them miserable.
I think there are ways to communicate feelings as a teacher in classrooms that don’t silence the marginalized students. Difficult topics about race are important; we need to discuss them in our classrooms. But not, in my opinion, by putting in personal beliefs that are as likely to shut down students as to open them up.