Teaching with Feeling

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.

6 Comments

Filed under Teaching

6 responses to “Teaching with Feeling

  1. I agree completely that teachers have to be sensitive to the ways in which their students’ backgrounds set them up to experience our classroom in ways we might not anticipate.

    I don’t think the common factor in those bad experiences, though, is a teacher or student sharing personal feelings, nor is it talking about race. My sense is that what hurts is not the acknowledgement of others’ particular experiences but the sense that one’s own experience is excluded — not imagined or not welcomed, either one. Of course I don’t know the details of your colleague’s situation but I’ve seen the same sort of thing happen and it always seemed to stem from hurt that for the teacher and the rest of the class, the story was distant and impersonal and treated as such, with no allowance for the possibility that one student might own that story in a different way.

    I can actually completely imagine a way of sharing feelings like Aronson’s in a way that emphasizes that they are his own personal baggage that fails to account for the lives and realities of others including some who may be in the classroom at that time. Showing how each person speaks only for him or herself and letting students see the cracks and limitations in that seems to me to make the classroom more, not less safe for each kid.

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  2. Llemma, I agree that a teacher could model his/her own problematic POVs on something like this — but in a class where he/she has already spent time setting up a safe and emotionally secure environment where. hopefully, everyone feels known. My colleague handled what happened well, but it spilled beyond her classroom into an overall consideration of how we were considering the topic as a grade (with African-American parents disagreeing completely on this making for an even more difficult situation). I’m struck by the contrast this year with my two African-American students feeling proud about our study — bringing in books and helping with all that we did. Reinforces my belief that you never know and have to go into the topic with that in mind.

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  3. I do encourage kids to disagree with me — as most do when I read that passage (you can see that in the Book-TV tape). I think clearly stating and emphasizing that my personal emotion is not my judgment, but that the emotion needs expression, both allows kids to have their emotions and to take issue with me. I think sensitvity to kids is important — for example, when I said there are some “bad” people, not just bad actions, that upset many kids. Perhaps b/c they wrestle with that issue in themselves. And I needed to be more aware of that. But I believe opening the pandora’s box of our emotions creates the opportunity to connect with students, it need not shut them down.

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  4. I suppose I do agree, it’s a stretch to do that with kids you’ve just met. Maybe it’s different if they’re older? I wouldn’t know — have mostly taught fifth and seventh.

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  5. Marc, thanks so much for coming by and commenting. I’m sure kids did disagree. There are plenty that always will. But I worry about those kids on the margins; those that may have reasons for discomfort and more that we aren’t even aware of. Your lesson and similar ones may be useful for the majority, but what of the minority — the ones who don’t say anything, who may have the opposite response from the one you intended?

    I really think this is tricky stuff. And it is also dependent on personality. While one kid may be energized and eager to argue another will be disturbed and say nothing.

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