As a veteran teacher of over fifteen years who has taught all different ages of students from many cultural backgrounds, I know the importance of having a lesson plan and materials ready to go to address student needs and challenges. I work to create meaningful, relevant lessons that help students learn English in the context of their lives and needs. However, despite these actions, I must confess, there are days when issues arise that can catch me off guard.
If there has been a shooting in our neighborhood, or if a student has brought up a recent situation where they feel they were discriminated against, it is important to acknowledge and address the incident. When a student has been affected personally by a shooting, it feels jarring. I have shamefully wanted to pass off what has been shared, because I feel emotional myself. I feel inadequate at times to facilitate how we move forward, heal, and support each other. I have learned that I am not the only one who can facilitate this healing process. It can often be the students themselves who have the most sustainable, positive impact on their peers.
I teach immigrant parents at their children’s school, a school where their children go, so typically we have mostly adults in the class. Sometimes, however, there are times where my students’ children are in the class as well. When we allow students to lead the processing as a community, we are truly able to learn and grow in processing together as a community and allowing students to lead, this is where we truly learn and grow. So how do you begin to let go and allow students’ voices to take the spotlight? Often, I can simply write the questions, “How do you feel?”, “What can we tell our children?”, and “What is something positive we can do?” on large white pieces of paper.
My students work in small groups first to answer these questions and just express their feelings in an intimate group. We ask the children to participate as well if they want. Then, we ask groups to stand up and share their answers with the rest of the class. When students share their answers, you can feel honesty, vulnerability, and often despair. I often see how important it is for people to share this out loud in a community where they feel welcomed.
The other students feel compelled to rally together and support those who share their discouragement. It is in unity where students grow stronger and feel motivated to take a stand. Parents often share that they need to be strong for their children and stand united as a family and community. They work together to decide how best to move ahead. They share that they will continue to teach their kids by their example. It is truly amazing to see the feelings of desperation turn into a rally for community support and action. When children are there, I am glad that they can see their parents share their ideas and strength so articulately in English.
After a traumatic event, what can often start out as a very dismal beginning to our class can end with a refreshed sense of community and action. I have learned that, in these moments, many students view the classroom as being a place of community and support, more than ever before. Although my students lead these classes in a real sense, I am grateful to be a part of them. Staying relevant and tuned into students’ voices will always be one of my main priorities.