Things I Tell My Civics Class

My friends always ask what my first lesson is going to be in my Civics class. First lessons are a big deal because they’re first impressions; they have to grab students’ attention and convince them that what they’re going to study is worth more than just the credit they need on their transcripts to graduate. They also have to set a tone. They’re an indicator of what kind of teacher you’re going to be.

In a nutshell (or, as my students would say, tl;dr)? They’re tricky.

I’m fond of telling stories during my first lessons. I’ve told different classes about my first day of college (September 11, 2001), my older brother’s extended deployment to Iraq, my friends’ efforts to teach in some of the most deprived parts of Pakistan, my former students’ work to build wells in villages in Sub-Saharan Africa. I tell these stories to make two points: we live in interesting times, and we do not live in isolation.

I’m apt to quote something in my first lessons, too. It’s usually Auden (There is no such thing as the State, and no one exists alone; hunger allows no choice to the citizen or the police; we must love one another or die), but sometimes it’s Tolkien (All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us). Lately, I’ve also drawn from Phil Klay’s immense “Citizen Soldier” (Ideals are one thing—the messy business of putting them into practice is another).

I’m very clear that what I teach about is messy, but I tell my students not to be afraid of the mess. Things are happening- and will continue to happen- that will affect all of us, and we can’t do anything in response to them if we’re scared, or if we’re not paying attention.

Paying attention, I like to say, is our first civic duty, and we’ve got a whole semester to cover the rest. I tell them they can look forward to formulating fact-based opinions, knowing our rights and what it’s taken to get them, knowing how much more work there still is to be done, understanding that our government’s decisions will always have a far-reaching impact because we’re a powerful country, and recognizing that we can- and should- all show up to have say in what those decisions are.

I have a new Civics class starting tomorrow.

Tonight my friends are asking me what my first lesson will be because half of them are jealous that I get to teach it, and the other half can’t think of anything more frightening (aside from everything in the news, that is) than having to stand in front of a room full of young adults and teach Civics right now. There’s chaos at the airports, people are marching in the streets, and there may be a Constitutional crisis- or five- brewing everyday. So they say it would be too much pressure to teach what I teach right now.

It is too much pressure, and it’s definitely not something they covered in teacher training, but I’m going to do it anyway.

And I’m realizing that what I’m going to say is what I’ve always said:

We can- and should- all show up to have a say in what our country’s decisions are. Our country is powerful, so those decisions matter.

It took a lot of work to get us here, and it’s going to take more, and we’re going to need strong, fact-based opinions to do it.

Democracy is messy.

Pay attention.

Don’t be afraid.

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kathleen

Kathleen Murdough has a hard time explaining where she’s from because she’s an army brat, but North Conway, NH, the town where she lives now, has been her home longer than any other place that she’s lived. She has been a high school social studies teacher there for twelve years, and can think of no more awesome privilege and responsibility.

 

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Otherness

On the first day of first grade at the Doha British School in Qatar, I discovered that recess was hot, dusty and not entirely pleasant. What it was not, was cool, green Nairobi where I had lived until recently. I found myself shunning the overheated, running, shrieking kids in favor of the small playground area where the metal play equipment baked quietly in the desert sun. I was testing the creaky swing with my hand (before trusting it with the rest of me) when my new classmate, Jennifer Bentle, approached. My heart leaped at the thought of making a first friend and I offered Jennifer a shy “Hello” as the swing groaned to and fro, on its own now.

She looked at me with a frown, scrunched up her freckled, button nose and whispered into my ear, “I hate you. You have brown skin.”

I remember reflexively examining my standard-issue, Indian-brown arm, to see what might be so repulsive. Skin color was an unexamined idea in my life until then, so I assumed her distaste was valid, perhaps requiring some action. When the self-inspection yielded no clues, I looked up with an honest query on my lips.

“Why?”

But I had addressed the back of Jennifer’s blue gingham frock: she was walking away, her neatly bobbed brown hair swinging triumphantly with every step

Maa responded to my tears that night by arming me for the playground the next day with a script. She was driven by a dark, retaliatory rage that I understand only now, as a parent myself.. Braiding my long, black hair with extra gentleness at bedtime, she promised that the next day would be better. Not convinced, I went to bed with a heart full of dread but mind steeled with resolve to make a stand.

I still remember the nervous ring of my feet on the metal stairs that brought me from class to the school yard at the next recess. Jennifer was standing by the see-saw when I marched up and tapped on her shoulder. She turned around and recoiled slightly at the sight of me. My resolve started crumbling at the imminent rain of horrible words, and before my courage could desert me completely, I blurted out:

“I hate YOU, Jennifer, because YOUR skin is white!”

It was exactly what my outraged mother had coached me to say. It didn’t occur to me until recently that she must have also been smarting from echoes of the ‘brownie’ Colonial insults that had haunted her freedom-fighter father. My mother is not usually given to vitriol of this kind.

Thankfully Jennifer didn’t hear my hateful little speech. She was, at that moment, blurting out her own nervous script right over mine. More than one mother had been coaching the previous night, apparently. It went something like this:

“I don’t hate your skin! I was nervous about the first day of school yesterday and grumpy. I’m really sorry, Chandreyee: I didn’t mean it! My Mum’s SO cross!”

The fact was that six year old Jennifer Bentle had just come from England to this bright, hot, desert country and was utterly unnerved by the otherness of everything. This included her first day of school and…me. I know this because of many subsequent recesses worth of chattering, games, and playdates. She became one of my best friends for the next 7 years I spent in Doha. Our fathers knew each other professionally, so polite notes inviting each to the other’s home to play passed between our moms via our grubby little hands as often as our fathers’ cooler ones. She came to my birthday parties and I, to hers. In the photo at the top of this post, she’s wearing two ponytails (just like my two braids) and is seated next to me. It was my last day at that school before I moved to Saudi Arabia.

Of course my friend Jenny was parroting over-heard racism, but what’s important in this story is her self-awareness of being wrong and most importantly…that she communicated it to me.

Before Jenny apologized, I had been on the offensive and  thus, on the path to hostility and division. My inevitable aggression was for the sake of my dignity; had she not spoken up and had I not listened, ours would have been a familiar tale of division and hate.

That was my first brush with empathy: a look at how feeling for someone else can turn perceptions on their head. If Jenny’s words scarred, they also showed me that first impressions are not always the whole ball game. My blundering discovery of empathy and understanding was in addition, the path to coping: with the otherness I would face as well as being the ‘other’.

We are each of us, ‘other’ to one another: urban/rural/ex-urban, black/white/shades-in-between, white/blue/pink colors-of-collars, all degrees of ability/disability and the spectrum of sexuality. Whichever groups we occupy, the others are different, discordant in the moment, with our worldview, values, and lives. But only until shared human experience cuts through the noise, reducing the primacy of differences, rather than their existence.

Since the 2016 Presidential election, I find myself continually revisiting this idea of ‘otherness’: of the need to open ourselves to similarities as well as differences, to ask, respond and engage so we can understand what can be understood and co-exist with the rest of it. Neither gloss over ‘otherness’, nor pretend to accept it fully, but to know that we all have the capacity of holding more than one opinion in our heads without shuttering our hearts.

I’ll never forget my first day of school and I hope you who are reading this, don’t either. If for no other reason than when you meet your Jennifer Bentle and hear her hard words, you will ask, or at least think, “Why?” and try to understand, rather than dismiss, her.

You might be surprised at what happens next.

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screen-shot-2017-01-18-at-6-06-05-pmChandreyee Lahiri is a geographer and GIS Specialist (Geographic Info. Systems) who works in environmental conservation. Originally from Kolkata, India, she made her way to the U.S. via Africa and the Middle-east, making ‘home’ a slippery idea. Right now, home is Waltham, MA with her husband and 10 year old son. Chandreyee dabbles in short fiction, children’s literature and story telling and believes that Faith in human goodness is the only kind she needs. Her blog silverliningscloudydays.blogspot.com, focuses mainly on valuable moments that fall between moments. She hopes we’ll all keep trying to reach and help one other because even ‘a little bit of something is more than a whole lot of nothing’.

Telling Stories, Building Bridges

Most who know me, know that I love stories of all kinds. As an oversized, outspoken, homeschooled thirteen-year-old, I would go to my town’s library every week, walk out with 13 books (all fiction), and come back the next having voraciously read every last word. As an involved-in-everything high school student, I found ways to keep my story habit through quiet study halls, bus rides home from basketball games, and half-hour breaks in the lunchroom at the grocery store where I worked on Saturdays. Now, in my 30s, I attend a handful of Story Slams each year, sometimes by myself, just to have the opportunity to immerse myself in an hour focused solely on celebrating and sharing stories.

When I became a high school English teacher, I delighted in the challenge of helping others access stories. I remember working for hours on lesson plans for British Literature–trying to build a bridge from Chaucer’s Middle English to the world of a millennial teen because I refused to allow a centuries-old story to be words on a page: endured and dreaded. I tried to create access points for all kinds of stories for my students, staunchly believing that every story has some magic to share if we only know how to find it. I’m sure I was successful sometimes and a marvelous failure others. But I did love the challenge.  

I pushed my students to share their own stories through writing and presentations and projects. I cajoled them to share a personal anecdote to engage their audience in a speech. I pleaded with them to let their authentic voice permeate a persuasive essay. I challenged them to throw away the rules and write the scariest of all stories: a poem.

Ironically, when my students asked me to tell my own stories, I usually refused. At first I claimed it was because they were only trying to distract from the lesson (not a wholly untrue claim), and that I needed to create a professional distance. Being a 23-year-old teacher who sometimes was mistaken for a student caused me to have all kinds of insecurities about “proving” myself as the adult in the room. Plus, I always felt more comfortable writing my stories, not telling them on the fly when my brain was working through the intricacies of English syntax or Shakespeare’s use of motif.

But now I realize that more than anything, I was scared. Not of the stories themselves, but of how vulnerable they would make me. Sharing an authentic story can feel like a glaring exposure, and vulnerability was the last thing I wanted for myself in a classroom full of teens or in a staff room of peers. At school, even as I toiled to elevate stories and connect others to them every day, I often rejected my own. I wore invulnerability like a cloak, thinking it was a source of strength. What I know now is that it is more like a crutch. Vulnerability, not its counterpart, is the core of human connection, and through our connection to other humans we find solidarity, courage, support, and inspiration.

2016 was a year where the world became more fractured. People became divided across ever-widening gulfs. Chasms of anger, hurt, disillusionment, and fear opened up in communities, among co-workers, between old friends, and through families. Politics became the spotlight for these divides, a way to label ourselves and others, an excuse for retreating to safe camps and throwing rocks at those outside of them. More than in recent memory, this election cycle seemed to surface the very worst in us and among us.

How many chose the cloak of invulnerability when faced with these conditions? How many of us swallowed our stories for fear of attacks or derision? How many of us backed away from the stories of others because they required our empathy? I know I did. The cloak was easier to choose and felt comforting to wear. It had a familiar heaviness around my shoulders.

We are past the election now and more divided than before it. But the truth remains that we are families who spend holidays together, colleagues who solve problems together, and communities who live together. We don’t have to ignore the divides, but could we start building bridges across them? Could we put down our memes, our graphs, and our articles… and our cloaks?

I’m not proposing a “forgive and forget” mentality. I’m also not proposing that we don’t spend significant time advocating for our values, ethical government, and the rights of the marginalized. I’m not proposing that we pretend that free hugs are going to make us all feel like we are on the same team. None of those are a lasting and powerful solution to the very real chasms running through our Main Streets and Wall Streets, our kitchens and yards.

Instead, I’m proposing that we start sharing stories and asking for the stories of others. I proposing that we intentionally focus on building human connections through the exchanges stories offer: vulnerability for empathy, empathy for vulnerability. And I don’t claim that this will be easy. I’m still trying to wrap my head around it myself. Here are some questions that I have: How can I focus on sharing stories around a card table filled with plates full of ham at Easter dinner? How can I listen deeply to the stories of people who think differently from me and whose life experiences look so different from my own? How can I share a story about that issue in addition to (or instead of) that well-reasoned argument? How can stories cut through the noise to reach hearts and minds? How do I face my own stories and accept the truth I find within them? How can I share stories that make me feel vulnerable in moments when the only thing I want to grab is that cloak?

I believe stories are a start. They are the means by which we often can make an exchange with others: vulnerability for empathy. They build bridges which offer us new access, new journeys, and new perspectives. They don’t force us to cross chasms, but they offer us that possibility. Our world needs less chasms and more bridges, and I hope you will join me in finding ways to use stories to build them. Here are a few places stories are being celebrated and used to bridge divides:

What is the story you need to share and how will you do it? Whose story do you need to hear and how will you ask for it? What resources can you add to those I’ve given above? Add your thoughts (and stories!) in the comments.

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screen-shot-2017-01-16-at-7-45-58-amBrianna Crowley is a National Board Certified teacher who taught high school English in Hershey, PA for nine years. She currently works at the Center for Teaching Quality to further innovative and systemic change through elevating teacher leadership and teacher’s stories. Brianna has also contributed two books: How to Bring Technology Into Your Classroom and The Best Lesson Series: 15 Master Teachers Share What Works.  She embraces innovative approaches to learning and leading, and deeply believes in the promise of technology, the power of the written word, and the deep capacity of students and teachers to solve complex problems.

 

2017 Can Be Better

A new year is an act of hopeful symbolism. We know, despite our optimistic lists and fresh attitudes, that the calendar has no control over further terror attacks, upsetting politics, hatred, or the loss of those loved by the masses. We cannot control inevitability. Yet we insist that this time we will be more positive and happier throughout it. This world that appears to be making every attempt to weigh us down with grief is not likely to change just because it is January 1–so how do we make sure that 2017 is a happy year for us, even in the face of adversity? Here are five simple shifts we can undertake to be stronger as we seek joy and contentment.

Practice compassion.
Understanding people–even those we disagree with–and moving ourselves to help can improve our health, our outlook, our well-being, and our relationships. Compassion can make us more resilient to stress. The Dalai Lama once said, “ Compassion is not religious business, it is human business. It is not luxury, it is essential for our own peace and mental stability. It is essential for human survival.” To move people towards kindness, we must meet them on their own ground and find a way to love them. Do not hold onto anger–use its energy to move you to understand and inspire.

Let quiet in.
We live in an extraordinary world where we can know anything we want whenever we want. But this overstimulation of noise–both literal and mental–wears us down when we aren’t paying attention. Embracing silence during our day allows us to quiet our brains and boost our happiness. Turn off the news notifications on your phone and dedicate one time per day to sit and read about what’s happening in the world. Remove your work email from you phone. Be mindful about what online content you are consuming. Drive home from work with the radio off. Step outside without headphones on every day. Wake up and drink a cup of tea without a screen. Look up at the sky instead of at your phone when you find yourself waiting for something. Let yourself relax into the discomfort of being quiet and alone. Pay attention to what your brain does and how your heart feels. You’re likely to notice a difference.

Read.
People who read are happier and feel as though their actions are more worthwhile. They are empathetic and emotionally intelligent. They understand the nuances of humanity. Read novels. Read nonfiction books that excite you. Read read read. Every day. It will never make you unhappy.

Be grateful.
Gratitude is directly connected with our happiness. When we express gratitude, we activate and strengthen parts of our brain that help us see the positive and deal with the adverse. Spend a few moments each day reflecting on what you are genuinely grateful for. Write it down. Put it in a jar. Tell somebody. We all have somebody or something to be thankful for. The smell of fresh laundry. A delicious meal. A comfortable pillow. A smile from a loved one. Don’t overlook those little things; they add up to a fuller life than we thought.

Make a difference.
When we set out to make a difference, we are also setting out to defining our own sense of satisfaction. Those who choose to intentionally make the world a better place or to help those who need it report greater joy and contentment in their lives. What is your passion? What do you wish you could change? Start with your local environ–something at work or in your town. Start with people. Start with things that you feel are important. Making a difference is critical to our local and global communities, but activism is also happiness.

Go take on 2017. Make an attempt to understand somebody you disagree with. Create and settle into quiet moments. Read. Be grateful. And go make a difference. May it be a Happy New Year, indeed.

 

Happy Holidays

Every year on Christmas Day, my telephone rings, and a devout Muslim Pakistani is on the other end wishing me a Merry Christmas. He knows no Christians in Pakistan, and has never been in a predominantly Christian country on Christmas Day, but he understands that this day is the holiday of all holidays for us.  My Muslim brother-in-law, an Egyptian immigrant, exclaims “Merry Christmas!” when he joins us for presents, games, and eggnog. My Jewish friends take part in our Secret Santa exchanges.  Likewise, I wish my other-denominational friends wishes on their holidays throughout the year: Happy Eid! Happy Hanukkah!  I don’t know a single Muslim or Jew who has taken offense to my celebrating Christmas.

Right before Christmas, I tend to break out my red dress and white tights. I usually throw on a green scarf. I don’t wear a Merry Christmas pin. I don’t wear Jesus earrings. I just throw on the festive  colors of the season. I’m a walking Starbuck’s cup. Simplicity in color design is magic itself, not a liberal idea.

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I also find myself saying Happy Holidays a lot. Not because I’m making a statement of political correctness or even because I’m trying to be ultra-inclusive. It’s just a matter of conciseness. New Year’s Eve is only one week after Christmas, and saying, “Merry Christmas! Happy New Year!” is three syllables longer (& in the printing world, 17 characters, if you include punctuation). Really, I’m just acknowledging that there are a lot of holidays going on right now and I don’t want to list them all.

My neighbor down the road has a sign up that says “Keep the Christ in Christmas–MERRY CHRISTMAS, NOT HAPPY HOLIDAYS!” If you are a devout Christian, then by all means, you should keep the Christ in Christmas–but remember, the most important place to keep Christ’s spirit is in your heart, in your home, in your family, and in your day to day acts of kindness. Whether Walmart or Starbucks keeps Christ is really not nearly as important. Christ celebrated Passover and Hanukkah and was probably born in April, after all, so the day is about how you embody his work of charity and forgiveness.  I am not a practicing Christian, but I’m certain raging against a Starbuck’s cup or a Walmart worker is not very Christlike.

In the United States, people have been saying Happy Holidays and Season’s Greetings since the 19th century without any intent to politically brainwash (below are two ads from 1863 in Philadelphia and 1890 in Duluth, respectively).

happy-holidays                     happy-holidays-2

In fact, in a country where we wish each other a “Happy Friday!” in passing and deluge people’s Facebook pages with “Happy Birthday” greetings and celebrate St. Patrick’s Day even if we aren’t Irish, I would say that really, we are just a conglomerate of people who like to celebrate all holidays. Holidays are fun, after all, and so in a month filled with chocolate, champagne, dreidels, lights, trees, presents, ceremony, and family, it’s okay to wish anybody anything you’d like–Happy Hanukkah. Merry Christmas. Happy New Year. Season’s Greetings. Nobody is offended by your celebrations of faith.

Happy Holidays. All of them.

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Angie Miller is an educator, freelance writer, traveller, and TED speaker from New Hampshire. You can follow her on Twitter @angieinlibrary.

 

 

 

 

We are here.

He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetrate it. He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it. ~Martin Luther King, Jr.

Recent events have exposed an underbelly of America that has been writhing, unacknowledged and largely ignored, like maggots under a rotting log. Many of us are shocked, while others are terrified by the unfolding of seemingly accepted hatred. Recently, onlookers watched as a young Muslim woman was harassed and grabbed at in Grand Central Station. Not one bystander intervened or called for help. Not one.

We believe that silent bystanders are as guilty as the perpetrators. We also believe that no change has ever occurred without the persistence of writers.  With that in mind, we’ve created this space to do what we do best: write as activists. We will not be bystanders who look the other way; we will not overlook hatred and fear; we will not let our voices be quieted by the normalizing of marginalization.

Every week in this forum, a new voice will speak out. It may be black, feminist, Jewish, Muslim, gay–no matter, because it will be a voice that believes we find solidarity and unity in our collective differences. The power of story builds empathy, and empathy is at the root of acceptance. And as a culture, we need to work a little harder at that.

We see what is happening around us, and we won’t be bystanders. We see what is happening around us, and we are here.