My new favorite question for teaching

I teach material that invites opinion.

I teach Religious Studies where we discuss things like human rights, the common good, social justice, the message of Jesus… Basically God’s dream for humanity.

We dig pretty deep into some ugly parts of humanity like racism, unearned privilege, displaced people, and environmental abuse.

Even though my students come from mainly progressive, left-leaning families and communities, we are all enmeshed in the racist, sexist, capitalist stew of America, and we’re all at different places on the road to acknowledging this reality and what to do about it.

This can lead to some comments from students in the classroom that are so rooted in false information or ignorance I want to jump out of my desk.

But I don’t.

Because it’s school. And if you can’t ask these questions here, where can you ask them?

Sometimes I take the opportunity to correct misinformation right away.

But more often these days, I like to help students clarify their thinking by asking,

“Why is that information important here?”

I try (hard, sometimes) to leave the inflection in my voice as neutral as possible so as not to put the student on the defensive. I honestly want to put the thought out there in the light and let us all take a look at it.

“Were they documented?”

“What was she wearing?”

“Is he really black though? Only his grandfather is black.”

“My parents worked hard for what we have.”

Often my gut reaction is to quickly correct the line of thinking I presume is taking place underneath these questions — to point out that asylum seekers, for example, *do* have a legal right to enter the country and be protected while awaiting trial. Or that the average household wealth for white families in 2013 was $656,000 and that number for Latino families in the same year was $98,000. My bias is on the side of the oppressed, the powerless, the poor. But I want to hold space where transformation might take root.

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Here’s where the tension comes:

I work hard to foster a welcome space for students of color to share their honest experiences- which can sometimes make white students feel uncomfortable. Likewise, it can be hard for wealthy students to believe the lived experiences of poor students.

I think it’s unfair for poor students and students of color to be constantly exposed to their peers’ ignorance in class, and it’s unjust for them to have to spend big parts of their education teaching their peers about their reality, which lies outside of the mainstream understanding of most textbooks and curricula.

I don’t hold a LOT of open-ended, large-group discussions in my class for this reason. As my friend in grad school used to say, “the last thing I want to do in class is sit around trading ignorances.”

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