Today’s guest post is written by frequent Finding Common Ground blogger Lisa Westman. Lisa is an instructional coach specializing in differentiation for Skokie School District 73.5 in suburban Chicago. She taught middle school gifted humanities, ELA, and SS for twelve years before becoming a coach.
Take a minute and think about where you were when: 1) JFK was shot
2) The Challenger Space Shuttle exploded
3) The Twin Towers were destroyed on 9/11
My answers are: 1) 14 years before I was born
2) A student in third grade
3) One month into my first year of teaching
However, my colleague and friend, Tom O’Brien’s answers are all the same; he was in his classroom, teaching. And, Tom is still teaching. In fact, this school year marks Tom’s 58th year as a middle school teacher.
With close to 60 years of experience, Mr. O’Brien is quite familiar with teaching during times of uncertainty. He understands the intricacy of meeting students’ needs and strives to strike the delicate balance of giving students enough objective information, so they feel safe, but not too much information to cause them fear.
In the days since President Trump’s election and inauguration, Mr. O’Brien has had the opportunity to put his skills to the test as he determines the best way to field questions and concerns from students about the current state of our nation.
A Serendipitous Encounter Last year, I had the privilege of joining Mr. O’Brien on the last day of school when he met his incoming 8th graders and explained the foundation of his class:
“History is not about memorizing facts. This class is not about me telling you what you need to know. History is about learning from our past. This class is about empowerment. Remember, dates change. People don’t. Make connections, own your learning.”
Lately, this quote has weighed heavily on my mind as I have been struggling to focus on anything other than historical connections. And, the links I am making are frightening.
It has been easy for me to place blame on certain individuals and groups of people whose views, in my opinion, threaten to “ruin” our country. It has also been very easy for me to confirm my biases. Contrarily, it has not been easy for me to see anyone else’s point of view.
But, I have come to I realize that my feelings are counterproductive. I am perpetuating a divide that is tearing our country in half. And, while I want to look at the bright side, I am struggling to find one.
In an effort to feel better about our country’s future, I had lunch with Tom with the hope of tapping into his wealth of historical knowledge. During lunch, I rattled off the list of terrifying historical parallels that keep coming to mind (i.e. Japanese Internment Camps, The Holocaust, McCarthyism) and I asked (ok, begged) Tom to share a historical similarity that was promising. What has happened in history that tells us everything will be ok?
What did I learn? As cliche as it may be, history does repeat itself. But, if we aren’t looking carefully we may not see the reasons why.
I learned there are similarities between society today and civilizations as far back as Ancient Greece. And, more important than the likenesses are the lessons. Specifically, Tom reflected on the difference between The Persian Wars (The Greeks vs. Persia 492-449 BC) and The Peloponnesian War (Athens vs. Sparta 431-404 BC).
During the Persian Wars, Greece was successful in defeating Persia in large part because Athens and Sparta put their differences aside and joined forces. However, shortly after their victory, Athens and Sparta engaged in a series of brutal civil wars known as the Peloponnesian Wars, which stemmed from conflicting political views and contrasting value systems. These internecine battles ultimately led to the implosion of the Greek civilization.
The most notable difference between The Persian Wars and The Peloponnesian Wars was the focus. During The Persian Wars, Greeks’ priority was freedom for Greek citizens regardless of where they were from, and during the Peloponnesian Wars, the focus shifted to what was best for individual city-states with blatant disregard for the common good.
Tom presented me with these two “stories,” and left me to form my own connections. After a few minutes of thinking, I asked Tom if he was trying to tell me that people today are more concerned with self-interests than the interests of others. Tom answered my question with another question:
Is “The Selfie” A Metaphor For Today’s Culture? This question gave me the chills. I immediately thought of a disturbing viral video which recently appeared in my Facebook feed called Holocaust + Selfie Culture = ‘Yolocaust’ and, I started to wonder if as a society we are so hyperfocused on ourselves that we are missing the mark on the most formidable threat to our country. Perhaps, our most pressing issue isn’t what our government is doing wrong, but what as a society have we done to allow it to take place?
We Must Come Together and We Can Start In The Classroom During our lunch, Tom reminded me that an educator’s job is to help students process their thoughts, not to tell them how to think.
He remarked that over the past 58 years students have not changed much. Middle school students still experience the same trials and tribulations of entering adulthood. They still feel the pressures of the world around them. But, with that being said, his students’ reaction to the election has been the strongest he has ever seen.
Students’ heightened responses are likely due to the increased availability and accessibility of information. However, another observation Tom shared forced me to think more deeply about our students’ reactions.
Tom explained that when JFK was assassinated, students were justifiably distraught. They had many questions, with the most common question being, “what is going to happen to JFK’s children?” Since the election and inauguration of President Trump, the question most frequently asked is, “what is going to happen to me?”
Students, especially students who attend a school with over 70 nationalities represented, have legitimate cause for concern for themselves. Teachers have legitimate concerns for themselves, as well. But, the key is to have that same concern for everyone, including the people on the “other side.”
As educators, we are obligated to present our students with unbiased evidence. Therefore, we have the unique opportunity to help our students find answers to questions about themselves while encouraging them to ask questions about others. By fulfilling this obligation, we promote perspective taking and induce dialogue about shared responsibility for creating a system of values that best describes our society as a whole.
Mr. O’Brien believes educators can accomplish this task by focusing on 4 Cs. And, he is not referring to the 4 Cs of 21st century learning. He is referencing the 4 Cs of humanity: civility, citizenship, connection, and compassion.
Questions about this post? Connect with Lisa on Twitter.