Yes, I’m Intolerant.

Recently, I had the pleasure of hearing Harvard Law Professor Dr. Randall Kennedy at a Forum for Independent Educators put on by the Facing History and Ourselves organization.  His incredible words forced me to think about my own beliefs and also how others think of me as I fight for equity and inclusion at my school.  One thing that struck me was his discussion around the concepts of tolerance and intolerance and the assumption that the former is automatically good and the latter automatically bad.  In reflecting on Professor Kennedy’s words and this week’s political outcome, these two concepts have weighed heavily on my mind.  Furthering my thoughts are the accusations that “raging liberals,” (which I guess I am according to these social media posters) are intolerant of our democratic process and the country’s right to choose because we are fearful of and saddened by the election results.

I thought I’d take some time to reflect on the idea that I’m intolerant, and in doing so realized something. Perhaps these Facebook friends are right.

Yes, I’m Intolerant.

I’m intolerant of the idea that women are sex objects meant only to serve men, bear children, and look a certain way.  Of the idea that it’s okay that I may get paid less than someone who does the same job because I have different sex organs.  Of “locker room” talk that objectifies my gender and jokes about sexual abuse.

Yes, I’m Intolerant.

I’m intolerant of the xenophobia that puts a target on the backs of innocent people, labeling them as terrorists and murderers, because of the actions of some.  That makes children cry and hide their beliefs because they fear physical or emotional harm.

Yes, I’m Intolerant.

I’m intolerant of  clothing, comments, harassment, flags, and chants that create exclusion and marginalize individuals for the color of their skin or the country of their birth.  Of the belief that color is not an issue and the refusal to acknowledge the discrimination and prejudice that millions in our country face.

Yes, I’m Intolerant.

I’m intolerant of the refusal to believe that some individuals are born with certain privileges that give them automatic opportunity.  That their birth “luck”makes it significantly easier for them to achieve the American Dream and overcome challenge.

Yes, I’m Intolerant.

I’m intolerant of the unwillingness to take the time to learn about difference in hopes of understanding.  Of the culture of exclusion that stems from the idea that there is only one right way to be, love, act, or believe.

Yes, I’m Intolerant.

I’m intolerant of attitudes and behaviors that do not allow people to feel anger, sadness, fear, or disbelief because of the way they are treated.  That instead make fun or place blame while refusing attempts to understand where the emotion comes from.

Yes, I’m Intolerant.

I’m intolerant of language and actions that make fun of people with disabilities.  That stigmatize mental illness and people who cannot think or behave according to approved social norms.

Yes, I’m intolerant.

I’m intolerant of the idea that an American must look and sound a certain way.

Yes, I’m intolerant.

I’m intolerant of ignorance.

… of inequity.

… of exclusion.

… of miseducation.

… of inhumanity.

… of intolerance.

I AM Intolerant.

I do try, however, to be tolerant of other’s viewpoints, even when they differ greatly from mine.  I try to be tolerant of those people on the other side of the fence that are hurting in a way that I don’t understand.  I try to be tolerant of those who may not know as much as me but are willing to learn more.  I will acknowledge that I, myself, have made mistakes, and that I have contributed, knowingly and unknowingly, to the problem.  I will recognize that I still have a long way to go in my journey to understand.

I will respect why others made their choice, knowing, as I’ve taught my students, that there are so many determinants in deciding a candidate, and that understanding these perspectives helps create unity. I will respect our democracy and the office of the presidency and have faith in our constitution.

But, I refuse to be stagnant, and I refuse to be tolerant of the idea that there are not massive problems in our country; that racism, sexism, religious intolerance, and xenophobia had no impact; that there is no such thing as privilege; that everyone has the same opportunities in this “boot-strap” country.  I will not accept these ideas as truth and will not pretend that this election did not prove that we have work to do to live up to the founding fathers proclamation that ALL are equal – and that that work didn’t just get a whole lot harder.

For many, it might be easy to ignore this right now, to focus on other things, to gloat and celebrate in the knowledge that their choice won.  And maybe because I get angry at that sentiment, I am intolerant.  But if that’s true, you can keep right on calling me that.

How to Silence 8th Graders

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I love Brandon Stanton’s work.  I find it mesmerizing, inspiring, thought-provoking and countless other adjectives.  As I’ve delved into my own work around equity, I also find it a great place for me to further and challenge my own perspectives about the world.  I’ve wanted to use the site in my classroom for some time but couldn’t think about how I could without feeling like I was forcing it down my students throats. This past weekend, I finally figured it out.

We have been reading Marcus Zusak’s The Book Thief, and I have been using this masterpiece of a novel to have my students examine the following essential questions (some for the year, others just for the unit):

  • What is the power of story?
  • How does an individual influence a community? How does a community influence an individual?
  • What do we risk by being apathetic? Where do responsibilities lie?
  • Why tell the story of World War II?
  • Are there elements of the Holocaust still alive in our world today?

We have been spending a great amount of time discussing how the book connects to our current world, specifically around ideas of poverty, privilege, and inequity.  Our discussions have been intense and memorable.  They are why I teach.

As I worked to produce seminar questions for students to wrestle with as they work through the novel, I knew I wanted them to think about our school motto “Achieve the Honorable” through the eyes of the book and considering our world today.

Liesel, the main character, and her friend, the beloved Rudy, are suffering through the Holocaust, are poor and desperately hungry. They steal food to survive but never, as the reader, do you feel like it is wrong for them to do so.  Liesel’s family, like many brave throughout Germany, also harbors a Jew, risking their own life to save another’s, something that people now consider an unbelievable act of courage.

My seminar question quickly became: Is crime and dishonesty ever okay?  An extension resulted in: What does it really mean to “Achieve the Honorable?”  I want my students not only to think about these tough choices that the characters had to make but to think about how examining these characters could help them better understand the choices millions around the world and in our own backyards have to face daily.

As I thought about resources I wanted to share with my students to help them grapple with these questions and to consider various perspectives, I finally realized that this is how I could use Humans of New York.  I happened to luck out as Brandon is currently interviewing prisoners at several New York City jails.  It couldn’t have worked out better if I had planned it.

A very few of my students had knowledge about the site or spent significant time visiting it. All it took for them to quiet down and become engrossed was for me to share the website.  I’ve NEVER seen my eighth graders, or any eighth graders for that matter, so quiet and engaged for a significant time period.  They did not talk.  They did not ask to get a drink of water.  They didn’t even realize when I needed to leave the room for a moment. In fact, they barely moved.  And when given the opportunity, they discussed and only stopped because I stopped them.

This week, they will try to become storytellers themselves and will harness their inner Brandon Stanton.  I cannot wait to see their results, and I cannot wait for them to answer our seminar questions.

It’s amazing what happens when people are given the opportunity to share their stories. It’s amazing what happens when people take time to read those stories.  It’s amazing what Brandon Stanton has done.

So thank you, Brandon, for not only inspiring millions around the world, but for helping my students think.  Thank you for quieting my 8th graders in the best way possible.

The Courage to Admit We’re Flawed
Photo Credit: James Vaughan

In 2015, I spent a large amount of time devoted to learning more about equity and inclusion.  My work at the Multicultural Teaching Institute in Weston, MA and the National Diversity Directors Institute in Potomac, Maryland transformed me and lit a fire within.  I truly am committed to making the school experience of my students a more equitable experience, but man, is it hard sometimes!  It’s hard for me and it’s hard for others.

Despite my dedication and knowledge, I make mistakes.  I don’t always realize when I am creating disadvantages or inflicting bias. I don’t like when people question my beliefs or behaviors.  I struggle with my own privilege and often still don’t see when I am advantaged. I get frustrated with other adults who don’t see the importance of these issues or cannot admit they may have a role.   In doing so, I may sometimes put them off instead of turning them on.  I worry.

The one thing I have taken away through all I have read, listened to, and communicated is how much this is a journey for me and everyone else.  And what I have to remind myself is though the destination may be the same, how we travel and the roads we take are very different.

I need to accept that I do not know everything yet and that I will learn more. I must remember that I may know more than others and be inspired by small growth.  I have to acknowledge that this journey is one of the most difficult I will face as an educator, that failure is inevitable, and forgiveness is sacred.

All these things take courage, which is why they are so difficult.  It takes courage to admit we may be prejudiced.  It takes courage to admit that we are in fact biased.  It takes courage to admit that not all students share the same experience and we may have a role in that.  It takes courage to look deep inside ourselves and admit we may have done things wrong in the past.  It takes courages to acknowledge that even when we try our best, we can still fail. It takes courage to admit we’re flawed.

But it also takes courage to not give up, to keep fighting when people are fighting you, to be willing to learn more, to be uncomfortable, to feel alone in the fight, to find solace in others, to admit you don’t know everything.  To ask for help.

This year, 2016, my intention is to be courageous.  Are you with me?