“So what do you do?” We all have asked this familiar question while making small talk at a BBQ, a bar, or a kid’s sporting event. I smile whenever I get this question – already knowing how the person will respond to my answer. “I teach 8th grade.” Cue the familiar, “Oh wow.” “But they’re so full of hormones!” and my personal favorite, “You’re a saint.” Yes, my classroom occasionally reeks like too much Axe bodyspray, but I absolutely love teaching this age group. They’re starting to figure out who they are and what they stand for, and it’s an honor to be a witness to that process.
I teach at a fairly diverse school in a lower socio-economic status suburb of an urban area. One third of the student body are students of color. Two-thirds of the student body receive free or reduced lunch. I teach English Language Arts, Social Studies, and Health, but I also, like all teachers, teach kids how to be critical thinkers and make sense of the world around them. This year it’s been hard to separate my curriculum from the intersection of sexuality, gender, and race.
I wasn’t surprised when discussions around sexuality came up during Health. I’m fortunate to teach at a school that has not only a comprehensive sex ed unit, but an inclusive one too. At the beginning of the unit, a student asked me why I kept using the word, “partner.” I inwardly braced myself for the fallout, and responded, “Because girls can also date girls and boys can also date boys.” Instead my student responded, “Oh. That makes sense.” No big deal. Moving on.
I was surprised, however, when discussions around sexuality started to pop up in my core content classes. In one class, for example, I had my students write poems around the theme of “becoming an adult” and asked if anyone wanted to share what they wrote. One the most popular boys in the 8th grade leaped out of his seat and presented his poem on wanting to create a world where you’re free to love who you want to love. When we did argumentative speeches, one of my quietest students delivered a passionate appeal for marriage equality and earned a standing ovation from the entire class. (I wish I was teaching this month! I’m sure the recent Supreme Court decision would come up in discussion). During a lesson on the Industrial Revolution, one student asked “What happened if you were gay back then?” We discussed that it probably wasn’t safe to come out, and if you did you risked your career and your life. “That’s just not fair,” “that’s messed up,” and “if you’re gay, you’re gay” was the general consensus of my students. Then I stopped being surprised by my incredible students. This was so different from my middle and high school experience, where anti-gay slurs were the norm. In the middle school where I teach, it’s not cool to be a homophobe! In fact, nothing will cause you to fall down the social ladder faster. You may still get teased for wearing Crocs to school (hey, we’re not perfect – we’re working on it) but you will NEVER be bullied for your actual or perceived sexual orientation.
Discussions around gender came up pretty early in my Social Studies classroom when we learned that no women in early America were allowed to vote, very few women owned property, and all college students were men! I had students guess when women got the right to vote. They all guessed it happened before the Civil War. They couldn’t believe it when I said that my grandmother was alive when women didn’t have the national right to vote. Again, “that’s not fair” was the outraged refrain that permeated my classroom. (Middle schoolers have a heightened sense of fairness – another reason why they’re a fun age to teach). They brought up income inequality on their own, citing this bake sale that they heard about on social media. (I really wish I was in the classroom this month so we could talk about FIFA’s gender inequality.)
Of course, no discussion around gender is complete without the f-word. (And no, not THAT f-word – unfortunately I had to give a few referrals this year when students chose to use THAT f-word.) Our unit on the great reformers and abolitionists introduced us to the term, feminist. Our textbook did not choose to define the term but rather took the easy way out and decided to bold it and use it in a sentence that was something like, “Elizabeth Cady Stanton and other feminists….” How useful. However, it did make for a great teachable moment. I asked my class to guess the definition of feminist. Their answers reflected the negative connotations associated with the word: “They’re angry women who burn bras;” “They dress up as giant vaginas in parades;” and “They want to be better than men.” I then said, “What if I told you that a feminist was anyone who wants men and women to be treated equally?” Silence. I showed them an image on my PowerPoint I’d prepared the night before. It was a picture of my bearded, tattooed husband wearing a t-shirt that simply said, “Feminist.” “My husband is a feminist because he wants women to be treated the same as men.” I should mention that my students had already met my husband at a school event and proclaimed him to be “so chill.” So perhaps I capitalized on my husband’s cool factor to make a point, but the photo did launch a pretty epic discussion of feminism.
Just like discussions around sexuality and gender will come up, so too will conversations around race, and I’ve found that a lot of teachers hesitate to have discussions about race in the classroom. These conversations are avoided because some fear saying the wrong thing, or because their teacher training program explicitly told them to not talk about race and instead favored a more “colorblind” approach. I should probably mention at this point that I’m white. I don’t share the same experiences as some of my students of color, and that’s why it’s especially important to hear their voices.
This past year we had a lot of conversations around race. I anticipate more next year as the American public continues to grapple with our country’s racist past (and present). In a lesson on the transatlantic slave trade at the beginning of the year, one of my students asked where racism came from. This same question was asked in various iterations over the course of the school year. They get it. This generation of students has (thankfully) moved past the narrative of “slavery was bad but we ended it and then Martin Luther King ended racism.” They get that “things are still bad” (their words). They made the connection from Ferguson to Baltimore this spring. During our Reconstruction unit, one student compared the Confederate flag to the swastika since they both are symbols of racial hatred and then wondered why the Confederate flag still flies. (AHHH! Did I mention I wish I was in the classroom this month?)
After President Obama gave his Immigration Reform speech in November 2014, which was focused on keeping families together, some of my Mexican American students wanted to process what he had said. This led to a very respectful in-class debate on immigration. A few of my Mexican American students talked about “how bad it was in Mexico.” Drug cartels had taken over their families’ hometowns and it wasn’t safe to live there anymore. Their families came here and work hard. “We’re not criminals, we just want a better life,” articulated one of my students. At the end of the debate, a lot of students who were vehemently against immigration began to question their thinking and changed their mind after hearing their classmates’ perspectives. That is always my goal as teacher. I will never tell a student what to think, but I want them to analyze why they think it. Through our mainly student-led conversations this year, students came away with more questions. I envy their high school teachers, since I won’t be there to facilitate their conversations in the fall.
I truly believe that I have the best job. What other profession allows you to see someone becoming a more tolerant, thoughtful, open person right before your eyes? Yes, they’re goofy 13 year-olds, but they’re also at a crucial age for having conversations that can enact true structural change. I told my students so many times last year that they are the generation who will make things better – who will create a more equal society. Based on our conversations around sexuality, gender, and race, I believe that they will.
The author teaches middle school in the Pacific Northwest.