In one of the first assignments of the year, I asked my new eleventh grade American Studies students to “write ~2 pages on what America you live in.” The only other guidance I gave them was, “Some things you may think about are your location, citizenship, religion, race, class, gender, etc.” and “There is no right way to do this assignment, just be thoughtful.”
This assignment came on the tail end of a week’s worth of discussion on their summer reading text, Tales of Two Americas: Stories of Inequality in a Divided Nation, edited by John Freeman. Freeman implores in the introduction, “We need to create a framework that accounts for what it feels like to live in this America,” and goes on to discuss elevating lived experiences over statistics in conversations about inequality. Much of our early conversations about the text centered on the “Americas” in Freeman’s title; what were the two Americas he was referencing? What divided them, and could those lines of division be moved or crossed? When, and by whom?
To continue to frame the text, I had students analyze one essay, in particular, and try to describe “the America” portrayed by that particular entry. A tale of Mexican migrant workers, few of my boarding school students could relate to this story filled with survival and hardship, but also gratitude and optimism. Didn’t “they” know that life elsewhere in the United States was “better”? some asked. When I asked my students to say one word that described the feeling of reading the essay, “sad,” “frustrated,” and “guilty” topped the list. More importantly, though, this discussion sparked an important conversation about sympathy versus empathy, feeling pity for a group versus seeking understanding.
So, in assigning students a reflective essay about “their America,” my initial hope was that they took some time to reflect on their positionality as a way to both bring a new perspective to Tales of Two Americas and reflect on the lens through which they would be analyzing history in our year together–and beyond.
I got so much more than that. I learned about the backgrounds of my students, their family lives and their socioeconomic statuses, their challenges and their successes. I learned about how they experienced the school community that we all shared. I learned about their writing abilities–from spelling to syntax to organization to creativity. I learned about their self-awareness. I learned about their willingness to take risks–or their avoidance thereof. And then I learned–or mostly reminded myself–that you can have students dig into content while also creating assignments and facilitating discussions that acknowledge and elevate their humanity.
Last school year I wrote a post advocating the teaching of content fluency over content knowledge, concluding that entry with, “So, as historians and educators, I hope that we continue to push our field from the narrow to the holistic, from the rote to the practical, in the hopes of not just teaching students but teaching humans in all of their social context.” In many ways, I’m starting this year’s series by expanding upon that sentiment. While we can still aspire to and prioritize content fluency, even that is ancillary to the development of our charges and the expansion of their self-awareness, empathy, and consciousness of the world around them.