In the first ninth-grade English class I taught in Los Angeles, my students were of many backgrounds and included two African-American boys. One day in September, I looked straight at Devin and called him Camaron. “I’m not Camaron,” he said.
Camaron spoke from across the room, “I’m Camaron.”
Devin clarified: “I’m Devin.”
For teachers who seek undivided attention, this was it. As I looked from one boy to the other, the class broke into one of those oh-my-Gods in which each word gets equal stress. Devin adjudicated, “That is soooooo wrong.”
I apologized to both boys and to the class: “That is terrible — I am so sorry.”
Devin repeated with flair, “That is soooooo wrong.”
Teachers are, of course, capable of mixing up names. Was this instance of it racially inflected? Was our collective anxiety about it racially inflected? How does my whiteness play into this error?
But I have found the classroom to be a wonderful place even when things go wrong. The classroom is one of the last living places where we are expected to surprise ourselves, like a mime who breaks her own rule and speaks.
And kids are subtle. They know the difference between sincerity and hypocrisy. In this case, the class let go of outrage — or the duty to feel it — and erupted in laughter. Delightful jeers from unlikely quarters, “Mr. Dewis, you are in so much trouble!” I went from the damned in chains to something like a sitcom dad who had fallen fully-clothed into a lake. I attribute this merciful transformation to great kids and to a classroom culture that lets them be great.
How to Open a Class to Its Culture
“Culture” is the Latin participle of “colore,” to garden or cultivate. The same root gives us the verb “colonize.” We often treat the classroom as a place to grow in other minds what already grows in ours. This is not the best use of school. In fact, this does not really require school — just an Internet connection.
At the other extreme is claiming to know nothing, which was Socrates’ approach. But planting the nothing from my mind into my kids’ minds presents a gardening absurdity. A great classroom culture leverages what’s already growing and helps it grow stronger.
In a great classroom culture, we forgive one another in advance, strive to be clear and good, and confront biases as they arise. Creating this culture in a classroom is up to the teacher, can happen quickly, and often means deliberately abandoning standard, well-meaning practices. I hope to overturn some assumptions about teaching in the suggestions below. They’re not rules, just thoughts. Rules tend to get used like stones; thoughts lead to more thoughts.
1. Don’t make kids listen. Start by listening to them. Present material to hear what they think about it. Otherwise, they might not think about it.
2. Don’t talk to kids like they’re kids. This would imply that you know better; on the most important things, you don’t. Talk to them as equals.
3. Don’t label kids or yourself, but be forgiving when they label themselves, one another, or you. Ask what their words mean, rather than calling them on insensitivities.
4. Don’t dictate the terms of conversation about race or class. If everything demands scrutiny, thorny topics will be at home in our conversation.
5. Don’t hide race or class hoping to steer around difficulty. More security comes when you’re able to discuss anything. There is no final word on these topics.
6. Don’t act like an expert. Make it clear that you are relying on students to help you figure things out; then, rely on students to help you figure things out.
7. Don’t stick to your guns. You gain authority by being flexible. Give yourself permission to change your mind publicly in response to what students say.
8. Don’t set up boundaries. The class will discover its own boundaries, but setting up boundaries sets in motion the fear that someone will cross them — and it might be you!
9. Don’t rely solely on students or yourself. What I call “the third thing in the room” is a great source of inquiry. Whether it’s a text, a math problem, or a historical episode, let it speak.
10. Don’t fill silence. Bad classrooms are silent out of fear; great classrooms fall silent because people are thinking.
Challenges Overcome with Candor
When I called Devin by the wrong name, I was afraid I’d hurt feelings and exposed bias. Like a lot of errors, however, it became a gift. Being the first sinner freed up the class to speak with candor.
Throughout my teaching career, my classes have been filled with students of diverse backgrounds. Last year in English class, the child of a minimum-wage earner read Mark Twain next to the child of a billionaire. It’s easy to project class anxiety onto youth. It’s better to see that in a parallel universe, anyone’s circumstances might have been anyone else’s. Sometimes the biggest hurdle in a diverse classroom is our own assumption about what matters most. Huck Finn gives his fortune away because his life is better without it.
If you want a diverse classroom, admit lots of different students and hire lots of different teachers. If you also want a classroom culture where everyone has a chance to know and change one another, then you have to let things happen.