In 1787, the United States government passed a law that established a measure for how much a person “counted” according to their race. Slaves, in effect, only counted for three-fifths representation when it came to government taxation. While this served a very strategic political agenda at the time, the message that it conveyed is that this group of Americans did not “count” when it came to representation in our country. This idea of acknowledging a group of people only when it benefits you sticks in my mind when I think of my students who are either first or second-generation immigrants.
A year ago, the state of Arizona passed one of the most stringent and wide reaching immigration laws in the history of the United States. The law required immigrants to carry with them documentation for their legal residency and it also allowed for open interrogation of anyone who is suspected of having illegal status. Though it’s been nearly three years since I taught in Arizona, this news tore me apart as I thought about my former students and the millions of people the new law would affect.
In his book Powerful Writing, Responsible Teaching, Timothy Lensmire (2000) stated that “in these ugly times, ugly things roam and reproduce under the cover of democracy” (p. 4). These “ugly things” come in the guise of laws that claim protection of citizens and the common good. Much like when Arizonan governor Jan Brewer claimed that “it protects all of us, every Arizona citizen and everyone here in our state lawfully” (Alberts 2010, par. 14). Unfortunately, the “us” to which she referred were only a specific set of people in Arizona. The students in my former classroom, their parents, their families and the Hispanic community at large are those who would not be protected under the law.
To give you an idea of what this means for the school system, I’d like to describe a little of what my classroom looked like just two years ago. My classroom environment and climate has always been of upmost importance to me, higher in priority than most other aspects of teaching. The goal of fostering a democratic community in my classroom was challenging and not always accepted with my colleagues. Yet it was imperative for me to develop relationships with my students and to allow my students’ voices to be heard. Every week we had a community meeting. Students would share their concerns, celebrations, fears and opinions. Honesty was key. In fact, students would be comfortable enough to confess stealing in these meetings and also to forgive each other when wronged.
Within this safe place, my students opened up to me about their understandings of the world and their place in it. Students would tell stories of how their uncle went to jail and was being sent back to Mexico because he got in a car accident. They’d explain how they had to hide in a bush as their father fled the scene because he didn’t have “his papers.” They’d ask me Why don’t they like Mexicans Ms. Willson? and Why can’t they just let them come over? We aren’t hurting anyone. I felt honored that my students never assumed I was part of the “they” to which they referred. I was a neutral party and a listening ear. Each heartbreaking story was in addition to the normal frustrations of the school day. They also faced teasing, bullying, confusion and stresses of poverty issues as well.
In addition to discussions, my students shared their experiences and stories through Writers Workshop. In their writing, students expressed grief over the loss of a baby brother. Others would write about their memories of Mexico. One student in particular wrote a story about wishing he could fly. He wrote: I wish I could fly so that I could fly over the desert. And my uncle could fly to. I asked him whether he had been to the desert and he explained that he and his uncle walked through the desert for days. It was cold and I just wish that we can fly over it.
Repercussions of immigration laws affected people who were also there legally and even those who were born as US citizens. Four years ago, before the new legislation, my friend’s mother was pulled over in her car for no reason. She had been a citizen of the United States since birth and taught for twenty-five years in Arizona. The police officer demanded that she show “her papers.” This was before a law allowed police officers to search anyone they suspect of illegal status. My students would express fears about walking to school, la policia and the helicopters that dust down in their neighborhoods at night. What would that neighborhood look like after the law supported those actions?
I understand that there are many sides to each story. I know that someone might see my student’s uncle as a criminal for crossing the border illegally. Eric Gustein, in his book Reading and Writing the World With Mathematics: Toward a Pedagogy for Social Justice, suggests that my students’ understandings of the world were “mediated through prior experiences and world views” (p. 48). In the same way, like the seminars in Walter Parker’s Learning to Lead Discussions, my students encouraged me to widen my worldview and “reconsider (my) own interpretations of things” (p. 128). Those children who faced me every day in my classroom weren’t “the minority.” They were the majority and a part of the community in which I served. They were the “us” that Governor Brewer described as needing protection nearly a year ago.
When the government does not include these students in their definition of “us” then who is going to protect them? It is here that I begin to see a limitation of education and our ability to protect our students from the world in which they live. I have difficulty seeing the next steps for the students once they understand the “ugly things” of the world. I can’t magically give my students the ability to “fly” over a desert. I can’t personally change state laws and I certainly can’t stop racial profiling from my teacher’s desk. How can I make my mini-democratic society extend to the bigger world in which my students live?
A democratic and equitable classroom is simply not enough. We also need a curriculum that teaches world-changing. Developing leaders, giving confidence to an often quiet and hindered voice and providing the literacy to convey these messages to the greater public. We can cultivate the soil and plant the seeds. It doesn’t mean I can’t be doing my part to change public policy too, but I also want to teach this to my students. Like the proverb says: Give a man a fish, feed him for a day. Teach him to fish, feed him for a lifetime. I want my democratic classroom to feed my students for a life-time, not just keep them safe for a year.
© 2011 D. Willson