The Portals We Create by Pernille Ripp
I don’t remember the first time someone told me I should be fired as a teacher in response to work my students had done. I know it was several years ago. I remember the fear though, how it felt like a bucket of water was thrown in my face. Here I thought we were doing good work, and yet others vehemently disagreed. I was not fit to be a teacher, couldn’t my district see that?
I do remember the most recent time I was told I should be fired. The internet has a way of bringing hate into our lives, whether we ask for it or not. It was in response to a video that Microsoft had produced surrounding an exploration we had done as a class. For several weeks we had investigated the refugee crisis all in an attempt to come up with our own opinion on what the role of the United States should be in it if any. My 7th graders had dug in with gusto, using the skills that we incorporate on a regular basis to disseminate the information they were uncovering. They used all of those skills we teach our students when we ask them to read closely, to questions, to clarify, and to create opinions all of their own. Microsoft created a short two minute video about our work and highlighted how we had reached out to a refugee, an amazing woman named Rusul Alrubail, who is an Iranian refugee living in Canada and changing the world herself. She had graciously shared her story with us via Skype, the students had had so many questions. She happens to be Muslim, as are many of the refugees from Syria, a fact that many commenters could not get past.
As the video was posted I saw the comments roll in. Some were grateful to the learning opportunity my students had had, but some were not. I was an example of everything that is wrong with our society. I was indoctrinating. I should be fired. How dare I expose them to Islam? I felt fear for the first time in a long time; even though the logical part of me knew I had done nothing wrong, but what if “they” came to my school? What if “they” came to my house? When people hate they do it to hurt, they do it to make others afraid, and for a brief moment in time, they succeeded. I was afraid for my job, for my family, for myself. But then I scrolled further down and a comment caught my eye. It was from one of my students telling someone that they had no idea what they were talking about. That they would know if they were in our classroom that I do not tell my students what to think, but instead just ask them to think, to have an opinion, to figure out the world because this is the world they will inherit. In that moment, I stopped being afraid, because if my 7th grader could have that courage. If my 7th grader could find the words to push back. If my 7th grader felt that they had the right to educate, then I certainly did too.
Books give us the opportunities to bring the world in like nothing else. They give us the starting sentence to a long conversation. They help us when we have no words, when we don’t know where to begin with complex topics or even how to begin. We reach for the books that others have written so that we have something to question, to ponder, to further our reflections around. The books, when shared, give us as a way to build an experience into the world, into hard topics, into the topics that might make us uncomfortable but that our children, our students, deserve to discuss, to know more about. So as educators we should not just look for the easy ones to share, the ones that make us laugh or smile, but also for the ones that make us cry, that make us question the world, that make us uncomfortable. It is within our discomfort that we can grow to understand more of the world we live in.
As I think of my true job as a teacher of 7th grade English, it was never to just teach children how to become better readers or writers. It was never to just teach better speaking or spelling. It was always to offer them an opportunity to leave 7th grade feeling like they are better human beings. Feeling like they have a voice and that that voice gives them a power to explore the world they see and fight the injustices they uncover. When we bring the world in, truly, and ask our students throughout our literacy explorations to really question the world, we are giving them an opportunity to change it. We are giving them an opportunity to see where they fit into the world and just how similar we all are. We can let those who run on fear, who spread hatred, who would rather see us divided than together, rule our conversations and our choices. We can live in fear within our own classrooms that they books we share are too hard, that the explorations we undertake are too much, or we can take a chance on bringing the world in, on supporting our students to become true global citizens who use the technology we have at our fingertips to connect with others. To share their stories. To hear the stories of others. We can start our explorations with books, but first we must bring those books into our classrooms.
I don’t know when the next time will be that someone tells me I shouldn’t be allowed to be a teacher. That I should be fired. I am sure it will happen, but I also know that when it does I have a feeling the words will come after an exploration into a topic that made me proud. That once again gave me hope in the future generation that we teach. My job was never to tell my students what to think, it was to teach them how to think better, so that if anyone, ever, questioned their beliefs, they would have a way to fight back. We owe that much to our students.
A few books that have started incredible conversations in our classroom have been:
Ida, Always by Caron Lewis illustrated by Charles Santoro, a picture book that deals with death in one of the most beautiful ways possible. I could not finish reading this one aloud but had a student finish it for me.
Bird by Zetta Elliott and illustrated by Shadra Strickland deals with an older sibling’s drug abuse and death. A powerful way to spark a conversation about a topic that is often taboo.
Stepping Stones – A Refugee Family’s Journey by Margriet Ruurs and artwork by Nizar Ali Badr. The story behind this picture book is just as complex and beautiful as the story itself as it helps us understand that refugees are human beings just like us.
Jacob’s New Dress by Sarah and Ian Hoffman, illustrated by Chris Case can spark a conversation about the gender roles we assign to boys and girls.
I Never Knew Your Name by Sherry Garland and illustrated by Sheldon Greenberg is the story of a boy who never gets to know a neighborhood boy although he watches him. This is a story about suicide, a topic too often left out of picture books.
Pernille Ripp is a 7th grade English teacher in Oregon, Wisconsin. Originally from Bjerringbro, Denmark, she created The Global Read Aloud in 2010 in an effort to connect the world through one book. She blogs at pernillesripp.com and also writes books. Her third book, Reimagining Literacy Through Global Collaboration, was just published by Solution Tree. Her students consider her a crazy book lady and for that she is grateful.