Do It Alongside of Them: Co-Creating in the Classroom and Beyond

Matthew Kaufmann

As teachers, we see how the larger world impacts our kids.  The decisions made in Washington and Frankfort trickle down from legislators to our classrooms.  The conflicts of our culture find their way into our kids’ lives and into our schools’ doors. Every kid in a desk is living within a system and a larger history that they didn’t create.  And some of these kids are marching for their lives. They’re planning a global climate strike on Friday: September 20th.  They’re chanting Black Lives Matter and #MeToo.  They’re trying to succeed in school, find a path, and often in the context of working to support their families, dealing with trauma, and some of them- walking around afraid to speak Spanish or wear their hijab in public.

In education, context matters.  

And I believe we need to help our students challenge and transform contexts that are hurtful to them.  The skills we help them develop, the knowledge we help them apply, and the communities we co-create with them have the power to change their lives and the world.

We’re called to be realistic optimists.  There’s no room for cynicism in education.  We are in the work of speaking hope in everything we do.  Every subject area allows us to empower our students’ lives in unique ways.  As an English teacher, with over a dozen ethnicities in my classroom, I ask questions, and then I have them write, write, and write.  And then we share our writing and grow our conversation, our understanding of contexts, and our empathy.

The realist in me asks the question: Where is a space you’ve been negatively labeled?

And we write and share.  

The optimist in me asks:  How can we challenge and transform those spaces?

And sometimes my students come to the conclusion they’ve inherited systems from a different time and place that are no longer appropriate.

I’ve been working with a group of students who feel they’ve inherited such a system.

One of my students wrote a letter to every state legislator in the House and Senate last year.  She shared her conflict on how she and her peers did not have a sense of their history before slavery.  She expressed the need for experts on African American history in our schools to help fill the knowledge gap that she was experiencing and healing the mental health crisis this lack of knowledge created.  She linked many “behavioral infractions” and the school to prison pipeline as direct result of being systemically denied her history. She argued, “This is a mental health issue.  This is a civil rights issue. This is a doing right by kids of color issue.”  And local legislators Attica Scott, Charles Booker, Reginald Meeks, Lisa Willner, and Morgan McGarvey listened to and responded to her. Her bill has been pre-filed, and my students are preparing to advocate for their cause in January to legislators in a committee meeting in Frankfort.  Moreover, this work has inspired a partner in Washington D.C. to fly these kids out and provide hotel rooms to allow these students to visit The National Museum of African American History and Culture and meet national leaders on human rights issues.

I’ve often reflected on what my most important job as an educator is. I know there is a difference between compulsory schooling and real education.  As long as I’ve been teaching, I’ve been using writing as a vehicle for personal and social transformation, striving to make everything I do meaningful and relevant to my kids’ lives. Too many of our kids feel disconnected from the allies they have in our local government.  They think their vote doesn’t matter before they even get the chance to vote. But the optimist in me teaches them they may not be able to vote, but they have a voice, and that voice matters. And we do not need to be held hostage by the status quo, the enemy of equity. The critical issue is not what works, but rather what works for whom and under what set of conditions.  The challenge is to see the system that creates the current outcomes. And if the contexts of our kids’ lives and times are damaged by these systems, then my most important job is to empower them to change those systems.

Educators, I encourage you to ask your students what issues impact them the most.  Help them see; provide them resources; build platforms for them; recruit allies for them; and help them challenge and transform the inequities and injustices that hurt them and all of us.

And maybe the most important thing, do it alongside of them.  Show them courage. 

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