By Danielle Helzer
I started my career teaching high school English to freshmen in a rural Midwestern town. When I was hired, the curriculum consisted of a few essays and a handful of short stories and poems to be selected from the textbook. The “major” reading options were Romeo and Juliet, The Odyssey, A Christmas Carol, and The Pearl.
There was no honors or basic track in this school, so all 9th graders took English 9. This meant in one class, I had students reading at a post-high school level working alongside students reading at a first-grade level. Students whose families had farmed in this area for a hundred years sat next to students whose parents were undocumented immigrants. I had the most affluent students in the same class as homeless students. We were a diverse group, and our curriculum did not reflect this.
Luckily for my students, I caught the activism-bug during my first summer of graduate school. I was surrounded by teachers who gave their students permission to engage in the world around them and to question; they moved outside the canon and even worked within the canon to challenge their students. There was a contagious spirit of activism, and I wanted to take this into my own classroom.
I returned that fall armed with ideas and lessons that would go above and beyond the standards and encourage a kind of critical thinking and engagement which the current curriculum didn’t allow. My new, revised curriculum was starting to represent my students. The biggest change in the curriculum would be a quarter-long unit built around Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”
I planned for my students to research issues that impacted their communities and then apply Dr. King’s four steps for non-violent direct action to do something about the issue they researched. Together, my students and I would plan a project night open to the community to inform the audience of their respective social issues.
This unit was a significant revision to the curriculum requiring students to participate in a project night outside school hours, so prior to the implementation, I showed my administrator the Dr. King text, explained my rationale, and reviewed my unit plan that aligned with every state Language Arts standard. I naively assumed he would be on board with the unit that was flanked with an historical text normally reserved for seniors.
“Sure. You can do the unit, but you’ll need to send a permission slip home.”
I blinked a few times and wondered if he was joking.
“A permission slip?” I questioned and blinked a few times, my mouth hanging open.
“You’ll need to send home a permission slip because you want to teach a piece written by a black man. I don’t have any problem with this, but people around here may not want their child to read it. And you’ll probably have to rethink the word ‘activism’–that word might freak some people out. You can try the project night, but you won’t get even half of your students to show up for it.”
More blinking. This black man was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.–a man who helped change history, a man who has a FEDERAL HOLIDAY named after him, a man who kids grow up learning about–even in our mostly white, rural, midwestern town.
Even though I found the request to be ridiculous, I sent a letter to parents/guardians explaining the unit and its final outcomes; I gave them the opportunity to opt their child out to complete an alternate unit. Not one parent/guardian opted his/her child out of the unit. This happened to be the only unit in the entire English 9 curriculum that had a 100% completion rate. The local newspaper came to interview my students and ran a story on their projects. The news station from a town 45-minutes away came to film my classes who were later featured on the evening news.
And their projects? They were damn good. There were the two girls who investigated a rare form of cancer and then put on a soup supper at their church to raise over $800 for a woman in their community who was diagnosed with this disease. One duo explored the link between fitness and overall health; for their project, they organized a 5k race (complete with police support, waivers, donated post-race snacks and prizes, and over 30 participants). The two donated all the funds to the town’s fitness center to help fund their planned expansion. Another pair of students learned that many teen drivers don’t understand basic car-care, which can cause safety issues. So, they partnered with a local dealership/body shop to provide a free car-care clinic where staff taught kids how to change a car’s oil, change a tire, etc. A senior repeating English 9 who was living on his own and raising a child, researched the impact of skate parks on small communities. He spent a few hours each week cleaning up our local skate park, documenting the before and after with pictures and interviews with local skaters. This was learning that mattered to students.
These 80 freshmen students who lamented that adults didn’t take them seriously, who feared failure during their projects, wanted to prove to their town that they were capable of good things, and their town rallied around them. People showed up to the students’ project night and genuinely showed interest in their projects. Townspeople encouraged my young activists to keep doing good work. They sent cards thanking my students and wrote letters to the editor commending their investment in our community.
Despite the results, there was resistance to the unit beyond even my administrator’s first hint of skepticism. A fellow English teacher took to social media to complain that the unit was not rigorous and wasn’t teaching kids English. During the unit, I led a training session for our staff on how to use Google Docs in the classroom. When I explained how my students and I were using it to complete our projects, a teacher interrupted me, rolled his eyes and yelled sarcastically from the back of the room, “We can’t all be over achievers like you…” While the unit was incredible for my students, it did nothing to enhance relationships with my colleagues.
I may have had permission from my administrators to do this unit, but I did not have their support–none of them showed up to the project night the first year.
Teachers who are embracing some form of activism or civic involvement will surely meet hesitation or even flat out resistance. But John Dewey wrote, “The path of least resistance and least trouble is a mental rut already made. It requires troublesome work to undertake the alteration of old beliefs.” I’d be lying if I said the resistance I faced from my administrators and colleagues didn’t bother me. As a young teacher, this criticism filled me with self-doubt and made me question every choice I made for the next three years I spent in that district. It would have been easier to maintain status quo. This criticism, though, made me a stronger teacher even beyond my tenure in that district. It encouraged me to avoid jumping on curricular bandwagons, to pursue a habit of inquiry, and to always have an answer for why I did what I did in my classroom.
This unit was so much more than a one and done project for my students. For some, this was the first time they had agency, and they carried this sense of empowerment into other areas of their lives. In a post-unit reflection paper, one student who failed English 9 the previous year, explained that he had never been taken seriously before this project. He mentioned feeling like he could now do so much more, starting with passing his classes. A small group of students from my class later advocated to start a slam poetry team in their school, and a few years later this team from a tiny school won our state’s Louder Than a Bomb competition. Another group of students went on to raise money for a new music room and auditorium renovation. They worked with stakeholders in our community to hold fundraisers, to budget for expenses, to speak about the benefits of music education, and within a few years, they accomplished what they set out to do. This project did more for my students than any essay analyzing theme in The Pearl could have done.
Teachers: the work we do in our classrooms that meets the most resistance is often the most worthwhile, most valuable, most necessary work. Let’s be rabble-rousers. Let’s be the kind of teachers who run headlong into hesitation and resistance, who ignore the sarcastic comments, who embrace the the label “over-achiever” because we know this work is good for our students.
Danielle Helzer is a writing coach at Central Community College in Grand Island and Hastings, Nebraska. Previously, she spent seven years teaching high school English, co-directed the Nebraska Writing Project, and served as an adjunct in a variety of English and Education departments. She enjoys cooking, listening to NPR, engaging in passionate conversations, and serving in her community alongside her husband and two kids.