Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Contentious Crucible

The Crucible has gotten contentious.

I'm two months into my new teaching position, and my 10th grade honors American literature students have finished their first unit. We have started our online portfolios, written personal essays, delivered an in-class speech. We have read together, laughed together, and cried together. And although every day is not perfect, our classes have formed learning communities, connections where we support and challenge one another.

That is until we started our study of The Crucible.

An underlying tension started to ripple last week during our opening activities.  As students walked into the classroom, I had five large posters hanging around the room, each with a different position statement that would connect to our reading of The Crucible in the coming week. Apathy is worse than ignorance. Everyone is capable of cruelty. Everyone behaves differently in a group. Silence = consent. It is important to always follow authority. As homework the previous evening, students read the New York Times' article about the murder of Kitty Genovese titled "37 Who Saw Murder Didn't Call the Police."  Students were primed to talk about group dynamics and the bystander effect.  As they circulated about the room to read and respond to each statement, students were already discussing, disagreeing, bringing up examples to explain their rationale. Everything was going as I had planned.  To follow up with our initial responses, students annotated an article titled "We Are All Bystanders" knowing that we would be using the article as a basis for a more in-depth full class discussion on group dynamics in the coming days.

As we briefly discussed the article in class the following day, students in one particular section focused more on the what the article had to say about when people chose to break from groups to help.  The article mentioned a study done by professor John Darley at Princeton University which found that people were more likely to help those in need if the person needing help looked like the person offering help.  My students wanted to talk about this, wanted to analyze how we judge one another based on our appearance.  We were off to a good start.

I then had students read the opening act of The Crucible, and in particular asked my readers to pay attention to who the witches are and how they were judged and reacted.  What does The Crucible help us understand about group behavior? Students then answered a series of pre-discussion questions to get them back into our article reading looking for evidence to support our responses during a full class discussion of why people act differently in groups.  Students were ready. They wanted to talk.

My plan was that we would discuss group thinking, and students would bring in evidence from our various readings.  My hope was that I would be able to hear students making connections to current events. Where else do we see group-thinking and witch hunts happening in our world today?  And for two of my three sections of honors tenth grade English, this is exactly what happened.  We have spent two days discussing the various groups we are members of, how social norms are established, why people judge one another, connections to recent social media reactions to the attacks in Beruit and Paris,  connections to scenes and characters in The Crucible.  For two of my three sections, students were excited, jumping up, leaning forward, eager to share and discuss and argue different points of view. These were fruitful conversations where students left the classroom wishing we had more time to discuss. But then there was my other section.

They are my largest tenth grade honors English class. Thirty-one students sitting in a very large circle.  At first, our class discussion started out strong.  Students began talking about how fear and judgement from others impacted how people behaved in a group.  We discussed how social norms and conformity can be found in our hallways, classrooms, in every aspect of our life.  Students wanted to talk, to share, the multitude of ways they felt judged. We began to discuss how privilege and money impacts how we interact with others and with other groups.  And this is where the conversation got difficult for some in the room.  Suddenly, thirty-one voices weren't talking.  Instead, a handful of students, from each side of privilege began talking about the pain felt when others judge them.

This is an important conversation but also a very difficult one.  I have recently moved from a more economically stable district outside of Philadelphia to a Title 1 district in rural West Michigan.  And although I am working with tenth grade honors students in my new district as I have for most of my teaching career, the population is night and day different from some of my previous experiences. My previous district had great economic differences.  Last year I had a student in my class who was essentially homeless, living week to week in a motel with his family, who sat near a student whose home had seven bedrooms and an electric gate.  My new district does not quite have the same gap in economic difference. Sixty-five percent of the students utilize the free and reduced lunch program. The difference between those with little and those with more is slight. So it was apparent that the conversation that was happening in my classroom was not necessarily about money.

Before starting the conversation again on day two, I tried to get it back on track with an activity that asked students to think about the groups we each belong to.  I asked students to stand if they were comfortable when I called out a group that they were a member of.

I am… 
______ a member of a sports team. 
______ a member of an club or religious organization. 
______ someone who can play a musical instrument. 
______ someone who has traveled to another country. 
______ someone who has a large circle of friends. 
______ someone who has siblings. 
______ someone who works an after-school or weekend job. 
______ someone who drives my own car. 
______ someone who lives with a family pet. 
______ someone who lives with both of my biological parents. 
______ someone who has moved homes more than twice. 
______ someone who has felt insecure about the way I look. 
______ someone who has lost a loved one or family member. 
______ someone who lives with a parent or guardian that works more than one job.  
______ someone who lives with at least one parent who has graduated college with a bachelor’s degree. 
______ someone who has felt silenced. 
______ someone who has been teased because of my clothing. 
______ someone who has felt discrimination because of the color of my skin. 
______ someone who has felt discrimination because of a physical or medical condition. 
______ someone who has felt discrimination because of my perceived sexuality or gender. 
______ someone who has felt discrimination because of my religion and/or beliefs. 
______ someone who has felt isolated at times.

By the close of this activity, students reflected on how much more we had in common than they thought.  We are connected in more ways than we are different.  This was a promising start. But as we started to discuss group behavior, again students wanted to talk about privilege. Two students walked out frustrated. However, pretty quickly the conversation shifted and students began to talk about how everyone has a story that we don't see. We are not just want others see on the outside.  Okay, so the conversation didn't go quite the direction I had hoped, but this wasn't bad.  Yet, at the close of the discussion, I noticed three girls in tears. They still felt judged, felt as though classmates were pointing fingers.  They came from families of privilege and felt misunderstood.  And I was surprised.  I didn't see their reactions coming. Weren't we just talking about how we needed to remember that everyone has a story that we don't see? But the students in front of me in tears seemed to have participated in a different conversation. Other students in the class noticed the tears as they walked out to go to their next class.  The class left riled up, still wanting to talk. And suddenly the conversation which I thought was about understanding one another's story was once again about privilege, who was wearing name brands and who was not.

There are clearly tensions between two groups in my one section of tenth grade honors English.  On the surface it has to do with privilege, but there's so much more going on here.  Some of the students in their written reflections at the close of the second day of discussion pointed this out. But they were the students that did not participate verbally in the class discussion. They chose to remain silent. Remain bystanders.

I have the story of The Crucible being recreated in my classroom.  Particular students are on a witch hunt, wanting to point fingers at who is judging them. Others elect to remain silent, either figuring the conversation doesn't directly impact them or out of fear of being judged themselves.  And I am unsure how, or if, I should point this dynamic out to our class.
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