by Angela Lavernia
My students and I read Langston Hughes’ poem, “I, Too,” together as we celebrate Black History. As an educator, I did not tell the students what the poem meant. Rather, I asked them what they thought it was about. Their response was that all people who live in America are part of its culture and that all Americans deserve to be treated fairly. My students are not in high school. They range from 5 to 8 years old. Yes, young children understand the importance of celebrating all people in this country. They recognize that all people deserve to be invited to the table. In my 20 years of education, it was one of the most poignant and beautiful moments I have experienced.
It's easy to empathize with people you share commonalities with. A challenge for educators is how to help our children empathize with others who are less like them. It's my duty to ensure all voices and perspectives are shared in my classroom so that all students feel their experiences are valued and important. That is why I teach history as it was in an age appropriate way.
My first year as an educator, I taught at a school that was beautifully diverse. Many of the students went to the magnet school because their parents were concerned about what would happen to their children if they attended the school they were zoned to attend. The Adventures of Huck Finn was a part of the curriculum. As a white woman in her mid-20s I was anxious about teaching the book to a class mostly made up of black students. How would we read a book together that had the most offensive racial slur in it 219 times? I did not want to harm any of my students by having them read aloud a word that would inflict trauma. What we did together was discuss the use of the word in the book as a class. Students were able to talk about how they felt about the word being used in the book. They also debated about whether or not the word should be used in music and thought about who they were comfortable with using the word, if at all. It was one of the most difficult discussions I have ever facilitated because I wanted to be sure each of my students felt safe. There is no avoidance of it being an uncomfortable topic. However, if we were to read the novel, it was a discussion that needed to be had. We read the book without saying the racial slur aloud. We talked about the history of enslaved people in our country. We also talked about the changes that had been made and changes that still needed to be made.
Just as all people have a duality, a beautiful and a dark side, so does our nation. It was built on the backs of enslaved people and it was stolen from the indigenous people who lived here more than 10,000 years before the first colonizers came. There is no denying that or changing that historically. I am not guilty, however, of the inhumane ways of the people who came before me. The only thing I can be guilty of now is not working to change things in this country by accepting less than equality for all of its citizens. That means teaching history as it was so that it is not repeated. That means teaching about the resistance to laws that were unjust so that those laws are never put back into place. That means teaching about, and more importantly, celebrating all of the beautiful children, the beautiful people, who make up the fabric of our great country.
In my 20 years of education, I have taught students from all walks of life who are different races and ethnicities. There have been students in my class who come from a loving home with two mothers. And students who come from a loving home with a single mother, or a single father. I have also had students who love the same sex, changed their pronouns, or who have transitioned to another sex. As an educator, as a person, I love and accept them all as they are, for who they are. I celebrate them and provide a safe place for them to express their loves, fears, and experiences. The only way to do so is to provide a space that is honest, even when it may feel uncomfortable.
Angela Lavernia is an educator at Verdi EcoSchool. Angela is passionate about education and has more than 14 years teaching experience. She studied and received her Bachelor of Arts degree from Florida State University in Literature. She then went on to earn a Master of Science degree in Library and Information Studies. At the heart of her academic pursuits was the desire to learn and to share her passion for learning with others. She feels that each student has individual needs and that creating connections with her students is the foundation of meeting those needs. Being an educator has allowed her to become a facilitator of self-discovery, using a child’s natural wonder to expand their knowledge.
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