Sunday, March 4, 2018

The Power of Protest; the power of words to change our world

What follows is a response I sent to a question asked on our English teachers' forum: "how to approach the violence in some of the texts [we're] teaching this year, so as to do more than wring hands about it; to use it as a vehicle for reflection and change."

I love my job so much - I love how much I get to be involved in the lives of young people who are so amazing and curious and angry and scared
My awesome Y11 class of 2016
and willing to try but needing guidance. So, this is what I said:

Firstly, (to paraphrase Edmund Burke) that the only requirement for evil to flourish is for good people to do nothing should be one of the cornerstones of what we do what we do and why we are teachers. To me, being an educator is not about 'knowledge transference' alone but about helping make the (wider) world a better and safer place because, man o man, there are some really, really bad people out there.  

I've suffered terribly at the hands of bullies (when a child and as an adult), abusers (physical, emotional, sexual); I've seen or experienced first hand the heart break of racism, sexism, all manner of discrimination. My family has suffered as a result of cruelty and lies and judgement. Yet, despite these terrible things, I have endured. So has my family. 

And so has (and do so) many who have suffered such great injustices and heartbreak because, though the human propensity for violence is shocking, the strength of the human condition to survive and thrive and make the world a better place is at the core of why great literature, great story makes living on this earth bearable. It's no longer enough to teach the skills of reading and writing -  for what is the use of that, if they are not used to challenge all that is wrong in society and to celebrate all that is good?

Secondly, our rapidly changing world demands that we encourage our students to not sit back and allow 'evil to flourish'. We have to mobilise them and give them the tools and education to challenge their own thinking about difference and violence. It is NOT okay to accept causal racism, misogyny or homophobia (thank goodness) but our communities are stained by the nastiness of fear and judgement of difference. 

Scratch the surface of any institution, and there it is: the Harvey Weinstein and the #metoo movement; the Black Lives Matter movement and our own 'Roast Busters' and the Russell McVeagh 'open secret' of abuse of power.  And I'll add the vitriolic reaction to Guyon Espiner and RNZ using te reo Māori because that's the waka I'm on at the moment.
The comments on blogs and Twitter and Facebook show that, despite the Civil Rights Movement, the Feminist Movement, Gay Pride Movement, people still have multiple forums to spew their fear and nastiness and so give voice to this 'evil'. We need to show our students this and unpack why it's there. 

Thirdly, we all ask this question when considering texts: what was the author's purpose? Or, 'what is it the author wanted me to learn, know and understand as a result of this text?' In my opinion, the answer is always about shining light on the human condition and to challenge the reader to reconsider their own view of themselves and, hopefully, modify the way they think and act. Make it personal and relateable. Using another paraphrase (from Atticus this time), that you never really understand a person until you climb inside their skin and walk around it, it is on us to do what we can to bring this understanding. Understanding is the antidote to fear and discrimination. 

A reader's short response to my novel
I have just finished reading Bastion Point with my Y9s and it has woken many of them up to our history and brought some understanding as to why Māori have continued to protest about land loss, the Treaty, and the importance of language. I have shown them news footage and let them listen to first hand accounts. Reading the text was only the start. I deliberately chose the novel because of a survey I did with all my classes last year around Māori language and protocols. The heartbreaking results have spurred me to try to challenge the thinking that the survey exposed - from disinterest all the way to open aggression against things Māori…I had to ask 'where is this anger coming from?' It is helpful too that, as the writer of the novel, I can first hand answer the question around author's purpose and I'm lucky I guess that I can do that but it's only one tool to help to challenge the negative mindset of so many.

Finally, I tell all my students that their voices matter; their words DO have the power to mobilise and make a difference. I tell them that they must never stop speaking out. My Y12s in particular have had a lot to say about the students from Stoneman Douglas High School and those who are speaking out. Those kids have cause, have the fuel to feed their anger and are using whatever means they can to speak out against the wrong. 

It's on me to provide the tools, the words, from the best minds so that my students have a fighting chance. Wisdom and words from Shakespeare, from Harry Potter, from David Hill, from Selina Tuilata Marsh. But also, Mike King and Lesley Elliot and Chloe Swarbrick.  Isn't it always the poets and the students who start the revolutions? I apologise that I am going to mangle metaphors and overstate things, but, as an English teacher in a NZ secondary school,  I see myself as the 'arms dealer' in the battles against all that is the wrong.