Reflecting on Steps Toward Transparent Classroom Dialogues
By: Kate Lechtenberg
Throughout the past year, I’ve been thinking a lot about how politics enter my classroom.
- December 2016: I wrote about “political seepage” in my teaching, those moments when I unintentionally let sarcastic comments or offhand remarks inject politics without the kind of dialogue that would allow all voices to be heard.
- September 2017: I shared resources for discussing controversial issues in the classroom, particularly after Charlottesville.
- November 2017: I looked at about the need to teach students how to discuss controversial topics instead of banning books to avoid controversy.
In the end of that last post, I committed to being more transparent with my college students about how the books we read in our adolescent literature class may bring up complex questions and uncomfortable topics for them. I wanted to acknowledge challenging discussions that arise when we talk about books, and explain why I choose books that focus on social and cultural issues, and I want them to think about how they might address these issues in their own classrooms when they become teachers.
Phase I: Transparent foundations
So, this semester, I included an “educational compass” statement in my syllabus to explain my approach to teaching literature. Here’s a look at my statement and why I added each part:
First, I explained my why I became a literacy educator:
- Every teacher crafts an educational compass, a set of educational theories, professional standards, personal values, knowledge and experiences that guides his or her teaching and learning. I became a literacy educator because I believe that stories are the core of human experience, and that sharing stories can help us understand ourselves and each other. However, I also embrace the challenge that stories open for us. Literature challenges us by reflecting difficult truths, revealing complex questions, and disrupting comfortable assumptions, and this means that you might, at some point during the semester, be uncomfortable with something you read in this class. I hope this discomfort will be generative; that is, I hope it will push you to new insights and intellectual and personal growth. However, if you find any texts to uncomfortable in a destructive way, I encourage you to contact me to talk about the possibility of alternative texts.
Next, I addressed why I believe dialogue about diverse cultural and social issues in literature is important:
- Though I became an educator because I believe in stories, I have stayed in education for over fifteen years because I believe that sharing stories is essential to our national and global welfare. Citizens have the right and responsibility to hear others’ voices and to make our own voices heard, and I believe that discussing what we read plays an essential part of shaping and sharing our beliefs, priorities, identities, and our ideologies. One of my priorities is to create space in the curriculum for marginalized voices. I focus on selecting texts from a variety of cultural groups, particularly groups who are traditionally excluded from “classic” or “canonical” reading lists because I believe that every reader has the right and responsibility to see and hear the diverse world in the stories we read.
Then I described my belief that education is never neutral, and I differentiated between the partisan and the political:
- I also believe that education is never neutral because what teachers choose to include or exclude in a course reflects particular values and priorities. Although we won’t discuss particular governmental policies or advocate partisan causes in this class, the literature we read will ask us to consider social issues related to race, class, gender, language, culture, ability, religion, sexuality, and other topics that inspire passionate disagreement in our communities, nation, and world. I believe that accepting literature’s challenge to hear and share diverse stories will help us respond to disagreements more humanely.
And finally, I invited students to dialogue:
- If you have any questions about my approach to teaching or concerns about the course texts, please don’t hesitate to contact me. I would be happy to talk with you as you move forward in crafting your own educational compass.
Phase II: Student-teacher dialogue
This syllabus statement lays the foundation for dialogue. Next, I’ll invite my students to discuss my educational compass statement in the context of our course content. This week, they’re reading chapters from Tough Talk, Tough Texts in which literacy educator and scholar Cindy O’Donnell-Allen establishes her rationale for including literature that inspires discussion about controversial issues in secondary classrooms. This discussion allows students to draw on their past experiences as secondary students as they begin to think about the decisions they will make as teachers.
Soon, we’ll read Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian and read articles about schools and libraries where the book has been challenged or banned. As part of this discussion, I plan to have them re-read my statement in the syllabus and discuss the benefits and complications of proactively discussing controversy with our students and, in the case of younger students, their parents.
Join the conversation
I would love to hear your thoughts on my educational compass statement in the comments below. Better yet, if you’re an educator, how do you share your educational compass with your students? Join the conversation below, and stay tuned for continued updates on my journey toward transparent teaching!
Kate Lechtenberg is a doctoral student in Language, Literacy, and Culture in the University of Iowa’s College of Education. After working in public schools for fourteen years as a high school English teacher and school librarian, her doctoral research now focuses on text selection, multicultural literature, educational standards, and equity initiatives. Kate teaches a young adult literature course in the College of Education and a school librarian course on print and digital collection management in the School of Library and Information Science. She is also a member of the AASL Standards Implementation Task Force. Find her on Twitter @katelechtenberg.