The work we do in our classrooms is essential. It is, I believe, the foundation of democracy, and the space where possibility is at its most limitless. Our classrooms are where worlds are changed, art is created, and scientists are born. Our classrooms are where the arts of inquiry and critical thinking are developed, where morality and ethics are made tangible, and where the nature of humanity and our place in it are examined.
But our classrooms are only a starting point. If we want to genuinely engage with our communities and fight for our civil liberties, if we want to avoid hypocrisy when we teach about the power of the individual, about civic responsibility, and about the importance of community, we need to push ourselves beyond our own comfortable and self-imposed borders.
Here are a few steps we can take.
1) Provide opportunities for your families to come together and talk. So often, parents only come to school events in order to receive information — how to talk to your children about sex, how to check their grades, how to support them with homework — that they don’t have many opportunities to engage with one another as human beings.
At my school we hold a monthly platicas, a community circle for parents. It is, without fail, my favorite hour of the month. In these circles, we talk about family traditions, about our stress around the holidays, and about our own experiences. We share stories and we build community.
2) Organize a community event. I love potlucks. They are my absolute favorite school events, and not just because I am a bad cook who happens to love home-cooked food.
Food tells stories about identity and culture that words often fail to express, and sharing food with one another is, by its very nature, an exercise in vulnerability.
You don’t need a reason to hold a potluck. Just have one. Let people come together to talk and laugh and see what comes. If you want to make it more of an event, host dinner and a movie. I only have two rules for potlucks: kids eat first and teachers serve the food.
3) Form a student activist group. My school has the Restorative Justice League; yours can have something with a less cheesy title. You don’t want to just learn and talk about what’s wrong in the world, and neither do your students. Empower them. Let them empower you. This is a self-sustaining project that cannot help but alter the identity of your school.
It is important (and difficult), however, to avoid false generosity. Remember, this isn’t your group, it’s theirs. Let the kids choose the areas they want to tackle. Let them develop the plans. Be there to facilitate, not to promote the causes you care about.
4) Make your school a community center. This year, our Restorative Justice League students have organized a series of events called “Coffee, Donuts, and Justice.” So far, the events have focused around immigration rights. We hosted a Saturday event bringing in DREAMers, community organizations, and an immigration attorney to speak to our families in order to provide them with information and resources and to answer their questions around immigration.
Learn about what your community needs, and bring those resources on campus.
⬆️ This, perhaps more than any other item on this list, is imperative.
5) Write letters. Write to Congress and Big Business. But also write to your local mosque, to a school on the other side of the country, to refugees, or to aid agencies. Write to heal and to show solidarity. And they don’t have to be old fashioned letters, e-mails work too (a great 21st century skill to teach).
6) Attend protests and talk about them with your students. Show them that you’re engaged with the world and that sometimes showing up does make a difference. This isn’t even about the politics of whatever you stand up for; it’s that you stand up at all.
7) Learn from community organizers & organizations. Learn what is around you, and learn from them. There are plenty of organizations that have been running events and organizing for years. Collaborate with them, bring them to events on campus, or simply ask questions and learn.
8) Collaborate with other teachers. Don’t try to do any of this in isolation. You aren’t alone and you don’t need to be. Talk to teachers at your school, in your network or district, or online. There are plenty of educator communities, from EduColor to #edtechchat, that you can find a few that speak directly to your interests and passions.
10) Take care of yourself. If you burn yourself out, if you’re too tired to teach or organize, let alone do both, then you aren’t doing anyone any good. Give yourself permission to escape. Whether that means taking a hike, cooking a meal, watching cartoons, or escaping into a science fiction novel, let yourself turn away from the news for a while.
In full transparency, I don’t do everything on this list. I need to reach out to and learn from more community organizers; I need to learn more about the organizations and resources that already exist in my community; and I need to take better care of myself. I’m tired. You’re probably tired too. Rest, take a deep breath, and rejoin the fight for our students.
Over his nine years in the classroom, Dan Thalkar has taught 4th through 8th grade humanities. By his own speculation, he probably watches more cartoons in his free time than most of his students. He also enjoys poetry, critical race theory, and Kendrick Lamar.