The Power and Eloquence of Student Voices


The magnitude of the scenes across the country this past Saturday, March 24, 2018, as students and like-minded adults participated in the March for Our Lives, was awe-inspiring. Galvanized by the 17 murders at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida last month, the outcry against gun violence and in favor of gun control has continually risen, reaching a crescendo during Saturday’s marches. Indeed, what was most striking was not the enormity of the crowds—immense and entirely peaceful by any measure—but rather the power and eloquence of student voices, speaking with passion and determination, representing a generation propelled by their fear of what the future could hold. For some it was a fear of being shot to death at school while, for others, the fear was of being in a shooter’s midst for a second time and not living to tell the story.

I was struck by the poise and absolute command of her narrative presented by 11-year-old Naomi Wadler as she addressed the crowd in Washington, D.C. Speaking not only on behalf of a generation but specifically “to acknowledge and represent the African-American girls whose stories don’t make the front page of every national newspaper, whose stories don’t lead on the evening news,” she reminded all listening that she and others her age “have 7 short years until we have the right to vote!” Politicians should consider themselves forewarned that today’s teens and those of just a few years from now will not forget what has transpired in their childhood and will hold them accountable.

Equally compelling was Emma González, a Parkland student, who began by saying, “Six minutes and 20 seconds. In a little over six minutes, 17 of our friends were taken from us,” and then stood with tears brimming in her eyes as she recited the name of each life taken at the school. Remaining completely silent for several minutes, she followed the silence with these words: “Since the time that I came out here it has been six minutes and 20 seconds.” She then implored all young people to “fight for your lives before it’s someone else’s job.” The impact of her words and her silence bore equal weight, bringing many in the crowd to tears and serving as a call to action for both students and adults who care about them.

Then there were Edna Chavez and Mya Middleton, from Los Angeles and Chicago, respectively. Each having been seared by gun violence in different ways, the girls recounted their experiences. For Chavez, it was the loss of her brother, Ricardo, at the hands of a gunman while for Middleton it was her own experience of looking down the barrel of a gun in a convenience store and defying the gunmen’s admonition never to speak of the experience. Both indelibly marked by these violent acts, each chose to become a victor rather than a victim.

These were just a few of the student voices lifted in a collective plea for those in authority to value them more highly than guns. Yes, they are young but their determination is palpable. Moreover, students have been the catalysts for transformative movements throughout our nation’s history.

It was students who sat at lunch counters more than 50 years ago, refusing to accept segregation. It was students who stood against Bull Connor’s dogs and hoses in Birmingham, dressed in their Sunday best, seeking the equality guaranteed as their civil right. It was also students who took to the streets and campuses across this country to protest the Vietnam War and the lives being taken by it. Ultimately those students prevailed and so will these.

As another student speaker on Saturday, Cameron Kasky, so succinctly put it, “This march is not the climax. It’s the beginning.” March on, students. Most adults, including all caring teachers, support you.

Why Cultural Understanding Matters in the Classroom


You can’t help but notice the wonderful cultural diversity of 21st century classrooms. Enriching each class with a melange of languages, traditions and worldviews, this diversity is something to be celebrated, not vilified, as has so often been postulated recently. Yet despite all the rewards of this diversity, when teachers don’t fully understand the way cultural differences impact learning, problems quickly ensue. For instance, consider the following scenarios:

  • Tang is struggling in your class despite his fluency with the language. You later discover that he misunderstood a couple of basic concepts but was unwilling to ask questions.
  • Consuelo is hardworking and well-behaved, but she has a habit of never looking at you when you speak to her.
  • Arjun is a great student who Continue reading “Why Cultural Understanding Matters in the Classroom”

Expressing Creativity in School


Let’s just say it from the outset: School should be fun. It should be a place where students not only gain knowledge but also develop a curiosity for more of it. Replicating 20th century classrooms, with row upon row of student desks, a teacher’s desk as the central focus and monotonous work labeled as “learning” should be unknown to today’s teachers and students. Besides, it’s more than time to replace those tedious test prep lessons and mind-numbing lectures with discovery, exploration and innovation. That’s fun!

That’s also why I love anything that boosts students creativity and their opportunities to express it. And for all those teachers who like to say, “I’m not here to entertain them,” my response is, Continue reading “Expressing Creativity in School”

The Difference Between Teaching Students and Teaching Children


One of the many reasons I became a teacher was that I genuinely liked being with kids all day—even teenagers. While people often responded with horrified looks when they discovered that I did, in fact, teach teenagers, I always said, “Well, somebody has to like them! And I do.” They were more than students; I thought of them as “my kids,” people for whom I was not only responsible but for whom I sincerely cared. And this definitely influenced the way I taught and even the manner in which I planned my lessons.

With all of this in mind, a sentence in a recent article jumped out at me: “At some point, for those of us who do this work long enough, we realize the kids in our class are children first, students second.” Sure, it may seem obvious that our students are just kids. However, if we see them as kids first, their well-being takes precedence over their achievements. Rather than focus on standardized test scores and other grades, the physical, social and emotional health of our students becomes paramount. Continue reading “The Difference Between Teaching Students and Teaching Children”

The Value of Classes in Manhood and Heritage

Photo: Paul Chinn, The Chronicle,

“It’s a very, very dark world, but you can’t be afraid to be a source of light.” These words, spoken by a middle school student in Oakland, California, and quoted in a New York Times article, illuminate the premise of a groundbreaking program now underway in that school district. Designed to counterbalance racial inequality and the dearth of opportunities available to African-American boys, an elective class called “Mastering Our Cultural Identity: African American Male Image” has become part of the curriculum of 20 of the district’s schools, for third through twelfth grades. Its impact has been nothing short of transformative, changing not only the way these young men perceive themselves but their aspirations as well. Continue reading “The Value of Classes in Manhood and Heritage”

Why Teach?

Kids are intriguing people. In fact, that’s one of the reasons I became a teacher. In the early years, they taught me as much as I taught them, imparting life lessons they had earned the hard way on rough streets as I set about sparking an interest in history. And we all gained from it.

Looking beyond tough and gruff exteriors, I discovered vulnerabilities that students had carefully hidden, fearing that revealing a softer side might elicit ridicule or, worse, bullying. Countering that required me to find ways to uncover those softer skills and present them as just that: skills. In so doing, gifts and talents were often revealed as well, allowing students who may not have shone in class ever before to take a bow. Watching them blossom under the admiration and applause of their peers was priceless. That’s another reason I became a teacher.

Then there were the “smart” kids. Continue reading “Why Teach?”

The Power of Kindness and Other Fine Qualities


Obviously, school is all about learning, which, to the average person, means academics. However, as educators know, there’s so much more to education. From music and art to physical education and shop classes, electives help to enrich and round out students. Yet even that is not everything. The truth is that the softer skills, those related to character development, are an equally important component, though not nearly as acclaimed.

Empathy, integrity, compassion, kindness, appreciation, gratitude — these kinds of skills are what make a person whole. Indeed, just as your kindergarten teacher always said, playing well with others matters. While content knowledge may well get students through the door of opportunity, soft skills often determine whether they will stay there. And these skills matter forever, not just in kindergarten. Continue reading “The Power of Kindness and Other Fine Qualities”