Shannon Hancock teaches at the International School of Amsterdam and partners in Stories that Move: Toolbox Against Discrimination. She has spent her career challenging young people to find the power of their voice to make a positive impact on the world.
Below she reflects on how emotionally safe our classrooms are for all voices to be shared, even those expressing unpopular views.
Stories that Have Moved Me: Honest Dialogue on Honest Dialogue
By Shannon Hancock
Open and honest conversation about discrimination is difficult in any educational setting, but sometimes these conversations might be the most difficult in the educational setting you would least expect. Some of the best school classrooms may be actually censoring important exchanges of ideas. Are we creating safe spaces for members of our community to voice their true feelings? This is a question that troubles me.
I have been teaching around the world for 25 years — urban, rural, suburban, public, private, and across 3 continents. No matter where I have been, talking to faculty and students about tolerance and prejudice is tough and emotionally-charged.
Recently I was sitting in a training addressing stereotypes and prejudices at the International School of Amsterdam, an IB school, where I currently teach English language & literature and partner on Stories that Move: Toolbox Against Discrimination. One of the strengths of Stories that Move is in its use of real stories of young people to help move thinking. Together with 25 teachers, we watched a video of a 14 year old German boy, Tyrell, who was describing an experience in his primary school classroom. In his story he described a fellow 4th grade student trying to erase the color of his skin with her pencil eraser. When Tyrell protested saying, “What are you doing? You can’t rub out the color of my skin”, another male student retorted back, “Of course because your black skin is the devil’s work”. This is the heavy truth that many of our students live with every day.
We all have painful stories, whether it be about our gender, body image, color, culture, religion. In this workshop, our presenter asked us to express one word to describe our emotion for Tyrell’s story. I found that the word that came up for me very clearly was “guilty”. I could not uncover in that moment why I felt this, but it was there in neon for me to see and consider. Yet, when we came to share our words with the group, I could not bring myself to share mine. I felt nervous and I could feel my face getting hot; I felt that I might be judged by my colleagues; and to be truthful, I think I felt ashamed.
Since this workshop I have been thinking a lot about Tyrell, myself, and my classroom environment — Is it safe? Do I create a space for open, honest dialogue? What about with my teaching colleagues? How safe are their spaces for our students? Is teaching at an international school with 50 countries represented, where the students know what is ‘okay’ to say (or not say), actually a potentially dangerous environment to perpetuate stereotyping and bias by not allowing our students to speak freely?
“You cannot in abstract…start with an issue that is sensitive and where learners, minorities or majorities, feel that it is not honest what you are doing. It needs to be a safe space for everybody…that also includes young people who might be provocative to their responses to minorities should feel that they are respected in the way that they express themselves.” (Dr. Lutz van Dijk)
Lutz van Dijk is a German-Dutch historian and pedagogue. He has written many award-winning books for young adults and has been translated into several languages. In 2001 he co-founded HOKISA, a children’s home in Cape Town, South Africa, which cares for children living with HIV/AIDS. Dr. Lutz is featured on the Stories that Move video series to share on the topic of creating safe spaces in our classrooms. One of his main points challenges educators to be more honest with themselves and their students about assumptions, stereotypes, and prejudices in hopes of moving thinking forward.
The students at my school know what to say in the classroom. Sometimes that language will change outside of the classroom, in the halls, or on social media. When it does, that shocks us. We might say: “Student X said that? That’s not the person I know in my room.” But then maybe we should move forward and continue to ask ourselves: “Do I really know all of this student’s sides? Have I allowed her to show herself? Or rather, have I censored her by setting expectations of acceptable ideas?” I am then led to my most troubling question: “Is this set of social norms and my own classroom environment actually moving tolerance and acceptance forward at all?” I am beginning to believe that it is not. After all, we teachers are great at intellectualizing — but are we really open to hearing what our students have to say? Can we handle their truths?
Seven years ago a Serbian student came to me after school. We were studying Romeo & Juliet and had looked also at Zlata’s Diary earlier that year. To compliment this study, I had shown “Sarajevo’s Romeo & Juliet”, a CNN report on a young couple, one Bosnian and one Serb, killed by sniper fire trying to escape Sarajevo’s ethnic warfare in the 1990’s. My student challenged me and made a statement to the effect of: “You are not from here (Belgrade), and you don’t know enough about this issue’s effect on our lives. You are not allowed to discuss this with us.”
I remember feeling angry, offended, and defensive.
A few years later, a British Pakistani student came forward to report that I had an ‘overly feminist” classroom, which was making it hard for him to be successful in English.
Again, I felt angry, offended, and defensive
On reflection, both of these incidents, for me, point towards something about my classroom culture that may not be safe enough for everyone to be heard, for everyone’s dignity to be honored. I also wonder if it’s even possible to have such a classroom culture? However, I am clear that authentic and honest experiences like these make me all the more committed to educational tools like Stories that Move: Toolbox Against Discrimination, because I’m still troubled by the word that came to me while watching 14-year-old Tyrell. Guilty.
I think I have some more work to do on myself. I wonder if we all do.
Consider coming to share your thoughts at the professional development seminar on Stories that Move 27-28 of September 2019 in Amsterdam to get to know the resources and stories of this online and free teaching tool. We hope to engage in open, in-depth discussions with colleagues about the challenges that we and our students face.