Light Bulb Moments: Pedagogy
by Cody Norton | 06.30.16
The Importance of Inclusive Classrooms and Authentic Identities
“Woman power / is / Black power / is / Human power,” sixteen clenched fists drum against restless rib cages as empty lungs gasp life into the final lines, “Always feeling / My heart beats / As my eyes open / As my hands move / As my mouth speaks / I am / Are you / Ready!”
With their voices dissipating, my students sit cross-legged in their spaces as I walk to the front of the carpet. “What does it mean to have power?”
In unison, the class echoes my question, “What does it mean to have power?” Wriggling fingers shoot up in the air, beckoning to be the first one called.
“Power means you’re strong, like a superhero.”
“Power means you can do anything you want.”
“Power is like electricity. It helps things to work.”
I let the ideas ruminate. “Someone said power means that you can do anything you want. Let’s talk more about that. Why do you think Audre Lorde used the word ‘black’ to describe power? What is she trying to tell the reader?”
There are fewer hands this time, but still enough to move on. I choose one girl in particular, “She wants to tell people that she is strong because of her skin color. She gets her power because she is black.”
I nod and reply, “So if she is saying that her blackness gives her power, why does she say that ‘woman power is black power is human power’?”
My student continues our dialogue. “I think Audre Lorde is telling us that being black and being a woman also means she is a human. Being herself is what makes her powerful.” Welcome to first grade, y’all.
Having just finished my fifth year as a teacher, I cannot quite imagine what my life would have been like had I chosen a different career. While my desire to seek out human connections has long resonated through my personal relationships, my commitment to education is relatively new.
You see, I never wanted to be a teacher. Not at all. When I was younger, I had dreams of becoming a filmmaker. Yet for a low-income gay kid in upstate NY, I didn’t fully believe that I would achieve any success.
The isolation and hopelessness I endured as a working class person, combined with my budding confusion about my sexual orientation, was all-consuming. Without any allies to support me, I tolerated the insults and silent humiliation of being called a faggot, unable to articulate any confidence about my identity. I didn’t know how to reject or speak against the discrimination I was experiencing, so I stayed silent because I believed this would lead to my best chance of survival.
I thought I could stifle any sense of weakness under an effortless veneer of indifference and perfection, so that nobody could see the power I didn’t feel. I allowed other people to create a delusive reality that defined my existence. I would always be gay. I would always be poor. I could do and change nothing.
I peddled a false narrative that did not embody my true identity, which left me depressed and suicidal. In truth, I really loved the person I was becoming, but making the brave choice to publicly exist as my most authentic self seemed impossible. Still, when I made the decision to come out as gay while I was a teenager, I knew that meant I would need to live a life that was free from fear. This was a revolutionary idea, one that made me feel powerful because of – not despite – my lived experience.
I sought to validate my identity in college by surrounding myself with students and professors whose stories of struggle and survival mirrored my own. Within this family, I was able to engage in honest dialogues to understand and deconstruct the manifestation of sexism, racism, heterosexism, and classism as destructive forms of social control. I also analyzed how my own privilege enabled me to address these oppressive systems by building the collective strength and agency of marginalized people. My previously discarded desire to create movies that would elevate the voices of the disenfranchised transformed into a pursuit to directly engage with these communities.
I moved to Washington, D.C. to fulfill my commitment as a Teach For America corps member where I served as an early childhood educator. Primary age children are often taught compliance and submission via a rigid system of rules that do not make any sense. This effectively denies a child’s right to represent themself on their own terms. I intimately understood how integral the power of self-definition was in my own development, and I wanted to create spaces like this for the students in my classroom. I knew my students would be capable of participating in these types of conversations, given the right expectations and environment. In order to facilitate these learning opportunities, there was no question that I was going to be openly gay at my school. I wanted to exemplify the vulnerability and authenticity for which I would hold my children accountable.
This journey has been painful, maddening, exhausting, but ultimately one of the beautiful things I’ve done in my life, of which I am immensely proud. Here are some suggestions for promoting an open, inclusive environment:
- You may face resistance. Work through it. One year a parent removed their child from my classroom because it made them uncomfortable that I was openly gay with the students. Some staff members even shared this sentiment. In another instance, an administrator mentioned that a family was concerned because I told students that same-sex couples were able to get married. While this happened prior to nationwide marriage equality, this right was legally extended to persons living in Washington, D.C. during that time. Despite being distressed that a few families did not approve of who I was or what I was teaching, I knew that I displayed integrity in all situations and had the unconditional support of most families and colleagues. This gave me the courage to continue my efforts because I saw the positive impact for students.
Everyday conversations can lead to teachable moments. Listen for those opportunities. A former student was hanging out in my classroom during our afterschool program. We began to discuss our musical tastes. Having been in my classroom, he knew I had a boyfriend, and because young children cannot focus on one topic, our conversation unexpectedly turned in that direction.
“If you have a boyfriend, that means you’re gay.”
“That’s right. I am gay.”
“That’s not good. People won’t like you if you’re gay.”
“Really? I think people like me because I’m a kind person who treats other people with respect.”
“Oh. Yeah, that makes sense.” He then we went back to talking about Fetty Wap. I allowed the student to come to his conclusion after presenting my own perspective. He needed a space to reconcile his personal ideas about LGBTQ+ people with harsher societal judgements to which he’d been exposed.
- Not every moment is going to work, no matter how well planned. That’s okay. Remember: kids are kids. During one unit of study, my class explored the lives of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X. We listened to several of their speeches and discussed the similarities and differences between their community organizing philosophies. After one lesson, I allowed students to share any general questions. One student asked, “Mr. Norton, did Malcolm X always wear his glasses?” While this wasn’t exactly rooted in the social justice focus I had hoped, it was a pretty solid inquiry to which I still don’t know the answer.
- Let students make their own connections. After the death of Freddie Gray in April 2015, one of my students posed the following question: “Mr. Norton, what do you think is worse? What’s happening to people in Baltimore or what ISIS is doing?” I had no answer, so I listened. I asked the student what he thought. He believed that the actions of ISIS were worse, mentioning that people were suffering and living in fear. I asked him how he thought people in Baltimore were feeling. He mentioned they must be scared and worried because they were not being treated well. My student stated that it no longer made sense to compare the quality of people’s suffering, because both experiences were difficult. These discussions are unnerving, but essential to help you and your students grow.
- Be joyful. Inclusive environments do not need to be places of suffering. There should always be room for love and humor. My students learned about the importance of rhythm and blues music in African American communities. We listened to artists like Big Mama Thornton and Nina Simone, highlighting the ways in which music served as a celebration of culture. We took time to sing, dance, and understand the significance of the lyrics.
I continue this work every day because in my students I see an immense value that cannot fairly be described by the limitations of my own language, and I know that they are exercising their freedom of expression in ways which I did not think were possible when I was their age. And I am overcome with peace and fulfillment when my student with two gay moms talks excitedly about her family with a sense of normalcy. Because it is.
Cody Norton is a first-grade teacher at Marie Reed Elementary School in Washington, D.C. He’s a Hope Street Group National Teacher Fellow and a Teach Plus T3 Fellow. Connect with Cody on Twitter @codybnorton.