I’ll admit it–until a week ago, I had no idea of the problems facing the community of
Flint.  I don’t pay for cable, and where I live we can’t get the basic news channels even with rabbit-ear antennas.  When I started seeing stuff popping up on my news feed and here on WordPress, I asked my wife, “What is this?” And she told me.

I started gathering information right away.  I used to work for Texas Campaign for the Environment in Austin, and researching the problems in Michigan brought me back to those days of knocking on doors bringing vital information to the people.

I’m appalled at the lack of regard for public health and safety this crisis has highlighted.  I’m disgusted by the apathy of others not suffering.  But I’m not altogether–surprised.

So much of our society has been constructed on the backs of the working poor, the oppressed, the enslaved, and meanwhile the privileged reap the benefits and forget to whom they owe their thanks, preferring their ignorance to empathy and justice.

I brought this to the attention of my Language Arts classes the last few days.  Tuesday, they broke up into small groups with a variety of articles to read and were given the task of answering key questions, such as “what happened,” “who is responsible,” and “what is being done.” They took notes and were told to be ready to share their discoveries.

Yesterday (Wednesday), my students came into class and saw the desks arranged in two circles, one inner and one outer.  They’ve never before experienced Socratic seminars, so
after discussing
the rules and responsibilities of student-generated and inquiry-based discussion, I directed their attention to the whiteboard, where I’d written a list of clarifying questions and a list of action-based questions.

Exit tickets
Exit Tickets, identifying what they learned through listening to others.

We’re reading William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying in class, so I tried to create questions that highlight the need and duty to assist and empathize with those who are less fortunate.  The ultimate point I wanted them to discover is that we as more fortunate people have a universal obligation to care for those less fortunate, and that even little things (like striving for understanding) are paramount to creating change.

letter writing
Student writing a letter of support and encouragement.

To my great delight, they were polite, respectful, asked tough questions, made fantastic connections, and BY THEMSELVES decided to take on the responsibility of generating community support.  I sat, mentally open-mouthed in each class, as they came up with ideas and plans and goals and wrote letters of support to the people of Flint.

Of course, not every single student spoke up in a thoughtful way (there were a fair share of “Thanks, Obama!” and the like being slung about) but those speaking for equity and justice used peer pressure in a positive way to shut down hostility, blame, and finger-pointing.

Why write about this on a blog about literacy?  Because it highlights the change that is already happening in my life from expanding my literary horizons and how that change can affect others to act for change.

And that perhaps is the greatest lesson I could have learned this year.  Can’t wait to see where it takes us next.

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