Faces of America: Combatting Prejudice and Stereotypes in the English ClassroomSeptember 26, 2017
BY: JENI GEARHART
America has been a messy place of late.
I was thinking that earlier today as I scrolled through my Facebook feed and saw folks on both sides arguing over Charlottesville, the NFL, DACA, and a host of other recent issues.
Regardless of your political affiliation, following the news can make you question what you believe it means to be “proud to be an American”.
I was lucky to have some life-changing adventures this summer that made me both proud and critical of my American heritage. I visited the Civil and Human Rights Museum in Atlanta, Ellis Island in New York City, and the Smithsonian Museum of African American Culture and History in Washington DC. Inspired by these visits, I dove into Civil Rights memoirs this summer including Coretta Scott King’s memoir, My Life, My Love, My Legacy, and John Lewis and Andrew Aydin’s March.
As teachers, how do we create a classroom that is inclusive of the many stories of America? How do we teach pride in our country as well as healthy introspection of American errors?
In my classroom, it starts with the faces in front of me.
This realization inspired one of my favorite lessons this year: Faces of America. I used this two-day activity to start my unit on House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros in my 10th grade class and to introduce my Rhetoric of Revolution unit in AP Language. Much of this was done in collaboration with my teacher buddy, Sarah Ferry (@MrsFerryHHS). She found half of the awesome pictures you’ll see later.
I started this activity with a quickwrite and discussion of the following questions:
- What does America mean to you? What words come to mind when you think about America?
- How has your experience (your heritage, race, gender) influenced what you think about America?
This, on its own, was a great discussion. Of course, typical answers of “freedom”, “liberty”, “justice” were common. But, I also had students include words such as “greed”, “complicated”, and “injustice”. Already, a great start to a very heavy and complex discussion.
Next, we watched the music video for Miracles (Something Special) by Coldplay and Big Sean.
All. The. Feels.
For the remainder of the period, my students silently participated in a Gallery Walk. Around the room were faces of America: Immigrants seeing the Statue of Liberty for the first time, American Muslims waving the American Flag, Native Americans, African American children participating in the Civil Rights Movement. Some images were hopeful, some were sad. All were America. Students took notes on the images and considered the question, “What is America?” After their walk, they wrote a reflection. You can access the powerpoint here for all of the images.
On day 2, we compared Langston Hughes’ “Let America be America Again” to Switchfoot’s “Looking for America.”
In regards to Langston Hughes’ poem, many of my students assumed it was written recently because of its critical message. That should probably tell us something about America in 2017, but I digress.
In the end, this activity is not anything fancy, but it set a great tone for our discussions this year. It allowed us to see both the beauty and the pain surrounding the name “American.” It allowed us to be proud and critical, which will be immensely helpful as we work through such complicated texts as To Kill a Mockingbird.
I’ll end with one of my favorite lines from Langston Hughes
O, let America be America again—
The land that never has been yet—
And yet must be—the land where every man is free.
Through our classrooms, let’s make America a land where every man is free.