Monday, January 7, 2013


I'm mostly by-the-book, except for those in between times when I forget to bring my book, or the book ends. Then it's my job as a teacher to figure out a way to make the complexities of the world a little easier to understand, all on my own and often using the gift of mime. Because honestly, sometimes I have no idea if the kids actually understand English or are just pretending and following along with the lesson by looking at the pictures.

Reminiscent of that time I tried to teach my third grade African-American students the meaning of "prejudice" (did not go well), today I got to teach about slavery. The reading lesson in Ahmed's book was about Harriet Tubman. It took a while for him to understand what I meant by "people who worked all day but got no money and just a tiny bit of food and if they didn't listen- bam!" (It's really easy to mime "beating," which was one of his vocabulary words.) 

He asked the usual questions- 

1."How come they didn't escape?" Then he reenacted three scenes from Home Alone to show what the slaves should have done to trick their masters.

2. "How come people thought black people were different from white people? Allah just made them that way!" A few minutes later he looked at me in horror and asked "Am I black?"

3. "Why do we pay our servant? She has black skin. I'm going to tell my mom to stop paying her..."

That last one was his idea of a joke to lighten the mood. I think he could tell that I was trying to teach him something "important" because I looked so uncomfortable. It is just so strange to teach kids about the very concepts of racism and prejudice through a historically rooted context as "truth", y3anni, "this happened" - even while these ideas would never occur to them on their own.

Ahmed got really sad that Harriet's husband John didn't want to go North with her and cheered himself up by making up his own tune and dance to "Go Down, Moses." I am worried he might try to teach it to the housemaid.

When I asked him to retell the story, he looked at the pictures and as kids will, tried to conjure something up that could resemble a narrative. In the last illustration, Harriet was basking in the sunlight with her arms up in triumph. 

"So, at the end, she lived in the North, alone, without John, and no kids. But she was making money, so it was okay..."

I asked if she was happy. "Yes, of course, look at her." He then began to more closely inspect the spots on her face where her skin was glistening from the sunlight, tracing them with his finger. His eyes grew wide and he looked as if he had cracked an impossible code. 

"Oh my God! At the end then she became white!"

It's times like this that I wonder how much it affects my students to be getting my version of things, filled with hope that somewhere in the pile of my American English, facial expressions, miming, illustrations and stifled laughter, they are gleaning some gems of truth and isn't-that-amazing's and that's-just-the-way-it-is's. Because sometimes the pictures work against me.

For today, I successfully stopped a kid from thinking that the slaves of the American South went North so they could become white. I've done my job.

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