Photo: Alison Yin/EdSource

During the past few months, Americans have borne witness to the racial and social inequities that many of our students face every day.

Now that our eyes have been opened, we have the responsibility to provide students with the tools to address these issues. But many students are disengaged from their learning.

Students are disengaged because we teach them from a place of fear. It took my student, Gilianna Esquival at Alliance Tajima High School in Los Angeles, to help me see that courageous teaching leads to courageous learning.

Esquival is an 11th-grader who transferred into my criminal justice class mid-year. Her first questions revealed the submission to authority she had internalized during her school years. “Where do I sit?,” she asked. “I was put in this class.” She sat down and lowered her head to her desk. Every day that first week, she asked to go to the restroom.

A brief conversation with her after class surfaced Esquival’s anxiety around “performing in class” and gave me insight into who she was and how I could make the class more relevant to her. That conversation ended with her walking out the door saying, “You don’t want to get me going, miss. Once I start talking, there’s no stopping me.” Sure enough, a few weeks later, Esquival was on fire.

My classroom erupted in welcome chaos, with differing views on what led to the death of Sandra Bland, a Black woman who was found hanging in a Texas police cell in 2015 three days after a confrontational traffic stop. Esquival shared her perspective on Bland. She also was passionate about fighting for Black lives and angered at the criminal justice system for its failures.

This was my fourth year teaching but my first teaching criminal justice. I didn’t start teaching the class courageously. I had neatly aligned the desks to face forward even though instinctively I thought groups of four desks would work better. I didn’t want to come off to the students as “weak,” “too fun” or “easy.” I began the first day teaching from a place of fear — that is, by laying out the rules of engagement. Rules trumped relationship-building.

In my heart however, I wanted to share how this class would broaden my students’ perspectives on the social injustices they experienced. I wanted them to learn how to use their voices to become agents of change. Yet, I hesitated.

Giving rigid orders for students to follow reinforces teacher control over the classroom but it also impedes the creation of a learning environment where students feel safe to speak and learn from one another. The classroom shouldn’t be isolated from what happens in the real world; it should be an extension of students’ lives.

Teaching from a place of fear unintentionally teaches the students to be fearful. They are more likely to be afraid to fail and miss out on using those failures as opportunities for growth. Students in the traditional classroom setting do not raise their hands because they are afraid to be wrong.

In distance learning necessitated by the coronavirus pandemic, the majority of our students have shut off their computer cameras and tell us their microphone is broken. Some don’t even participate in the text-based chat. My school recently extended instructional hours because half of our students were failing at least one class. With targeted small group instruction focused on our most vulnerable students, we were able to improve as a school.

Yet we have tools and methods to keep our students engaged.

Analyzing cases that shed light on their lived experiences allows students to tap into their curiosity, creativity and courage.

Using a Google Voice text to find out how a student is doing emotionally, physically and mentally or logging on a few minutes before class starts though Google Meet or Zoom to chat with students about what they did over the weekend builds relationships. (Too often, texts are just about the student’s missing work.)

I invite teachers to ask ourselves:

  • How do I communicate a depth of care to students that feels authentic and compels students to engage with the learning?
  • What opportunities do I have to connect with students?
  • How do I empower students so that there is a sense of purpose to their learning?
  • How well do I know my students and their lived experiences?
  • How can I create avenues for them to take ownership of their learning?
  • What issues are my students facing in their own communities? What solutions and ideas do they have for change?

We need to teach courageously so that our students remain courageously engaged in their learning.

••• 

Kandy Galvez teaches criminal justice at Alliance Tajima High School in Los Angeles. While working to complete her master’s degree at Brown University, she was part of an effort to better prepare teachers with culturally relevant pedagogy.

The opinions in this commentary are those of the author. Commentaries published on EdSource represent diverse viewpoints about California’s public education systems. If you would like to submit a commentary, please review our guidelines and contact us.

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  1. Jim 3 weeks ago3 weeks ago

    Our governor has a more direct solution, send your kids to private school.

  2. Angela 3 weeks ago3 weeks ago

    This is a beautiful story! Thank you for the tips for creating structures to support students from a school wide perspective as well as a interpersonal approach that any educator can do!