Why I Teach: Voice, Discourse, Empathy
A world away in Ouagadougou, the white walls of the classroom are splashed with the color of Sharpies and image collages, visual representations of a semester of learning.
At the start of each year, the walls are repainted and the posters are taken down. As we become a community of thinkers, writers, and creators, we construct knowledge together — our walls reflect that process.
It is messy. The emphasis is process, not product — working with ideas, in all of their materiality, and using them to come to deeper understandings of ourselves and the world in which we live.
The Geography of Community and Engagement
If you visit my classroom on a given day, you may find the desks arranged in clusters of four, and students working together to solve problems and engage challenging ideas.
Or you may find students spread out around the room reading or writing, making use of the conference corner or sprawled out on well-worn pillows on the reading carpet.
Or perhaps you will find the desks arranged in a large circle, as symmetrical and aesthetically pleasing as we can manage in the quick transition between learning activities. Discussing a passage from a postcolonial novel, a newspaper, an historical artifact, a music video, an advertisement, or some other high-interest, highly relevant text.
A Diversity of Experiences
Looking around the circle you will see students who come from very different backgrounds — the middle-class children of humanitarian workers (USAID, WHO, UNICEF, etc.), third-culture kids who have lived in four or more different countries, the children of missionaries, who have spent their whole lives in West Africa.
The children of the country’s elite sit next to those who have earned full-tuition scholarships, some of whom do not have electricity in their homes in the village.
From the beginning of the year, I make it clear that student voice is one of our great resources, that students’ diverse experiences and cultures are tremendous assets to us as a community of learners. And that we will make it our business this year in English class to develop our own voices, to contribute them to discourses that matter to us, that matter in the real world.
Here is Ivan, a senior from Russia who only began learning English at our school two years ago and now is taking AP classes. In the first week of school, students composed “Where I’m From” poems and shared them in class. Ivan got inspired to transform his work into a rap song. He spent the following weeks refining his word choice and the rhythms of his language. During lunch, he made use of the makeshift recording studio in my classroom (Garageband, an Mbox, a microphone and a midi controller) to record his composition. This turned into a yearlong extracurricular endeavor for Ivan, who ultimately released a “mixtape” of six songs tackling themes like identity and social justice. The last week of school, he distributed CD-Rs with photocopied inserts, and his face beamed with pride, passion and accomplishment.
The Value of Knowledge: Learning & Becoming in an Age of Anxiety
We strive to develop our own voices, to contribute them to discourses that matter to us, that matter in the real world. Because this is the real world; there is no dichotomy between the schoolhouse and the “real world” (by which people often mean the marketplace.) We are not preparing for a hypothetical future.
When we engage in authentic dialogue, we are creating the future.
The ominous economic and technological forces that generate fear in politicians and parents alike will not render this work redundant.
And yet even as I write, I find it nearly impossible to escape the idiom and logic of capitalism — “resources”, “assets”, “business”, “marketplace”, “redundant.”
In our world, students are often reduced to mere numbers, scores, percentiles. We live in the shadow of an education system concerned primarily with preparing workers and managers for the factories.
Mugisha, a fifteen-year-old from Burundi, is anxiously reviewing her results on a standardized test that was written a world away, and embedded with a set of cultural assumptions that are in many cases foreign to her. (What prior knowledge of JFK will help me here? What is Mount Rushmore, and how will that knowledge help me perform on the AP Language exam?) The test, of course, does not announce these biases; it claims to be a legitimate, objective measure of academic skills and progress.
In the end, Mugisha, trilingual, creative, bright, driven — is reduced to a percentile.
In this environment, it is no wonder that Sophie, a smart, curious seventeen-year-old from France and Burkina Faso, expresses anxiety about “job stability.” What is the effect on learning? Our students are worried about job stability, when they should be using their energy to engage more fully in the present.
I teach to advocate for these adolescents as people, individuals, not just numbers. Not cogs in a machine leftover from the industrial revolution. Not emerging economic entities.
But the fact is, my students are individuals for whom imperialism and globalization are not just chapters in a social studies textbook.
Here is Sartiou, seventeen, a student on a full-scholarship from the far west of Burkina Faso. The language of instruction in his elementary school was French; in high school, it is English. He is acutely aware of how this economic reality threatens to separate him from his own history and culture — his parents speak neither French nor English. Sartiou explores this topic through poetry. He writes:
If your elementary teachers…
have told you, in these very words, “Before the white men came, we were all savages, some lived in trees, we wore no clothing”,
then you’ll know how easy it is to be racist against your own skin,
xenophobic against your own being.
If you’ve debated in vain to convince your black parents that “Black” doesn’t mean “stupid,”
If you’ve heard your brother lament “why the hell was I born black?”
or even say, although he often checks the mirror, “those black guys are all savages”
and you know he’s not alone in thinking like this;
then you’ll know why I’m angry, touchy, maybe over-nationalistic.
Student Voice and Dialogue: Becoming Our Best Selves
I teach to promote student voice, to provide students with the tools they need to articulate themselves and their stories, especially when these stories challenge the dominant narratives that would marginalize them.
Limata, a 10th-grade student from Burkina Faso and the US, writes a powerful narrative that articulates the experience of being queer in Burkina Faso, a place where homosexuality is largely invisible. The narrative is fictional, but it draws from her own experiences and the experiences of loved ones. Reading Limata’s narrative is to recognize an authentic purpose and investment that goes well beyond the minimum requirements of an academic assignment. She aims for something much higher than an A, and accomplishes something significant. Her writing matters, it is urgent, and it does something in the real world.
I teach to promote empathy — deeper understandings of ourselves as well as those who seem far away from us, and from a distance, are easily distorted through the lens of stereotypes.
My classroom is a place where each student’s culture and experiences are respected and valued. Where the curriculum is at turns a mirror that reflects who we are and a window that allows us to see inside new worlds to which we would otherwise have no access.
I teach to provide my students the skills that will permit them access to “the best that has been thought and said.”
There is Celine who feels a kindred relationship with Antigone. And Arouna, who loves Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, and brings it up in casual conversations in the lunchroom. Sartiou just finished reading Machiavelli’s The Prince in his free time because he kept seeing the adjective “Machiavellian” come up in the newspaper, and it made him wonder…
And I teach to empower students to read the world around them. To recognize underlying assumptions and ideologies. To evaluate arguments. To deconstruct fallacies.
To stand up in the face of injustice.
Hadina, a 10th grade student from Ivory Coast, worked hard to create a brilliant and lucid account of her experiences as a Muslim. She contrasts her early memories of hearing and loving the stories of the prophets with the later isolation of hearing a classmate refer to Muslims as “inhumane,” and seeing images of an Islam on CNN that she simply could not recognize.
I teach in the hopes that my students will become the best versions of themselves. That they will not be silent in the face of oppression. That they will not be sucked into the ubiquitous pull of consumerism. That they will not be “lost in the meritocracy” (to borrow Walter Kirn’s phrase.)
We collaborate to build a community, to create knowledge, to deepen understandings — and in doing so, we glimpse a vision of a better world.
I am continually energized by the enthusiasm, curiosity, passion, and care of my students. They do not come to us as blank slates (though our actions sometimes betray this unacknowledged belief about them.) They want to learn, to know, to be, and to become — and I am one of the lucky ones who get to be there to encourage and to coach as they strive to realize these noble and fundamentally human aspirations.
What a joy it is.
** All names of students have been changed.
Eric Spreng teaches high school English, Guitar, and Film Studies at the International School of Ouagadougou (ISO), a small K-12 private international school in the capital of Burkina Faso. ISO is the only English-language school in the country. The student population is around 242. In the middle and high school, we find over 30 nationalities.