I believe that the best kind of learning happens within communities. Our theme this year, “building community from the inside out” recognizes the centrality of community in creating a welcoming, caring and engaged learning environment. Community work includes who is represented in our school, the opportunities we create to gather and commune, and our outreach to surrounding communities.
In the spirit of community, I opened the first ASM meeting by reading, “What Does It Mean to be American?” by Rana DiOrio and Elad Yoran. This book is written for younger children, perhaps between ages 3 to 7-years-old. I work hard in preparing ASM presentations that can appeal to the age range of our students. This process is a challenging task!
I heard myself say to students, “this book is going to be too elementary for many of you but hang in there with me. I know that you are hearing, or even reading about the debate of who can be an American citizen?” Many children nodded their heads in agreement. “This book that I am going to read asks us to think about this question of Who is American?”
I started reading the story, along with the presentation of images on a large screen, as Sarah made a power point presentation of the book so the students could read along. The story starts out with asking stereotypical questions about what it means to be American?” Does it mean you like Apple pie and fireworks?” “No,” is the response to these questions.
The book then goes on to illustrate what it means to be American. The story highlights the myriad of ideas, visual representations including people of different races, religions, and beliefs about what it means to be American. It is then pointed out that the beauty of America is the promise that there are different ways of living and pursuing happiness. There were expressions in the story such as, “being thankful for our many blessings,” “being proud of what we have accomplished as a nation,” and “being humble that there is so much more we need to learn.” The part that made many of the teachers uncomfortable was the following statement:
“To fill your heart with love for who we are, and your mind with the ideas of how you, your family, and your friends, can make the greatest nation in the world…even better.”
I observed puzzled expressions and heard sighs from the adults in the room. My inner voice said, “why did you read this book!” The next day teachers left several alternative books on my desk, both entitled, “What Can A Citizen Do?” I already had a copy of the book on my shelf, and I thought to myself, “why didn’t I read that book?” Several days later during a meeting, one teacher looked at me and said, “that book is not Fayerweather!” At that moment, I found myself feeling sensitive and defensive, as the suggestion of me being an outsider, stings. Nevertheless, all of these reactions got me thinking about the privilege embedded in who gets read as American and who does not. The book had many representations of who can be American, which is a subtle way of normalizing the many different faces of America, especially as I think about how early in their lives children internalize who is valued in our society.
I completely agree and understand that as teachers we want to stay away from images or words that reinforce an ugly kind of nationalism that is being portrayed, so openly, in our world today. I see and feel the challenge of teaching children the strategies, ways of thinking, and engaging with what it means to live in a complex and diverse community we call, America or the United States. Fayerweather’s mission asks us to grapple with this complexity. I don’t believe we do that by erasing ideas, words, and even deeds, that make us uncomfortable.