by Sabrina Holcomb
As a middle school language arts teacher, Steven Singer understands the power of words. This holiday season, says Singer, the nasty and divisive language coming out of the 2016 presidential election about Muslims, refugees, and immigrants is getting the attention of the kids in his school, 60 percent of whom are students of color.
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So Singer countered the hate speech with love speech in a “give me all your refugees” blog that left hard-hearted cynics teary-eyed. That was before the San Bernadino attack. Now, inflammatory anti-Muslim rhetoric from presidential wannabes is helping fuel and legitimize a sharp rise in the bullying of Muslim students, and Singer’s blog about welcoming all students is even more relevant.
We asked the Pennsylvania educator if he has some special inspiration for educators who are trying to live up to the spirit of the season by helping all their students feel loved.
In your blog, you said public schools are places of refuge for many kids and that school provides the only stability and love they get all day. What’s been the reaction to your post?
When I published it, I wasn’t sure if anyone was going to care. But it felt good to have said it. Now it’s had over 45,000 hits. On Facebook and Twitter, so many people told me they loved it, that they agreed and that this was what a teacher should be. I replied that in my experience this is just what teachers do. I’m no different than 95 percent of educators out there. I just wrote it down. Of course, I got some hate, too. Every day I get at least a message or two calling me all kinds of horrible things. It just goes with the territory.
How does hate speech during this Presidential campaign infiltrate the classroom?
Kids have a reputation for being uninformed, but when it comes to dealing with prejudice and racism, they could teach all of us a masterclass on the subject. Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, LaQuan Mcdonald—my 8th grade students know who each of these people are. Each of them could have been their classmate, older brother, dad, or uncle. They know what’s happening out there better than we do because they’re living it. And when someone running for president like Donald Trump denigrates Muslims and Latinos, they might not be able to tell you exactly who he is, but they know what he said. Because they know how people look at them and judge them because of the color of their skin, their gender, their nationality, their religion.
I remember when Michael Brown was killed, a student asked me, “How could they do that, Mr. Singer?” I got choked up. So I threw out my lesson plans and we spent the period talking about it. Not me talking to them. Them talking to me and to each other. It wasn’t about me telling them the right answer. It was about us trying to find the answer together. I think that’s the teacher’s responsibility. We need to help kids find their own answers. We need to give them the space to talk—to let them know it’s okay and that we love them.
Why is it so important for educators to speak up outside of their school community?
All teachers know the job doesn’t end at dismissal. We’re all staying late grading papers, planning lessons, making phone calls. But there’s more to it than even that. In an age where the powerful think our students aren’t worth the time and effort, aren’t worth fair funding, aren’t worth sensible education policy, it’s up to us to advocate for them. Dr. Cornell West said “Justice is what love looks like in public.” I love my students so I want them to have justice. They deserve a good education and all the resources rich kids get. But if someone like me doesn’t fight for it, they’re not going to get it. So I’ll take the lack of sleep and the hate mail and anything else that comes with it. Because to me, that’s what teachers do.
Join us to tell our students “Love Trumps Hate.”
As thinking, caring citizens, we can’t be silent in the face of bigotry, and as educators, we have even more of a responsibility to say something. It would be traumatic for my students to hear someone say something bigoted and not have me respond. I don’t want to work in an environment where that’s okay.
– Steven Singer
NEA Member and Activist
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