Don’t forget ‘Good Trouble’. But be sure to add hopeful, optimistic, and brave. John Lewis
It’s not often that you get the chance to meet and chat with any actual, real life hero. To make sure I didn’t miss my opportunity, I camped out on the floor right by the exit giving me a better chance to grab a spot at the front of the line.
John Lewis was speaking at the National Council for the Social Studies 2016 national conference and scheduled to sign copies of the last book in his amazing graphic novel series, March. There was only about a kazillion people in the audience and I didn’t want to miss out on getting my copy signed. So I made sure that as soon as Congressman Lewis finished his presentation, I was in position to hustle to the front of the autograph line.
I wanted to the chance to thank for Mr. Lewis for his service. He fought for his country, like many others, risking life and liberty to help ensure that America lived up to her promises.
And then there he was. A real life hero. Right. There. My first few thoughts? Same as what yours would have been. Don’t embarrass the family. Don’t say something stupid. And don’t trip on the carpet.
But the thing I remember most about the brief time I spent time with Mr. Lewis, as he interacted with myself and others, was his constant encouragement to us as educators. Time after time, he thanked teachers for their work supporting the “vital” role social studies teachers have in creating active and engaged citizens:
. . . we all live in the same house, the American House. That is what we need to teach our children.
I still have sketchy notes, feverishly typed on my phone, from the speech he gave that day – just weeks after the 2016 election. He talked briefly about some of his experiences: Freedom Rides, Selma, getting arrested, being “left in a pool of blood.” But he knew he was talking to a room full of social studies teachers and so focused on the power of education, on the opportunities we have to help make the world a better place. What stuck with me were phrases that I know he’d used before but, that day . . . they seemed aimed directly at me:
Don’t be afraid to get in good trouble.
Your students will lead the way.
And now? What do we do now? With his passing, a hole appeared in the world that is impossible to fill. But my sketchy notes include Congressman Lewis’s last few words on that day in 2016:
Be hopeful. Be optimistic. Be brave.
In a piece written for the New York Times, Dr. Bernard Lafayette Jr echoed a similar refrain:
While he did make speeches, what was most powerful was his presence. He would show up. He knew his voice by himself couldn’t make a difference.
He would be present and give people hope, particularly when things were very dim and seemed impossible. He assured people that if you continue in a movement, you had a greater possibility of bringing about change.
President Barack Obama also shared a recent memory:
. . . the last time John and I shared a public forum was at a virtual town hall with a gathering of young activists who were helping to lead this summer’s demonstrations in the wake of George Floyd’s death.
Afterwards, I spoke to him privately, and he could not have been prouder of their efforts . . . I told him that all those young people – of every race, from every background and gender and sexual orientation – they were his children. They had learned from his example, even if they didn’t know it.
They had learned from his example . . . They had understood through him what American citizenship requires, even if they heard of his courage only through history books.
So. How can we be hopeful, optimistic, and brave? What can we do to honor the message and life of John Lewis?
- First things first. Take a few quiet minutes to reflect on just a few of the things he accomplished. (And those of fellow civil rights activist C.T. Vivian.)
- And then? “Show up.” That might be in your brick and mortar classroom. Hopefully it will also include remote teaching options. But no matter you’re at, show up ready to speak out.
- Read Congressman Lewis’s March trilogy. It’s okay . . . they’re graphic novels, you’ll zip through them in no time.
- Get together with your ELA folks to work out ways to use literature and trade books like March as part of integrated lesson plan designs. Try this list of other lists as a starting point. (Especially if you’re in Kansas. The Navigating Change document is all about encouraging you to do more cross-discipline, humanities instruction.)
- BTW . . . this should also include a conversation about more digital materials and books. In the blended learning environment that is surely on most of our horizons, digital access will become even more important. Your media specialists know this and are working on ways to make it easier. Be sure to make them part of the discussion.
- Speaking of digital resources, I just purchased the Kindle version of Cultivating Genius: An Equity Framework for Culturally and Historically Responsive Literacy. Just digging into it but who doesn’t love a framework titled Historically Responsive Literacy?
- Be willing to get in some good trouble and embrace controversy as a teaching tool. The Choices Program has some stuff. So does Facing History and Ourselves. And Teaching Tolerance. And the Newseum. Really . . . there are resources everywhere. A quick Google search will suck you in pretty quickly. Be sure to set a timer.
- Remember that you’re not alone in all of this. Connect with other teachers who are also looking for ways to be hopeful, optimistic, and brave. You can’t go wrong jumping into the #sschat Twitter world. Join weekly chats on Mondays at 6:00 Central time. And visit the website. Access archived chats that go back nine years. (But start with this one.)
And while it’s okay to not start all of these things at once, it is not okay to sit off somewhere on the edges and expect someone else to do all the work.
My philosophy is very simple. When you see something that is not right, not fair, not just, do something. Say something. Get in trouble. Good trouble. Necessary trouble.