To My Favorite Visionaries—Language Arts Teachers!
I am so grateful for your vision, for your passion, for your ongoing commitment to kids. Teachers more than any other group of people are seeing the fall-out from our political process and the election, and we are feeling deeply the need to respond—to the fear, to the hurt, to the deep distrust that is emerging.
The good news is that there is a great deal we can do. First, we can create safe places to have honest conversations. A small group of teachers in Minneapolis has created a brand new organization Safe Together that may help us do that. Safe Together is a non-political, not-for-profit organization designed for all. It isn’t about one group of people. It is about creating safety for everyone. Safe Together provides free buttons and signage to designate safe spaces for anyone feeling vulnerable or threatened and resources for community building @safetogether1.org. Here are their suggestions:
“Safe Together invites a reflection process that begins with yourself. What makes you feel safe? Who are the teachers/persons who made you feel safe? How? How can you do this in your class?
“Now set up a way to talk about it with your students. You know them. You know what they can handle. Some classrooms can participate in a safe circle dialogue, some need a way to anonymously share, some aren’t ready without a trained mediator. Trust yourself. If all you can manage is to say, ‘It is my job to make sure that each of you feels safe,’ that still means something.
“Be ready for more connection from your students. If someone in the staff room says, ‘Oh, I heard you had a ‘safe talk . . . ,’ you can smile and say, ‘As teachers, we know that students feeling safe is essential to learning.’
“Safety is something you have to practice every day. Putting the ‘safe’ sign up in your class, having a dialogue, or even just announcing that you offer a safe space—those are all good ways to begin creating a culture of safety.”
Check out Safe Together online. Share the stories of what you are trying in your classroom.
But there is much more we can do.
Some of you know I think about our language a lot, and I’m thinking if we are going to make noise, it needs to be noise that can be heard!
We can teach our students to notice language and how to use it in a way that builds relationships. The first step might be to look at something as simple as our use of pronouns.
We can notice how we use the word “they,” for example. It focuses on separation, and we are in danger of “othering.” It is not always inappropriate, but it always signals separation. The danger comes when we see differences through the eyes of us and them.
And the word “you.” It’s a teacher/preacher/boss word that sometimes accompanies the pointing finger or even the pounding fist. It is a demanding word. I can even “hear” the pointing finger of “you.” But it can also be an invitation, “What are you thinking? I really want to hear what you have to say.”
We can notice how we use “I.” Is it “I know what is best?” Is it my ego speaking? Is it all about me?
We can grow a new grammar—a language of inclusivity. Words like “we” and “us” and “our” and “let’s” invite everyone to the table. All are welcome. And when our language changes, we are changed. We begin to create a new reality. What would happen if we were able to view poverty and climate change and war through the eyes of “we?”
What would happen if we were able to honor differences of opinion and try to see from multiple perspectives rather than right and wrong?
What would happen if teachers and preachers and bosses gave up “you” for “we?”
What would happen if our political language became inclusive?
What would happen if the media began to tell our stories with a change in pronouns?
What would happen if we gave up all the labels that separate us from each other? We are a “we,” an “us,” and see ourselves as one world?
But we can go still more deeply into language.
It is easy to believe that fighting language and loud voices can change those whose behavior, opinions and actions we most fervently want to influence and change. At least we’ve seen a lot of that kind of language in our political arena. Yet we know in the deepest part of ourselves that we have never been won over by someone who calls us names, threatens, demands, or attacks. And I’m thinking that language will not change others. It only widens the divide between us.
So how do we heal the divide and find common community, stand in solidarity with each other? It requires a shift in our thinking.
In his book, Peace Is Every Step, the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh writes an essay titled “A Love Letter to Your Congressman” that I think can help us. And though he references the peace movement, his wisdom is a recipe for building bridges across differences, and we can teach our students how to do this.
“In the peace movement there is a lot of anger, frustration, and misunderstanding. People in the peace movement can write very good protest letters, but they are not so skilled at writing love letters. We need to learn to write letters to the Congress and the President that they will want to read, and not just throw away. The way we speak, the kind of understanding, the kind of language we use should not turn people off. The President is a person like any of us.
“. . .Without being peace, we cannot do anything for peace. If we cannot smile, we cannot help other people smile. If we are not peaceful, then we cannot contribute to peace.
“. . . A fresh way of being peace, of making peace is needed. It is so important for us to practice mindfulness, to acquire the capacity to look, to see, and to understand. It would be wonderful if we could bring a non-dualistic way of looking at things. That alone would diminish hatred and aggression. Peace work means, first of all, being peace. We rely on each other. Our children are relying on us in order for them to have a future.”
This time has given us a wonderful opportunity to create wholeness. This does not mean we suddenly agree when there are differences. It means that we open up dialogue and form questions that create space for both sides to be vulnerable. We can’t go armed. Neither can we passively wait. That’s the paradox. Can we challenge without using words like fight, attack, demand? What does non-dualistic language look like? How can we make our language and our stories so compelling that they change hearts?
I think about appealing to the goodness in those who disagree with me. When I make a phone call or write a letter to my senators or representative, I can say, for example, that I know that the people of Iowa matter to them, that I trust they have a vision for Iowa and for Iowans that does not cause hurt. I can say that I have a vision of them standing in solidarity with those who are hurting, that I have heard each one of them speak about representing all Iowans. We may not agree on all the issues, but I’m confident we agree on the importance of honoring each person’s dignity and humanity.
I can always say that I am holding a vision of them making a particular decision and talk about what that might mean. This kind of language plants a seed of possibility where demanding language fosters push-back and rejection.
I think Gandhi got it right when he called us to “be the change we want to see in the world.” My dream is to be that change. And I want to change my language—to clear out the battle metaphors and make way for language that can heal us. So as I hold the question “Where do we go from here?” I keep hearing “Let’s figure out how to make noise that can be heard!”
Julie Powell-Mohr is a retired 8th grade language arts teacher from West Des Moines and also a facilitator with the Iowa Writing Project. And most of all, she is certain that stories heal–hope heals.