How two students playfully understood racism

It happened last week before a teaching session with a group of eleven-year-olds was about to start. This was the second lesson we were to have on the topic of racism. This topic had been triggered by the celebration of the 21st of March as the Universal Day against Racial Discriminations. We had just got into the classroom after the break and we were getting organized when I overheard this short exchange between two of the students in the class.

“You are racist. You don’t respect difference. All people deserve equal rights. I am unique.”
“I humiliate you every day with my racist remark. I hate you. You have not dignity.”

During our previous lesson I had introduced the issue of racism through an excerpt from Tahar Ben Jelloun’s Racism Explained to My Daughter. Students read the excerpt individually and we discussed new language. The words they wanted to know the meaning of were:
complacent, deserve, difference, dignity, diversity, equal, flourish, identical, hatred, humiliate, law, miracle, mistrust, racism, racist, remark, respect, rights, unique

Then I asked them to:

  • Take 2-3 minutes, work individually, and make a note of 1 or 2 key ideas that they felt are important to hang onto.
  • Exchange notebooks in groups of 4-5 students, read their classmates’ ideas, and add one new thing to what they read.

As a homework activity I asked students to read the excerpt again and revise the new language. Also, to come up with a sentence, a phrase and a word that struck them as powerful, important or moving, and explain why.

I have always felt it important to deal with social issues in the English class. Admittedly, the topic of racism is a complex one and you cannot possibly explore all its aspects given the few instructional hours that are available. Besides, the materials and activities have to be within their reach linguistically and meaningful to them. Even by having taken all these things into consideration, one can never be sure about how much learning has taken place.

Back to the two students’ impromptu exchange. I found creative the way they engaged in this brief communication. They drew on their emerging linguistic resources on the topic and accommodated in six sentences a great deal of the new language we had dealt with in our previous lesson. They are best friends, tolerant, and broad-minded children. In this brief, self-motivated dramatization instance, I found that they had committed to memory and demonstrated understanding of key ideas in racism. They did that in a succinct and deliberately playful and ironic style which pleasantly surprised me. I was even more surprised and happy that they chose to do it with a topic that one might think would be “heavy” or “difficult” for children of their age and language level.

More to follow in an upcoming post with a fuller report.

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