A Middle School Social Studies Teacher’s Experiences on Culture and Comic Books

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This is based on an interview I did for the class on Multiculturalism in my Education masters program.

GT is a Social Studies teacher in Middlesex County, New Jersey. I’ve known him for several years, since before I decided to go for an Education Masters. In the course of the interviews, I discovered that he has an eclectic teaching background particularly appropriate for this assignment.

GT graduated college with a Bachelor’s degree in History. He had initially been a psychology student, but decided that the PHD track was not for him. An adviser had pointed out that due to his propensity for taking history electives (especially American History and Ethnic Studies) he had satisfied the requirements for certification in the field. At that point, he was already working as a substitute teacher.

He described his own experiences as a student as being very memorable, with more bad than good. However, he remembered great peaks courtesy of great teachers. He wanted to make the school environment a better experience for children who suffer socially.

Last year (Fall 2013), GT became a full-time eighth grade US History and Civics teacher. Prior to that, he had been a long-term substitute (a certified teacher in a subject who comes in part-way through the school year for an absence of 20 days or more) for three times, twice because the regular teacher was on maternity leave, and once because a teacher had a planned surgery/ recovery.

These schools had similar demographics. Both were the zoned schools for a suburban part of New Jersey that is roughly 50% white, and 30% Asian, with the final fifth consisting of African-American, Latino, and South Asian students. GT believes that there has been relatively little conflict between these groups, although he did notice a racial component to student election tickets. The area does have a thriving Korean district, although his experience with ELLs (English Language Learners) has been limited. The one recent immigrant had an IEP, as well as instructions to allow extra time on tests. He let the student know to come to him with any concerns, and described the student as “motivated and catching up very quickly.” He estimates that about 95% of students are fluent English speakers, and that the remaining students have IEPs.

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GT recalls the first days of his long-term substitute stints being particularly challenging. He noted that the students treated him like any other substitute, not considering that he would be with them for several months. The solution was to learn everyone’s name and seating, and to demonstrate that they were accountable for their actions.

He did admit that it took several days to understand whether individual students are bullied. It took some time to determine the nuances of who was socially excluded, or abused. From his experience, most bullying occurs outside the classroom. When he witnessed what appeared to be harassment, he’d shut it down immediately, and talk with the student who was targeted about how to proceed. There is significant administration support in this category, as one of the top priorities in the school is for the students to realize that it is a safe space.

As a history teacher, he is not affected as much by state standards or the common core. He is given several guidelines by the administration, especially required term projects. In one instance, the administration required teachers to prepare for one week of classes on a “herstory” theme, focusing on the accomplishments of notable women and their role in US History. They were given two months notice on this.

GT currently teaches six classes in the middle school, and is the only eighth grade History teacher. The schedule is unusual, with students having six of their eight classes in each day, so on a given day he’ll teach four or five 45-60 minute classes. While there are occasional conversations about the curriculum in the teacher’s lounge, he believes that he has been given a lot of flexibility over what to cover in the classroom.

GT’s preference with the US History and Civics class is to lead with current events, as students are more engaged when they see contemporary implications of historical discussions. Problems do sometimes result when students feel passionately about an issue and disagree with one another. He recalls an argument on court decisions regarding gay marriage between a conservative Christian, and a student with two mothers.

Religious

There are some topics he will not explore in great depth. He was concerned about addressing debates involving decriminalization of drugs like marijuana, until he saw a faculty-approved pro-legalization poster made by the high school’s libertarian club. Afterward, he felt more comfortable with allowing classroom discussions on that topic. However, he remains nervous about discussions on gun policy, especially in the aftermath of Sandy Hook. He’s worried that a student expressing a pro-gun sentiment in a discussion about the second amendment might be misconstrued by a mother. As he described it, “Even if the discussion stays calm and respectful, the second-hand version might worry a parent.”

One of his favorite strategies is to have students propose constitutional amendments, and try to convince three-quarters of their class to agree. It helps teach students the process, as well the difficulty in getting a large group to agree to a particular stand on a controversial issue.  This had led to interesting discussions on possibly replacing the Electoral College with the popular vote, lowering the voting age, economic policy and environmental issues. The one proposed change with unanimous support in the classroom was the idea of replacing the native birth requirement for the presidency with 15 years citizenship.

There is a set structure in the classroom with a Do Now followed by a brief discussion on the theme of the day’s lesson. Then he’ll pass out the day’s notes, and launch into a brief mini-lecture, stopping for questions when appropriate. The class typically ends with an explanation of the homework, and with students spending the final 10-15 minutes getting started on that. An advantage of having students start homework while in the classroom is that they can ask him questions if they run into any trouble.

He is familiar with the concept of multiple intelligences, and makes sure to incorporate bits of different types of learning into his lessons. He’ll write key points on the board, and ensure that the lessons have a hands-on component. With quieter students, he will try to determine if they’re paying attention to the lesson or whether they’re distracted. If he determines that students are not paying attention, he will call on them. With quiet children, he’ll try to respect their learning style and to gently prod them into opening up more if they seem especially interested in a topic.

GT describes a positive relationship with parents. The primary source of conflict is when parents are upset that their children have failed to meet high standards. His solution is to provide explanations on how the students fell short of the grades, and where they can improve.

It’s standard policy in his school that every teacher chairs one extracurricular activity. He picked the Multicultural club. He thought it was the type of club he would have enjoyed going to when he was in middle school and high school. He modeled the club on his synagogue’s teen group “a combination of discussion and debate topics, occasional presentations from members, reading material available, and food on the table.” Students will often bring in food related to their culture, a development that has increased the numbers of members of the club since he became its faculty adviser.

The club has twelve regular members, along with 1 or 2 additions on a normal day. In a typical session, a few group members will do a presentation on something about their culture. I asked him what he had learned through these presentations, and he noted that he was unaware of the size of the current Korean pop music scene, or the quality of Filipino spring rolls. The club members are mostly girls, and consist mainly of eighth graders.

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A comic book fan, GT often bought graphic novels as reading material for the club. Since it is a middle school, he cleared any questionable material with the administration first. He selected comics that didn’t have white male leads, such as Batgirl, Runaways—a title about a diverse group of teenagers who discovered that their parents were supervillainsSpider-Man India—an English translation of an Indian version of the Spider-Man comicsand Inhuman, which dealt with issues of immigration and assimilation through a sci-fi lens.

Some of the discussions of the multiculturalism club are about how the school could better handle diversity. Suggestions included the incorporation of world music into choir practice, and a program that would be similar to “Herstory” focusing on significant accomplishments of racial minorities.

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About Thomas Mets

I’m a comic book fan, wannabe writer, politics buff and New Yorker. I don’t actually follow baseball. In the Estonian language, “Mets” simply means forest, or lousy sports team. Currently, I’m writing a few comic books about my grandparents’ experiences in Soviet Estonia for Grayhaven comics. You can email me at mistermets@gmail.com
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