Friday, one of my G11 classes was having a class discussion. I gave them 7 minutes to find an interesting news story, pull out the main details, state their opinion in one sentence and draft a question to spark conversation.
If a particular topic lost steam, whoever brought that topic up called on someone else to inject a new topic into the conversation.
One student introduced the proposed fair schedule changes to SEPTA, Philadelphia’s mass transit provider.
As soon as the name left the student’s mouth, the class was awash in groans.
Philadelphians love to hate SEPTA. Cheesesteaks, Rocky Steps, booing our own sports teams, and abhorring SEPTA – in these things we find our brotherly love.
Once the topic and the proposed fair schedule were introduced, the expected flurry of slanderous complaints started up.
Each student took his turn to talk and called on the next.
“I know SEPTA’s not perfect,” someone said, “But, when you think about it, SEPTA can get you pretty much anywhere in the city of Philadelphia without much of a problem.”
A lone voice against the tumult. One brave villager against throngs of pitchforks and torches.
“Sure, sometimes they’re late, but most of the time they’re on time.”
“What bus do you take,” someone asked?
The lone voice answered.
“Those are white people buses,” the questioner scoffed his reply.
The conversation took a turn.
In the moments the class was snickering at this half joke, I had to decide how I was going to be a teacher once the laughter subsided.
“Hold on a sec,” I said, “I need to be your English teacher right now.”
“I need to unpack that statement because you said a lot more than what you said.”
It was one of those great moments where I got to use real language as the object of study. I talked about the mixture of humor and seriousness in that moment and suggested the humor might obscure the deeper point of the statement.
Then I pulled attention to the embedded implication that only black people in Philadelphia lived in poverty or that white people’s experiences in poverty were less valid. Briefly, I touched on the possibility that the statement also could have been construed as a weapon meant to make others positioned anywhere on the class spectrum feel guilt over their socioeconomic status.
Another student said she agreed the comment was inappropriate, but insisted their was a difference between bus service across neighborhoods.
We talked about the truth of that statement and started to play with the complexity of the whole idea.
I stopped to clarify that I wasn’t angry about what had been said, but that I would have been remiss in my duties if I didn’t take the time to pull it apart and start to consider the multitude of meanings.
I know there were probably a million ways I could have handled the whole conversation better, but that’s how I handled it Friday. Next time, whatever the next time is, I’ll do it a little bit better. And, it was loads better than some similar conversations from my first years in the classroom.
Then, as always, I tried for the same things:
- talking, not yelling
- eliciting conversation not compliance
- respecting whatever opinions are on the table
- challenging the untested opinions
- speaking with authority, not as an authoritarian
Though it’s un-Philadelphian of me, I’m thankful for SEPTA for inciting the conversation.