As a newcomer to the 2017 NWP and NCTE conferences, I walked around in a perpetual state of astonishment and sensory overload. The one refrain that reverberated through my mind, other than “free books,” was the concept of Tikkun Olum, roughly translated as “repair the world.” First conveyed during the NWP plenary and repeated by several presenters throughout the NCTE conference, I had heard this phrase previously through my Holocaust studies coursework at UT Dallas and through training with the Holocaust Educator Network. The phrase represents a belief which I hold dear, but hearing it again from a variety of presenters at the conferences underscored just how important it is for each of us to repair the parts of the world in which we live.
Teachers have the unique opportunity to encourage young people to do the same, as most of us see over one hundred children daily throughout the school-year and spend more time with them, on average, than the other adults in their lives do. What if we could bolster students’ empathy through reading and discussion and then – more importantly – empower them to go forth and “repair the world”? As teachers of English and language arts, we understand the importance between the texts we read and their real-world implications. We understand patterns in society and how literature warns us not to repeat mistakes of the past in a much more human way than history does. We understand the power of language to change the world.
How do we get our kids to see these things? We must take the time to have our students make connections between the texts they read and themselves, their friends, family, community, country, world, and humanity as a whole. We must provide context for what they read and connect fiction with non-fiction – in both fiction and non-fiction based courses. Bring news articles into AP Literature and bring some poetry into a class built around non-fiction, for example. We must empower our students to see themselves as readers, writers, thinkers, and feelers by not simply providing them with opportunities to write authentic pieces for real audiences, but expecting them to do so. We must encourage risk-taking as they find their voices and resist the urge to beat them down with formulaic writing and artificial writing scenarios. Why not have high school English students practice writing letters to senators, or have students submit their poetry to national publications? Students could create public service announcement films and publish them on YouTube. The possibilities are endless, but imagine the engagement and ownership students will experience with these examples versus writing to another STAAR prompt. We can still help them hone their craft along the way, but students would learn that there is power in their writing.
While empowering students to make change with the written word, we must also help them develop as oral communicators. This nation is in crisis. The adults no longer know how to engage in civil discourse. So what hope do our kids have, who spend most of their time avoiding “awkward” social interactions while they stare instead at phone screens? We must make conversation a centerpiece of our classrooms. Learning to engage each other respectfully – especially when we disagree – is perhaps the most powerful way that we can prepare our students to repair the world.