Through our teaching, socially conscious teachers aim to create learning environments that help students see themselves as change agents, if not in their society, at least in their own lives. Twenty-one years ago when I started teaching, I could simply say, “I teach.” But in the last few years, I’ve found that describing what I do is much more complex.
In addition to the academic part of teaching, I find that I am helping students deal with social-emotional issues regularly. Too often, I learn about a student’s struggles with mental health. I learn about students who harmed themselves. I learn about students dealing with emotional burdens so heavy that they can’t learn.
Why the increase in struggling students? One thing that’s changed is that we’re keeping more students in high school than we used to. Between 1990 and 2014, for example, the Hispanic student dropout rate decreased by approximately 20-percent. Students who struggle used to disappear; now they’re more likely to stay.
When we consider the effect of social media on teens’ mental and physical health—especially when they are losing sleep because of late nights with computers, phones, or tablets—we see how teachers face the incredible responsibility of helping students academically and emotionally. Meanwhile, budget cuts mean fewer psychologists, counselors, and social workers in schools. Teachers are often the adults that struggling students go to first.
So the conversations in our classes change.
One assignment I developed for my junior English classes helps students engage in difficult conversations, without actually putting me into all of these difficult conversations with them. “Toxic masculinity” and “hyper-femininity,” I learned, are the contemporary terms for describing the ugly, exaggerated gender roles that perpetuate destructive behavior in males and females.
These aren’t the easiest topics for whole-class discussions, as they lead into related matters such as sexual abuse, binge drinking, eating disorders and suppressed aggression. But it’s these situations, many times, that impede students’ learning. So I don’t do the talking. Instead, I found texts that do the talking, so students can do the thinking.
Miss Representation and The Mask You Live In are documentaries that explain the how and why of these serious issues. Through our viewings of these films, student learn terminology that helps them articulate how and why these issues affect their lives or the lives of other teens or adults in their lives. They learn what “self-objectification” and “emotionally illiterate” mean and how these problems lead to the de-humanization and abuse of women. They learn how “comparative identity” and “arousal addiction” warp male identity. We also read text such as "The Issues and Challenges Facing Talented Females” and “Macho Advertising Encourages Hyper-Masculinity.” In addition, we look at how satirists Margaret Cho and John Leguizamo take on these issues in their comedy.
I deal with these sensitive texts the same way I deal with other complex texts: we engage with information to understand, to raise questions, to exchange ideas grounded in the text and connected to our real-world lives. What’s more valuable, however, is that I see students thinking. Finally—for many of them—they begin to see the how and why of their social-emotional struggles.
To culminate this unit of study, students create public service announcements to educate our community about the offensive messages subtextually reinforced in ads that present serious, damaging situations lightly.
In this video, Israel Hernandez and Danny Lopez explain how a Las Vegas hotel advertisement promotes damaging concepts about women.
In this video, Viviana Vergara explains the damaging implicit messages about female and male identity a shoe ad suggests.
I realize as a teacher that I cannot do it all. I cannot be teacher and counselor and therapist and mentor and father figure. My primary role is that of writing teacher. So this set of lessons is one way I connect our study of rhetoric to the real and complicated contemporary world in which my students exist. And this is how I work to empower them to have the academic and social-emotional skills to ensure a more successful future for themselves.