On Friday, February 13, 2015, I attended a viewing of the documentary Girl Rising at the Dodd Center at the University of Connecticut. The movie follows nine young women, some still children, from countries like Afghanistan, Nepal, Peru, Haiti, Ethiopia, and Sierra Leone, among others. The narrators detail the difficulties these girls face in order to be educated, while outlining the benefits to all of society when girls are educated and men support their academic achievements. The Sunday prior to my going to the film, an article appeared in The New York Times about teen and child marriage in Guatemala. This article addressed some of the devastating consequences of child marriage that were also mentioned in the film. After the movie, a group of women and I gathered in a safe, warm café to reflect upon what we had seen. I have not been able to stop thinking about the film or the article ever since.
The reality is, before I began teaching, I had applied to work at a number of non-government, non-profit organizations because I wanted to use my language skills to empower communities in the developing world. I had worked side-by-side people in rural Mexico when I was nineteen years old, and I loved every moment of that experience, even the times when my gender made me feel less than safe. Later, I traveled to Chile and lived with people who shared their experiences about having lived in exile during the Pinochet dictatorship. These experiences, and others, made quite an impression on me. As a result, I applied to a number of non-government organizations (NGO’s) after I earned my graduate degree in Latin American Studies. It was the early 1990s. Due to the recession, there were no jobs to come by because most NGO’s were cutting positions. It was then that I accidentally became a teacher.
From the beginning, I refused to teach Spanish in a vacuum. I brought Cuban refugees into my private boarding school classroom. I ran a clothing drive for the victims of hurricane Mitch in Honduras. When I traveled with students, I insisted that we visit orphanages to play with the children as well as to bring needed supplies and toys. In the 1990s, I had my students talk via speaker-phone to illegal immigrants. Every year, I challenge my students to study dictatorships in Latin America. I also ask my students to interview beloved friends of mine who are gracious enough to share their stories (some of my friends lived under these regimes) year after year. I am lucky. Even though these might upset some people, I feel relatively secure in my position as a teacher in this country, and I think that my students know that they are safe to express themselves in my classroom as they like.
My husband, Jason Courtmanche, and I often talk about education. He teaches English at the University of Connecticut and many of his students are studying to be teachers. In the summer, Jason instructs teachers how to teach writing and reading, and last summer I enrolled in his class. I received a fellowship to participate in the Connecticut Writing Project’s Summer Institute for Teachers. We read a lot. We wrote every day, and participated in writing workshops. In the safe confines of the rooms outside our schools, we also chatted about teaching, and many of our conversations were about our frustrations with education today. We spoke about inequities, real and perceived, in education both at home and abroad.
At one point, during the summer institute, we discussed the call to action by the leaders of the National Council of Teachers (NCTE). In 2009, the National Council of Teachers of English urged its constituents to address issues of social justice through education. The NCTE council leaders took this action to push back against some of the more distasteful educational reforms being carried out by others, and with the hope of infusing humanity into an increasingly data-driven number-generating system whereby everyone, teachers and students, are assessed only by measurable outcomes. This call to action certainly inspired me to continue looking at issues of social justice and human rights, as did recent events in my own work place.
Still, I do not think that concerns about education alone are why the film and the article made such a strong impression on me. This year, all but one of my five classes are gender imbalanced. I have one class with twenty male students and five female students. In all but one other class, I have a majority of female students with only one or two male students. I have been trying, often in vain, to infuse my classes this year with more reading, more writing, and more exposure to matters of social justice in the world. I have always been concerned with sharing matters of social justice with my Spanish V class, but this year I have been making a greater effort to do so with my other classes as well. And, maybe coincidentally, I find that all of my students are engaging in more conversations about weighty topics.
This year, I was particularly moved by the genuine dismay felt by my high school seniors while researching human rights abuses, and their concerns led me to share the aforementioned trailer and the article with them. In the fall the predominantly female class debated the widely publicized violence perpetuated by some of the players in the National Football League as they studied Don Quixote of La Mancha and the quadrangle among Don Fernando, Dorotea, Luscinda, and Cardenio. The class talked about whether or not Marcela deserved blame for Grisostomo’s death since he committed suicide after she had rejected his advances (students did not feel Marcela was culpable). We are now reading La casa de Bernarda Alba, a play by Federico Garcia Lorca criticizing social norms in southern Spain in the early twentieth century, and students are already animatedly discussing various topics in the book as they relate to events in society today.
While I think about the media mentioned in the opening of this essay, I cannot help but think about how rewarding it is to have conversations about social issues inspired by literature with my students. Their engagement is exciting, and we are all fortunate that, in spite of many flaws within our educational system, we are safe to express our thoughts within this classroom space in their own community. I think one of the ideas that haunted me after the movie was that, in order to continue their education and later find more lucrative, or safer, or better work opportunities, many of the girls in the film will need to leave the communities in which they grew up. In some cases, one might argue that this is fine, but I do not think that it always is. And yet, there are first world countries (such as Spain, Italy, and Greece) also facing staggering unemployment numbers where their youth, male and female, are increasingly finding they need to look elsewhere to find jobs. I know that my friends in Italy worry about this reality for their own children. In fact, my family is experiencing some of this first-hand. Two years ago, we hosted Maria, an exchange student from Italy. She quickly became our daughter and she is now studying at the University of Cambridge in Kent, England because she does not see a future for herself in her beloved country. She is the first in her family to go to college, and she believes she needs to look elsewhere for her future because job prospects in Italy are grim right now.
I listen to my students and hear them talk about the challenges they face in the day to day. I listen to my own children and think about their worries and dreams. I watched the film, and read the New York Times article and thought about the challenges we all face. Few of my students need worry about the precariousness of life and education as they are presented in the film or the article. It is for this reason that it is important for teachers to make their students aware of the hardships of others, and urge the students to use the power that they have been offered, often due to circumstance of birth, to make the world around them a better place.
Last year for Christmas 2014 my children used the money they had saved to donate money to the Heifer International to send a girl to school. My husband and I were so proud of them. For her past birthday, my daughter opted to encourage her friends to make donations to Heifer International or The Hole in the Wall Gang Camp or a local animal shelter in lieu of gifts. Though only eight years old, she understands the need to give.
Reality is that Girl Rising raises as many questions as it does hope. Reality is that education is powerful, and that even though I said many times that “I would never be a teacher,” that is exactly what happened. Reality is I was hired to teach Spanish and Italian. Reality is I hope to teach much more than this.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BJsvklXhYaE Girl Rising Trailer
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N_HgVMyaBO8 Senna update Girl Rising
http://nyti.ms/1Ij7EOD New York Times article “Child, Bride, Mother”
http://www.ncte.org/cee/positions/socialjustice NCTE CEE Position Statement : Beliefs about Social Justice in English Education
http://www.heifer.org/ Heifer International
Other blogs having to do with issues around education:
http://jasoncourtmanche.blogspot.com/ The Write Space: a blog for teachers and writers
http://usedbooksinclass.com/ Used Books in Class: because reading makes us human