Thursday, June 4, 2015

Creating a Space for Student Voice: Comfort versus Truth

by Lakeya Omogun 

Last month, I had the pleasure of hearing author, Chimamanda Adichie Ngozi speak at the Pen World Voices Festival here in New York City. Essentially, she spoke about silence, censorship, and obsession with comfort. She prefaced her talk with a comparison of hospitals in the United States and Nigeria, emphasizing that American hospitals offer a comforting experience for patients, lavished with medications and frequent checkups. Nigerian hospitals, on the other hand, simply offer healing for patients; providing comfort is secondary. Whereas Nigerians expect pain and discomfort to be part of the process of life, Americans prefer comfort. She then extended this idea to larger social issues, arguing that our addiction to comfort causes us to remain silent about poverty, race, and income inequality. Thus, we leave things unsaid, and as a result, a boring, comfortable, and safe environment transpires.

As she spoke, I couldn’t help but think about the idea of comfort in my own classroom. Have I neglected to engage my students in critical discussions to maintain a safe and secure environment? Have I evaded a student’s question about inequalities so as not to make anyone feel uncomfortable? Have I not undertaken controversial social justice classroom projects because I felt like my administration wouldn’t approve? If I’m completely honest, I can say ‘yes’ to each of these questions. While I’ve engaged my students in critical readings of texts during the school year, I have also been guilty of choosing comfort over truth. I’ve facilitated shallow discussions on racial, age, and gender inequalities, ensuring that they never became “classroom inappropriate”. I’ve convinced myself that the classroom isn’t the place for such discourse.  Well, if the classroom isn’t the place, then where is the ideal place?

Adichie’s speech compelled me to take a risk during my final unit of the school year, science fiction. Using Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies, I’m moving my students and I outside of our comfort zone to engage in deeper and more authentic conversations about class, perceptions of beauty, and social structures that impede or enhance social mobility. The content in this book definitely lends itself to such discussions. Why does our society have racial categories? Who do they benefit? Who’s in control of our idea of beauty? Even though the city of New York does not have visible boundaries, are people grouped together based on similarities and differences? Why?  These are just a few of the questions that have elicited transparent, and interestingly, truthful responses from my students. So, right now our classroom discussions are not safe. They definitely are not comfortable. However, we are discovering root causes of injustices and inequalities and connecting them to our everyday lives.

So, again, is the classroom the place for such discourse? Considering that my students represent a population that has been historically marginalized within the society and the educational system whether due to their racial/ethnic background, socioeconomic status, or various perceived and/or valid ability labels, I would say the classroom is definitely the place to help them see the world through a critical lens, even in the midst of discomfort.

About the Author: 
Lakeya is a 7th grade Literacy teacher at New Design Middle School in West Harlem. She has also taught 6th grade in Newark, NJ and 3rd grade in Detroit, Michigan. Lakeya was a McNair Scholar at Michigan State University and is an active member of Kappa Delta Pi International Education Honor Society through the Teachers College chapter. Currently, she is completing a year-long research project in her classroom, which is funded by the Louise M. Berman Fellows Award. She recently completed the Masters Literacy Specialist Program at Teachers College Columbia University. Lakeya is going into her second year as an LTI fellow. 

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