(Dedicated to Fosemi, Lassana, and Adam.)
Suddenly I was the inconsiderate one. As teachers, we need to be the agents of change who recognize and act accordingly to our students’diverse perspectives and customs. Here I thought I was responding appropriately when I noticed that some of my highest-performing students were not eating, even when I pointed to where they could locate the food selections. I consider myself fortunate to work at a middle school that is within a ten minute walk to Crotona Park’s borders in the Bronx. Thus, on a warm June morning my school took advantage of this reality.
On Friday, June 16th, my colleagues and I took 110 eleven and twelve year-old sixth grade students to the grounds of Crotona Park for the school’s annual Sixth Grade Picnic & BBQ. I was in charge of ensuring that students’ permission slips were accounted for and any financial contributions were in order. I wasn’t sure what items had been bought for the BBQ; hence, I realized the day of the BBQ/Picnic that I may have put myself in a compromising position. My upbringing does not permit me to consume pork and I also do not eat beef. I’m selective about other foods too, some due to food allergies and others due to fitness goals I’ve set for myself. So I kept myself busy by playing with my students and ensuring that no one left the park without a chaperone. The food was unpacked, the grills were covered with foil, the coal was lit, and the watermelon was cut. I continued to entertain our kids.
When my colleagues and I announced that the cooked food was ready I helped gather students together and walked around the Park ensuring that no one was left out and each had a plate of food selections and a beverage. Then, I walked over to a picnic table with students who were not eating. At this point, based on the sole beef products I saw, including patties and hot dogs, I knew I would be making a trip to Subway; otherwise, I too would not be eating. I pointed to where they could locate the food selections. It was then that I realized that I was the culprit disregarding a character trait — being considerate to others — that I insist on from my students: “Ms. Thomas, we are still observing Ramadan. We are fasting from eating until we break bread with our families this evening.”
I didn’t know what to say. “Sorry?” No, that sounded as if I’m downplaying the significance of their experience at that moment. “I’m giving you your money back?” No, that reply implies that their attendance at the school’s annual BBQ/Picnic Day is motivated solely by a financial investment. Confession time — I did try to give them their money back and they refused. “What are you having for dinner this evening?” I considered that question, but did not pursue it as it seemed as if I was trying to shift a lesson meant for me to learn from them onto their families. I had to admit to myself that now I had become the student and they the teacher as my students told me that they were looking forward to “breaking bread” with their families that evening, and that fasting led them to become less dependent on life’s luxuries and more appreciative of family and friendships. I thought I wanted to find a way for their experience to be brought into the classroom.
My Plan — What Will I Now Do
I want my students to display the following character traits during the school day, with the overall goal that each will become intrinsic: kindness, empathy, and honesty. With the 2016-2017 school year coming to a close on Wednesday, June 28th, 2017, one holiday precedes schools’ closing: Eid al-Fitr, observed today on Monday, June 26, 2017. This holiday is new to New York City’s school calendar and its meaning must be explicitly taught because it is representative of New York City’s Public School growing communities.
To begin with, teaching observed holidays will uncover the behaviors and attitudes that I’m looking to see in my classroom and provide me an opportunity to showcase those students who model such behavior, thereby building classroom culture and empathy. I wanted to learn more about my students’ practice after the picnic ended. That afternoon, I read an article from the online news outlet, EXPRESS entitled, “When is Eid al-Fitr 2017? When does Ramadan end?” In EXPRESS’ news article, I learned that “The festival marks the end of Ramadan, the holiest month of the Muslim year and a period of fasting.” (I also took advantage of NYC’s teaching guide.) If I take the time to have students share examples of doing without for a specific period of time, a favorite food, hobby they’re passionate about, or activity they are loyal to participate in, my kids may begin to see commonalities in their peers’ answers and their own. It may even be possible that we all will learn what or who lead them to make a decision to make these sacrifices, as well as the results of those choices.
Join me in this endeavor of becoming empathetic change-agents who acknowledge the rapidly changing student population in New York City’s public schools. It is imperative that we all move forward with a deeper awareness of our students and the choices they make, especially when those options lead them to develop the characteristics that create a more civil society.