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2017 National Teacher of the year advocates for student activism



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Sydney Chaffee, the National Teacher of the Year, speaks on Thursday evening at the Neal-Marshall Black Culture Center. She spoke about interacting with children, as well as how teachers are perceived all over the world. Zheng Guan Buy Photos

Students should be empowered by teachers to use what they learn in the classroom to promote change in their communities and the world, said Sydney Chaffee, 2017 National Teacher of the Year. 

“Teaching isn’t just about teaching academic subjects,” Chaffee said. “It’s about teaching people.”

Chaffee, who teaches ninth grade humanities at Codman Academy Charter Public School in Boston, spoke Thursday evening at the Neal Marshall Black Culture Center about the importance of empowering students to put their education into practice . 

She said students want to change the world, and teachers can help them grow into empowered adults. 

Students from Chaffee’s school exercised their right to protest in wake of the 2014 shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. The school’s principal received an anonymous email from a student about a walk-out protest. He decided to allow students to participate instead of trying to control them and asked them to be safe.

“No matter where they chose to spend the afternoon, whether it was downtown participating in the city-wide student protest or whether they stayed at school, all of our kids learned really, really important lessons,” Chaffee said. 

From this protest, students realized the adults in their lives would support them, Chaffee said. They saw that adults would be consistent in their expectations but flexible enough to know when expectations need to shift. 

The students saw they didn’t need adults to tell them how, when or where to organize. They were members of a community of young people that shared a vision of a more equitable society, Chaffee said.

Chaffee also shared videos of teachers inspiring students to dig deeper. 

One high school history class noticed the same picture of Frederick Douglass would show up when they searched online for images of Frederick Douglass, Nat Turner and Denmark Vesey. All three black men were identified as the same image, even in important articles and books. Their teacher encouraged them to pursue the topic and had them call publishers, editors and Google representatives to try and find out why this had happened.

“When students engage in activism, when they engage in the work of changing the world, they build critical thinking skills and they build leadership skills,” Chaffee said. “Working for justice and engaging in activism correlates positively with their political participation later in life.”

Sophomore Patrick Clady said the talk inspired him to think about how he will implement social justice when he becomes a teacher.

“I think there has been a fear that teachers could be reprimanded or that it won't fit their curriculum,” Clady said. “But as we’ve seen in this lecture and so many other cases, students are learning lifelong skills and lifelong capabilities that will inspire them far more than any test or curriculum standards.” 

Chaffee said there is a misconception that classrooms will devolve into absolute chaos and no one will learn if students are given any wiggle room.

“If we expect students to sit silently and passively receive knowledge, then yeah, their voices are always going to feel overwhelming,” Chaffee said. 

Teachers have to accept that learning is sometimes messy, and students will sometimes rebel and stand up and walk out of classes in the service of something greater, Chaffee said.

She said if teachers can accept this, then they can start to build schools and classrooms of students who can change the world. 

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