For one sixth grade teacher, a simple question – “How do you define ‘American?,’” has opened up new conversations about race, religion, citizenship and more. By simply encouraging students to devise a brief answer to what it means to be an American today, they are able to confront issues that many adults can only discuss in the most heated of discussions.
Ryan Davenport, 6th grade teacher at Perry G. Keithley Middle School in Tacoma, WA asked Define American founder and CEO Jose Antonio Vargas for help. Some of his students, and some of the parents of his students are undocumented, and he asked Jose to reach out and send them a message. Jose arrived in the United States when he was 12 years old, and with his own experiences as a lonely 6th grader in mind, left a video response on Facebook, outlining three main points:
1. Recognize that “we are more than pieces of paper, and unjust laws.”
2. Thank your parents for the sacrifices that they’ve made, and the risks they have taken.
3. “You are not alone… read U.S. History… and realize that there are many people around you, including Mr. Davenport, and many other teachers and friends and neighbors, who are there for you.”
He closed by asking Mr. Davenport’s 6th graders to “define American.”
Not to be outdone, Davenport incorporated the question into his social studies class.
“We read and write about ancient societies, and then transition to influential people in the present day. During this journey, we run into the question – “who are Americans?” I introduce this intentionally as an unclear, variable, fluid concept to be explored.”
With this, Davenport recorded some of his students’ responses, giving them a platform to share with each other, and promote a respectful discussion about our changing American identity.