What if the expectations on your list just went away?

I am preparing King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” for our foray into persuasive rhetoric. I found a WONDERFUL color-coded guide* that highlights ethos, pathos, logos, and the opposition’s arguments. I’m ecstatic. Yes, this pairs beautifully with our reading of Othello and its themes as well as February’s Black History Month activities.

However, as I’m preparing my research, I took several bunny trails into tangential topics. That’s when I found Noel Ignatiev’s How the Irish Became White. A writing assignment was a’ brewin’. I’ve already delved into the usual topics with them: race is a social construct, we should be judged by the content of our character, et cetera. They love these topics and generally have SO MUCH to say about them.

Today, I put on the board “Hispanic,” “Black,” and “White.” I asked them to privately write down what they thought each means. “Just brainstorm, no one will read your papers, I don’t want to see them.” Conversations buzzed about skin tone, heritage, culture, wealth, status, dialect, music, and education. Then I asked them, “What if the expectations on your list just went away?”

Blink. Blink. 

They were silent. They needed a moment to think about what that meant. The bell rang but no one moved. I rephrased the question. “What if everyone in the US just tore up the mental list they have of what these things mean? What if these words didn’t carry expectation or judgment of anyone? What if these labels just vanished?”  To be clear, I wasn’t advocating the annihilation of anyone’s heritage, culture, or history. Just that they are important to us all. No longer is it “them” and “us.” There would be no “them,” only “us.”

“We would have peace.”

“We could be really free.”

“No one would ask me what I am anymore.”

“We could do what we want.”

“We would be less afraid.”

Admittedly, the lesson isn’t perfect. I know it is a tough topic and fraught with emotion. I have some work to do on the framing, the prompt, and the historical aspects of the question. I need to teach a little about schemas and  what happens when we destroy harmful ones we have. I need to mention that all social progress depends on the willingness question and even modify one’s beliefs. I need to clearly tie it all to Dr. King’s letter — which is itself an attempt at changing a nation’s schema.

Regardless, I think it’s a good question. I don’t know what they will write in the expository papers they produce. But I’m sure it will be deeply personal and, I hope, optimistic.

*Thank you Dr. Laurel Lacroix for the beautiful analysis. 


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