You should be thinking critically about why you think the way you do, have opinions about things and start backing them up. I hope that creates more sympathy. I hope that creates more people who are activists in whatever sense they want to be.
At Seattle’s Meany Middle School, Yani Robinson sees hope and an idealistic outlook among students that he recognizes from his own experiences at that age. He recalls an eighth-grade teacher who allowed him and his classmates to protest the Iraq War or call the White House during class.
“He just gave us the tools to think beyond what we saw, and he gave us tools to process the unhappiness you sometimes feel when you start realizing things in the real world,” Robinson said. “I think that really changed something for me.”
As Robinson completes his Master's in Teaching from the University of Washington College of Education, currently doing his student teaching in English language arts at Meany, he’s focused on bringing a social justice orientation into the classroom.
Robinson used the story of Bayard Rustin from the book “Teaching for Black Lives,” which provides social studies and language arts teachers with curriculum, artwork and lesson plans on how to integrate Black history and racial justice into English and history classes, as an example. Rustin was an organizer with Martin Luther King Jr and was heavily involved in the 1963 March on Washington.
“Homophobia led to him being denied a title of national director of the march,” Robinson said. “So thinking about Black history while teaching about Rustin complicates the simplistic civil rights narrative offered to students by corporate history textbooks.”
“I think how to best analyze literature is looking at it in context,” Robinson said. “You have to look at Shakespeare in context. You can’t look at ‘Othello’ without looking at racism in the 15th/16th century.”
He also seeks out teachable moments with students beyond the curriculum.
“If you don’t understand what it means to use ‘gay’ as an insult, if you haven’t registered that you’re doing that, we’ll talk about that,” he said.
Some of his favorite interactions are when he doesn’t even need to step in.
“I’ve had students who, just the way they interact with each other, say, ‘Hey, I really didn’t like that you called my classmate fat.’ I see that on a daily basis,” he said. “It’ll be something about disability or body image or gender or race. I love the moments that I can hang back because they’re already on it.”
Robinson, a recipient of the College's Tomorrow's Great Teachers Today Scholarship, will soon have a student teaching placement at a new school until June as part of an English Language Learner endorsement he’s pursuing.
One member of the College who had an impact on him earlier in the school year was Winston Benjamin (PhD ‘18), a former teaching assistant for Robinson. Benjamin’s immigration from Jamaica to New York as a seven-year-old reflected Robinson’s experience of moving from Thailand to Baltimore as a child.
Benjamin focused on building classroom rapport and different ways of working with students of color. Robinson said the information was helpful when considering the schools he plans to work in, where students aren’t just from communities of color but may also be from low-income, working class, LGBTQ, immigrant or refugee communities. Robinson himself is LGBTQ and half-Thai, half-Caucasian.
“I still want to treat all my kids the same,” Robinson said, but he also emphasized raising the self-esteem of students who feel bullied. “It’s just an unspoken, ‘You can always talk to me about what’s happening around us, and I will never shut you down.’”
Robinson believes that if everybody felt they could express themselves in words, more people would discuss topics of importance to them and solve problems that are taken for granted.
“You should be thinking critically about why you think the way you do, have opinions about things and start backing them up. I hope that creates more sympathy. I hope that creates more people who are activists in whatever sense they want to be.”
Dustin Wunderlich, Director of Marketing and Communications