The Group

I led a discussion with a group of teachers as part of a summer civics institute. The teachers came from public schools and charter schools, middle schools and high schools, and they taught subjects ranging from history to social studies to literature to service learning to leadership.

The Program

The discussion revolved around how difference—or differences—impact the work we do with one another, from teaching to service and beyond.


We began by splitting into pairs and talking about a time over the past year when we became aware of some significant difference between ourselves and the folks we were working with. I had assumed these teachers would talk about ways in which their students' lives were different from theirs, but a good half of the group talked instead about how their students' opinions differed from their own—opinions about the importance of voting, or doing well in school, or other such stuff. I was also surprised at how distant some teachers seemed to feel from their students—and how difficult it seemed to be for these teachers to put themselves in their students' shoes, or to identify with them. The talk about the Hughes poem, however, helped bridge this distance; toward the end of the discussion, one of the teachers who seemed least interested in thinking about where his students might be and why started talking about when he was 14, and couldn't understand why he was being asked to do something... After the discussion ended, one of the other teachers from the group approached me and talked about what a powerful moment that was for her—seeing this teacher move in 45 minutes from his position outside the students to finding himself in their place.

Next Time

I would definitely use this text, and this opening exercise, again. I do think Hughes' fame, coupled with the apparently autobiographical nature of the poem, can make it easier for participants to point to a historical moment and say, that's how it was then, when really what I want them to do is bring it home, to think for themselves about what sorts of differences obtrude, and why, and whether they should, and how—maybe—to work through them.

Final Thoughts

The last thing to say about this discussion is that it took place as part of a two-day institute for about 100 teachers, many of whom seem to feel the ground shifting beneath them. So there was a level of anxiety in the room that I had not fully anticipated—and it was important to have sat through two previous sessions before running my own.

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