Why We Teach: An Open Letter to the Students Whose Stories Changed Our Lives

— Written By
book pages in form of a heart

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Written by: Michael Kokozos, PhD & Maru Gonzalez, EdD

September 2019

Dear Former Students:

Three years ago, during a hot summer in Princeton, NJ, we witnessed and shared in your anger, sadness, and fear in response to a string of tragedies from the shooting at Pulse nightclub to the heightened violence towards black and brown lives in Baton Rouge, San Jose, and Falcon Heights — conjuring painful memories of Baltimore and Ferguson, among others.

When we, your teachers, were left wondering, can we do this, can we explain and ultimately address the injustices pervading that summer, you answered that question emphatically: 

Yes!

…but with two glaring caveats – (1) an understanding that critical reflection, dialogue, and subsequent action to injustice necessitates a social justice lens and (2) a clear adherence to the notion that any work for and about young people must actively involve them in ways that are meaningful, bidirectional, and strengths-based.

Your call for social justice and centering youth voice became our driving force that summer, embodied by the hashtag “PassTheMic,” which remains a core tenant of our teaching philosophy. To us, passing the mic means cultivating a space where young people can process oppression, engage in dialogue, reflect on their experiences and identities, share their truths, celebrate their resilience, and ultimately take collective action. 

Throughout the eight weeks we shared together and every day since then, we have learned that adversity can be one of life’s greatest teachers if we give voice to it and make space for it in the classroom. Indeed, teaching is about human connection, collaboration, and the uncovering of truths — both personal and universal. In particular, you demonstrated to us that personal storytelling is a powerful tool for fostering connection and authenticity, overcoming challenges, and ensuring that teaching and learning are never unilateral. 

person writing in a book

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As educators, you showed us that every student is a teacher of their own experience and that buried within each story is a lesson to be learned. Indeed, the power of storytelling rests in the notion that even if we may not fully comprehend another’s story, we can always connect with the emotions inherent in their experience: the feelings of joy, pain, insecurity, triumph, shame, vulnerability, compassion — those universal truths that speak to our shared humanity and help to diminish the line between me vs. you and us vs. them.

Such moments of vulnerability — moments which require trust, intentionality, reflection, and time — reaffirmed why we teach: we teach to connect; we teach to heal; we teach to open hearts and minds, including our own; we teach to liberate; we teach to inspire and be inspired; we teach for social transformation, with the knowledge that change is a collaborative effort; it’s about “we” and not “I.” And ultimately, we teach to learn, with the understanding that learning starts by #PassingTheMic and listening. Really listening. 

We teach, because of YOU. 

Today, the philosophy of “passing the mic” has evolved into a bold and wide-reaching initiative called #PassTheMicYouth, a youth-centered podcast and blog led by NC State  students Sam Chan, Luke Shealy, and Nyawira Nyota aimed at amplifying youth voices, shining a spotlight on youth activism, and providing educators with the tools to bring storytelling to the classroom. 

We extend our sincere gratitude to you and all the courageous young people who work tirelessly and fearlessly to cultivate a kinder, more just world. Thank you for inspiring us to ‘pass the mic’ from Princeton to Miami to Raleigh and beyond.

This is for you: Pass the Mic Youth.

Always,

Michael & Maru

Questions for Extended Dialogue

1. Former storyboard artist, Emma Coats, compiled a list of 22 storytelling best practices she learned while working at Pixar, the animation studio responsible for hits like Toy Story, Inside Out, and Coco. Drawing from your own experience listening to and crafting stories, with which “rules” do you agree or disagree; what are some caveats or expansions?

2. One definition of co-option is “to take or assume for one’s own use.” As we listen to stories, we might feel inclined to share them with others. In that regard, how might personal storytelling lend itself to co-option, particularly stories of marginalization? What are some best practices to avoid co-optionwhen it comes to advocating for the voices that too often remain unheard?

3. Educator-specific questionA NYC progressive childhood educator shares her vision of a storied classroom both on her website, including her blog, and Twitter.  Take time to examine her vision. How can educators implement a storied classroom in schools or other educative spaces?