At the beginning of the school year, I asked students in my American Literature course to consider their identities as Americans and to examine their America through a lens of their own choosing. Some responses included:
“Hard Work brings reward, this country was built on risk for reward, if you risk everything then the feedback that you get will be even greater. America is the working man’s country and it will always be the working man’s nation.”
“There are many things that people can do as Americans, that they take for granted, that others around the world would die for. I have been given many opportunities and many chances to rise up. America is a great country, where we experience many luxuries, that others may not experience. In America we get to vote, we get to say what we want, and we have the freedom to practice the religion of our choice, but most importantly, we have one very important right; the right to have an education. A good education is vital in being successful in life. The opportunity to an education has allowed me to be a student in the American education system and experience a wide array of learning opportunities.”
“America is a complicated place. There are so many different cultures and ethnic groups. Americans tend to be fearless people. Our history is built on the fact that settlers arrived in a new country that was not settled and little was known about. If that is not bravery then I don’t know what is. All this because the original settlers were looking for a better life and freedom.”
“America: The “Land of Opportunity”, “Its gold-paved streets”, the “Land of the Free”, the “Home of the Brave”. America is freedom, opportunity, liberty to many people. But this is just the general idea of what America enforces. To everyone, there’s a little bit of a variation of self-identity. Who are we exactly? What’s our purpose? How can we fulfill that purpose to make this nation better? … With these freedoms and liberties and rights they give us, and by enforcing them and practicing them in our everyday lives, we are given a chance to become the greatest possible version of ourselves.”
Over the course of our initial discussions, I was intrigued by the fact that one after another, students found only positive things to say about what is means to be an American. Their responses centered around idealistic views of America and there was much mention of the “American Dream.” In many ways, I wonder if they believed that their perceptions about America directly reflected their identity; therefore being unwilling to say anything negative. After those initial conversations, I introduced students to the idea of Conflicting American Voices. We examined the idealistic views of Jean de Crevecoeur in “What Is An American?” and then the realistic expressions of John Steinbeck in “What’s Happening to America?” I also showed them a clip from Newsroom, in which the lead character challenges the claim that America is the greatest country. Those texts allowed us to examine idealistic and realistic expressions. I see one of my responsibilities as being to teach students how to view their American objectively. I also want them to acknowledge that the lenses through which they view America are created through their experiences and can be different from other people’s views. Therefore, they must respect every perspective, even if their lenses do not allow them to see things that way. I also offer as many perspectives to students and lead them to articulate what they see. We also discuss the sources of those voices and consider the extent to which the are “mainstream” or “edge” voices.
As their teacher, I do not believe that it is my responsibility to define their America; instead, I teach them how to use their lenses to see as much as possible and listen to as many voices as possible and then create their own views and find their own voices.