Holi: The Festival of Colors

Holi: The Festival of Colors

Spain has La Tomatina, Brazil has Carnival, and India, well, India has HOLI! 

A festival like no other, Holi is all about people coming together and immersing themselves in vibrant colors, eating lip-smacking delicacies, and dancing in the streets dripping with enthusiasm. 

The festival of Holi is usually celebrated in March and the date changes according to the Lunar calendar every year, like most Hindu festivals. Holi marks the beginning of spring in India. The origins of this festival can be traced back to Hindu mythology, where it’s believed that the festival commemorates the victory of good over evil. The story goes that the demon king Hiranyakashipu had a son named Prahlad, who was a devotee of Lord Vishnu. But Hiranyakashipu was against his son’s faith and tried to kill him. However, Prahlad was saved by Lord Vishnu and his evil father was ultimately defeated.

But let’s talk about the fun part of Holi – THE COLORS! On the day of Holi, people gather in the streets and on the terrace of their homes armed with packets of colored powder and water guns. It’s a free-for-all, with people throwing colors at each other, smearing each other’s faces with bright pigments, and drenching each other with water. The famed water balloon fights are an integral, albeit slightly painful, part of this festival as well. It’s impossible not to get caught up in the blaze of color and madness on this day. People of all ages participate in the revelry. Even strangers become friends, as they share the joy of the festival together. And the best part is that no one is spared from the colorful onslaught – from children to grandparents, everyone is fair game! 

The vibrant colors of Holi.

Got you wanting to witness this firsthand, right? You might just be able to. Take a look at some community groups on Facebook and you might just find a Holi party being organized somewhere in your city!

But before you dive headfirst into the festivities, a few words of caution. Make sure you wear old clothes that you don’t mind getting stained, as the colors can be pretty stubborn. If you have sensitive skin, it’s a good idea to use a protective lotion or oil to prevent any allergic reactions. Lastly, wear comfortable shoes that allow you to break into a run, just in case you want to dodge some water guns! 

We are all set at MyCoolClass with our weaponry of choice, ready to come out of battle looking like a rainbow exploded! And you? 

Supporting LGBTQ+ Shouldn’t Be Political

Supporting LGBTQ+ Shouldn’t Be Political

It’s Pride Month, and I was recently reminded that sharing kind words and the LGBTQ+ flag is a political statement. This reminder came from a “homophobic” individual who was withdrawing their support from organizations advocating for LGBTQ+ rights.

Personally, I’ve never liked the word “homophobic”. While it does apply to some people who legitimately don’t understand homosexuality, we often use it to describe people who hate LGBTQ+ people.

Hatred is not the same as fear.

I shook my head at this comment, and I thought about the off-handed joke by Marc Maron that somehow hating Jews is considered a political topic. Again, it’s simply discrimination; bigotry.

Bigotry isn’t the same as politics.

That being said, I do become annoyed when a company changes its logo to rainbow in June as a sign of solidarity, when in fact it’s only a sign of capitalism. (One education unicorn did this last year–although not this year–and I was irritated every time I logged onto the site.) From fast food restaurants to retail stores, and everything in between, corporations often feel they can turn a greater profit if they change a symbol for 30 days, as if that is enough to claim it supports an entire demographic.

Patronizing isn’t the same as solidarity.

When MyCoolClass members share a flag or make a statement in support of the LGBTQ+ community, it’s not meant to be political. It’s simply humans supporting each other in a world that can be discriminatory, hateful, and cruel.

So, let me share some thoughts and examples of cruelty–and my hope for the future.

Bullying of LGBTQ+ Youth

I grew up in an area in the US in which some people were incredibly supportive of the LGBTQ+ youth, and others thought they should be beaten or killed. It was typically one extreme or the other. Even being friends with gay kids was enough to make you a target for bullying.

According to Human Rights Watch, “...at least sixty-nine countries have national laws criminalizing same-sex relations between consenting adults. In addition, at least nine countries have national laws criminalizing forms of gender expression that target transgender and gender nonconforming people.” So, taking a global view, my teenage years were mild, and I don’t want to misrepresent the severity in a larger sense.

That being said, when Americans think of “bullying,” they often think of the insults and rumors cruel kids use, whether in-person or via cyberspace. And for the record, words and rumors kill. In 2019, the University of Southern Maine published a paper detailing the link between bullying and suicide in LGBTQ+ youth, and they specifically cited Jamey Rodemeyer, one of the most famous examples.

In fact, in 2015, the National Center for Transgender Equality conducted a survey of trans Americans, and the report they released in 2016 is literally nauseating. Among the most notable statistics: 40% of survey respondents reported attempting suicide at least once. (If you haven’t read it, it’s an enlightening and difficult read. If you identify as trans/nonbinary, consider completing the new survey being released later this year.)

So, my constant defense and support of LGBTQ+ friends resulted in plenty of bullying, but it was mild compared to the bullying experienced by my friends who had taken the enormous risk to come out during high school. One sophomore was nearly sexually assaulted in broad daylight when he had stopped at a gas station. Another student was beaten and disowned by his father. Neither of those incidents were reported to police; it was simply considered part of the experience of being a gay high schooler.

When someone tells me sharing a flag is a political statement, those are the stories I remember first. Hating LGBTQ+ individuals is accepting that the consequences of that hate are justified.

Personal Experience as a Teacher

When I was still teaching in-person, one year I taught a student who was openly gay. The bullying was covert, but it was still bullying. Racism was emerging with students simultaneously, although unrelated. To address this, I gave a 20-minute lesson about bigotry in general.

I tried to impress upon students that they almost certainly knew someone who was LGBTQ+, and by saying hurtful things, they were not providing a safe space for their friends to be open with them about their identity and feelings. This was particularly helpful for students who really weren’t biased but said terrible things to follow the trend.

However, this had no effect on kids who were proud of their bigotry. Trying a different tactic, I told the horrific story of Matthew Shepard’s murder. And then something happened that I could have never predicted.

A student clapped.

Honestly, I don’t remember the exact words I used to stop him. I remember they were harsh while avoiding profanity, but I was so in shock–and so many students were in shock–that I didn’t really know how to respond.

To make matters worse, after hearing about my speech, the kid’s family approved of his actions and was horrified that I had tried to “convert” their son to accepting gay people. I’ll skip the remainder of that story.

Later that week, a staff member pulled me aside. She’d never talked to me about her social views, so I didn’t know she was an ally until that conversation. “I don’t know how to be around him,” she told me. Being in the same room with him upset her; for the first few hours, it was anger, but now it had morphed into despondency, just as it had for me.

It was a true heartbreak shared between two kid-focused adults who wanted to teach students and help raise kids who would be healthy, successful, compassionate adults. If Matthew Shepard’s story doesn’t make you feel compassion, I’m not sure anything will.

We felt bad for him, that this was the person he was choosing to become, and we felt bad for the kids around him, who would likely be bullied at some point. We could only hope that he would have an experience (maybe his best friend coming out) that would change his mind, and make sure he didn’t bully anyone in our presence.

I don’t know what happened to that student, but I think of him every time I’m verbally assaulted by someone who hates a company, organization, or person who is an ally to the LGBTQ+ community.

And Yet We Hope

Despite the dark experiences and statistics, I have faith that things will improve. Homosexuality isn’t a disorder listed in the DSM anymore. The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act became a US law in 2009. This month, gay marriage will have been legal in the US for 7 years. Between 2019 and 2021, Taiwan, Ecuador, Costa Rica, Switzerland, and Chile legalized gay marriage, too.

Online education provides a safe space for bullied kids, including LGBTQ+ students. I estimate 10% of my students are victims of severe bullying. Sometimes, I teach those kids for a few weeks while their families look for a better school; sometimes I teach them for years because they’re permanently homeschooled. MyCoolClass provides a safe space for those students; I’ve never had students bully one another in my classes. Not once.

One day, the guy who pulls his support from organizations that advocate for LGBTQ+ rights will be the minority, and people will roll their eyes at his ignorance. One day, the bullies of LGBTQ+ youth will be ostracized or receive appropriate consequences. One day, the countries who ban homosexuality will be the exception.

These aren’t political statements; they’re belief in a greater good.

MyCoolClass isn’t changing its logo to patronize or gain capital. It’s simply acknowledging that LGBTQ+ people are people.

Love and support shouldn’t be political.

Teaching Diversity is Imperative (Part One)

Teaching Diversity is Imperative (Part One)

One of the great benefits of being a self-employed educator is being able to create individualized curricula. Some teachers use standard materials, some exchange resources with other teachers, and some create all the materials from scratch. As long as the curriculum is high quality, the method of acquisition is moot.

However, ELA teachers–and any teacher who incorporates literature into their lessons–must decide what to prioritize in their text and assignment selections. These decisions can result in enormous anxiety and debate, both with the teacher themself, families, administrators, and other teachers. Despite the potential backlash, we as educators must choose to teach diversity to prepare students to make compassionate decisions in their adulthood.

Saying “No” to the Classics

If you are attempting to teach texts based on a Western education, you’re likely to be pushed to teach the “classics”. Some of these texts are “classics” in the traditional sense (e.g. Homer and Shakespeare), some are more modern (e.g. Fitzgerald and Austen), and some are the books that will likely be given that honor this century (e.g. L’Engle and Morrison). The largest problem teaching these books is the lack of diversity. Gabriel García Márquez, Toni Morrison, and Amy Tan appear on these lists, but most authors are White men from the United States and Western Europe.

Parents argue that those books are what help students succeed on the AP Literature exam, college admissions, freshman English composition, and world literature. It’s hard to dismiss that argument; if a student wants to enroll in a Western university, having some knowledge of those texts is likely to help. However, if that’s the argument, here is the rebuttal: Then what?

What happens after the English composition and world literature classes are finished? Will reading “The Great Gatsby” help students love their chosen career? Will studying “War and Peace” make them better parents? Will dissecting “Great Expectations” make them healthy, compassionate adults?

In most cases, the answer is, “No, probably not.”

There’s nothing wrong with students reading these books. If a student wants to read Hemmingway in the summer or on the weekends, that’s fine; I’m thrilled when a student is reading anything. However, should teachers spend precious class time teaching these texts?

No, probably not.

Saying “Yes” to Diversity

I spent months designing my fall curriculum. Even books that I love to read and teach were moved to summer to make way for greater diversity and lessons I felt students could genuinely use. Mary Louisa Alcott’s “Little Women” was replaced by Linda Sue Park’s “A Long Walk to Water,” and Ann Braden’s “The Benefits of Being an Octopus” was replaced with “Listen, Slowly” by Thanhhà Lại.

“Little Women” is fun to teach, and Braden’s book deepens students’ empathy and understanding of peers in difficult situations; in fact, Braden’s novel will remain one of my favorite middle grade books. Nevertheless, Park and Lại wrote stories that create intense discussions, widen perspectives, and will likely stay with students long after we’ve moved to a new unit.

Linda Sue Park is a Korean-American author best known for “A Long Walk to Water,” although she has plenty of other award-winning books. Thanhhà Lại is a Vietnamese-born American author best known for “Inside Out & Back Again,” but her three other books are also highly acclaimed. Both authors write beautiful stories worthy of their success and awards.

The rubric I used to choose these and other texts is a subject for another post. For now, I would like to explain why Thanhhà Lại is a perfect example of an author worthy of precious classroom time.

Listen, Slowly

First, “Listen, Slowly” begins when a Vietnamese-American girl has just finished sixth grade and is blind sighted by her parents when they announce the family will be spending the summer in Vietnam. My seventh graders, just returning from summer break, will be able to relate to this story, at least in part, creating a smoother transition.

Second, the book takes a close look at how we define our identity. Tweens and teens are having these inner monologues already, but the choices they make in the next few years help mold them into the people they will be in adulthood. “Who am I?” and “Who do I want to be?” are questions worth exploring in fiction to help students explore those questions in real life.

Third, the creative writing has an informal style that will resonate well with its intended audience, allowing us to discuss word choice, sentence structure, and all the other difficult English concepts teachers love to explain.

In short, the book is well-written, relatable, and thought-provoking. That could be enough of a reason to teach a book. However, Lại’s life story and accomplishments add another layer, which persuaded me to keep it at the top of the list.

Teachable Lives; Teachable Moments

If I’m honest, my text selection really boils down to me looking for as many “teachable moments” as I can cram into a semester. How many lessons can I turn into advice (without sounding like advice)? How many times can students leave class thinking about something we discussed? “Listen, Slowly” will increase those teachable moments exponentially.

Often, teachers give students information about the author of a book because that’s what we’re supposed to do as a “pre-reading” activity. However, students rarely care when and where an author was born, where they went to college, or what job they had before they published their first book. These facts don’t enhance the story for them; it’s basically the same as learning information about a complete stranger. I try to find a more engaging way to introduce this material–usually after we have started the book.

I won’t need to do that with Lại.

First, Lại’s family fled Vietnam in 1975, shortly after the end of the Vietnam War. Her childhood and adolescence allow us to discuss the Vietnam War (about which students know very little at that age), immigration, and the refugee crisis. It builds empathy, tolerance, and humility.

Second, Lại struggled to learn English properly, and she wrote a scholarly article entitled “From Awkward to Still Awkward, but More Chill” detailing the challenges she faced in learning the language. She tells a story about being exiled from AP English and discusses how one can’t use logic to write English properly. The article is humorous and captivating, and I know my students–especially multilingual students–will appreciate this personal story.

Her experience provides us with the opportunity to talk about the difficulties of English grammar, syntax, and mechanics, and I hope that it will instill optimism. After all, a student who struggled for years to understand the complexities of English became a bestselling author; my students can overcome those difficulties, too.

Third, Lại founded Viet Kids Inc, a nonprofit organization that provides bicycles to Vietnamese students who often walk four hours each day to receive their education. Biking to or from a school can cut a 2-hour commute to a 30-minute trip, giving students more energy to concentrate on learning. Additionally, the nonprofit provides tuition, uniforms, and rice to students; my American students often do not realize that the necessities of education are not available to everyone.

This information allows us to gain a sense of community and interdependence, foster kindness, and learn humility. Additionally, we can tie this noble organization to the information about the Vietnamese culture included in the book.

Students may not remember all of the facts. The story of being kicked out of AP English and the exact name of the nonprofit may escape them. However, the lessons they will learn and the positive character traits they will develop thanks to the book and the author’s story will be with them much longer–and I will feel proud of those teachable moments.

Positive Character Outweighs Classic Knowledge

I do feel it is my responsibility to help prepare students for university, and I’m not sure that “Listen, Slowly” will ever be on the AP Literature test or discussed in a college English class. However, more importantly, it is my responsibility to help prepare them for adulthood–in whatever form that takes for them.

Reading Baum and Dickens is unlikely to help students when they’re facing their biggest decisions.

But the information they discussed while reading Lại just might.

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