Education

Teacher feature: Talking race, religion and guns - without shouting - in Jacob Mason-Marshall's classroom

Teens 'more likely to have reasonable and respectful conversations' than adults, Washington High language arts teacher says

Jacob Mason-Marshall (right), language arts teacher, talks with Dondre Newell, junior, during genius hour in a world humanities class at Washington High School in Cedar Rapids on Friday, Mar. 2, 2018. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
Jacob Mason-Marshall (right), language arts teacher, talks with Dondre Newell, junior, during genius hour in a world humanities class at Washington High School in Cedar Rapids on Friday, Mar. 2, 2018. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
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CEDAR RAPIDS — A high school classroom can be one of the last places where conversations about controversial topics can carry on without devolving into a shouting match, Washington High School English teacher Jacob Mason-Marshall said.

“I say to the kids, and I honestly believe this, that they are much better prepared and more likely to have reasonable and respectful conversations about race, religion, and yes, guns, than adults,” he said.

To help facilitate those conversations, Mason-Marshall said he’s started hosting Socratic seminars for his students — a format he credits to his fellow language arts teacher, Carrie Tinkham. The seminars are a chance for students to have productive discussions on topics that often fuel division among adults.

"My faith in the next generation is reaffirmed on a regular basis."

- Jacob Mason-Marshall

English teacher, Cedar Rapids Washington High School

“How often after they graduate will they be surrounded by such an eclectic array of perspectives and experiences?” Mason-Marshall, 30, said in an email. “Not enough.”

Mason-Marshall has taught at Washington High for seven years. He received a master’s degree in teaching from the University of Iowa in 2011. He has a bachelor’s degree from Stanford.

Q: What’s one of the hardest conversations you’ve had at school?

A: Actually, it’s been our most recent conversations about mass shootings in schools. Just last week our students planned a walkout in solidarity to the victims of the shooting in Parkland, Fla. ... It’s been a tough conversation because students are scared, and in all honesty, so am I. Not in a specific-to-Wash kind of way, but an existential fear that these things are happening in our country on a far too regular basis. Another thing that makes these conversations so hard is that I would lay down my life for my students, and knowing that on any given day I just might have to, is a hefty psychological burden to bear.

Q: What keeps you motivated at work?

A: The open-mindedness and willingness of students to talk about serious issues in a mature and respectful way. My faith in the next generation is reaffirmed on a regular basis. As much as the students keep me motivated, my colleagues keep me grounded and provide support in countless ways.

Q: Best way to get students to pay attention?

A: Constantly demonstrate your respect for the views and opinions, but also make clear your expectations in terms of behavior and work ethic. I’ve found that when students are given genuine, no-strings-attached opportunities to demonstrate their passion and abilities, they seize it.

Q: What are some of your favorite lessons to teach?

A: Carrie (Tinkham) also introduced me to “Genius Hour” or “20% Time.” It comes from Google as a business practice. The idea is to let students spend roughly one-fifth of their weekly class time being curious and creative in any way that they want. A couple of examples of what students have come up with: a weekly sports vlog (video blog) or podcast featuring interviews and highlights, going vegan for a month and journaling about the experience, two students are working in tandem to put together a car engine from scratch, while another pair are designing a lightweight, clean, “universal” (it can use any combustible liquid to run) car engine. Other students are researching history or reading up on the news. It’s really a time for students to do things that they’ve wanted to do, but never felt like school or their life outside allowed them the time to do it.

Q: Name a few things you always have on your desk.

A: Homework, books, and a plush squirrel. ... The plush squirrel is an inside joke I have with my GSA (Gay-Straight Alliance) club: When I was in high school I went out for the swim team. I was literally the worst swimmer on the team and the rest of the guys used to make fun of me because during my flip turns, where you flip-over to reverse your direction at the end of the swimming lane, I looked like a squirrel with a bushy tail.

Q: What’s one of the funniest things a student has said to you?

A: Just this year a student told me that my attempt to “dab” was “a crime against humanity.” That caused me to accidentally fall into to my barking laugh as opposed to a chuckle. I was also told that my hairline looked like the McDonald’s logo.

Q: What would you be if you weren’t a teacher?

A: Something in public service. Working with young people has been my dream ever since my younger brother, Michael, was born when I was 17. ... All that being said, I wanted to be an astronaut growing up and I’d still seize any opportunity that would get me into space.

A parent of one of Mason-Marshall’s students nominated him to be featured in The Gazette’s ongoing series to spotlight educators in the Corridor. To nominate someone, send an email to Molly Duffy, K-12 education reporter. Please include information about the educator and why you think they stand out in their profession.

l Comments: (319) 398-8330; molly.duffy@thegazette.com

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