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When you are a teenager, at least in the 70’s, the house with abundant food and a loving mother was the place to gather.  Our house had both.  Unlike all the other mothers in the neighborhood, Nancy Bullock Westfield was a stay- at-home mom.  Consequently, homemade meals, fresh baked everything, and gallons of iced tea was our joy. 

One afternoon, I was sitting at the kitchen table talking with my mother.  Brent, my brother, bounced into the kitchen accompanied by six friends.  Having just won a pick-up basketball game, the boys were hungry for snacks and wanted to play video games in our basement.  I knew all but one of the friends.  Brent introduced the new guy – Sid.  Kenny, my play brother, helped himself to the ice tea container in the refrigerator.  He got drinking glasses for all the boys.  Sid glanced around the kitchen, and then eyed the pots on the stove.  The cauldrons, I’m sure, promised him something delicious with their wafting delicious smells.  Sid walked past Kenny, who was by now passing around full glasses of sweet tea, and toward the stove. 

Then it happened – it was simultaneous and instantaneous – in slow motion, like a bad action film. 

Pot lid for blogWhen Sid got to the stove, he lifted a lid on one of the pots, peered inside and smiled at what he saw.  A HUSH! fell over the kitchen – everyone instantly froze.  Sid, with pot lid in hand, turned and looked over his right shoulder – confused by the abrupt silence.  Both my brother and Kenny hurled themselves at Sid. Kenny got to Sid first – grabbed Sid, which startled the pot lid out of his hand and onto the floor (Help us Jesus!).  My brother, still in motion, was screaming, “Man, What Is Wrong With You!”  In mid-air, seeing that Kenny had-hold of Sid, my brother changed directions trying, in vain, to catch the pot lid.

While Brent and Kenny were dancing with Sid and the pot lid, the other boys stampeded, with full tea glasses in hand, fleeing to the refuge of the basement.  My brother scooped the pot lid from the floor, tossed it to me like a Frisbee, grabbed a bag of chips and a plate of sliced ginger bread and he, Kenny and Sid were down the stairs, in one- fell-swoop. 

In African-American, southern culture, all are welcome to eat, drink and be satisfied, BUT!, it is the height of disrespect and disregard to lift a pot lid.  Clearly, Sid did not know this.  Sid felt welcomed, at home, and free – because he was.  However, being welcomed, at home and free does not mean there are no rules, no protocols or no boundaries which must be honored.  Sid’s offense was his misplaced, presumptuous familiarity.

Students come into our classrooms and, rightfully, feel welcomed and free.  All classrooms have formal and informal protocols which are expected to be honored.  All teachers have personal sensitivities about classroom decorum and comportment for which students must also be aware. The “Sids” of our classrooms too often presume the rules of our classrooms are the same as the rules which govern their own homes, their personal neighborhoods or their local churches. 

Articulated rules and protocols are needed most in classrooms which make use of dialogue as routine learning activities.  While clear learning goals and objects shape and direct the dialogue, care must be taken to establish and maintain the rules of engagement to keep critical conversations from being hijacked or derailed.  Inevitably, dialogue brings to the foreground the complexity that is human interaction.  Dialogue, invariably brings some measure of conflict, clash or disagreement – mild or violent. 

From experience we know that dialogue can lure students into the need to defend and protect their pre-formed opinions, un-explored biases, and micro-aggressions.  As well, dialogue can render students vulnerable to the assaults of the opinionated and the un-informed peer.  Conversation, unchecked, can privilege the bold personality, those who thrive upon competition and leave little room for silence of thought or whispers of insight.  Discussion can leave students more closed minded than when they entered the discussion.  

And so I ask: By whose rules will the critical conversations flourish?  Is monitoring for racial/cultural faux pas, micro-aggressions or downright rude behavior a mutually shared responsibility (like with Sid)?  Whose voice is stymied or lost when it is assumed that all conversations follow the protocols of white, patriarchy?  If/when an offense happens, how is forgiveness enacted?  Is an ethic of respect passé in 21st century adult classrooms?

This is the 5th post in this series by Nancy Lynne Westfield this semester (Fall 2015).

Nancy Lynne Westfield, Ph.D.

About Nancy Lynne Westfield, Ph.D.

Nancy Lynne Westfield, Ph.D., is the fourth director of the Wabash Center for Teaching and Learning in Theology and Religion. She grew up in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, sharing a home with family and extended family dedicated to public education. Her father was a school psychologist and her mother was a stay-at-home mom who, as a volunteer organizer, greatly influenced the school board of the city of Philadelphia. Lynne holds a BS in Agriculture from Murray State University, a MA in Christian Education from Scarritt Graduate School, and a PhD in Religious Education and Womanist Studies from Union Institute. Lynne, as a United Methodist clergy person, served on the staff of the Riverside Church (NYC) where she redesigned the family education program. From 1999 to 2019, she was on the faculty of Drew University Theological School (Madison, New Jersey) as Professor of Religious Education.
Lynne’s first book was a children’s book entitled All Quite Beautiful: Living in a Multicultural Society. Her second book was a publishing of her doctoral dissertation entitled Dear Sisters: A Womanist Practice of Hospitality. Her books written in collaboration include: Being Black/Teaching Black: Politics and Pedagogy in Religious Studies and Black Church Studies: An Introduction. She also, for a brief time, wrote for the Huffington Post.

Reader Interactions


  1. Well … for starters, I have to say I could have been Sid in the story. Ultimately, I probably wouldn’t have been as it seemed slightly presumptuous to lift up that lid as Sid did, however, as I was reading, I admittedly wasn’t sure where this story was going. What had Sid done to enact such a dramatic response? It wasn’t clear to me … which is evidence I wouldn’t have understood the context and culture in which such a move was an offense. So in what ways do I engage in conversations (in classrooms and elsewhere) that create an offense due to my lack of sensitivity relative to the context and culture I may be operating within? This simple little story with an innocent gaff from a young man moved quickly into a challenging and hard hitting question about “protocols of white, patriarchy”/ “forgiveness enacted” and an “ethic of respect.” PHEW – tough stuff. I don’t have an answer, per se but a start, it would seem, is clear lines of communication whenever possible … communication that can make all aware of ground rules and boundaries but at the same time, a posture of grace knowing that each of us may cross those lines, not out of any contempt or desire to injure, but rather as a result of a current ignorance as well as an unavoidable bias given our own limited viewpoint.

    Grace & Peace,

  2. I vividly remember navigating the social structures of junior high and high school and having the desire to be included in some kind of warm, social sphere or a part of an inside joke. And throughout our lives, once we find those moments of inclusion, we hold them really close in hopes to never lose them, which I totally understand. It’s when certain shibboleths are instituted and grips tighten when I begin to feel uneasy to navigate that space with others (and this holds quite true when I’m the shibboleth constructor as well). Our conversations and learning hinge on our attentiveness to one another. And as I reflect on the many conversations we enter on a daily basis, blaming our missteps or apathy on the “complicated mess of life” sounds more and more like an excuse. Messy happens – we shouldn’t fear it. Perhaps instead we really need to rekindle the desire of togetherness so that we can better navigate the boundaries and uniqueness of one another.

  3. Playing in the classroom arenas of higher education, how do I as an African American woman, stake a respected claim and not feel like I don’t matter? White patriarchy, white privilege-these are constants that exist within and beyond the classroom experience. Truthfully for me I have felt the underlying discomfort of this very existence. How does one begin to go about establishing an environment where the dialogue can exhibit levels of freedom that break down barriers of domination, isolation, and alienation? I think bell hooks offers a framework for beginning the process. In her book, “Teaching to Transgress” she proclaims that the teaching environment should create a practice of freedom which allows teacher/student relationships to come together in open, honest dialogue about preconceptions, biases, etc. I think when the classroom environment begins in the process of truthfulness, and then lifting of the pot lids becomes mutual, not exclusive. Thus the rules evolve into respected engagement and not one of exclusivity.

  4. Throughout the years I have participated in meetings and various forums, for example advocating for the rights of Puerto Rican and Latina women and conferences addressing the needs of young children to mention a few. Depending on the composition of the group in terms of ethnicity the protocols varied. During the nineties in the midst of a heated meeting addressing the concerns for the Puerto Rican community in a hotel in Chicago. Represented were liberal, conservative, activists and independent Puerto Ricans representing themselves for concerns regarding the economy, education and the consequences impacting Puerto Ricans in the United States and on the island. Most of the individuals were professionals and leaders from New York City, Philadelphia, Puerto Rico, California, Boston, Indiana, and of course Chicago. We came together noting our presence as a powerful “tool”, to address our concerns and identify strategies that would empower us to move forward and prepare proposals for change at the local and national level through creating ideas that would promote change.
    One individual had what I identify as passion and spoke in response to a question for change. This individual told his story as he personalized a concern as a Puerto Rican living and growing up in the Bronx, New York City. I kept from crying listening to a story that was “our” familiar to all of us. Yes, as you indicated; a dialogue can render become competitive but in this forum the energy was towards a common cause. We were comfortable with one another and maintained protocols while accepting nuances that would be rejected in a forum of “White Privileged”. At the end of the meeting one individual said a few words for change and we all held hands. The composition of our students are Latino, African American, African, Indian, and White similar to that of our faculty. You have raised an important issue here that will take more than one response.
    This question for me raises the conflicts that arise when the behavior of one person from a particular ethnicity is misunderstood by another person from another ethnicity. I will keep “Sid” in mind because he meant no harm.

  5. I have experienced that it is always helpful to establish group/class rules at the inception; I think of it as part of the group/class formation process and it should be done collectively. The rules should be agreed upon by all persons in the group/class. The primary rule is usually respect for one’s peers. This does not guarantee perfect behavior but it serves as a tool to guide and redirect those who go astray.
    At some point in our lives we have or will blunder like Sid but the story shouldn’t end there. No doubt when the boys were out of the kitchen they would have had a lesson for Sid regarding the house rules. The same can be true for the classroom; when persons behave badly towards their peers it can become a teachable moment. Anyone present is qualified to respond to a violation of another and should address the offender in a respectful manner. The aim is to facilitate discussion between the offender and the rest of the class/group in a productive way.
    To ensure productivity during the dialogue the facilitator of the group should be on the lookout for those who will seek to derail the process by becoming aggressive /protracted. She /he should purposefully steer the conversation back in order to achieve a successful outcome. I am certain that Sid never took the lid off another person’s pot.

  6. I have been incredibly afraid of being a “Sid”. I still have that fear. Being the one who presumes themselves free to behave, speak, and act however they like. Thus, in most situations and scenarios I move and speak cautiously until I am certain I have received permission several times over. In a lot of ways it has helped me to avoid trouble and offense. It has also helped me to avoid having a voice in larger discussions. There is not an appreciation for the contemplative speaker. It is the loud voices that can assert themselves, regardless of forethought, that take control.

    Now I have learned how to make my voice heard while being cautious in thought, but it is still a point of frustration to see those, who are brimming with emotion and thought being undermined by those who know only how to be louder. It is for those people that I am glad for environments that allow for the language of silence. For spaces where everyone has a voice. Sometimes what is needed is not a loud voice, but a thoughtful that is waiting for room to speak.

  7. As a child, you are taught and learn the various customs and rules of your particular environment. It is expected that you will make mistakes and learn from them about how “to behave” and become a respectful member of your environment. Once you venture from that environment and enter into diverse platforms such as community and education, you are often “just supposed to know” how to behave and what to do without the learning time period. It makes the whole situation awkward and will often inhibit individuals from participating which then inhibits them from learning. It takes thoughtful and compassionate people on both sides to navigate the gap between known/unknown and intentional/unintentional. Usually it is your friends who set you straight about appropriate behavior and friends can make the awkwardness go away with humor. I’m sure that once Sid got down to the basement, his faux-pas was explained to him and any embarrassment was replaced with humor.

    On a side note I want to thank Phil for introducing me to the word Shibboleths.

  8. Each one teach one. Sid won’t ever do that again. The quick and abrupt response of his buddies let Sid know immediately that he had made a big mistake. I am sure they had more to tell him about his error once they were safely downstairs. This is how mistakes should be corrected. Quickly and decisively before greater calamity befalls the one who is approaching a point of no return.

    I am reminded of a class I am taking where a few white males are offended by the betrayal of white men by the author in a book we are reading. They are offended that the author seems to have nothing positive to say about them. And I have been trying to get the Professor to call on me so I can advise these gentlemen that as a black women, if I took offense at every book that failed to mention me, acknowledge my existence on the face of the earth, that failed to find any beauty in my form and/or only spoke of me in a derogatory manner as a human being, if it considered me human at all, I would be offended every second of the day. They read one book and they are offended. For real??

    We are on pins and needles afraid to confront each other. But we will never get to really know each other unless we have real honest conversations with each other. I should have approached them after class was over, but I wanted my comments to be a teaching moment for the whole class. Do not over estimate your importance in the universe. It is not your world and the rest of us are not just squirrels begging for your left over nuts. We are all equally important and valued. And because we all have value and roles to play for the greater good, we must be lovingly corrected when we make mistakes.

  9. Following up with my perspectives on “who dare to take the lid off the pot”, I dare say that growing up Puerto Rican, in New York City; I thought everyone spoke Spanish, ate the same food, and lived similar lifestyles until entering the public school system. There were times the experience in the classroom with the teacher was one of learning that “our” food was unhealthy, our language unacceptable and culture non-existent. Eventually, I became “American”, or americanized; with the ability to preserve the language because of an insistent grandmother. I agree with the points that have been made regarding “El Sid”, and empathize with the mistake. I also know that a child in a loving environment will not be penalized but carefully corrected. This particular conversation requires everyone to be able to receive one another in good faith, and establish an environment of trust without judgment. I know that when I make a mistake and realize the consequences I wonder what happened to forgiveness? If there were more efforts to forgive amongst all of us; there would be an increase in loving kindness, less violence and conflicts. I will keep the “Sids” of all communities in prayer.

  10. I absolutely concur with Anthony Pami’s response, in that what seemed so naive and innocent of the young boy, turned into a “cultural disrespect and offense.” Yet, I clearly understand more why rules, protocols and open communication is key! What i did not see, is how, this type of occurrence, by merely taking the lid off a pot( or not knowing the culture) which was completely out of line with cultural “rules”, can lead to classroom discussions that are led in a certain way because of who might be leading the discussion as being the “correct” way or the “norm” or “protocol” by a white, patriarch societal structure. In other words, rules are important, particularly in a classroom setting, especially when there are discussions that are open, and opinions, whether right or wrong
    are expressed. What is key is the story is that all should have an opportunity to know the rules, protocols, and respect of other cultures, and before we engage in classrooms discussions, we should be mindful of other cultures, and not think “our” particular upbringing is the only way for the correct way. In closing, we must always find grace of understanding and be sensitive to others “ignorance,” and willing to learn!


  11. This resonates with me personally and professionally. I will start with the professional. As a principal, our classroom design is that of what are called workshop models, meaning the classes begin with whole group instruction no longer than 10 – 20 minutes called a mini-lesson, then students are to work independently practicing what they were taught. The evidence of learning comes through the student work and the conversations with the teacher (conferences) and student-to-student (observation).

    These conversations, however, can quickly move away from the lesson and the content, so we teach students “habits of discussion” or “accountable talk” to help facilitate the learning. Accountable talk says that every time we speak we use terms to ensure we stick to the matter at hand. Habits of discussion states that we do not talk unless we build from someone else’s response. We also use devices or objects which when held by a person gives them the authority to speak and be listened to. So, yes, in a workshop structure that is free, there are norms and rules that inform the speaking. However, there are still students who struggle to get a voice because they are not confident. Maybe they have a learning disability. Maybe they struggle with content. How do my teachers ensure that we hear every voice? We cold call (randomize our calling of students), use popsicle sticks, and give extra points for raising your hands to answer. And we build in celebrations, like “two snaps and a clap” to celebrate every answer, whether we agree or disagree.

    As I reflect on rules and discussion, I think the critical piece is building a culture where everyone understands and appreciates difference of opinion and are sensitive to those who display ignorance of the norms/rules. For example, how was Sid to know that he should not lift the pot lid? That could have been a norm in his house or family. Was everyone patient with him as he learned the rules, which for him could have been a new norm? I recall when I came to Drew some years ago, the use of inclusive language was very difficult for me. It was not my culture or my upbringing. It was so different from how I was raised, as most were, with the use of more patriarchal language. I needed time. However, there were several times when my struggle and my wrestling with the language led to vitriol from peers. They thought it was my conservative resistance, which some of it could have been, but what it was, in large part, was my personal level of comfort with adjust to new conversational language. I needed time to understand the rules and embrace the rules. I needed time and support being who I was while transforming into who I have become. In some ways, the harsh criticisms and reproach silenced my conversation in a couple of classes, and caused me to avoid some classes altogether.

    I look back and wonder how my experience in the first year or two would have been different if there was time spent sitting me down after I “lifted the lid” to talk me through my misuse of language rather than staring at me, fussing at me, or redlining my work/grade, the equivalent of rushing me downstairs.

    I have learned that inclusive language in fact frees my thinking and my conversation, but I went through a period of imprisonment (in my mind/opinion) that I had to work through to make it happen.

    I guess the summation of my reflection is that sometimes the lesson behind the rule(s) is as valuable (or more valuable) than the content taught in the context of the rules. Simply put, guide people to see how the rules surrounding the conversation actually lead to richer and deeper conversation. The rules of “accountable talk” or inclusive language all help deepen the conversation and “free the conversation, once those conversing understand why/how the rules are there to begin with.

  12. Dr. Westfield, I was gripped when you mentioned that we know that dialogue can lure students into the need to defend and PROTECT their pre-formed opinions, un-explored biases, and micro-aggression. It is so true that there is always risk with open dialogue in the classroom. Nevertheless, it would be an act of injustice to avoid open dialogue. I think as teachers we sometimes avoid certain conversations in an attempt to help protect those we feel will be offended by certain things.

  13. The 21st century is like none other! Conversations, actions and even one’s thinking are so different from even a generation ago. But there are certain things which are passed on from generation to generation. To me, Sid acted on impulse not from maliciousness. He had a “curious mind”(Brian Grazer), wanting to know what was inside the pot as the sense of smell drove his hand. Secondly Sid was a teenager, not thinking of the end result but seeing only the present.
    But as we enter sacred spaces rules, boundaries and mutual respect must be established to avoid problems. Both teacher and student must think and react not on impulse but on empathy and truth before boldly deciding to cross lines which could make others feel uncomfortable.

  14. As I read the article and looked through the discussion, the proverb “Curiosity killed the cat…” rang in my mind. As much as I think it was rude for Sid to grab the lid that pot, I have to really wonder in the context of classroom and pursuit of learning, is he really wrong? When placed in a setting where he is made to be comfortable enough to allow his inquisition to give him reason to explore, is he wrong? As a student, the best thing is to feel safe enough to ask questions, safe enough to dive in head first, safe enough to think and journey that process. What are the boundaries of learning if they’re any. Can you really fault someone for not knowing and falling back on what they’ve learned in previous environments to enforce their actions in the present? As important as it is to be sensitive to one another so that we do not disrespect another, it is as equally important not to silence or plug up the curious mind but to teach it.

  15. In some cultures it is assumed that others are automatically in tune to the idioms that are indicative to one’s culture. Sid was obviously unaware that such idioms existed within your family structure and went about meandering through the household uninhibited by the rules or idioms that those within the context are aware of.
    This story is an interesting example of how someone can be completely oblivious to what may only be apparent to and individual or particular culture.

    Critical conversations in classrooms can flourish when we allow the classroom to be the melting pot by which cultural idioms surface, perspectives are shared with the balancing act of the acknowledgement of respect to others ideals and norms may be uplifted.

    The voice of those with cultures who have historically been oppressed and ideas undermined is often times lost or suppressed. This in mind, it is important to allow space for all opinions to be heard with mutual respect and understanding that not everyone share the same experiences, culture or ethnic backgrounds. We must keep in mind that every American is entitled to their opinion, good, bad or indifferent.

    Forgiveness is enacted in the likely event that offense occurs when we allow each other to voice their experiences, ideals and contexts without taking personal offense to what is said. For sake of dialogue, it should be understood that we all share different experiences; therefore, no one person has all the right answers. Sometimes others feel personally attacked when others share their experiences. I certainly hope that an ethic of respect is not passé in the 21st century adult classroom.

  16. My grandma and mom would always yell anytime my siblings and cousins lifted the pot lids. For us it was like opening a Christmas present. The desire to fulfill the curiosity of what delicious concoction they were about to serve, was more overwhelming than the fear of grandma’s anger! But I have to say it was also it was also about testing boundaries. As a mother, I have had to learn when my relentless daughters are testing/pushing boundaries. How much can we gat away with today? I suggest similar dynamics take place in the classroom. Discussions in the classroom can increasingly become testing grounds for word wars, and not necesarrily an exchange of ideas that are transformational and community building. I believe transformational and community building dialogues require skill and practice, as with any craft. Because as a culture we have lost that skill in our homes and communities, or because the diversity of unspoken protocols are vast, I would say it I would be a neglectful teacher if I were to assume these types of dialogues happen through synergy. The culture of dialogue in the classroom had to be informed by agreed upon protocols, and formed with ongoing accountability.

  17. Communication, communication and communication. We live in a world where information on etiquette, informal and formal protocols are at our fingertips, however, this does not negate the need for human dialogue. Sid appeared to have felt welcomed and free to move around in the kitchen with his friends and likewise his friends took for granted he knew the rules of the Westfield home. Many of us have either been in the position of Sid or his friends due to lack of communication and assumptions. These assumptions are often carried into the classrooms where formal and informal protocols are expected to be honored, however, if they are not communicated it makes for a stressful and at time embarrassing environment.

  18. Every day I am more convinced how many things Dr. W and me we have in common, this article is so powerful. As a Caribbean guy (Puerto Rico) we are a mixed culture with a lot of African influences with Spaniard heritage. In other words, we are a mix it up of traditions, cultures and the best part different flavors what I love it. My mom is a great cooker and she always invite my cousins to enjoy the table together as a family and relatives. The interesting part my mom “NEVER” made dessert, we finished always with a great and delicious coffee. Now my thinking as a “cooker” living by myself the best part to invite people as extended family and bring the “community power” (Hook, 132) is Don’t lift the coffee… Hehe. Share the coffee time after dinner is the pick moment to be in honest conversation and share our own ideas, how we feel. One time my coffee maker was broke down at the dinner time with my guest. I didn’t realize how important was for me that moment and how I want to impacts my friends and extended family with my “delicious” coffee (of course) with different toppings on the table to serve as you like. Next time you are next!

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