From folders emblazoned with “Jojo’s Mommy” to name tattoos on necks and arms, hints of my students’ children have always been present in my classroom. Without directly asking, by the end of the first week of school I know the parenting status of nearly all of my students. In the alternative school where I teach on Chicago’s West Side, between one-third and one-half of the students, depending on the semester, are pregnant or parenting. Although comments about parenting frequently wove their way into our classroom conversations, it wasn’t until I became pregnant that I realized the potential richness and importance of bringing this theme into the curriculum.
When I announced my pregnancy to my students in the spring of my 5th year of teaching here, I was expecting excitement, questions, and newfound opportunities to bond. I was not anticipating, however, the ways that my transition to motherhood would change my identity as a teacher and my relationship with my students. Sure, there were unsolicited daily comments on my changing body and suggestions for names. But, more surprising to me, students also showed extreme concern for my well-being, both physical (offers to carry materials) and mental (“Don’t stress her out!”). A believer in the reciprocal nature of learning, I had already noticed ways my students educated me about the world, but now many of them took on the expert role and filled me in on what I had to look forward to — both joyous and gross — about having a baby. Even students without children were very involved, as most of them lived with or frequently cared for young children. Perhaps it was because of the role reversal on this topic, but I started listening and responding to my students differently during this time.
I realized that parenting — specifically adolescent parenting — was what Paulo Freire called a “generative theme” of my students’ lives. Fraught with contradictions and controversy, this topic is generally excluded from the official curriculum of schools, except in the context of abstinence-only sex education. What, I wondered, would happen if schools embraced the messy realities instead of the usual deficit model? As an English/language arts teacher and believer in critical pedagogy, I decided my students and I should try. I designed an instructional unit with two essential questions in mind: How are stereotypes of parents, especially teen mothers, presented and countered in fiction and nonfiction texts? How do race, class, and gender intersect in discussions of parenthood? My learning goals focused on citing textual evidence to support claims about the representation of school-age mothers in U.S. culture, and analyzing texts of different genres and mediums for the portrayal of parents of different ages, races, and socioeconomic backgrounds.
Maya Angelou’s Letter to My Daughter
My school is part of a larger network of alternative high schools that enrolls 17- to 21-year-old students who have been kicked out, forced out, or dropped out of traditional high schools. Students attend for one semester, a year, or longer, depending on the number of credits they need to earn a diploma. The English courses are not organized by grade level or even skill level; instead, they are semester-long courses that resemble electives, with great teacher freedom to choose a genre or theme of focus. For several years, I have been teaching variations of “Women’s Literature,” focusing primarily on texts by African American authors. I organize the course thematically; “motherhood” is the second major unit. Drawing on some of the lessons from previous years, I reframed the first half of the motherhood unit to specifically explore adolescent motherhood.
We began the unit by journaling about birth. Students were invited to write about their own birth, giving birth, being present for a birth, or a story about someone else’s birth. Everyone had something to share, and we spent some time in a read-around. We listened as Shakira shared that she was a “miracle baby,” born extremely prematurely. Brandon made us laugh with his account of being born at home in the bathroom. Adrienne read aloud: “June 5, 2011, was the day I met my baby, the happiest day of my life. . . . She makes me so happy to be a teen mom. This is the first time I can say I did something good with my life.” Alisha described her niece’s birth as “disgusting but beautiful.”
The first text of the unit was chapters three and four from Maya Angelou’s Letter to My Daughter, which describes her unplanned pregnancy at the age of 16. I chose to start there because it immediately presents a contrast to the common deficit-based narrative of teen parenting; Angelou was an extremely respected and successful woman, not identified by her status as a teen parent.
We began with a casual K-W-L (know, want to know, and learned brainstorming activity) about Angelou. I had not yet explicitly shared that we were focusing on adolescent parents, and none of my students knew this part of her story. Then we began reading the text aloud. As we read, students completed a double-entry journal (see Reading, Writing, and Rising Up, a Rethinking Schools book by Linda Christensen). Students selected exact quotations to copy down and then responded using starters: This reminds me of . . . , I can picture . . . ,
I wonder . . . , I agree/disagree because . . . , This is important because. . . .
This strategy invites students to use a range of reading strategies but, not surprisingly, many focused on personal connections. The most commonly selected quotation was “There is no reason to ruin three lives; our family is going to have a wonderful baby.” Students shared their agreement with this statement and their approval of how Maya’s mother handled finding out about the pregnancy. For example, Deanna wrote, “This reminds me of when I thought my mom was going to be so mad when I told her I was pregnant, but she was actually really happy.” Although students completed their double-entry journals independently, we paused along the way to share passages we were marking and how we were responding. Letter to My Daughter was my springboard into the topic of adolescent motherhood, making it clear that I was committed to approaching the theme from a nonpunitive angle. When we returned to our K-W-L, students were enthusiastic about filling in details they learned about Angelou in relation to her pregnancy, her personality, and her relationship with her own mother.
Although the passage is fewer than 1,200 words, it is rich with ideas, vocabulary, and style to analyze — enough to challenge even the most sophisticated readers. Her chapter on becoming pregnant is called “Revelations,” and this Biblical reference serves as an anchoring metaphor. After we read, I directed students to the title and asked, “Where have you seen this word before?” Latisha was quick to respond that it was a church word, and Jamal was able to summarize the Book of Revelation as part of the New Testament in the Bible that talks about the end of the world.
I then asked: “Why would Maya Angelou choose this title?”
After a long pause Shakira inferred, “Well, I guess having a baby was like the end of the world as she knew it.”
Marquita added, “Yeah, or maybe even just losing her virginity, because then that changed everything.”
I asked if they thought the title had a negative or positive connotation, and Bianca used her personal experience to answer: “It’s kinda both. Like for me when I got pregnant, it felt bad for a minute, but then it turned out really great.”
The class agreed that any big change is difficult and often seems negative at first, but obviously Angelou considered this to be a positive change in the end.
I ended the class period with students working in small groups to answer open-ended and multiple-choice questions. For example, I asked students to use context clues to infer the connotation of the term “enormity” and the possible meaning of “recalcitrant.” I also asked students about genre conventions: “How do you know this is a memoir?” “How would you describe the narration?” In a class with a wide range of ability levels, my students benefit from cooperative learning time and do quite a bit of teaching and learning amongst themselves. Listening in, I heard a student challenge his peer’s assertion that “enormity” was obviously positive because it related to being big; another group criticized my answer choices for “recalcitrant,” but that created a chance to discuss the shortcomings of multiple-choice assessments.
Imani All Mine
To set up a contrast with the genre, style, and content of Letter to My Daughter, I selected the first chapter of the young adult novel Imani All Mine, by Connie Porter, as the second text. About a 15-year-old narrator whose mother is not supportive of her pregnancy, Imani All Mine is written in a conversational style, with consistent features of Black English. The reading level made it accessible to all my students to read independently, and they completed another double-entry journal, along with individual and small group discussion questions. I was struck by the tensions that student responses revealed, from joy over a baby’s birth to the challenges that come later. In response to the line “I wasn’t expecting nothing for my birthday this year,” Marquita wrote: “I don’t be expecting nothing for my birthday ever again because I have a child.” In response to the narrator’s mother saying she had it easy, Deanna reflected: “I disagree. Things be hard on us. Having a baby young ain’t easy. At all.” When I read through their work, I knew we had some interesting points for the next day’s discussion. Even the students without children were sympathetic toward the narrator and critical of her mother’s lack of support.
Starting with the text, I asked: “Do you think the narrator is being a good mother? Explain, giving specific evidence from the text.” All the students adamantly agreed she is a good mother, citing lines about how much she loves her daughter and how she takes care of her without help. This theme of responsibility echoed again and again as our discussion moved from this text to comparisons with Angelou to stories from our own lives. I typed up some of the most provocative responses from the double-entry journals, including Deanna’s and Marquita’s statements. The students, parents and not, articulated the double-edged nature of teen parenthood. Tiana candidly shared that even though she initially planned to get an abortion, now she would probably kill herself if something happened to her baby: “She’s my whole world.” The conversation turned to how students would handle it if their children or younger siblings became teen parents. Most students agreed that better parenting would prevent the likelihood of unplanned pregnancy, often blaming mothers for not talking honestly with their daughters and fathers for not setting good examples. Despite the frequent assertions that becoming a parent was an entirely positive life change, my students still considered pregnancies like mine, later in life and with a supportive partner, to be the ideal. They — not I — pointed out the difference between us. This conversation probably would not have happened in a previous semester, but my new pregnant identity made it easier. My classroom was a place where we could be honest and allow what was potentially uncomfortable to be embraced, rather than avoided.
Imani All Mine ended up being students’ favorite text of the semester. I gave out all eight of my copies of the book after we read the first chapter for class, and I heard back from many students about finishing the book later. In retrospect, I wish I had included more of the book in order to provide a more complex picture of the baby’s life that could have pushed the discussion deeper into issues of poverty and violence. Both of these themes came up in our discussions, but we did not pursue them with as much attention as they deserve.
There are many other texts that could have easily been added into my unit or replaced the ones I chose. Later in the semester we read The Women of Brewster Place, by Gloria Naylor, which features more than one example of an adolescent mother. I like The First Part Last, by Angela Johnson, for its focus on an adolescent father. I worry that only focusing on African American characters perpetuates racial stereotypes, so in the future I might bring in Make Lemonade, by Virginia Euwer Wolff, or Slam, by Nick Hornby, to explore teen parenting in different racial and cultural contexts.
Baby Mamas and Baby’s Mothers
With some topics, I would not have started with literary texts, but would have chosen a more creative anticipatory set for the theme. However, this theme was already alive in my classroom and already present in my students’ lives, so I felt that we would be best served by rooting our study in a shared text. As we read, the stories of my students’ lives came into the curriculum through discussion and shared writing.
Next, we were ready to move to a more critical and political approach. I decided to start by unpacking some of the language about adolescent parents that came up frequently in my classroom.
I passed out an anticipation guide with the following statements:
- Is there a difference between being called a baby mama and a mother?
- When you hear the term baby mama, do you associate it with a certain race?
- Is baby mama a negative term?
- Do you use the term baby mama to refer to yourself, members of your family, your close friends, or your girlfriend?
Students could choose yes, not sure, or no for each statement, with a box for answering at the beginning of class and a separate one for the end of class. We tallied our initial yes and no votes, and the discussion was lively from the very beginning.
A few outspoken students were adamant that they were mothers, not baby mamas. Brittney explained: “To me, a baby mama is someone that just has a baby. A mother is someone that cares for their child, is responsible.” Others disagreed, saying it was all the same thing. Tyrone argued that he uses the term in a positive way to differentiate his child’s mother from other females. Tiana’s opinion was that baby mama referred to unmarried mothers, and some students agreed that maybe age mattered. No one argued that the term was racist. I let the initial discussion go on without giving much input, although students pointed out that they would not call me a baby mother, leading a few students to question their initial reaction to the race difference, since I am a white woman and all of my students are Black. Brittney identified the difference as class, saying that maybe you would call a poor white woman a baby mama, but not someone like me.
Then we listened to the song “Baby Mama,” by Fantasia Barrino, and used highlighting and annotations on the lyrics to find statements we agreed with, disagreed with, or were confused by. Many of my students knew this song by heart and sang along with the lyrics:
This goes out to all my baby mamas
I got love for all my baby mamas.
It’s about time we had our own song
Don’t know what took so long
Cause nowadays it’s like a badge of honor
To be a baby mama
I see ya payin’ your bills
I see ya workin’ your job
I see ya goin’ to school
And girl I know it’s hard
Even though ya fed up
With makin’ beds up
Girl keep ya head up.
Although students primarily agreed with Fantasia, they were struck by the definitions of baby mama offered in Gregory Kane’s commentary on Black America Web, which basically states that a baby mama is a woman who got pregnant by a loser. Kane compares embracing baby mama to calling yourself a thug, gangsta, or pimp: “The fact that so many of us embrace [these terms] shows the cultural shift that has occurred among Black Americans. You wouldn’t have heard Black radio stations playing a song like ‘Baby Mama’ 50 years ago. Black folks wouldn’t have tolerated it.” The class certainly did not reach a consensus, but a few students did start to question the term’s connotations. Donetta suggested: “Maybe in the beginning, like back in the day, baby mama was a more negative thing. And maybe when older folks say it, they mean it bad.”
To address the potential racial implications of the term, I offered a second example: a video clip from Fox News in which Michelle Obama is referred to as “Obama’s baby mama.” “Bogus” was my students’ common refrain, with many pointing out it seemed purposefully disrespectful.
Tony spoke up. “You know, I think it can be racist. I think Fox was being racist.” Some of his classmates agreed.
I often find that students do not share my belief that language is political. As in the beginning of the “baby mama” lesson, students push back on the power of specific words, even derogatory terms. This lesson, however, elicited the most meaningful consideration of different viewpoints and even some changes in opinion. In the column for responses at the end of class, more than one-third of the students changed at least one opinion.
There are many more layers to this issue that could be explored, from consideration of Black English (baby mama versus baby’s mama) to the similarities and differences with the term baby daddy. Later in the unit, we looked at hip-hop songs about mothers, and certainly a class period could be spent considering the contradiction between how some rappers talk about their own mothers versus the mothers of their children. It would be worth specifically exploring how mothers of different races and cultures are portrayed in literature and popular culture (the MTV shows Teen Mom and Sixteen and Pregnant offer a potentially rich opportunity for exploration). In previous classes, I have addressed adoption by pairing The First Part Last with a Sixteen and Pregnant episode.
While teaching this mini-unit, I was struck by a series of New York Times articles reporting on a $400,000 anti-teen pregnancy ad campaign New York City launched on buses and in subway stations. I showed my students an example featuring a crying toddler (who is not white) and the text “I’m twice as likely not to graduate high school because you had me as a teen.” I asked the students to respond in writing about how they felt.
Tiana wrote: “If I saw one, I would try to rip down the sign. . . . The ad is a stereotype, and it’s disrespectful to young mothers.”
Tony, who is not a parent, responded: “I think the ads are not a good idea because you shouldn’t down someone. You should reach out and help somebody.” He also pointed out that his mother had been a teen mother, but he was going to graduate from high school.
The students were unanimous in finding the ads offensive and a waste of money that could be spent in a positive way. After the semester ended, I noticed that Chicago started a similar campaign on buses; I hope that when my students see these ads, after their initial anger they will be reminded of the conversations we shared this semester.
After our consideration of adolescent mothers, we moved into motherhood and parenting more broadly, and many of the same themes re-emerged. One thing I learned from my students was that being a parent, regardless of your age or marital status, brings with it universal emotions and experiences. Every school-age parent in my classroom was trying to be a good parent in spite of the dominant discourses telling them they would not succeed.
Although the teen fathers in my classroom brought their perspectives to our dialogue, our discussions showed me I need to reshape this entire unit with more attention to school-age fathers. In one class, I had four fathers of young girls who sat near each other and humorously bounced stories off one another. They often spoke from the parental role about how they will talk to their daughters about young men and prevent them from becoming teen mothers. The nature of the curriculum this time did not always push them to consider the contradictions in their positions or reflect on the meaning and portrayal of young fathers. I know there are more important conversations we need to have about male-female relationships and the role of fathers; next time I will be sure to foster them.
When schools address single parenting at all, let alone teen parenting, it is almost inevitably linked to moralizing about “good choices” (Kelly 1998). As social justice educators, we need to recognize how the voices and identities of school-age parents are being silenced and denigrated by the curriculum and reframe the issue as part of an investigation of the complexity of life and the web of power, gender, race, and class.
- Angelou, Maya. 2008. Letter to My Daughter. Random House.
- Christensen, Linda. 2009. Teaching for Joy and Justice. Rethinking Schools.
- Freire, Paulo. 2000. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Continuum.
- Kane, Gregory. April 20, 2005. “Commentary: What Exactly Is a ‘Baby Mama?’ It Depends on How You Define Yourself.” BlackAmericaWeb.com.
- Kelly, Deirdre M. 1998. “Teacher Discourses About a Young Parents Program: The Many Meanings of ‘Good Choices,'” Education and Urban Society, 30.
- Menconi, David. Oct. 21, 2005. “She’s Still an Idol: Recent Controversy Doesn’t Slow Fantasia,” Raleigh News and Observer.
- Porter, Connie. 2000. Imani All Mine. Mariner Books.
- Taylor, Kate. March 6, 2013. “Posters on Teenage Pregnancy Draw Fire,” The New York Times.