When I was in high school, my senior English teacher told me, “You’re just a big fish in a small pond now. Wait until you get to college. Then you’ll be a small fish in a big pond.” I know she was trying to prepare me. But what she told me explicitly in my junior year, my teachers had told me implicitly throughout my schooling: I wasn’t important, my family wasn’t important, and I shouldn’t expect too much. From history to literature to language their choices informed me to adjust my expectations. I knew that the people who changed history were great men — Columbus, Washington, Lincoln. The few women who made a difference were ordained by God, like Joan of Arc, or sewed their way to fame, like Betsy Ross. I never heard of Rosa Parks or Emma Goldman until I started teaching.
I was from a working class family. My mother, the eighth child out of twelve, was the first to finish high school. My father only finished fourth grade. I was the fourth child in my family and the first to go to college.
We didn’t talk right. We said “chimley” and “the ater.” We confused our verbs. In the ninth grade, Mrs. Delaney asked me to stand in front of my English class and pronounce words like “beige,” or “baj” as we said, as an example of how not to talk. I was ashamed of myself and my family.
Today, I attempt to make my high school English classes in a predominantly African-American working class neighborhood a sustained argument against inequality and injustice. I don’t want my students held back by the limitations that bound my early years. Some might say that the role of the English teacher is to teach reading, writing, and language and that we shouldn’t be about the business of politics. But I would respond that the teaching of English — the teaching of reading, writing and language — is political. By this, I don’t mean that I am teaching students to be Democrats or Republicans. I mean politics of daily life — what it means to be men or women, rich or poor, people of color. If I don’t acknowledge and make the social inequities known, I unwittingly endorse the injustice many of my students face. I would be teaching them, as my teachers taught me, to adjust their expectations.
I have three goals in my classes: I want to teach students to read and write, I want to help them develop tools to critique social inequality, and, ultimately, I want to move them to act against injustice in the world.
The cord which binds these objectives is the lives of my students. By stimulating students to use their personal histories as an additional text in the class, they simultaneously learn to write with passion, to unveil injustice by connecting with their own memories, and to use their writing as a lever for change — when it works.
Literature Note Neutral
Because literature is not neutral, students need to become adept at revealing the inequities that too often become embedded in their mythologies about men, women, people of color. At a recent conference of the National Council of the Teachers of English, I attended a workshop where we read a chapter from Olive Burns’ novel Cold SassyTree. The workshop was wonderful, full of useful techniques to engage students in literature: a tea party where we met the main characters from the novel, writing from our own lives using an innocent narrator as Burns does. Great methodology. But the entire workshop ignored the issues of race, class, and gender that run like a sewer throughout the novel — from the “linthead” factory workers, to the “Negroes” who work as kitchen help, to the treatment of women. And the workshop explored none of this.
For most of my teaching career, I also ignored the social text. I thought it meant talking about the setting. Saying the novel was set in the South during such and such a period was enough. But it’s not enough. Not questioning why the lintheads and the so-called Negroes in the novel were treated differently, not exploring the time when Grandpa blames Granny for not bearing him a son, allows readers to silently accept these injustices as truth. Young women might internalize the idea that they must be beautiful and bear sons to be loved. Working class students might believe that it is their fault if they are poor like the “lintheads” in the novel. And my African-American students might learn to accept the dominant culture’s attempt to put people of color in a peripheral status. When I taught literature without examining the social and historical framework, I condoned the social text students absorbed, a social text that often limited their expectations, that crushed them before they blossomed.
Brazilian educator Paulo Freire wrote that in “liberating education, we do not propose mere techniques for gaining literacy or expertise or professional skills or even critical thought. The methods of dialogical education draw us into the intimacy of the society, the raison d’etre of every object of study. Through critical dialogue about a text or a moment of society, we try to reveal it, to unveil it, see its reasons for being like it is, the political and historical context of the material.” (1987, p.13)
Without realizing it and certainly without intending to, the way I previously taught literature discounted my students’ reading of the book. Even saying, “What questions do you have?” without preparing them to have questions undermined their sense that they had something to share or contribute. But, more importantly, I wasn’t training them how to read and examine and write about literature — or any text — on their own.
To teach students to read the “word and the world” as Freire urged, I ask them to keep a dialogue journal while we read. Basically, this is a critical way of taking notes. They fold a piece of paper in half, keep track of places in the novel or short story they want to talk/write about on the left, and write their comments, questions, and arguments on the right. I ask them to read for more than the story line. I want them to question the values and ideas in the
text. Who makes decisions? Who follows orders? Who speaks and who is silent?
What causes conflict and how is it solved? What role does money or material possessions play in the story? Are men, women, people of color given roles beyond the stereotypical?
I also encourage them to remember incidents from their own lives that surface while they read and take notes. Because whether they study cartoons, literature, or history, students’ lives are part of our inquiry. In addition to their memories and personal reactions, I want my class to make connections to other literature they’ve read or history they’ve studied and to notice if anyone is treated unfairly. These notes from their dialogue journals become the raw material for students’ essays, poems, and personal narratives as well as the foundation for class discussion. Often there is an overriding question I ask students to keep in mind — Is language political? Do children learn a “secret education” in children’s literature? Because the students take notes as they read, it takes more time. As one student noted, “The dialogue journal makes me slow down to read.”
My first efforts at turning the talks and
writing assignments over to the class floundered. Students engaged in lively discussions when I played the mute observer on the outside. They called on each other, used the questions and arguments they had gathered in their journals as material, but, too often, they got into tail-chasing discussions. They would go over and over the same point without moving toward any new understandings. Giving them the power to run class discussion, even training them in the mechanics of democratic discussions, did not mean they had all the analytical tools and historical information they needed. I had abdicated my responsibility. To create a dialogue with the novel that draws us into the “intimacy of the society,” I must sometimes refocus the discussion — ask them to reconsider a point someone brought up, but which they jack rabbited over in their haste to move on to the next idea. And since I am a participant in the class as well, I exercise my right to raise my hand and ask questions or argue points that students bring up.
I also bring in new information which might move the class towards clarity on issues. For example, when we read Ruthanne Lum McCunn’s novel Thousand Pieces of Gold, we also read essays, poems, and stories by other Asian-American women. We traced historical time lines and read documents about exclusion laws and internment camps so that students would have a social framework for their reading. This overlaying of text on text moved students to deeper understandings of the main character, Lalu, as well as helping them explore the roots of stereotypes and racism that continue to plague Asian Americans today.
Weaving an Essay
When I ask students to write, I encourage them to find their passion, to wrestle with the ideas in the texts that grab them. I want them to engage in a critical dialogue with the novel and their classmates because it is through this dialogue that they will be able to read the “word and the world.” (Freire/ Macedo, 1987) In their reading of Thousand Pieces of Gold, some African-American students became interested in the parallels between Chinese and African-American slavery; Mira, a Japanese-American student, was intrigued by the immigration of Asians
— most of the immigration stories she’d heard about were Europeans through Ellis Island, so the stories from Angel Island fascinated her. Carl wanted to explore the tenderness of Lalu’s husband and a few of the other white men in the novel.
The dialogue journal allows students to keep track of their ideas and also makes it more likely they will weave the threads of social issues and their own lives into their work. But this doesn’t happen magically. As they read the text and we discuss it in class, we keep a list on the blackboard of themes that emerge. Our on-going dialogue, our dipping from the text to our lives to historical/social issues keeps ideas fermenting. When they complete their reading of the novel (or whatever text it might be), they go back through their journal and class notes and circle the notes that relate to the theme they want to pursue in their essay.
These notes — which tie the novel to their lives and issues of justice in society — become a loose outline for their writing. This is not only an excellent way to teach students to write essays beyond the mundane and boring five paragraph model, but also a way to train them to bring together and analyze information from a variety of sources.
In the following excerpt from her essay on Thousand Pieces of Gold, Sonia uses literature and history to examine how women’s bodies have been abused over the years.
Historically, women all across the world have been bending and twisting themselves in order to be more desirable. In China they wrapped linens around their feet and dwarfed them into childlike clubs. In Europe they surgically removed their lower ribs in order to acquire the perfect hour glass figure. In Africa, they wrapped rings around their necks and slipped plates into their lips. What the hell is so wrong with the female shape that it must be changed so dramatically.“Thank god we’re beyond that,” I think to myself. But who am I kidding? What about high heeled shoes and mini skirts. How are they any different? It seems to me that everything that supposedly makes a woman attractive, disables her.
Does feminine equal vulnerable? Even if I don’t exactly tear out a rib, there are subtler things I do every day.I walk over to the mirror and look at my reflection. Why do I look the way I do? I have long hair; extremely feminine and unpractical. If someone really wanted to they could take me by my hair and whip me around like I was on a leash. Why do I keep it?
Sonia ends her essay with an image of Lalu unhooking her boots and scrubbing the make-up from her face. Sonia’s last line reads, “I wish I could be so brave. Don’t we all?”
Rewriting the World
Sometimes, working for justice means students moving into the larger society. As Freire wrote, “…[R]eading the word is not preceded merely by reading the world, but by a certain form of writing it or rewriting it, that is, of transforming it by conscious, practical work.” (Freire, 1987)
In my classes, I provide space for students to take what they’ve learned and teach the rest of the world: they choreograph dances, write music, draw posters, write and illustrate pamphlets for parents or children’s books, create rock or rap videos, or write and read poems at local coffee houses to reach others. (Christensen, 1991) But sometimes the need for justice is closer to home. In the following excerpt from her essay on Michael Dorris’ A Yellow Raft on Blue Water, Donita discovers a character whose life mirrors hers:
My father was an alcoholic and drug addict. My mother was on her way to the same behavior. She hid my father’s problem for many years until our home was falling apart. My father was a ladies’ man, sharing himself with others while my mother said nothing, pretending everything was all right. He would come home drunk, and they would fight and he would move out for periods of time and return after a while. My mother would continue to take him back and try to keep the marriage and family as one.
Donita goes on to show how Christine, the mother of Rayona with whom Donita identifies, “fills the hole in her heart with Elgin….She stuffed how she felt deep inside for the pleasure of a man’s body close to hers, thinking it would change reality.” Donita writes that Rayona knew how “hopeless the family situation was. She knew her father wasn’t any good for Christine, just as I, too, realized that my father wasn’t fit for my mom. I held on to all of his unkept promises with the hope of keeping my father around, even though he wrecked our home when my mom would take him back.”
Donita comes to the realization that she, was also using men to fill her empty heart. “I’ve been involved in relationships that lead me nowhere,” she wrote, “and I still continued to try and fix what was broken from the start.” Donita ends her essay by again pairing her life with Rayona’s:
From our mothers’ examples Rayona and I were more aware…. We didn’t have to wait until we were grown women…[W]hen things get bad, and we start to get lonely, and feel empty inside, we can turn to ourselves to make life better instead of filling our emptiness up with alcohol and drugs or an unhealthy man.
Earlier in my teaching career, I wanted to turn all of my students into modern day Marianne Moores and Toni Morrisons.
Students wrote about their lives, and we shared those writings and lamented the divorce of their parents, the loss of a friend, the pain of death. We would have listened to Donita’s or Sonia’s piece and praised the honesty, the voice, the way a particular line was worded. Writing was a dressing we pressed against the wounds of our lives.
Those pieces were also art. We, like Anne Sexton, Michael Dorris, and others before us, wrote out of our pain. Then we shaped our pieces. We learned the importance of detail. After we wrote and shared, we massaged and pinched and perfected our pieces. Students learned about parallel sentence structure and subject verb agreement by working with their own writing instead of manipulating Warriner’s exercises. And students chose the pieces they wanted to write and rewrite and because we published frequently, students rigorously and ruthlessly revised. We were artists.
The writing my students and I engage in today continues to be both therapy and art, but we also write to discover, to challenge, and to move. We don’t leave Donita or Sonia in the moment of pain. When possible we use our ”grassroots literature,” as educator Ira Shor calls it, as a text to uncover the political and historical contexts of our own lives. (1987, p.10) Who benefits from Sonia feeling that she must change her body — wear high heeled shoes, mini-skirts and long hair? What social factors account for the alcoholism in Dorris’ work, or in my students’ homes?
Good writing is not just an end — it is the means that allows us to examine the roots of our pain. The collective text that emerges from our “read-arounds” exposes the injustice in our lives. Once we find the source, we can begin to let go of the hurt that keeps us victims and move to the anger that pushes us to work for justice. (Bigelow, 1990; Christensen, 1989)
Sometimes simply the courage to share our confusion and shame allows others to share theirs. We can see that we are not alone. After Donita shared her story, a young man who had always written humorous pieces that never revealed anything about his life, opened up and talked about his mother’s alcoholism.
Sharing Family Business
I remember one day after many students read pieces revealing problems in their homes, Pam, a junior, walked out of class shaking her head. “That’s family business and people shouldn’t talk about their family outside of their homes,” she said as she passed me. While I respect Pam’s feelings about keeping her home life private, I also firmly believe that students’ lives must be part of my classroom text.
This doesn’t mean that I pressure students to “spill the dirt” about what happens in their homes. I am not a psychologist, my classes are not therapy sessions. Sometimes students share extremely personal and painful details about their lives: divorce, sexual and physical abuse, death, acts of betrayal, suicide, alcoholism, and drug addiction. Not every student’s life has been traumatized by these events, and even if it had, students shouldn’t feel compelled to share. Students do not have to play truth or dare as a passport to belonging to the classroom community.
But for many students, my classroom is the only place where they can talk about their problems, share their fears, and explore their choices. As Jessica said in class today, “I’m glad that we can talk about real things in here and feel safe.” Delana said, “Yeah. When you walk in here and look around you think that everyone else has these perfect lives they go home to. It helps to know that other people have problems too. I don’t feel so all alone.”
My classroom is a place to begin to explore alternatives. When Tom wrote that his response to his girlfriend’s pregnancy was, “I thought you took care of that,” the class talked about safe sex and the responsibility of both men and women. When Trina wrote about coming to school in her Keds and jeans so she could “kick her friend’s ass,” we talked about how Trina felt betrayed because the friend talked about her behind her back, and Trina didn’t know how to deal with the pain except through violence. The students suggested other ways of handling emotions.
I work hard to make my classroom a place where students can experience a different social vision — a space where everyone’s voice is heard, a space where we work together to solve problems. And sometimes in that space, students want to share their family conflicts because they need to talk about them with people who they feel care enough about them to listen.
The stories that emerge when we write about our lives are linked to the literature and history we are studying at the time. Sometimes I will suggest a prompt — write about a time when you were the victim of sexual stereotyping, or write about a time when you were forced to make a change.
Other times students will choose the stories sparked by their reading. These open-ended prompts allow the writer to determine what story they want to tell. But sometimes students write out of their compelling need to relieve their pain.
My teaching asks students to critique and examine inequalities in the society, in literature, in history; inevitably, students who learn those lessons turn that lens on their lives as well. Sometimes this is uncomfortable for the student, like Pam, who has been taught by culture, religion, or family tradition that family business stays at home.
In her book Talking Back — thinking feminist, thinking black, Bell Hooks writes that she, too, worried about sharing family business. Her parents punished her when they discovered her carrying tales beyond the family walls, but she persisted. She viewed her talking back as necessary resistance for her growth. She wrote:
I write these words to bear witness to the primacy of resistance struggle in any situation of domination (even with family life); to the strength and power that emerges from sustained resistance and the profound conviction that these forces can be healing, can protect us from dehumanization and despair. [7-8]
Bell Hooks speaks truth: some voices are silenced — perhaps by their families, their schools, or other social influences. Sometimes the silenced find courage from other students who dare to speak out.
I know this sounds too easy. Some classes are a paradise where teacher and students work together while they learn to read and write, develop a social critique, and practice being a democratic community.
But in the real world where I teach, few people enter class ready to share their writing — whether it’s about their beagle named Scout, a novel, or something more personal. Most students take their time.
They watch the reactions of their friends and their classmates. When they’ve discovered that the classroom is supportive and they feel assured that they won’t be ridiculed or shamed, they take greater risks.
But there are classes where students feel it’s not safe to share. Sometimes the class feels more like a shooting range than a community. A letter I received from a teacher in an alternative school in Baltimore says it well:
[My students] will listen to each other for a few minutes, then they’ll start to attack, cutting each other down, and very quickly lose sight of the issue we’re discussing.
When I ask students to read their writing in our circle, they don’t even get through two or three pages before a significant number of students start to “joke them.” I’m very stern about this, but the damage can be done by a look or a groan from one student.
What this teacher wrote, I could have written about my low-tracked freshman class. Students who experience failure for nine years don’t trust easily. They’ve learned to make themselves as small a target as possible. They wear the right shoes, the right jacket, the right hair style so no one will pick on them. This kind of atmosphere does not encourage students to take risks.
With these students, I begin by asking them to write a one sentence response to the writer that tells her/him something the listener liked in the piece. It might be a word, a phrase, or the humor in the story.
While the unwritten code tells these students not to compliment others, the one sentence reply gives them a way to practice being positive without looking uncool in front of their friends. I also bring in juniors and seniors — particularly students who are perceived as school leaders: cheerleaders, student body presidents, sports heroes — to run writing and response sessions.
Talking Back to Oppression
In my World Literature class this year, I tried every one of my tricks and couldn’t get students to share or respond very often in the large group. Someone shares and silence follows. It has been terrible.
As I talked with students privately and responded to their writing and critique of the class, I discovered that several of these seniors were together previously in a class that erupted in racial tension. When the students walked in through the door in September, I inherited that legacy.
I work to ease the tension. We had a candy kiss day — where students drew each other’s name and gave a candy kiss and a compliment to another classmate. We wrote and read aloud class interviews about each other — highlighting a positive event in each student’s life.
Until I can guarantee a positive response, students will continue to respond to each other in pairs or small groups. Then a few who receive favorable responses share with the whole class. We will take field trips together. I have invited several of my former students back to demonstrate response techniques and talk about their experiences with writing and sharing and why they value constructive feedback. The first quarter has passed.
In most of my classes, writing has become a vehicle for transformation — sometimes personal and sometimes social. Of course, writing alone does not end injustice. But as students read and write critically and share their insights, they become capable of critiquing social inequality. Talking back to the oppression they’ve
experienced gives them a sense of power over the problem. They don’t have to remain victims; they don’t have to be ashamed of themselves or their families. Given the opportunity to work together, to collectively expose the myths they’ve been fed, young people can gain the courage they need to work for a more equal and just society instead of adjusting their expectations to the demands of the status quo.
Bigelow, W. (Spring 1990). “Inside the Classroom: Social Vision and Critical Pedagogy” Teachers College Record. Volume 91, Number 3 pp 437 – 448.
Christensen, L. (May/June 1991). “Unlearning the Myths that Bind Us” Rethinking Schools Vol.5, No.4.
Dorris, M. (1988). A Yellow Raft on Blue Water. New York: Warner.
Freire, P. and Macedo, D. (1987). Literacy Reading the Word and the World.
South Hadley, MA: Bergin & Garvey, 57 hooks, b. (1989). Talking Back: thinking feminist, thinking black. Boston, MA: South End Press, 7-8.
Johnson, L. (May/June 1991). “Looking Pretty, Waiting for the Prince” Rethinking Schools. Vol. 5, No. 4.
McCunn, R.( 1981) Thousand Pieces of Gold. San Francisco: Design Enterprise.
Shor, I. and Freire. P. (1987). A Pedagogy for Liberation South Hadley, MA: Bergin & Garvey, 13.