For almost two decades, teachers have looked to Reading, Writing, and Rising Up as a trusted text to integrate social justice teaching in language arts classrooms. This accessible, encouraging book has been called “a profound work of emancipatory pedagogy” and “an inspiring example of tenacious and transformative teaching.”
Now, Linda Christensen is back with a fully revised, updated version. Offering essays, teaching models, and a remarkable collection of student writing, Christensen builds on her catalog of social justice scholarship with a breathtaking set of tools and wisdom for teachers in the new millennium.
The new edition includes:
- Updated classic chapters: “Unlearning the Myths that Bind Us” and “Standard English: Whose Standard?”
- New essays and strategies on teaching literature, the college essay, and the revision of student writing.
- Lessons for teaching about gentrification, displacement, and historical fiction.
- Evocative new pieces of student essays, narrative, and poetry.
“At long last, we have a book that both shows and tells how to teach students to produce not only ‘pretty words and adept dialogue,’ but ‘searing analysis.’ This profound work of emancipatory pedagogy brings together theory, classroom practice, personal narrative, and student work… a must-read for every teacher seeking to reach students that are ‘unreachable.'”
Distinguished Professor Emerita of English and Director of the African American Language and Literacy Program at Michigan State University; author of Articulate While Black.
Chapter 1: Creating Community out of Chaos
Building community in the classroom is the key to the entire year. Bringing in students’ lives— childhood stories, where they call home, who they call heroes—not only creates good work, but creates empathy and understanding.
“Where I’m From” by George Ella Lyon
“Where I’m From” by Renée Watson
27 Sweet Learning
31 Mapping Childhood: How Our Stories Build Community
43 Discipline: No Quick Fix
Chapter 2: Unlearning the Myths that Bind Us
Through critiquing children’s cartoons, students discover the “secret education” in mainstream media. Students challenge simplistic depictions in “Danger of a Single Story,” reclaim their own image in Lucille Clifton’s “what the mirror said,” and make poetry political.
“what the mirror said”
“what the mirror said” by Lucille Clifton
“Jorge the Janitor Finally Quits” (English and Spanish) by Martín Espada
“Federico’s Ghost” by Martín Espada
92 “Why I Like Graffiti”: A Political Manifesto
“Why I Like Graffiti” by Katharine Harer
97 Untracking English: Creating Quality Education for All Students
Chapter 3: Writing the Word and the World
Students address problems through writing—whether it’s creating their own standardized tests or crafting an “essay with an attitude.” Students redefine home and confront displacement through units on gentrification, the 1921 Tulsa “Race Riot,” and immigration.
109 Writing the Word and the World: Moving Beyond Pretty Words
115 Forgiveness Poems: An Ax for the Frozen Sea Within Us “forgiving my father” by Lucille Clifton
122 Essay with an Attitude
134 Burned out of Homes and History: Uncovering the Silenced Voices of the Tulsa Race Riot
156 Rethinking Research: Reading and Writing About the Roots of Gentrification
168 What Happened to the Golden Door?: How My Students Taught Me About Immigration
Chapter 4: Reading for Justice, Reading for Change
Chapter 4 features essential literacy strategies like the “mixer,” theme-and-evidence wall, interior monologues, and metaphor poems. Literature units make the content relevant by increasing students’ empathy and finding imaginative entry points for students of all levels.
219 Writing the Literary Analysis Essay: How Choice, Conversations, and Models Bring Passion
Chapter 5: The Politics of Language
This chapter allows students to explore the power relations embedded in “standard” English. Other lessons celebrate students’ home languages—from Spanish to Vietnamese to Ebonics—to show that these languages are as rich, valid, and legitimate as English.
“Rayford’s Song” by Lawson Inada
“Accents” by Denice Frohman
Chapter 6: Creating a Vision of Possibility
By diving deep into three essay prompts—a student’s passion, a meaningful person, and a life-defining event—this chapter provides accessible approaches to the college essay by teaching students to honor their own lives.
273 Creating a Vision of Possibility: The “Finding Your Heart” Essay
Chapter 7: Responding to Student Work
By teaching revision, Christensen demonstrates how to teach students to continually improve their work. This chapter shows how portfolios allow students to appreciate their progress and notice patterns in their work—and offers teachers guidance on how to encourage rather than punish student writers.
* * *
Why reading, writing, and rising up? Because after 40 years of teaching, my students still walk out the school door into a social emergency. Students of color, immigrant students, poor students, linguistically diverse students, transgender, gay, and lesbian students remain at the center of this emergency. Learning to read and write as a political act moves students beyond sounding out words or reading lexile-appropriate texts; an engaged literacy signals a throwing off of slumber, a rising up out of a consumer-induced coma to awareness.
During my years of teaching high school, I found it necessary to teach reading and writing as liberating acts. I discovered that it was only when we stopped reading novels as ends in themselves and started examining society—from literature to cartoons to immigration laws to the politics of language—that my students engaged in learning.
Rising up remains a constant metaphor in my teaching. I want students to rise up into consciousness about themselves and others, to understand how both their choices and their misunderstandings have been shaped by a society that seeks to control them through a barrage of images and sound bites, anemic history books that lack analysis, and a curriculum that too often asks them to become “standardized” instead of enlightened.
Teaching students to read and write the world continues to be a political act, especially for those of us who have dropped the handcuffs of imposed curriculum and assessments. Literacy still provides a path to liberation if we teach students to read the history of the wealth gap, immigration policies, testing, school funding, unequal discipline rates based on race, and any other entrenched system. Those who have exploited others or benefit from exploitation don’t want students to come into consciousness, to understand the roots and causes of inequality; instead they want them to swallow down poverty and disenfranchisement and blame themselves or their families. As James Baldwin wrote in his 1963 article, “Talk to Teachers,” published in The Saturday Review:
The paradox of education is precisely this: that as one begins to become conscious one begins to examine the society in which he is being educated. The purpose of education, finally, is to create in a person the ability to look at the world for himself, to make his own decisions. …But no society is really anxious to have that kind of person around. What societies really, ideally, want is a citizenry which will simply obey the rules of society. If a society succeeds in this, that society is about to perish. The obligation of anyone who thinks of himself as responsible is to examine society and try to change it and to fight it—at no matter what risk. This is the only hope society has. This is the only way societies change.
By teaching students to examine society through literature, history, and their own lives, I hope to educate the “citizenry” in my classroom to rise up against rules that demand people be subservient to systems of power that bend truth, obscure history, and create stratified educational systems.
My first taste of Baldwin’s paradox came around the issue of language. For years, I felt shame about my own nonstandard language and monitored my words to make sure they didn’t sound like “home.” When I came to understand how language can be a tool of domination and that my home language wasn’t wrong, it was simply the language of people without money, I became angry. Out of that anger, I rose up. I developed a unit on the politics of language (see Chapter 5) so that students in my English classes could understand the power of language to not only shape our self-concept but to limit access to power.
In fact, each chapter in this book came out of what Baldwin described as the obligation “to examine society and try to change it and to fight it.” In the fall of 1975, I entered Jefferson High School, located in the heart of a predominantly working-class African American neighborhood in Portland, Oregon, as a temporary Title I Reading teacher. Straight from student teaching in an almost all-white lower-class middle school in a white working-class community, I landed in a place that not only shaped me, but profoundly changed me by the time I was forced by “reconstitution” to leave the school 23 years later. In 2006, I took on new work as the director of the Oregon Writing Project at Lewis & Clark College after my official retirement from the school district. I also returned to Jefferson as a co-teacher, mentor, and coach. I wrote much of this new edition out of that return to my teaching home.
Today, Jefferson continues to reflect national trends not only in education but also in urban landscapes chewed up by gentrification and in historic Black and Brown communities pushed out of their homes. As my city, neighborhood, and school became gentrified, I recognized a need to educate students—and myself—about the history of land theft that has stripped communities of color of wealth. I wrote new units on the Tulsa Race “Riots” and gentrification (see Chapter 3) to help students understand how the changes in their neighborhoods represent historic reaches from the past that laid the foundation for the contemporary injustices wreaking havoc on their lives.
My teaching has also changed in the nearly 20 years since this book was first published. I have continued to teach, to question, to reflect, to revise, to come to new understandings. It’s this reflection that moved me to change my strategies and content. Out of this state of reflection, a new edition of Reading, Writing, and Rising Up was born. When I began this second edition, I thought I could just add a few new pieces or update articles like “Unlearning the Myths that Bind Us” by including a few new cartoons. Instead, I retaught the entire unit and rewrote the original article. I discovered that the majority of new cartoons continue to project similar problems that earlier ones broadcast, but I found that my teaching strategies lacked transparency in the original edition. I made the teaching appear magical and sequential instead of messy and cyclical. Also, Jayme Causey, an amazing first-year teacher at Jefferson and my former student at Grant High School, gave me new insights into the role of men in cartoons that I had previously overlooked.
The murder of Trayvon Martin in 2012 prompted me to create the “Danger of a Single Story” lesson, which introduces students to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s evocative discussion of biased “single stories.” I pair it with Brent Staples’ essay, “Just Walk on By: Black Men and Public Space.” In his canonical 1986 essay, first published in Ms. magazine, Staples uses a series of vignettes to describe “the unwieldy inheritance I’d come into—the ability to alter public space ” With these two pieces, I help students unravel and talk back to the stereotypes that harm them physically, mentally, and emotionally. As always, I partner social justice content with building literacy skills. In this case, Adiche and Staples become mentor texts and demonstrate how to write an essay using incidents from life as evidence.
In the first edition of the book, I separated out poetry into a chapter on its own. This isolation did not mirror my teaching practice, which embeds poetry in every unit. Poetry is part of my “holy trinity” of writing—along with narrative and essay—taught throughout the year. In my classroom, poetry is a way of building community, discussing literature, history, and our lives, and even a formative assessment. By reorganizing poetry within chapters, I sought to mirror the way poetry actually works in my classroom.
Other changes in the book reflect similar shifts. I pulled what was one, single article on teaching college essays in the first edition and devoted an entire chapter to the topic in the second (see Chapter 7). Many of my students do not perform well on standardized tests, and some live under the shadow of a low GPA. Through writing the college essay, I help them tell the story of their lives so that scholarship committees and admission officers see the person behind the numbers.
I added a chapter, “Reading for Justice, Reading for Change,” to address a gaping hole in the first edition—the teaching of literature (see Chapter 4). My co-teacher and colleague, Dianne Leahy, describes our framework for exploring text in this way: “Instead of the book being an overwhelming puzzle that we try to figure out, we use the book to solve the puzzle of our lives.” In this chapter, I lay out the many strategies we use to engage students in authentic conversations about our shared reading.
Poet Martín Espada wrote, “Any progressive social change must be imagined first, and that vision must find its most eloquent possible expression to move from vision to reality. Any oppressive social condition, before it can be changed, must be named and condemned with words that persuade by stirring the emotions, awakening the senses. Thus the need for the political imagination.” My student, Jalean Webb demonstrates the power of words yoked with action in his poem, “My Teacher Taught Me to Protest”:
Because we’re not suppose to do it
Because if I stand like this I might save my brother’s life
Protest and demonstrations
Marches and movements
Because they wish they could stop us
Break their laws, bend their rules, push them
Because I might enact change …
Destroy the earth until there’s nothing left
They want things to stay the same
Something’s got to give, something has to change
Because in the hands of an activist, signs are shields
And our words knives
“I am an ally”
Like when a million men marched
There is Martin Luther King in my stride … Blake Brockington in the way I ally
Betty Friedan the way I love my sister and mother
Rosa Parks the way I won’t be moved
This collection of work focuses on teaching for social justice. It comes out of my years of teaching at Jefferson and Grant and working with colleagues and parent activists in the Rethinking Schools, Northwest Teaching for Social Justice, and Oregon and National Writing Project communities. I am acutely aware of the words of African revolutionary Amilcar Cabral, “Tell no lies. Claim no easy victories.” It’s a warning my husband and co-teacher Bill Bigelow reminds me to take to heart when I start “talking story” about my classroom. So let me open this book by using Cabral’s words to proclaim there were no easy victories in any of these lessons. But there is hope.
My teaching career has been long and rewarding and this book tells the story of some of those years. I recall one particularly bad day during the opening year of my life at Jefferson. At the end of a spectacularly failed teaching day, I crossed the hall to an older teacher’s classroom, crying. “I can’t face them tomorrow after the way I messed up today.” He said, “Students are forgiving. Go back tomorrow. Apologize if you need to. And let them know you are trying.” I wrote a poem, included here, to this teacher. I apologize here, too, for the mistakes I made, but know that every piece I wrote and rewrote came from years of trying to be the best teacher I could be to the students who entered my room.