As I was organizing some things on my shelf in preparation for summer closing procedures, I ran across the reflective essays that my seniors wrote at the end of semester one. The objective was a pretty simple one–to talk about two units that they had participated in and explain how they could apply ideas and skills from the classroom to real life. We did a lot during first semester–a professional writing unit, an advanced reading strategies unit, The Things They Carried, short stories… Any of these would have been fairly easy to write about. Instead, I remember being shocked that the majority chose to write about a social justice unit I designed around topics of racism, poverty, and white privilege. Though I didn’t post about this part of the year as it was happening, I feel I must return to it now. It was definitely one of the most difficult and rewarding parts of this school year.
The book Black Like Me, by John Howard Griffin, was already set in the curriculum for seniors. Written shortly before the Civil Rights Movement crescendoed, the memoir chronicles Griffin’s real life experience in the deep South. Griffin was a white man who chemically darkened his skin tone and lived as if he were black in order to get a true perspective about the injustices suffered by the black community at the time. When I learned that this–the only book about race in our curriculum–was written by a white man, my first instinct was anger–I remember thinking, “Doesn’t this just reinforce the ongoing devaluing of writing and thinking that is any color other than white?” I felt confused and lost, particularly thinking back to the complex and genuine conversations I used to have about race with my multi-hued kids in Milwaukee. How was I supposed to talk about race with a class full of white students, without them tuning out or feeling attacked? How would a social justice approach to teaching be received in this homogenous, conservative community? Should I play it safe and just teach using a historical lens to examine Black Like Me in the context of the Civil Rights Movement? Or could I use this unit as an opportunity to have difficult discussions about race, privilege, and power in our contemporary society? As I grappled with this, I thought back on my first teaching experiences, where I was the only white person in the classroom. I thought of how much my own perspectives on race and social status have changed since I was the suburban teenager sitting in a desk. I thought about how I’ve become a better person because of it. I knew I had to ask my white students to come with me, to open their eyes to the invisible barriers still present in our America in 2011.
I started the unit by telling my students straight out that they would feel uncomfortable with the discussions we would be having in class. After all, who can face her own role in centuries of pain and injustice without feeling uncomfortable? I also reassured my class that they need not fear that I was going to accuse them of racism, that I wanted the unit to be an experience where they could ask honest questions and speak vulnerably about their own experiences and views regarding race. Finally, I reiterated that, while we would still read Black Like Me, our study would be a comparative one, looking our present society square and critically in the face.
We did all kinds of things during this unit. We watched documentaries on racism in retailing, used Frontline’s wonderful site and film about Jane Elliott’s A Class Divided experiment. I talked about my own experiences confronting my ideas about race as I became a member of more and more diverse communities in Milwaukee. We talked about Sheboygan and Sheboygan Falls. We speculated on the ways that Griffin’s journey may be similar or different today. We read Peggy McIntosh’s “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” We read Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen and an essay by Toni Morrison. We looked at Disney’s treatment of race in animated films. We role-played different socio-economic situations. We examined the achievement gap. We talked about the myth of a fair and equal society and the tough reality that even today, we can’t say that “everything’s ok” as far as race and poverty are concerned. My students exceeded my expectations during the unit, with their curiosity, open mindedness, and willingness to discuss these ideas. But what they wrote in their reflections really sealed my pride in them. Here are some student samples:
“Of course I knew racism was still happening in our country. However, I never thought about how some people don’t have to work to get the status they have. Probably because most people don’t want to recognize it themselves.”
“We think we are not racists because we don’t show it. But we have to be very careful about that, because the problem is not solved yet. And we should use our privilege of being white to try to create a real equality, not just a fake one.”
“With help from a progressive young teacher, I have been introduced to information about white privilege in the United States though literature. These new ideas filled my head and conscience and because of it, I will never be the same… After seeing the list of privileges, I began to think about how they are present in my own life… They altered the way I thought about race in America and I don’t like to recall how I used to view it. When I look back on the first semester of my senior year, I know one thing I will never forget is that just from reading a couple pieces of paper, I was able to change my whole life.”
As I look back on these writings several months later, tears fall. As a teacher who feels the drive to incorporate social justice into my pedagogy, I know that I will keep working toward unity, justice, tolerance, and understanding for my whole life. I thought that I had to be in the city to do it. But after working with kids that look just like me, I’m realizing that, just as there is a passionate anti-racist beneath my lily white skin, I need to have faith that my white, rural students have that capability, too. I am forever learning more about the human race, and all the beautiful colors therein.
P.s. Fellow educators, we’ve still got work to do. If you’ve got social justice teaching stories or ideas, please share them!
A weird thing started happening earlier this semester with a handful of my senior students. They started bringing me poetry. It was completely random, and the students were in no way aware of one another. It was just a set of isolated poetic energy surges, I suppose… an academic anomaly. Whatever the reason behind their poetry, each student had the same attributes while approaching me: head down, sideways glance, hand extended with a poem or two, and the mumbled phrase “Uh, would you… maybe… like, take a look at these or something?” This would only happen undercover, after most students had filtered out of the room. They wanted me to know they were poets, but they didn’t want their classmates to know. Of course, I did read the poems, and duly delivered them back on the sly, packed with comments and encouragement. Psyched that I had taken their work seriously, my secret poets shuffled off into the hallway crowd.
Then I got to thinking. Secret poets. My next senior unit practically fell into my lap. I could create a poetry writing workshop, I thought, my heart already fluttering with joy. While students are often asked to analyze poetry in literature classes, they are rarely given the chance to write poetry at all—much less experiment with, revise, and polish this creative form of writing. It could be great, I thought. But there was just one problem. Even my secret poets, when in a group with their peers, were afraid to claim their work. They dismissed the genre as “a waste of time,” “too emotional,” and simply not for them. I knew my kids were natural poets; if I could only get them to set aside their assumptions, I hoped they would realize it, too.
I decided to use my students’ uneasiness about poetry to my advantage by creating a unit where anonymity was part of the deal. Each student was required to create a pseudonym to sign their poetry with. If I shared a successful poem in front of the class, I could attribute it to the pseudonym. Recognition without embarrassment. Perfect, I thought.
I used this PowerPoint presentation [Becoming a Poet] to introduce the unit, address preconceptions, and start to sell the idea of poetry to my students. While they liked creating pen names, they still groaned at the thought of poetry. One student bellowed, “No! Ms. H… this unit is gonna be the limp in my graduation walk.” I chuckled at him. I was determined to turn my whole class into secret poets.
I checked out every poetry book in the school library. I brought in some Mos Def to teach metaphor and selections from Elizabeth Bishop to teach imagery. We met so many poets, and tried to do what they do. T.S. Eliot, Gary Soto, Emily Dickinson, Billy Collins, Pablo Neruda. We tried everything from sonnets to dada to odes to free verse. We wrote every day. I brought in my own poems in all different stages of completion, and talked through my own thought process as a writer. I celebrated my own poet identity and slowly, slowly, I felt the tides turning and the students’ poems flowing, too. Fast, tight rhymes, tactile images, and resonating sounds seeped up through raggedy looseleaf. Poems were coming from every direction: about basketball games in the park, grandfathers’ funerals, the hard brown clay of the racing track, the mystique of the universe, and the damp, cool sand of Lake Michigan’s shore.
Another important feature of this unit was peer critique. My goal here was to create a true community of writers who were able to provide feedback and help one another to continuously re-envision their work. I wrote this guide [A Brief Guide to Critiquing Poetry] to help them with the peer review process, which is influenced by Atwell’s workshop model, writing center praxis, and my own experiences in successful writing communities. This forced students to at least peek out of their shells as they shared and discussed poetry with each other. It was exciting to hear these students, who have known each other most of their lives, talk about something they never had (poetry!) in a way they never had (as poets!). Listening in on critique, when it was going well, was one of the most fulfilling parts of the unit for me as a teacher.
At the end of the unit, my students put together a poetry portfolio of their revised work, along with a letter to the reader that explained the personal journey they took throughout their study of poetry and described their own personal style and inspiration as a poet. As I had expected all along, the students’ poems were beautiful, moving, quirky, and just plain fantastic in their final state. Even to their own surprise, my classes were sad to see poetry go. Every single senior turned in a poetry portfolio, signed with their own true name on the front. The secret is out!