California English Journal
Last October, I traveled to Voronezh, Russia, 400 miles south of Moscow, and taught with Russian teachers of English in their classrooms. One item in my luggage was The House on Mango Street, by Sandra Cisneros. I have used it for the last few years as an entry point with my students. As many teachers do, I use the vignette, “My Name” to begin the writing process and learn about my students. On my first day at the university, speaking to new teachers, I read them the vignette and asked them to respond.
Yelena Nikitina, my host during my stay in Voronezh, responded to Cisneros with the following:
I love my name. The hero of so many Russian fairy-tales is Alenushka or Yelena the Beautiful. When I was a child I thought all these fairy-tales were about me. To say you the truth, my name was too popular in 60s - in my first grade there were six Yelenas the Beautiful. But my parents called me Lena not because it was fashionable. It was my grandmother's name. My father's mother, my grandmother Lena, had six children, lived in a poor village, lost her husband during the Second World War. She was a very strict, powerful, strong woman and she didn't like me. It was so boring to live in her village in summer! Sun, heat, cherries, books, homemade butter, fried potato... Now I think it was not a bad time.
Now I understand my Granny better. She had to be strict and strong -six children were on her shoulders, nobody helped her. She lost her love, the best guy in the village, when she was so young. He was merry and handsome, with curly hair and bright smile, like my father. My father was Granny's beloved, cleverest child; sometimes she thought that her love was still with her. My Mum stole him...I was my Mum's daughter. There were no reasons to love me. I was born in the Chinese year of the tiger - I like cats and they like me. Sometimes I think that I'm a big lazy cat. My Granny would be very angry, she used to say, that I was too lazy. My dear Grandma presented me not only her name, but a part of her power. I adore to be weak, but I can be very strong. My hobby is to lay with book, but usually I'm so busy!
My classmates called me "Lenka". It was friendly and cute. If a boy said "Lena" in spite of "Lenka" - I understood: "He fell in love". My Granny needed more love; I had it. Thank you Granny!
On my return, I shared this response with my students. They were intrigued by her story and wanted to know more about where she lived and how the war had affected Yelena and her family. They were excited to receive first-hand knowledge of Russian life and culture through my stories. I, too, was excited. There is something about travel that gets your blood rushing and brings a new perspective to your life.
Spending three weeks in a country where I could not understand the language or even decipher the alphabet provided the same experience for me that second language learners have when they come into our classrooms. I know what that feels like. I have experienced the frustration of trying to communicate with someone by facial expressions and body language and voice inflection.
And, despite the distance and difference in culture, working with students half way around the world reaffirmed my belief that students are the same all over the world. I saw the same excitement, doubt, curiosity and wonder that I experience with my own students. Students from both countries listened to the same music. I was surprised while in a Moscow restaurant to hear the Bee Gees piped in.
I have been writing to Yelena for a year now, and we have logged over 350 emails. I have learned more about Russian history, music, literature, geography and culture in this year than in my entire life. It is the personal experience that creates the interest, and the desire to know.
Yelena teaches English at a School #43. Grades one through eleven attend the school. There is no kindergarten or twelfth grade. Yelena has her students for English for the entire time they are enrolled in school. Classes are under twenty and students rotate through thirteen different subjects during the week. Yelena and her eleventh grade students went to St. Petersburg for their graduation trip. She sent me the following email after their final party in June.
What better way to connect students to the world around them than through travel? Stories are what students remember. Sharing them creates curiosity and enthusiasm. My example makes students aware of what is possible; that is the greatest gift I can give them.
In his article, “Toward a Reevaluation of Reader Response and School Literature,” Alan C. Purves makes a number of assertions regarding the failings of reader-response theory and the ways in which literature is studied in schools. One of the problems is the lingering idea that the author and his or her world are unimportant to the meaning of a text. Another problem is the use of literature as a simple vehicle, whether for reading, writing, a means of drilling literary terminology, or a jumping-off point for “critical thinking.” The competing theories of the role of literature in schools work at cross purposes, confusing the English teacher as well as the students, as to the relevance of what we do in the classroom.
However, Purves goes so far as to propose a solution to these quandaries that goes beyond the simplistic, unintegrated, and conflicting ways in which schools today view literature. This solution is multicultural literature. Purves states that diverse literary voices are what we need to get the author and the world of the text back into our study. We must move beyond simple regurgitation of plot and the standard, learned ways of responding to literature, such as seeking out set metaphors and distant, ungraspable meanings, as if we were solving a puzzle in someone else’s language. We must also pull our diverse student population back into literature by studying works that come from their worlds, which leaves little “off limits.” When I was student-teaching in an eighth grade class at La Colina Junior High School in Santa Barbara, I saw a unit that I designed around folktales and the “oral tradition” do all of those things. As I reflect, I realize that what I am doing is not without problems from Purves’ point of view. However, I still believe that what I have done is a powerful way to help students organize and use new information about diverse cultures, in order to gain greater understanding of themselves and people from other cultures. Put simply, I am presenting a way to combine a method (cultural universals) and a medium (folklore) so that students are able to see the world through the eyes of others.
When I arrived at the school halfway through the semester, the mid-level eighth grade class to which I was assigned had already started a unit entitled, “The Oral Tradition” from the textbook, from the Houghton-Mifflin textbook The Language of Literature. A folktale is a lot of things: it is a snapshot of the culture from which it came, it is a group effort (Purves touches upon this when discussing Keats’ efforts, 349), and it usually has a reason for being that goes beyond entertainment. Fables have a moral, American tall tales celebrate our independent spirit, legends immortalize our heroes, myths explain things about the creation of the world and nature, and the list goes on. Under the general heading of “folklore,” we already have a variety of texts from which to choose.
If we are to examine all the things that Purves would like literature to do in schools, folklore does all of them. Although Purves warns against any one approach to literature, I believe I was able to integrate all of the three “tracked” levels of working with literature that he notes in most school English programs (Purves, 356). At the basic comprehension level, I did give “plot-vomit” quizzes, asked for oral plot summaries, or gave plot questions as homework assignments. I also asked for anticipatory quick-writes on the moral questions about which we would read in the tale; I consider those responses to be demonstrative of higher-level thinking. Combining the two, I asked for personal response to the stories we read in terms of those moral questions, in writing or orally. After that, I included more difficult activities that required that the students treat the folktales more like conventional literary texts. For example, I chose two tall tales and focused on two things: exaggeration as emphasis, and “compare and contrast” writing. The assignment for the students was to write a paragraph comparing the use of exaggeration in the two tales. For a tale entitled, “Aunty Misery,” I asked of what the character Aunty Misery might be symbolic (and I defined the literary term “symbolism” as part of instruction). Upon this reflection, it seems that I was sparing with mid-level tasks and instead provided many low-level tasks to check for comprehension and then jumped to bigger things, with only a little “reader-response” in the middle. I will say that our class had a very good discussion at the end of the folktale “Otoonah,” which deals with the traditional role of women in the home and parent-arranged marriages. That discussion got a lot of heated response from the class.
However, Purves wants something more significant than the three tracks of dealing with literature in a school setting. Primarily, we must look at the history of what we read. A folktale simply cannot be understood without some knowledge of the world from which it came. A single “author” may not be cited, but the culture is its author, and it (that culture) can be cited. It would be insane to suggest that the “naive reader” would eventually understand it (as in reader-response theory), and it is equally preposterous to assume that a Western reader would read it in a Western way and that the “meaning” he or she makes of it would be the end of study. As we select these stories, and make them part of the “canon” that all students study, the students learn across the curriculum into history, they see things from a new point of view (that is perhaps their neighbors’), and they can also be aided in thinking about the implications of competing views and ways of life. I would suggest that the instructor not rely upon the canned “history box” that appears before the story proper that “explains” the world of the folktale. He or she might send the students out to learn about it themselves and report to the class. I was also careful to make clear that the storyteller who was cited as the source of the folktale in the textbook was not the author, but a representative of the culture that produced the folktale. I find that it is useful to compare authorship of folktales to urban legends that students hear from each other and over the Internet, pointing out that no one really knows who wrote those, either. Before reading, I accessed student’s prior knowledge by inviting students to discuss some of the things they knew about, for example, Puerto Rico, when we studied a tale from that island. The most important part of understanding the history of a tale is that it is central to the tale itself. You must know something about the “Wild West” and the idea of “rugged individualism” as a very American character value in order to understand the appeal of the tall tales, “Pecos Bill” or “Paul Bunyan.” Some knowledge of African American storytelling is necessary to appreciate “Uncle Remus” and “Bre’r Rabbit” stories to their fullest extent. Without a little history, it would be like trying to assemble a piece of furniture without instructions: It might work eventually, many days later and with pieces and screws left over.
There are two other problems with the study of literature in school: First, in the school setting, students are asked to perform tasks “on” literature that trivialize it, whether it be simple “plot vomit” (Purves, 353), or ignoring of the role of the author and/or the historical setting of the work (Purves, 356). Secondly, different ability levels of students are asked to do different things with literature, as with tracking programs that move from comprehension and moral tag, to reader-response, and then at the higher levels to an academic approach and the “canon” (Purves, 355-356). He then advocates a return to multicultural literature as the antidote for the overlap of contrasting theories that muddy the school landscape. Although I still use reader-response (as I admitted earlier) in a limited way, I have found through my practice that Purves is right on several accounts. Multicultural literature, in the form of folktales from around the world, provides an unparalleled means for students to think beyond the ways in which they have been trained to think and respond to literature. The manner in which I frame and discuss folktales in my classes has students thinking about and discussing features of culture that are well beyond “plot vomit.” Consider the morality conflicts in our students when they confront the ritual human sacrifices of children that appear in folktales from many cultures.
In his article, Purves outlines the “anomaly of the text and the textbook.” In the textbook, the chapter on folktales is called “Oral Tradition,” which is something of an oxymoron. Folktales were never meant for print, and yet we have them in a completely unnatural form, surrounded by tasks and pictures and little histories ostensibly to aid our poor readings. Even searching through library books or on the Internet for a history of Mexican folklore is, to some, an inauthentic task. Whether the “ready to serve” version is in the textbook next to the story, or comes from another book, or a website somewhere, it is still a truncated and distilled version of Mexican culture. I argue that original research, along with the contributions of classmates if possible and appropriate, is still better than nothing.
When I considered the audience for whom the tales were intended, I then wondered if folktales were a legitimate source of “multicultural literature.” Chinese myths are intended for the Chinese to hear, not a group of adolescent Americans sitting in a tiny room many hundreds of years after the story was first told. I eventually concluded that they are, perhaps most importantly because we now live in what some call a “global society,” and our nation, at least, is in the forefront of the world’s experimentation with amalgamating diverse peoples. I eventually concluded that since folktales were meant to instruct specific peoples, then to understand each other in the international or global sense, it benefits us all to hear and understand those instructions. There is no better way to learn about the less visible ways our societies teach us to behave and inform our needs, drives, and motivations.
What I would like to highlight from my unit in this essay bears on both of Purves’ assertions about the functions of literature in schools. Although I wanted my students to gain a greater understanding of other cultures, I still didn’t have a method or a structure for making sure that they could organize the information they would need to make that mental leap. My cooperating teacher suggested a tying-up of all the tales that would underscore and stretch their learning past the tales themselves and towards an understanding of the human condition on a larger scale. She introduced me to the idea of “cultural universals,” and I did some research of my own on the Internet.
Cultural universals are categories of societal structures that all cultures have in order to organize themselves and function. The number of categories varies, as low as seven and as high as thirty or more. Some university course outlines I have seen make a distinction between structural universals (the problems all cultures must solve) and cultural universals (how the culture in question has solved the problem). In the end, I think it depends upon how general or specific the user wants the data that end up in those categories to be. Also consider the student: You would not use the same list of cultural universals for an elementary school class as for a college seminar. At the time, I settled on six that I thought would be useful for my eighth graders: “Family and Social Life,” “Institutions” (government, education, ethnic groups), “Art,” “Customs and Beliefs” (religions, ethics, values), “Making a Living” (food, shelter), and “Environment” (where people live).
I arranged the list of categories down the left side of a basic grid-table. Across the top, I listed the titles of various folktales we were going to study. The students’ assignment was to have at least seventy-five percent of the boxes filled in with appropriate evidence from the texts by the time our unit was over. I did several examples with them in class (“Otoonah,” plus individual items at random when we were working on them together), and as I could surmise, from the responses I saw and the questions they asked in class, that they understood what they were supposed to be looking for. I was careful to point out that evidence such as stating that “Paul Bunyan wears overalls” under the heading of “Making a Living - Clothing” probably wasn’t very useful. What you want the students to look for are things that, taken together, can fill in our gaps in understanding “how these people live.”
In more recent high-school level incarnations of this activity, I have asked students to say something intelligent about the variety of tricksters in folktales, and how their particular features speak to what a culture values. More recently, I chose several folktales from a book on Mexican-American folklore; each tale was about a clever boy who is rewarded for his efforts, sometimes by “getting the girl.” However, the girl in more than one of these is specifically described as placid and obedient. The idea is to first get the details down in a graph similar to the one I discussed earlier: Apply the cultural universals to a couple of tales first. Then you can turn to discussion on what behavior is expected of boys and girls in Mexican-American culture. (This might be too hot of a subject for some teachers, but I think it is manageable for mature classes.) This exercise connects otherwise disjointed tales, as students compared things found in one tale to the same information present or absent in another. It made students sort new information into categories. It was a valuable exercise in picking apart these stories for cultural significance.
These snapshots of culture help students organize a lot of new information in their minds and on paper. Studying the history and culture of folktales sheds necessary light on them and aids students’ understanding, and then understanding new tales becomes easier. We validate the cultures of the world, and the “literature” of the ordinary “folk” of nations, by reading these formerly marginal texts. Students reach higher levels of understanding as they learn that “simple trick,” as Harper Lee put it in To Kill A Mockingbird: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view...until you climb into his skin and walk around in it” (Lee, 30).
I have refined the categories that I use over the years, and I have added new folktales to my arsenal. I have also added the combined experience of two years working overseas as an English educator, with all of the cultural misunderstandings that come with the experiences (my kids love hearing about my misadventures in Namibia and Japan). But the part of my folktale unit that always elicits the most intelligent discussion is when we apply cultural universals to the stories and then try to come to some conclusions about the nuts and bolts of culture through them. Recently, I spoke with a colleague who has seen my worksheets on cultural universals, and she mentioned that she could see it as an organizing principle for year-long literature-based courses. Why not? In this endeavor, I have been taught several valuable lessons about connecting and supporting what my students read and learn with the world around them. They can be the map that helps students understand the increasingly complex world they will inherit from us.
Sometimes we wish for all of the voices to go away
The nagging voices of people, parents, teachers, relatives.
Even the deaf to the vibrations of the earth’s song.
Vanished shall the voices be
For there would be
it would be impossible
prayer, verse, or rhyme
alphabet begins to form
a writer’s voice
Yet another Wednesday had arrived and I prepared for my piano lesson with Mr. Lyn Bronson. There were two sides to my feelings, trepidation and eagerness. I was anxious about how I would do on the lesson, for I wanted to play as well as I possibly could. No one plays faultlessly, but I wanted to impress my teacher nevertheless. My eagerness was for the class itself. I am always enthusiastic to learn new pieces and improve my old ones. I also appreciate my teacher’s grand sense of humor.
As I stepped into the house for what seemed like the fiftieth time, I marveled once more at its coziness and warmth. The red carpets and cherry furniture generated a sense of grandeur, despite the track lighting on the ceiling. Ornaments twinkled merrily up at me from unique end tables. The two grand pianos shone in the lamplight; the surfaces reflecting that they were well-maintained. It seemed like only yesterday when I had timidly rung the same doorbell and opened the same door into the same house.
I moved to Monterey seven months ago and even now, I clearly remember the trouble my parents and I went through with the many piano teacher interviews. Some of the teachers were too lax and others just did not teach in the way I learned best. I have been taking piano lessons for about seven years now. Finding the right teacher is crucial at this point because this is the point where one crosses the line between playing as a extracurricular activity and practicing to be a professional.
The reason we chose Mr. Bronson in the first place was because many of our new friends here recommended him highly. When I first met him, he was in a crisp navy suit and tie. His golden white-streaked hair was combed back evenly and his snow-white beard and mustache were neatly trimmed. His brown eyes twinkled with pride and laughter. His mouth was quirked with a touch of mischievousness. This concerned me a bit because my previous teachers all had two things in common; they were serious and obvious perfectionists. Mr. Bronson was different; he seemed more carefree and fun-loving. I wndered how this would translate in my piano lessons.
However, after the first few classes, I began to glimpse the painstaking side of him. He used all his energy in playing the music and paid attention to every single note. I ultimately realized that Mr. Bronson was more than he seemed on the outside. He thought about almost everything and his thinking was profound and logical. With his help, my dexterity at the keyboard increased tremendously as the year progressed. The last class before the first performance, he said to me, “You’re our extended family now. We’ll love you just the same even if you make a mistake.” I burst out laughing, despite my apprehension. Countless similar fond memories gathered up in my mind through the months.
Today, my mind wandered as I fiddled with two crystal elephants. The boy before me was playing a rather complex piece and and Mr. Bronson was criticizing constructively. One part in particular drew my attention away from the sparkling form. “One important thing to remember when playing classical musical is that we have traditions to follow., Decades ago, a pianist from China played Mozart at an international competition. He lived in the time of the Cultural Revolution when listening to western classical music was forbidden in China. Listening to him play was very bizarre indeed, as he played Mozart in the style of Rachmaninoff.”
While I pondered this, I began to comprehend that playing a piece of music, any piece, requires the knowledge of tradition and the correct application of experience and emotion. I need to express my feelings and my own interpretations of the music into the performance, abiding by the set rules along the way. I will try to do that during my practice hours at home and I can only hope that I succeed.
Before long it was my turn to show what I had achieved during the week. I took a deep breath and started the song. After I finished, Mr. Bronson clapped earnestly and announced, “Bravo! You’ve made my day! Beautiful!” If there is one thing that I value about him, it is his ability to cheer anyone up. His own exuberance is contagious; it is almost impossible not to enjoy oneself in his presence.
After my teacher congratulated me on my past week’s progress, he then pointed out the places that needed perfecting. “The biggest room is the room for improvement” is one of his favorite phrases and he repeated it now. He went on to show my mistakes and how they could be prevented the next time. Soon after that, he came to an especially slow and stately portion of the piece. I almost fell off the piano bench laughing when he started emulating Shakjespeare’s characters – with a Marlon Brando accent. “You see, you cannot perform something meant to be done one way in a totally different style. The result you would probably get is something parallel to Marlon Brando acting in Shakespeare’s plays.”
I have never had a teacher like Mr. Bronson before. Even after months of taking his class, I am still surprised at how fussy he is. For example, one time, he corrected my pedaling in a small section of a complex song, which he said was off by a total of half a second. “A half a second!” I thought, “Who notices half a second in a ten minute piece?” But then I listened when he explained, “Playing does not mean you are practicing, just like hearing is not listening and reading is not understanding. Practicing, listening, and understanding all require hard work on your part.” At first, I did not understand, but then I began to see that hearing and liste3ning, reading and understanding, playing and practicing are not the same. When I hear something, I am just using one of my senses. To listen to something is to hear the sound and then process what it means. The same goes for the other two. Playing is just running through the pieces without taking time to improve the flawed places. Practicing is going over one spot repeatedly until it is as good as it can possibly be. Because of the intensive way Mr. Bronson conducts his lessons, I have discovered that now I practice instinctively at home and rarely play at all.
Early this week, he informed me about an upcoming performance class. In these classes, students have a chance to develop the skills of performing confidently in front of a small audience. The ambiance is always very comfortable and casual. I am preparing to play the first movement Beethoven’s Sonata Op.31 No.2. It is nicknamed “The Tempest” because of Beethoven’s answer, “Just read Shakespeare’s Tempest,” to a question about the meaning of the sonata.
Shakespeare’s The Tempest is a romance and reprisal story. The play opens with a storm striking a ship on the way to Italy. All the passengers are dumped onto a nearby island, where a man named Prospero resides. Later on, we find out that he is the one who causes that storm. More events occur, the guilty find themselves justly punished, and everyone lives happily ever after. The first movement of the sonata is in the heavy key of D minor, representing the huge storm. The other two movements represent the rest of the sonata. It is important to understand that it is this thunderstorm that affects everyone’s life throughout the rest of the play.
I said goodbye to Mr. Bronson for this week, I wondered how my life
would have been different if I had not moved to Monterey and met
him. He is my Tempest; he has initiated the big change in my life
that will now lead on to even more changes in the future, just as
it did in the play. He has been significant not just in developing
my music but my outlook on life and how I connect my music to my
perception of the world in genberal and my role in it as well.
Everyday I put together the school’s televised news. I report on concerts, pep rallies, sporting events with cheering crowds. I film, edit, produce, and anchor, and just lately it occurred to me that everything I cover is loud.
JJ is not loud. He therefore is not “newsworthy,” and so he becomes invisible. His voice broke three years ago, when he looked in the mirror and saw one of his eyes swinging outward. His parents thought, as parents would, that this was eye fatigue, caused by their fourteen-year-old sitting in front of computer and video games too often.
The truth was scarier. An MRI pinpointed pineal germinoma, and his strange eye activity was just the first sign of a grotesque conglomeration of cells growing behind his optic nerve.
JJ was too old for the pediatric wards and too young for the adult, so he spent the next three years bouncing between the two, getting the best of intentions and sometimes the worst of care. A clumsy female nurse getting tripped and ripped the intravenous pick line out of his arm. A male nurse talked all night about his love life: “He actually kept me up until five in the morning telling me how his girlfriend doesn’t respect him,” said JJ. “I was half asleep, saying, ‘Please leave.’” Pressure in JJ’s brain affected his gross motor skills and when he walked, he dragged one foot. Chemotherapy took his hair. Doctors put a patch over his wandering eye. All the while JJ strove to maintain a normal teenage life.
Today he is seventeen, and that teenage life disappeared long ago. Kids he once considered his friends now make comments like, “There goes Captain One Eye.” JJ remains silent and instead, he chooses to express himself in another way: through art, angry art. One of his pieces, “Broken Lives, Shattered Dreams” has an emotional effect that cannot quite be explained on paper. From the outside, the piece is a refrigerator-size, very white plywood box that stands upright. It has a hinged door with a bent metal handle and light switch, with an electrical wire running down the rear.
Many who see the box say that it is empty, because it is, sort of. Inside it is painted pure black and lined with pieces of smashed mirror. A clear, bare light bulb hangs down from a cord. Hands with horny fingernails reach at you from the walls, some hands clutching crumpled tin cans. If you are brave enough to step inside and close the door behind you, you are instantly claustrophobic, shut up inside a world of pain, surrounded by grasping fingers and stared at by your own splintered reflection.
“I try to incorporate meanings and messages.” When JJ finally cracks his shell to tell even a part of his story, there is little he says, and yet much that he exudes. His voice is quiet and he tires easily, but his vehemence comes through, and his longing to get back into the art studio to express the pain. JJ knows he is broken, and knows that peers to confide in are a luxury he doesn’t have.
“If somebody feels that it is a burden to be your friend, then that friendship is not worth it. Fiund somebody who cares about you enough to really make an effort,” JJ says. “The only real friends I have now are grown-ups, and they act like they are my older brothers or sisters. If somebody can’t totally love you like family, they are not going to be there when you are sick, or get too old. Family never leaves you.”
My camera is moving again. In the lens are more feet: feet in white shoes running around on white linoleum floors. The first auditory impression is silence, and then faint beeping and muffled voices over an intercom. We enter inches above the floor into a pale blue room with a green vinyl chair and a hospital bed. The camera angle jumps up and zooms in on painted toenails. Seventee-year-old Rolanda is in the bed, her thin legs sticking out from underneath the rumpled cotton blanket. She tries to whisper, “”hi,” but coughs and coughs.
Once upon a time, her voice worked. At age seven, Rolanda threw herself over a casket and screamed through tears, “I didn’t get to say goodbye!” Her aunt, the only parent she had ever know, was dead of cancer. For the next eight years, Rolanda ricocheted among parents, or in any case, no parents who cared. At last, fifteen years old and a child of the court, Rolanda was diagnosed with cancer of her own. As liver cancer ate her alive, she kept faith: faith that she would make it to her 18th birthday, faith that when the final day came, she would be going home to God.
When time was sinding down and she could not physically stand long enough to hold a job flipping burgers, Rolanda and I started work together, creating a website with words of hope and advice for kids dealing with catastrophic illness. She reached dying kids on their level with her straight, strong language:
There may be someone out there in the world a step away from giving up. If that’s how you’re feeling, I just want you to know that I understand. I have liver cancer, and I am in and out of the hospital because the cancer is now in my lungs and I have trouble breathing. It’s hard, and it hurts to know that I have to live with this disease for the rest of my life. I think about giving up. When I really start thinking seriously about it, I always remember the outcome. I wouldn’t be the survivor that God wants me to be.
Her words break my heart. See you tomorrow? She wrote firmly, as if they were not dying, leaving no doubt that everyone would be online when the next dawn came.
Now Rolanda sits all alone in her UCLA hospital room, and when she goes home, if she goes home, it will be to a foster house. She physically has no voice, but she still distributes hope and love to the world through her keyboard. Rolanda believes in her heart that she will pass from this life to more life, and in the meantime she lives happily.
My camera is moving one last time, panning down from Rolanda’s feet to my own. The two pedicures are identical, hers and mine each carefully dabbed with flowers on the big toes. My feet, though, generally fit in with the crowd, and it is rare to see them on the ground alone. What do broken voices and lonely feet mean to me?
As I edit together my videotape, this is what it shows: Life is meant to live happily. It is so short, so short. Whether we are sick right now or not, we must take advantage of time, because we all die one day, some of us sooner that others. In rough times, there is tremendous emotional energy, and all that built-up energy inside has to go somewhere. Surrounded by voices that say hurtful things, JJ lives for the company of his art and then displays his art to teach compassion to the world. In a world where comforting voices have not been present, Rolanda lives for the company of others on our website and displays her writing to comfort others.
Their feet remain lonely, outside of the crowd, so most of all, my video shows me this: When voices are broken, sometimes it is better to listen with my eyes.
Reflections of an Urban Educator
This “gem” came to me unbidden, not from a contemporary colleague, but from a blues singer of another era. The date was June 27, 2003, graduation day for my 8th graders. Only one of the 150 students who had started the year with me had earned a failing grade. The rest were there that afternoon in their own unique finery, receiving the diplomas that marked the end of one phase of their education and signaled the start of another. There was Amie, her dark locks dangling over her shoulders looking for all the world like a modern day Pocahantas, and Karla, hardly recognizable without her frayed cutoffs and Converse sneakers. Emma’s neon green hair would have been garish on someone with less presence, but against the backdrop of the California sun, it did not even clash with the fuchsia of Yolanda’s magnificent mane. The two of them were simply distinct flowers in a garden of diversity.
Rafa, too, stood out from the crowd, his stiff hair carefully sculpted into spikes, reminding me of the Statue of Liberty. Johnny was resplendent in his tux and tails while Antonio, still sporting a slight blemish from his last scrape smiled mischievously, sharing a silent joke with Abraham in his classy, tailored suit . Their own individual style spoke volumes about how these students defined themselves, but their academic success addressed another topic. They had “made it ” -- the “gifted” as well as the “at risk”. This was the feature that set them apart from thousands of other urban minority students.
The voice of the skeptic asks, “ How did you determine their academic success? What did you as a teacher do to bring it about? How can it be replicated ?”
Later that day, in search of answers to these questions, I returned to my own den and creature comforts, kicked off my shoes, and reclined in an easy chair. I decided to reflect and unwind with the music that usually puts my tired mind in focus. The sultry-sweet voice of Esther Phillips suddenly surrounded me, its raw intensity filling the room, wrapping itself around my thoughts, twisting them straight . As Li’l Esther sang the heart-wrenching songs from her 1972 album, “From a Whisper to a Scream”, her haunting voice carried the message she intended, the message I needed to hear. In her dulcet tones I could hear her pain as keenly as her pleasure, her desperation as clearly as her desire. That’s what voices do to you if you listen to them. Soft or loud, silent or strident, they put on a command performance. They bring messages that demand acknowledgement , and if you are a teacher, they goad you into action that encourages you to perfect your craft. How you do this depends on your perspective.
Ever since “no child left behind” became the national mantra, school administrators and policy makers have been less interested in good teaching than in measuring student progress. From their perspective, progress is measured by performance on standardized tests, and in their mad scramble to collect and record scantrons, many of them are floundering and some have lost their moorings. What does the teacher do in these circumstances?
a teacher with more than 20 years of urban classroom experience ,
I am more inclined to swing into action than to host a “pity
party”. My inner voice nudges me forward, urging me to revisit
the classroom practices that have met with success, to listen to
the voices that have proven worthy, and to use them as a bridge between
the realities of the present and the challenges of the future. What
I came up with is a recipe for success in the urban classroom, the
Alter your perspective. See students as the priority, not the problem.
Build community. Let students learn collaboratively rather than competitively.
Change focus. Guide student thinking; challenge them to venture into uncharted waters rather than directing them to perform like trained seals.
These three strategies came to me in the voices of veteran educators whose wisdom helped me to hone and refine the instructional practices that led to success.
The first strategy, Alter your perspective , arose from discussions with frustrated colleagues who were torn between a desire to make a difference in the classroom and the realities of an educational arena in which learning is often sacrificed on the altar of high-stakes testing. The voice of sociologist Eric Klinenberg jarred me to my senses as I read a review of his latest work in English Education . Book editor Todd DeStigter, was impressed that Klinenberg “models the act of shifting perspective, of cultivating a healthy irreverence for assumed realities.” (p.323). DeStigter wonders what would happen if educators put aside “entrenched notions that certain students are ‘at risk’ due mostly to their own presumed deficiencies”, and if we understood “that many students struggle in school not because of individual characteristics, but because their educational experiences cannot be separated from the effects of living among abandoned buildings, ruined businesses, and violent crime” (p.324)
My inner voice translated DeStigter’s comments into a mandate for change: Teach to the needs of the child, not to administrative demands for higher test scores. I implemented this practice and ironically, my students, both “gifted” and “at risk” not only showed marked improvement on the Gates MacGinitie Reading Test , but also demonstrated scores significantly higher than those of their peers at the school site. Although high scores had not been my priority, they had come as a result of shifting my perspective, and honoring my commitment to teach children according to their needs.
Teaching children according to their needs prompted another positive change.
It renewed my passion for teaching and automatically changed my instructional focus. I found that I had become the guide in a student-centered classroom rather than the “sage on the stage” whose role it is to impart wisdom.
In this setting questions became the currency for trading information and controversial topics were met head on. There were no “sacred cows”, and in the best practices based on Bloom’s Taxonomy (1956), students were encouraged to seek out answers and to apply their knowledge to understanding problematic situations they encountered in literature and in life.
Many of my students live in situations where pain is a more constant reality than pleasure, and some of them have looked into the eyes of Bad Experience so often that they meet New Experience with distrust and hostility. As urban minority students, their voices are crying out for validation of their worth as human beings. They want to be able to make personal connections to the literature they read. They want role models who are mirror images -- authors, poets and real life heroes with names like their own, not just Shakespeare, Steinbeck, Dickinson and Crane. They want stories that engage them and speak to their needs for authentic experiences, not those that have been artificially contrived.
The scholarly voices of Donna Y. Ford and J. John Harris, say all this and more in their seminal work on the value of multicultural education (1999). Their voices helped to shape my classroom practice and encouraged me to expose students to literature that is rich, varied, complex, inspirational and empowering.
Isn’t this the goal of education? Why teach children facts and skills, critical thinking and creativity if not to empower them to make a difference? If we expect them to be the future torch bearers of democracy and the architects of viable social structures, then our schools should be their training grounds, and our teachers their guides.
As a guide in the classroom, my primary role was to build community.
This is the key to unlocking the mystery of why one group of urban minority students succeeds and others fail. We --my students and I -- succeeded because we had come together in chaos and formed a community of learners.
This was a tall order considering the realities we faced at the start of the year. I am an African-American English teacher on an big city campus bursting at the seams with more than 4,200 students, 99 % of whom are both Hispanic and low income. Located a few miles east of Watts -- a community that has twice burned its way into America’s memory with racial conflagration, my school has a large percentage of “second language learners”, and according to the 2002 Standardized Testing and Reporting (STAR) , only 26% of of them scored at or above the national average in reading.
These were the realities as reported, but I have never been one to be stultified by statistics nor bound by the stereotypes that spring from them. When I set out to make things better, at least in my classroom, the one small corner of the world where I am in control, I listened to the soulful voice of another blues singer, Aretha Franklin belting out her signature song,
These lyrics merged with the academic voices to provide the backdrop for my ABC’s of classroom success. These words had been running through my mind as I altered my perspective to view students as the priority, not the problem. They were the cornerstone in building community, and the road map I used in changing my focus from director to guide, encouraging communication in a non-threatening atmosphere in which the students had a real voice.
I, too, had learned from the experience.
I had increasingly led students into divergent thinking and had learned to honor every response, even when it was not presented prettily in standard English.
I had listened well to the voices of Ford and Harris (1999) and Stephanie Harvey and Anne Goudvis (2000), as they taught me to gently pose questions designed to prompt, clarify, analyze, interpret and evaluate. My students emulated this behavior, besting me at my own game.
Together, as a community of learners, we had searched for answers in an atmosphere based on collaboration. In the process, we discovered there was room for Emma’s anger at social injustice and Karla’s fierce ethnic pride, for Johnny’s conservatism and Marisol’s militancy, for Abraham’s compassion and Amie’s anarchy, for Victor’s introspection, and Jordan’s insatiable appetite for knowledge. This is the essence of education. This is why my parting words to this wonderful class were,”Por favor, recuerden me siempre, como me recordaré de ustedes -- con mucho cariño.” Please remember me always as I will remember you -- with much love.
world is shrinking. Cultures are blending and governments are clashing. California
English asked teachers to share experiences they have had that
opened the windows of the world to their students. We know that we
need to build a global community. Kathryn Anders, Eileen O’Neill
and Stephanie Paterson suggest how we can do this through writing
CATE also sponsors the Marilyn Kahl journalism award. This year the award was won by Kendra Marr. Kendra entered journalism as a sophomore and continued to be a key team player in her school's publications. She was accepted into the Annenberg School of Journalism at USC and the Medill at Northwestern and was the only high school student intern in the state regularly writing articles for the University of California's "The Daily Californian."
With your association doing so much for you, you might be wondering what you can do for your association. There are many ways to get involved. The first step might be creating a bookmark on your computer to the CATE web site at www.cateweb.org. This will allow you to have at your fingertips the latest information about events, contests, and other professional development opportunities. Please peruse the call for manuscripts for California English and consider writing for our magazine. If you are a bit timid about taking this plunge, why not review manuscripts for the journal? Just send me a message at email@example.com and I will send you articles (don’t worry, not too many, maybe one a month) to offer your opinion on. If you or someone you know is an artist, submit your work for showcasing in our magazine.
These are challenging times for teachers. If we want to make sure that along with leaving no child behind that California leaves no teacher behind, we need to join hands. CATE is here to help. See you at our convention in February!