Two (2) lessons which I have utilized on a consistent basis are: “The AutoBiography and the Mind Dump (See “Building Buff Imaginations”). Both are completed in class. The AutoBiography carries a minimum required length of two pages (double spaced). The AutoBiography is routinely assigned to students the first day of class. This is done for two reasons first, because an assignment of its length (minimum requirement two (2) pages) and nature usually provides insight into the students’ use of grammar, spelling and sentence structure. Secondly, if students know they have the option of reading their work aloud or not they are usually quite candid thus this exercise may be quite revealing.
To add a twist to the assignment and allow students to stand outside themselves, I usually instruct them to complete the work in the voice of the third person narrative. “Pretend you are someone else talking about you. Consider how other people (parents, siblings, extended family, friends perceive you. Or just pretend you are a TV commentator talking about you life.:” The results are quite enlightening and usually provide a great deal of insight (intellectually, and emotionally) about each student. This exercise is usually provides valuable information which I can utilize to formulate an idea of just what elements I’m dealing with so far as the individuals in a class are concerned.
2. Ego Trippin’
The centerpiece for this exercise is Nikki Giovanni’s poem entitled “Ego Trippin”. In this piece Ms. Giovanni gives to the continent of Africa a feminine persona, a voice and an extremely well developed ego (built loosely on the history of the continent:
“. . . .My oldest daughter is Nefertiti
the tears from my birth pains created the Nile.
I am a beautiful woman . . .”
It also contains, as the title suggests no small amount of vanity:
“ . .I am so perfect
so divine so ethereal so surreal
I cannot be comprehended
except by my permission. I mean . . . I . . .
can fly like a bird in the sky. . . “
This exercise, like the AutoBiography, requires a bit of introspection on the part of the students. More importantly it demands unbridled utilization of their imagination and an ability to be uninhibited. First students are requested to define the term “ego trippin”. Once a clear perception of this term is established they are instructed to read Ms. Giovanni’s poem aloud. Then I play for them an excerpt from her recording
Truth Is On Its Way
in which Ms. Giovanni reads her poem “Ego Trippin” accompanied by the New York Community choir under the direction of Benny Diggs.
Then we discuss the images she has presented in this piece and the manner in which she has transformed the continent of Africa into a woman with extraordinary powers. In addition, to the aforementioned discussion is encouraged pertaining to the format the poet has chosen for reading her poetry and its link to the African oral tradition as well as present day “Rap”.
Students are finally instructed to write an “Ego Trippin” poem about themselves. They are told that they may claim any super-human traits or powers that they desire. The only limitation is their imagination.
The results of one class in particular suggest that my students took the final component of my instructions: “the only limitation is your imagination” quite literally. Armed with pen, paper and unencumbered imaginations they came up with some vivid if not unique images. One of my less boisterous students, Adrianne Carroll, wrote a tiny little poem that I found to be as quiet and gentle as her presence:
“I was born in the palms of a creator
I give lightto the sky at night I stay in one place
& spin around
Garrett Santillo is an excellent writer he possesses a good command of the language and is grammar is precise. However, Garrett had difficulty unleashing his imagination. . . his work was too often analytical, stiff. Needless to say I was pleased to see the imagery he utilized in order to complete the assignment:
“I was born on Jupiter
102,500 years ago. . . ..
my arms . . . rivers which provide transportation
My soul is pure and flawless
My breath is the wind of life. . . .
I realize this is not E.E. Cummings but for Garrett and me it was a long awaited triumph he had finally relinquished his inhibitions and accessed his imagination. I only hoped it was just the beginning. For the others it was an opportunity to become super heroes, music stars, celestial bodies and even a monster or two.
3. As Far As I’m Concerned. . . .
When most of my students think of prejudice and discrimination they see the pictures of slavery that have been bored in their heads over and over again. They see also the Civil Rights Movement, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X even Ghandi (thanks to the movie) and Jews in concentration camps. But the apartheid inflicted upon the Native Americans (the original Americans) does not come to their minds as readily, if at all. In an anthology composed to the writings and art of Native American women, called “A Gathering of Spirit”, I found a narrative that dealt quite eloquently with this issue as well as the cruelty children impose on each other.
In “A White Man’s Word” by Debra Swallow deals with her nine-year-old son’s first brush with racism and the recollection of her own:
“I got into a fight, Mom. Mom what’s a half-breed? I felt like my blood stopped running, and I closed my eyes to kill my tears, my mind opening up a day I’d almost forgotten. . .The first girl said, “Look this Indian is staring at us, and glared at me with icy blue eyes, her nose pointing to the ceiling. The second girl said, “Oh, she don’t know what we’re saying anyhow. Dirty Indians don’t know anything.” Her friend said, “I don’t think she’s a real Indian. My day says some of them are half-breeds. So she’s not all dirty. . .
“Now eighteen years later, I was wiping blood from my son’s face, and his question made my body shake with anger, sadness, frustration and hatred. Opening my eyes, I answered, “You’re Lakota, son. The way of living is Indian. You’re Lakota. He looked at me with black eyes shining with tears he now refused to shed, and asked me again what a half-breed was. “A white man’s word”, is what I said. “It’s just a white man’s word.”
This narrative was read aloud to my students in class. As the story evolved the students began to empathize with the protagonist (Debi) When we reached the end opinions flowed quite freely. They ranged from outrage for the way Debi was treated, to disdain for the antagonists, joy when she finally lashed out at her tormentors and for some frustration with the way she answered her son eighteen years later. I allowed my students a short time to vocalize their opinions. Then I instructed them to write their feelings out in essay form.
In order to help them formulate their thoughts I suggested that they might want to consider: How they would handle the situation if they were in Debi’s position? Whether or not they have been in such a situation? Where they the victim or the victimizer? How would/did they handle the situation if they were the victim? If they have been in this position before would they handle it any differently should it happen again? What would make you feel justified to treat someone so cruelly if you were he victimizer. How did it make you feel being the victim? victimizer? What to you think motivates a person to mistreat other people? Why? If you were a parent and your child came to you as Debi’s son did, how would you handle the situation? If you could talk to the girls who insulted Debi or the people who offended and assaulted her 9 year-old son eighteen years later what would you say to them? What do you think could be done to eliminate such negative behavior?
While the purpose of this lesson was to have my students write essays, I also wanted to sensitize them to the feelings of others. I wanted them to empathize with another human being, to understand the overwhelming detrimental impact mere words could have on an individual. It worked. The finished papers were read aloud and some were submitted to the school newspaper.