I am a high school English teacher in an urban school with a student population that is nearly 100% African American. The Architectural and Social Space of the American Front Porch is designed for my 10th grade Ethno-literature course. In the past, I have concentrated my units on kinship and memory; we look at how our identity is shaped through shared experiences with parents, siblings, and community. We spend a good amount of time reading poems, short stories, and vignettes that speak to the forces that shape us as members of particular groups, including birth order, rituals, customs, and environmental influences. My current objective in my Ethno-literature course is in facilitating students to make connections between how their personal identity is shaped through a variety of unrecognized but powerful influencessuch as memoryand thus how cultural identity is passed along.
Because this course is an elective given by the English Department, I have flexibility and creativity in establishing objectives and designing assessments; that makes this unit perfect for 10th grade Ethno-literature. I keep my hand on the CAPT with reading and writing assessments, but add dramatic performance. I keep my eye on New Haven’s emphasis on developing student literacy, but also work with dialogue and dialect. The public school system is geared toward uniformity in both instruction and assessment. While educators agree on the need for sound critical thinking skillsflourishing Bloom’s Taxonomy and State Standards in their lesson plansthe reality of the situation is quite different. Educators must place their index finger on a specific student’s name and then drag it linearly across the paper to a grade that was accessed in a manner comparable to all the other students. The primary value is on verifiable grades that are text based and standard driven.
This system is not necessarily a bad thing, but it is opposed to any teenager’s needs and completely opposed to the values of an oral-based culture. While America is a country that
it values individuality, it must be individuality of a particular
. And it is the profound importance placed on written text/documentation that has had to and has exaggerated the undervaluing of an oral and performance based culture. In my opinion, this has led to a conundrum for English teachers: How does an educator honor cultural values that do not align with both the short and long-term goals a serious student must reach? To prepare students for college, Hamlet, The Crucible, and maybe even Beowulf must be studied. SAT and CAPT work is crucial, and let us not forget to place a pedestal under vocabulary. What is too often lost is making an intimate connection between the student and what is being taught.
Connecting Students to Topic
Ironically, in trying to understand, preserve, and honor the African American’s historical roots in slavery, our study of slave narratives and novels (such as Roots and Family), only exacerbate the problem of non-standard English being used in the classroom. I have a searing example of this from my American Literature course. A student came to me after school and said that she had refused to read from the novel Family (a Civil War slave story spanning multiple generations) during class because she felt that “it made fun of her [living] relatives.” I asked her to explain. “Miss, a lot of my family in the South sound just like those slaves, and it makes me feel funny. I don’t want to feel sorry for slaves because it is like saying that I should feel sorry for my family. I’m a traitor if I look down on my own family.”
The following day I asked the class who wanted to continue to read aloud from the book (this has always been a significant part of our classroom practice). Some students said
to any further in-class reading of this novel and for the very reasons that the young woman had articulated the previous day. Others didn’t care (which is even worse!) because they felt no connection to the characters; not surprisingly, they also felt no connection to the story. Whether this was a type of defense, boredom, or both I can’t say, but I found the slave narrative novel to be ineffective in making a connection from text to life for my students. While the storyline was fascinating, a deeper understanding of the characters through their speech rather than their conditioncould not be a shared exploration for the class
My questions, then, are these: How does one avoid being a “missionary,” or how does one instruct without devaluing? My answer is this: remove the conflict between opposing values. To do this, I intend to explore through personal interviews, literature, and film the value of orality and performance as expressed through the American front porch.