In Lynda Barry’s mixed-media text What it Is, one of the many questions she poses (and answers) is “What is an Image?”18 Barry’s response to her own question helped the rigid-English teacher in me let go of the notion that all student responses in the English classroom must be in essay format. Barry states: “At the center of everything we call ‘the arts’ and children call ‘play,’ is something which somehow seems alive”19 In searching for most appropriate way to structure student response to images that are “alive,” this unit encourages students to create responses that can also be “alive” in the same way Clotilde Jimenez’s visual compositions are. In my time as a classroom teacher, I often find that when students are empowered to create work that feels exciting and authentic, it naturally pulls out the best of their innate gifts and talents. While I do ask for students to craft a short piece of narrative or “Artist’s Note” to explain their work, process and any revelations that occurred during the process of making the work, the bulk of the response is meant to be one that allows students to step away from the essay into work that is much closer to the kind of mixed media collage Jimenez creates and they have studied over the course of the unit.
I take seriously the inherent tension in being a white, cisgender, male teacher attempting to engage my class of teenage, mostly black and brown students in examining the work of an artist like Clotilde Jimenez and then creating and maintaining a safe space where students can engage in their own authentically creative response. I lean heavily on Paulo Freire's insistence of shifting away from the banking model of education to one that more closely resembles dialogue, or at least the closest thing to dialogue I can create within the structures of schooling that exist in my own building and community. I also continue to look to other teachers for advice and feedback for how I can create and maintain a space that is anti-racist at its core.
The Anti-Racist Writing Workshop: How to Decolonize the Creative Classroom by Felicia Rose Chavez is a text that I am fortunate to have recently encountered. Chavez shares truths and principles based on her own experience as a student of creative writing and as a seasoned veteran instructor of creative writing. Chavez references Lynda Barry’s idea of creating work that is alive in the first chapter of the book when she says “That ‘something alive’ is the crux of craft.”20 Similar to how Barry’s own words push me to consider the kind of work I ask students to do and whether it invites authentic risk taking, Chavez’s work helps me understand that work that is “alive” can actually be the quickest and most direct route to engaging in the most important kind of “craft” or work that we as educators seeks to help students experience and understand; both when they see it in others’ work and how they might go about engaging in it themselves. Chavez’s work applies broadly to so much of what I want my classroom to become in the future, but for the purposes of this particular unit, there are two principles that fit particularly nicely into creating the Afrofuturist I hope students will be able to use in approaching this work.
Chavez insists that the anti-racist writing work shop must be a “safe space for conversation.”21 She goes on to state that a teacher wanting to create this kind of space “affirms that participants arrive at the classroom as writers, whether or not they know it yet.”22 Although in this unit students will be encouraged to compose a visual text with a shorter, more explanatory prose section to explain their process and discoveries, the premise of affirming students who are able to tell their own stories “whether or not they know it yet” is critical to the success of this unit. While the technical process of creative a visual text may not be familiar to all of my students, insisting that they all have stories worth telling and that they can in fact tell them through clippings of photographs, various kinds of paper, their own brush/pencil/pen strokes, or using artifacts from their own lives as Jimenez does, is just the kind of atmosphere I hope to create in the later stages of this unit.
A second principle or assertion from Chavez that goes hand-in-hand with affirming students’ identities as writers is to “empower participants to do it “wrong” before they do it “right.”23 And while the goals of Chavez’s semester-long courses within a larger structure of a creative writing degree or concentration are certainly different from my goals within a unit as part of a year of 9th grade English, the message of allowing or even celebrating mistake making in the creative process is equally important. Based on past experiences of giving students an option to craft a creative response, some students run headlong into the work before I can even finish describing the parameters of the task and others struggle to articulate any ideas of what they might want to create. Though this will likely happen with more than a few students in the implementation of this unit, Chavez reminds me that the teacher’s job is to empower students to not just create but be able to create something “wrong” so that they can continue to work until some part or all of the piece is right.
Considering how and where I can shift away from essay-only response in my own classroom has invigorated how I plan units and assessments. Admittedly, as I embrace this move away from essay I don’t totally know what it is I am moving towards. Thankfully, I only have to look to the First Year Writing (FYW) program at the University Connecticut (UCONN) to find a model that offers both affirmation and a path forward. Beginning in 2016, UCONN’s FYW program staff began a years-long reconsideration of the kind of writing they were asking students to do and whether or not that matched the kind of writing students were being asked to compose in other courses across different departments at UCONN or in their lives after UCONN. This work has resulted in the development of their “Writing Across Technology” or WAT model which “is designed to teach rhetorical composition practices with a diverse range of technologies and communicative modes.”24 Though the style of collage students study in this unit and are then encouraged to use as a motivation for their own creative response may fall a bit outside of the techno-centric vision for the WAT model, as a high school English teacher I am encouraged to continue looking beyond the essay in my own classroom when my state’s flagship public university so clearly embraces multimodal composition. Perhaps this unit will be part of a larger shift in my own classes that influences greater shifts in my department at the school and district level where multimodal composition is seen not as an outside of the box way of engaging students but instead as a necessary and important way of preparing students to do even more thorough multimodal composition at the college level.