A dear student of mine, in reference to her progress report midway through her freshman year, once exclaimed, “I love learning and I hate school!” It was not until this moment: feeling the pressures of distilling all the fluid complexities, and learning from taking this seminar into the crystallized structure of this Chicago Style 12 point font, Times New Roman, level 1-2-3 italicized not bolded sectioned, 15-25 paged curriculum unit--that I truly came to understand the gravity of her words. I’m engaged in a balancing act, holding authenticity and creativity on each hand, while walking a tightrope of compliance to rigid conventions on the other. Through conversation, and now, formal research, I’ve learned that a version of my struggle, reluctantly balancing what I want to say to students, to the structure of what I have been taught I should say to them, exists in all avenues of education. Whether you're a second grader, or a “master” teacher; we’ve all felt it. That lingering doubt, wondering if what we’ve produced is good enough. And this isn’t coincidence; it’s design. Whether you went through a traditional or alternative route to teaching, through teacher-training in post-secondary programming, and by way of simply participating in the American public education system, as a default, you as a teacher have probably been conditioned to position yourself as the holder of all knowledge, while imagining students are empty vessels waiting to be filled with your knowledge, expertise, and guidance.1 Without significant collective change, we will reproduce the same result. As organizer and activist Grace Lee Boggs says, “Like workers in the factory, children and young people are denied their full humanity by a system that trains them to survive, consume and produce."2
Context and Approach
As a public school teacher, there is an unspoken understanding that lessons pertaining to joy and justice are separate from “the curriculum.” There is a burning demand from students that class should be more fun, relevant and inclusive which is met with different iterations of teachers cycling through the multitude of benchmarks that have yet to be hit. Neither teachers nor students enjoy this cycle. As a 10th -12th grade literature teacher, I in no way excuse myself of subduing creativity and joy for the sake of aggressively meeting standards and both creating and executing lifeless lessons, and even units under the guise of there’s some things you just gotta learn-esque rationale. I teach predominantly Black and Brown students representing a wide range of ethnicities and backgrounds, also born in New Haven. I also teach a smaller subset of students from neighboring suburban districts. We are part of the Facing History and Ourselves Partner Schools network3. Embedded in all aspects of our school wide program is the language of being an upstander, becoming civically engaged, and being a proponent for racial equity within an unjust society. We have a school wide advisory program in which students lead circles, encouraging others to share stories, experiences, feelings, and perspectives. The Black Lives Matter, and Gender And Sexuality youth groups are prevalent and embraced within our school community. Despite every inclusive school feature I just named, we still collectively struggle to engage in meaningful work connected to race and identity.
I decided to take this seminar because in my career as a literature teacher, neither myself, nor my students, have ever felt collective joy engaging with narrative writing. My students have experienced an entire spectrum of emotion engaging with family, school, work, and all other institutions of society, yet when it comes down to choosing what to write, and actually writing, there comes an immense emotional and cognitive struggle in both brainstorming and production. I have students who participate in youth groups, volunteer work, are life-long athletes, commute to school every day at 5 am, yet choose to write about the stress and eventual success of math class. I have students who have participated in organized protests, work near full time jobs, and experience moments of existential and cultural realizations simply by engaging in conversation at dinner, yet choose to write about overcoming procrastination. I’ve sought out and attended professional development, asked advice not only locally, but all over the country, and have done extensive research in finding a solution to no avail. The vast majority of training, practices and advice I found approaches narrative writing as stagnant, and therefore, were ultimately just different approaches leading to the replicated result of forced-structured, inauthentic writing, that sounds like an individual different from my students.
What I haven’t done, despite it being so clear, and what I’m sure I’ve unconsciously avoided, is approach revising my practice while analyzing through a lens of race, power and identity. Teaching students writing techniques and how to use them correctly has never been a struggle. The struggle is widespread silence, and exclamations of “I don’t know what to write” and “I have nothing interesting to write about.” The struggle is grading and providing feedback to stories involving death, trauma, and raw human emotion, in no commas, periods, or sentences. I am not only looking to make small adjustments for temporary moments of success, I am seeking sustainable transformation--and my experience learning this seminar is a start. In my research, I have learned history, language, and patterns that speak to the tension I am describing in not only narrative writing, but education at large. Through an exploration of anti-racist theory, I have learned new ways to think, frame and ultimately approach teaching the personal narrative. Through researching the work of experienced, and critically conscious educators, I have found many resources, and also, outlined an approach I have never attempted. Moving forward, I will curate big-picture factors and history leading to the dominant practices in my classroom, and also, give perspective on the fallacy of these practices. I will then curate the teaching methods to counter the dominant approaches aiming for a more unifying, reflective, rich, complex and anti-racist- approach in preparing for and teaching students to write a personal narrative.