Disruptive Pedagogical Principle 1: Drawing From a Diverse Canon
In curating readings, first off, on top of planning texts in advance, create an ongoing system for students to recommend a poem, video, excerpt, quote or anything that they would like to share and engage with as a whole class. Consciously curate a diverse set of perspectives stemming mostly from authors of color, and move away from the work of canonical White authors. Analyzing the words, experiences and craft of canonical White author’s hinders the necessary level of nuance for all students, not only students of color, to engage in deep reflection. Drawing from a diverse canon helps disrupt the White Gaze, allowing students more space to look inward, hence raising critical consciousness.22 Texts should also center on a range of emotion and experience, for instance: justice, pride, joy, struggle, love, identity. Inherently, there will be moments in which the reading could serve as a painful trigger, or, the content matter could potentially cause heavy disagreement or even heavy agreement. It is important to be mindful of this, and encourage students to feel and also interrogate why they’re feeling this way. For example, combining breathwork and meditation. A quick approach: ask students to pause, breathe for 10 seconds, and interrogate why precisely they are feeling this emotion.23
With a set of diverse texts, students should reflect and discuss the ways these various texts challenge their perspective, then identify the ways in which authors were able to capture the complexity and nuance of their experiences into words. In reading, discussing, and analyzing texts, have students keep a log of the specific techniques they found24, and also, gauge their level of comfort and confidence with each. By reflecting on specific techniques, the way they’re used, and students’ orientation to them, when it comes down to writing on their own, they will have an awareness of the tools they can use to express the message they want to communicate.
Disruptive Pedagogical Principle 2: Implement Low Stakes Writing
A major shift that needs to occur is for students to lessen their hyperfocus on the stressors that come from producing Dominant Academic English (DAE). Teachers also need to shift their gaze and avoid their instinct to exclusively focus on issues with word choice, misspellings, and language of potential academic failure.25 An immediate way to shift gaze away from DAE is to increase the frequency of low-stakes, immediately accessible writing. Felicia Chavez writes that, “Frequency teaches workshop participants that writing is less a high-stakes assignment dictated by the workshop leader, and more an instinctive impulse to create.”26 Consistently alleviating the pressure of a grade, criticism and judgement, and allowing students time, space, energy to write, recenters student voice and perspective as the most crucial part of writing. With this paradigm shift in writing, it opens the door for students to become further to reflect and be creative while using writing as the vehicle to do this. With this shift in approach, this will open up more fluency in the practice of writing, and an added benefit for teachers, a very tangible way to make thinking and progress visible.
This will also help alleviate the widespread issue of, “I don’t know what to write.” Rather than jumping to conclusions of being unable to write, or not being a good writer, the challenge evolves to one in which a student becomes conscious of a translation of their perspective that needs to occur to help deepen and develop a shared understanding between them and their audience. And this translation, in many cases, in accessing mainstream American society is Standard English. This level of conscious writing alleviates much of the tension that comes with the evaluative nature of producing what’s deemed traditional academia, while at the same time, significantly improving students’ ability and confidence as a writer.
Disruptive Pedagogical Principle 3: Pose Open and Meaningful Prompts
In preparation for the college essay, students should evaluate the prompts of the common application, deconstruct what they’re asking, and evaluate the extent the prompt fits in with what students want to share about themself. Students should also engage with prompts created by themselves and their classmates that intentionally ask for responses outside the traditional narrative. Paired with a growing comfort with writing, carefully crafting prompts that will engage students to think deeply and write will elicit rich engagement. In Teaching for Joy and Justice, longtime teacher Linda Christensen, focuses on creating curriculum that centers students’ lives as “critical texts.” She creates classroom conditions to honor students’ memories, heritages, and positions writing as a platform to make meaningful change. A key teaching method she engages with is selecting meaningful prompts. She describes what makes a good prompt in this way:
Typically, good assignments ask students to write about important events in their lives...choices, resistance, moments that shaped them. The subjects are broad; they give students room for choice within the topic, and they offer multiple entry points. I try to choose stories that open dialogue between students about how their race, gender, and class have affected their lives”27
She also goes on to say, “Students write about times when they were allies, perpetrators, targets, or bystanders during a critical moment in their lives. This narrative helps students probe the connections between their stories and historic (and continuing) inequalities.”28 Posing accessible prompting for students to think deeply about the intersections between their specific identities, lives, and societal impact elicits a deep level of thinking, discussion and nuance absent from dominant teaching practices. This benefits all students' levels of reflectiveness and critical thinking. Specifically for students of color, this opens up the door of possibilities in reflecting on memories, experiences, and realizations that have been limited by the structures of dominant teaching practices. Versions of this level of prompting will live in lower stakes writing, responses to text, group work, and also formal assessment. A level of building trust, trust and consistency will be necessary to ensure an individual and communal level of comfort in engaging and sharing in deep prompting, especially for student groups who are new in conversations openly discussing differences and have been mostly in classrooms with teachers engaging in colorblind prompting and methods.
Longtime educator, activist, and scholar Milton Reynolds, proposes the methed “Big Paper” as a way to encourage deep listening, engagement, and comfort in engaging in this level of work. In this method, students in a small group of 3-4 people write their thoughts on a text, quote, or prompt that is in the middle.29 Students then read each other's responses, and continuously respond via writing. This method democratizes voice, ensures deep listening and also, again, keeps student perspective at the forefront, and positions writing as a means of communication.
Disruptive Principle 4: Power Sharing and Community Building Through Critical Race Theory
In all educational spaces a necessity for the physical and emotional safety of all students is a minimal requirement conducive to learning. In engaging with something as personal as an authentic--literally personal--narrative, the classroom environment needs safety beyond the basic needs. They also need a guarantee of intellectual safety and creativity. In order to get here, it is important to be conscious of the power dynamics of the classroom and make choices in breaking them down. These choices should include the intentional co-creation of space, community building, and shifting power dynamics. To help frame this process and shift in classroom culture and dynamics, contextualize tents of Critical Race Theory (CRT) in your classroom. CRT is described as a concept in which the core idea that racism is a social construct, and that it is not merely the product of individual bias or prejudice, but also something embedded in legal systems and policies. It’s early work served as a legal framework for analysis by legal scholars, including Kimberlé Crenshaw, Derrick Bell, and Richard Delgado.30 The work in CRT provided language, ideology, and terminology in raising race-consciousness, and also made colorblind ideology visible. There are movements, protests, and groups around America aimed to characterize CRT as something that is a concept that is oppressive and divisive, however, I cannot stress how false this premise is. Understanding and implementing tenets of CRT is a step towards unifying and transforming classrooms. While taking a doctorate course on CRT under Professor Adrienne Dixson, Caitlin Ryan co-taught an applied linguistics class to rising educators with another professor. In her teaching, Ryan consciously drew from tenets of CRT in her practice. In her reflections after identifying success in her teaching, Ryan reflects, “It is not just research in Pre K–12 institutions that can benefit from this framework. Teacher educators, too, need to be open to a similar type of critical reflection on our own practices”31 Ryan, in her conclusion, also goes on to offer key tenets of CRT that are crucial in teaching:
- Become more comfortable with the continual process of not knowing.
- Continue to problematize our thinking in those times when we think we know what students need to do, think, feel, or believe to be more equitable teachers.
- Position ourselves as co-learners rather than as experts.
- Search for more ways to invite traditionally silenced voices and ways of knowing into the classroom.
These tenets undergird all aspects of effective teaching, and are assets in community building. In experiences fostering community, engaging deep reflection with students, learning and embracing difference, everyone will be challenged--especially teachers. It’s important for us to embrace the ongoing learning, and interrogation of our practices. It is also important for us to be OK with not knowing the result of what students may produce. A visible way to position ourselves as a co-learner is to engage in the same writing and sharing process as our students. Just as we expect our students to share their stories, continue to write, and engage in the prompt, we as teachers must do the same. Just as we give feedback to students, they should do the same 32Students are more ready to reciprocate when we model and are also involved in the process. And just as students need to build a better habit of writing--a consistent culture of sharing will also be necessary. Students are more invested in work they will share with a group. This must include smaller, on the spot sharing of stories, and also larger ones with a larger audience including family, friends and community members.33 Inviting families and community members to engage in the work is more feasible than ever. Families are the biggest stakeholders in the lives of students, yet schools often leave families out of the academic process. Having a student share a story involving family, with family actually there, will increase the buy-in, effort, and enrich the experience.
Disruptive Principle 5: Community Involvement and Connections
Famed author, social and political activist Grace Lee Boggs actively challenged the dominant paradigm of education, offering community centered pedagogy as a means of transformation, and creating new pathways of meaningful communication as a way to energize young leaders.34 Students are more civically engaged, and eager for community involvement more than ever. Drawing from this, tap into your local network, and ask students to do the same. Identify community members willing to share their story /perspective. Organize a library of videos, written work, and responses from community members for students to interact with in different ways. In the most immediate step, community perspective should be intertwined with the collective theme that is in your curriculum. Also, find ways for guest speakers to visit either in person, or virtually, to engage with students. This includes experts in the field, guest lessons and also, simply guest speakers in order to listen for empathy. Find ways in which myself, and other participating teachers, can collaborate together in a shared project, whether it’s an anthology, open-mic, an informal virtual or in person meet up, or story sharing, but ultimately, ensure that student learning occurs outside the classroom. Through small and large scale ways, continuously reflect on ways for students to directly interact with other students, community members locally and even nationally. Teachers often in the past overly shoot too high on a high end project that we no longer have the time, energy, nor capacity to sustain, and give up. Start small, and brainstorm ideas alongside students. Together, through a reflection of our passions, power, leverage, networks, and agency, we will continuously find ways to leverage our course in making an impact.