Thursday, July 12, 2012

Authentic Expression

I want to start by blaming Megan for giving me the case of the weepies today.  I cried at Brave and I cried when I read my chosen article "Knock, Knock: Turning Pain into Power" by Linda Christensen, and I cried when I watched the video from which this article takes its name.  That's a lot of crying in one day.  I should have stocked up on tissues.

In all seriousness, Christensen's piece, which is reminiscent of Gerald Campano's work, advocates creating opportunities for our students to bring their lives into the classroom, to bridge the gap between school and home, academic and personal, to "[open] their veins, so they [can] write with the blood of their lives" (317).  It is a message that I have swallowed wholeheartedly but sadly one I am just now, 11 years into my career as an educator, hoping to enact in my classroom.

Christensen writes of how the emphasis on standards and common curriculum too often become the focus of our teaching much to the detriment of our students' motivation and engagement.  She warns that unless we consciously build "curriculum that allows room for students' lives. . .there is little hope of getting authenticity from students" (312).  She then goes on to describe using the poet/playwright, Daniel Beatty's Def Poetry Jam performance of his piece "Knock, Knock" to inspire the work of her own students.

After watching Beatty's performance, Christensen and her students discussed the poem.  She specifically asked them to connect his experiences to their own lives which sparked a rich conversation about the very real struggles her students face every day.  Christensen observed how "When one student opens the door for an honest conversation, others follow, especially if I create space by responding to the student's remark instead of rushing past it" (314).  That last part about responding to students' remarks is so important.

We need to do a better job of sending the message to all our students, but particularly our most marginalized ones, that they matter, that we care, that there is a place for them in school even if there doesn’t seem to be one anywhere else. But it’s not easy. For my teacher research project, I gave the students in School Within a School (SWS) a survey. While 72% of the SWS students reported feeling that their teachers respected them (something I take a great deal of pride in), only 28% agreed that teachers understood what their life outside of school was like and a full 50% said that their teachers never ask them about their worries or their problems. In order to really engage marginalized children, we, as educators, need to acknowledge the struggles they face and validate the experiences/knowledge they bring to the classroom. How can we hope to encourage students to take ownership of their academic lives if we know nothing about what goes on in their lives outside of school or worse yet send the message that the very real struggles they face mean nothing?

One of my students, K.K., started off the year with a bang. She was focused, positive, and self-aware. She even made the honor roll quarter one, for the first time in her life, something she was incredibly proud of. Yet somewhere around Christmas time, K.K. started missing school, getting into petty fights with her teachers and other students, and her grades began to plummet. When I finally got her alone one day, I asked her what was going on and she told me that her parents were going through a bitter separation. They’d make up, have a nasty fight (sometimes physical), and break up again. She then revealed that she’d had to call the police on her father the night before because he was harassing her and her mother only to have him then threaten to take K.K. away from her mother by revealing to DCFS that K.K’s mother tried to commit suicide in 2010. K.K. was terrified that she was going to be taken away from her mother.

I can’t imagine how a person compartmentalizes this type of trauma in order to focus in school. I also can’t imagine hearing a story like this and seeing the fear in a child’s eyes and not wanting to help or at the very least not wanting to add to that stress. But it happens, all the time. That's why it is so important to draw from the vast well of experiences that our students bring to the classroom, to validate both their struggles and their humanity. Christensen argues that by creating opportunities for students to reflect upon their own experiences, we help turn their pain, frustration, insecurity, confusion, etc. into power. 


  1. Great article to fit in with your own teacher work. Thanks for sharing the KK story, too. SO powerful...

  2. Hey Kelly,

    You know what's weird? I cried too(j/k). Seriously though, you know how you and I dissected the "Still I Rise" poem by Maya Angelou? I was thinking that as a teacher, it would be awesome to show this clip, then have the students read "Still I Rise" and construct a Venn Diagram in pairs, and compare/contrast to get them into the unit. Similar to "The Dylan, Dylan Contest" in Dangerous Minds when the group which found the poem of Dylan Thomas that best resembled Bob Dylan's "Tamborine Man." Sorry, I'm on a big Dangerous Minds kick today after reading the Freedom Writers Chapter:)

    1. Ooops, I meant to complete that second-to-last sentence...when the group which found the poem of Dylan Thomas that best resembled Bob Dylan's "Tamborine Man" won a dinner with their teacher Michelle Phiffer.

  3. the KK story was heartbreaking. This a fear of mine. While I do believe that I should incorporate more of their experiences into my teaching I fear that their "real" life would outshadow anything I had to teach them and make my lesson seem irrelevant. Its not a lack of want it is a lack of courage to know about their experiences.

    1. I totally hear you. Working in the SWS, I am constantly horrified by the trauma my students have experienced in their 15 years on this planet. It is difficult sometime to know what to say or how to react. And sometimes it does overshadow what we are doing. But allowing our students the opportunity to bring their lives and experiences into the classroom doesn't necessarily have to mean getting that personal. I think kids just want to be heard. They want to feel like we value what they have to say. And because it is the rare teenager that is a Shakespeare scholar, allowing them the opportunity to talk about their experiences with love and/or betrayal when I do Othello rather than focusing exclusively on on the meter or symbolism is a way for them to feel capable and smart, to connect with something that seems irrelevant to them.

  4. One of my close friends at work is in the English department and a Shakespearean scholar. Since he is also a distance instructor, authenticity is one of the themes we talk about sometimes. He is constantly claiming to me that I can easily give my students authentic activities in CS (true that I can -- not true that it's easy), but he can't in literature. I would value any advice that I can give him. I suspect he already does give them authentic activities, since he views literature as an important lens with which to view our experiences as human beings, but I don't know enough about it to even suggest a place for him to look.

    Your story about KK is very painful. In teaching, we try to take students from where they are and give them advice for moving forward. I wouldn't suggest there is a way to tell students how to move forward in their lives from the experience you describe; I think that is probably better handled by a counselor. I think what you describe, framing it with literature, is probably the best thing you can do in your profession. You are showing them a tool that will always be available to help them understand their own experiences.

    I do so respect what you folks do in public education.