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.