We Follow

By Sheryl Lain

I rode with Dad
in our old Ford pickup,
through a spring blizzard.
Thick white snow blinded us.

I was safe and warm inside Dad’s competence
as he drove to rescue sheep, bound and determined
to follow the leader and die.

At the fence corner, Dad stopped and held the door for me,
straining against wind’s persistence to scour us from the new land.

The blasts drove needles into my eyes
and whipped the sheep
into a slough’s thin skin of ice over two feet of water.
They’d all freeze in a pile-up,
their water-logged wool weighing them down.

Dad pitted his will against sheep’s instinct to follow the tail in front
even to death.

He threw one sheep after another onto dry ground
while I blocked their single-minded attempt to return to the herd,
thwarting their dead end, over and over,
until critical mass and the herd’s attention turned
and they followed another leader to a drier corner of the field.

Dad’s battalion unlocked the gates of Mauthausen.
Later, Dad meant it when he told his students,
“Just because everyone else does it, doesn’t mean you have to.”

Deep in their DNA my ninth graders are sheep, too,
obeying the comfortable mindlessness of following the tail in front
to certain extinction, except for some teacher’s intervention.

From Café to Class: Bringing Book Clubs Into Your Classroom

By Hayley Vetsch

It’s easy to discuss books if you like to read. Hobby reading comes easily to most of us English teachers, but I’d wager that it is one of the hardest things to teach in the classroom. In a time where longform is not the popular choice and 140-character essays reign, you can almost hear the groans from students when you plan the novels for your curriculum.

In my small public charter school of 63 students, the predominant response I get from my students is, “I don’t read.” Not I can’t, not I won’t, they just…don’t. It’s not as if I haven’t tried to get them into it. We’ve done literature circles, acting out scenes from the book, reports, projects, simulations, but with every single book I was teaching, I was met with resistance.

The idea struck me late one night after a discussion with a colleague. They had mentioned independent choice reading as something they used to do in school as a student. It hadn’t occurred to me until that point that I also had independent reading time as a student. My teachers would march us down to the library and we would peruse the shelves, make a selection, and that was our independent reading book. How could I apply that to our small school?

I realized that involving the Internet might make independent reading more appealing for my students. I turned to Goodreads. I had used Goodreads in college for a young adult fiction class. It was a meeting of book discussions and social media. Considering how much I had enjoyed it as a platform to encourage reading, I decided to integrate it into my classroom too.

After setting up Goodreads accounts and adding several titles that they had already read to their virtual shelves, the students joined a closed-group book club forum on the site. Rather than separating students by classes, I kept it open as a school-wide community to allow for integrated discussions among students who normally don’t spend class time together. Each student then added the Reading Challenge to their pages. This is a regular feature of Goodreads—charting your reading progress—so I encouraged all the students to set a goal for how many books they wanted to read in a year. For many of my students, I told them to strive for at least three. If we included the books we read in class as part of their reading challenge, they’d hit that goal before summer. Some of my more ambitious readers set a goal of 12: one book per month, no problem. Regardless of the number, setting a goal on a public forum like Goodreads made their aspirations visible. Knowing I was monitoring their progress and sweetening the deal with extra credit didn’t hurt, either.

Once the book club was created and the goals were set, the next phase was to set a standard for independent reading in the classroom. I have a wide selection of books that the students could choose from. Some brought books from home, but most borrowed novels from the classroom collection. The plan was this: every Friday, the hour would be dedicated to reading in the classroom. Students would read their novel—nothing else. There would be a weekly prompt/post on the Goodreads book club. After reading, students would post their responses in the forum.

The first few weeks were really difficult. Most students were resistant to independent reading, and many of them neglected the online forum. After a few of these uphill battles, I decided to lay down some ground rules to ensure student success with their reading. First, students could not read the books we were working on in class already. Second, they could not use the hour to catch up on missing work.

Many students felt that independent reading was optional, and viewed the hour as a study hall. I found that interesting–and very telling about the attitude they had toward reading. To shift this attitude, we prepared the classroom to be more reader-friendly. I created a bulletin board about the benefits of reading. I created book displays of titles related to topics the students expressed interest in. I brought in lamps and soft lighting to replace our harsh fluorescent buzzing lights.

With the new rules established and the classroom ready, we maintained Friday reading days over the rest of the semester. Slowly but surely, I was met with less resistance to a dedicated hour of reading. The responses in the forum shifted, too.

One of the first forum discussion prompts had been about the setting:

The setting is an important part of a story. The setting can be anything from the time period, a specific building, a season, or a place. Describe the setting in your story, and tell us how it shapes the characters and the events of the plot.

The responses were less than ideal. We set a goal for a minimum of four complete sentences for each prompt, but in that first round, almost every student fell under that goal. Here are some examples:

The setting of Fahrenheit 451 is (I believe) a dystopian future.”

the setting of the watsons go to birmingham takes place in 1963 they are in Flint Michigan and its winter time and it is super cold”

So far it’s the group that she goes to. And somewhat her school where she is at school with someone she goes to group with.”

These responses told me that it’s not that students aren’t invested in their books; it’s that they haven’t learned how to think about their books yet. But this was only the first week. The most recent forum discussion was posted on Wednesday, January 31. The prompt focused on an update of what they were reading:

Some time has passed since the beginning of the year, and I want to know what you’re reading now. Please include:

1. The title
2. The author
3. How far you are so far
4. What you like/dislike about the book so far

This time, the responses were more thoughtful and detailed. Why was this? I think that the students made it over the hurdle of resisting reading day—seeing it as a wasted study hall—and instead made it a part of their weekly routine. Now, on Fridays, they arrive to class with their books and say, “We’re reading today, right?” I’ve even spotted some of them reading their books over lunch. They have utilized Goodreads to send book recommendations to each other and comment on each other’s progress updates outside of their weekly assigned discussions.

Integrating a social media aspect to reading might make some scholars throw their hands up in frustration, but when you’re teaching a population more skilled in Snapchat than longform, meeting them halfway with a website to promote independent reading skills is absolutely worth it. I would love to see independent reading become a staple in high school classrooms—and even go beyond English classrooms to independent reading in other subjects, too. For now, I am content to see my students come to class with a book in hand every Friday.

The Sustainability of the Empathetic Teacher

By Shaina Lane

At 6:30 on a snowy Monday morning, I click my key into the lock of the school office to start my day.  There is never anyone there before me, which I prefer because it gives me enough time to get myself together before adolescent bodies start streaming through the door.  I set my stuff down, change out of my snow boots, and open up my daily classroom slides to go over what I have planned for the day.  In the thirty minutes between when I get to school and when the next human shows up, I gather myself to put on the best show I can.

Or at least that’s what I used to do.

When I first became a teacher, I viewed it as “being on stage”; my students are my audience, and I am their humble host.  This thought was both terrifying and thrilling for someone who, prior to her teaching career, never considered herself much of a stage presence, but it gave me the opportunity to really come out of my shell and become someone that the students were entertained by.  I had always been someone that thought was funny, but, as we all know, that doesn’t always translate to other people. I viewed teaching as the perfect opportunity for me to make jokes, tell stories that pertained to the material, and overall be the P.T. Barnum the students had longed for (without all of the exploitation).  Before I actually had my own classroom, I was under the impression that I could bring some of my personal life into the classroom, but only the stuff that fueled my performance.  

For example: When discussing Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and the power of a crush, I would tell the story of how Middle School Me used to pass notes between friends, wondering whether my crush liked me back and creating a world of possibilities and sorrows from thinking the feelings weren’t reciprocated.  I would go on and on to my students, in ever increasing desperation, about how I was so enamored by my middle school crush, so “in love,” that I would have cut off a leg just to get him to notice me.  I would walk around my classroom, switching back and forth between my “middle school” thoughts and my “adult voice” explanations, dramatically putting my hand to my forehead in a classic oh woe is me gesture, and exaggerating my every middle school emotion to prove a point: while many students think that it Romeo and Juliet is a dumb story about teenagers overreacting to someone they just met (which it is), it is also a timeless statement about the power a simple crush can have on a person.  This is the sort of personal-life stuff I would bring into the classroom to fuel the drama and engagement of my students (and I still use this when teaching the play), but anything I was actually struggling with would be off limits. I thought that I needed to be a spectacle in order to make my students like me and succeed, but only a certain kind of spectacle; a ridiculous, funny, over-the-top spectacle.

What a load of crap.

It’s hard to say where the idea of my being a “show” came from.  I suppose I could tie it to growing up with my father, a true performer who still makes everyone he meets fall in love with him because he’s such a ham.  I also could try to make a connection with my Midwestern heritage—how it was taboo to talk about more serious subjects in relation to yourself, but talking about them in a larger, funnier sense was perfectly fine.  Growing up, it was not the norm to be totally “real” about yourself, and you were expected to put on a show because that was what everyone else was doing.  It would be easy to say it came from those things, but I think the word “show” for me really came from myself. I have always been putting on a show, even though I have rarely been on stage.  As with most people, it is difficult for me to let people totally “in,” and so I have always put up a front of joviality, humor, and overall spunkiness to keep the masses from thinking that anything else was bubbling underneath. It is the age-old idea of “show the best, hide the rest,” and I have always done it well.  If I was having a bad day, I’d be especially peppy that day, my performer hat never tilting even an inch. Never let them see you sweat, right?  Even if it isn’t healthy.

This idea of performance carried into my teaching career.  I was convinced that it needed to be all about me, my actions, my thoughts, and my performances. I needed to put on the best show I could, sell out the box office every hour, and collect all of the roses at the end.  Even typing that makes me wince, because anyone who has taught for more than a few days quickly realizes that it’s not about them at all.  It never is. 

It is always, always about the students.

That sounds like it should be self-explanatory, right?  Every one of us has, at some point, heard the same joke from a non-teacher: “Well obviously it’s about the kids.  You sure didn’t go into that profession for the money!” Then it’s followed up by a hearty ha ha, snort-snort, I-know-what-teaching-is-like-because-I-was-a-student-once grin. All teachers have a conversation like that with one of their non-teacher friends, and if you haven’t had it yet, don’t worry—I promise you that you will.  The most frustrating part about those conversations is that they’re right. None of us entered the educational field for the money.  We entered it to help mold students, which brings me back to this statement: it is always, always about the students. Of course it is.  But, that being said, I have found myself asking a tougher question, a question that seems like it may be a bit unpopular or a little taboo, but one that also seems important: Yes, it is about the students, but this is also my job.  I live and breath this, therefore shouldn’t at least some of it be about me, too?

This is a question I have struggled with ever since my first day in my own classroom. The question of it “being about me” has shifted over the last five years from me wondering if I should “be a show” to me wondering how I can “be sustainable,” and whether that is even an attainable goal.

This profession we have chosen as our life’s work is not an easy one.  That statement alone could win me the Understatement of the Year Award, and yet it is something that isn’t necessarily mainstream information.  I hear about teachers making a difference, and many adults have referenced their various educators as pillars in their self-discovery, but the personal hardships of teachers are so rarely touched upon that they’re easy for someone that doesn’t personally know a teacher to forget about.  

With this idea of the secret struggle of teachers in mind, my thoughts have begun shifting from my day being all about the show to my day being all about the sustainability.  Yes, my students being engaged matters.  Yes, my students learning the material matters.  Yes, of course, my personal well being also matters, but it is incredibly hard to tell myself that when I have students approaching me with suicidal thoughts and actions, students who get beaten at home, and students who honestly don’t know where their next meal will come from.  How can I possibly be worried about myself being sustainable when my students can’t do the same?  How can I say to myself, “Okay, you need to take a step back and take time for you” when these lovely, incredible humans are dealing with all of this stuff outside of their school day, too?  Who am I to complain about being screamed at, called explicit names, and threatened by some high school student who simply has their emotions coming out sideways because of the things they are dealing with?

We teachers are some of the most empathetic people on the planet.  We have to be, right?  Our days revolve around making sure our students feel loved and supported, establishing healthy boundaries, and focusing on providing students with the love of knowledge in order to create lifelong learners.  The very nature of our job requires us to be compassionate human beings, but more and more often I find myself wondering if we are, on occasion, compassionate to a fault.  Do we take enough time to give ourselves a mental check-in to make sure that we are also doing okay and thriving?  Or do we instead tell ourselves that what we are dealing with isn’t nearly as bad as some of our students (even when that is not true) and so we need to suck it up?

More often than not, I find myself rationalizing not taking time for myself because I work with at-risk high school students who deal with so much on a daily basis that I cannot even imagine what it is like.  Sure, sometimes their dealing with those things comes out sideways at me, and I have a student screaming in my face that I’m a bitch, but I navigate that moment in the best way I can and I move on.  No more self-care is needed, right?

Right??

I had been feeling burnt out as of late and I was struggling to figure out why. I was getting enough sleep.  I had all of my lessons planned and was, miracle of miracles, caught up on grading.  I had a fantastic group of friends and family whom I go see as often as I please.  I was relatively healthy.  So what was the problem?  Why was I feeling that I no longer wanted to go to work, even though most of my students were dealing with profound emotional turmoil and they still made it on time?

Then it hit me: I was an emotional sponge that had never been wrung out.

My days were about lessons, yes, but they were mostly filled with personal connections with students I cared for unloading all of their problems on me.  I always tell my students that they can email me at any time with problems and I will do my best to be there for them. I once had a junior girl email at midnight telling me about her self-harming thoughts.  Hours were spent trying to contact the right people during the middle of the night to see if we could get her the help she needs because her father could pay for the schizophrenia medicine she needed in order to feel okay.  Phone calls were made, tears were shed, and I properly freaked out until finally receiving the call that she was okay and everything was being handled.  A coworker has had to cover a few classes of mine because another student was being bullied because of her weight and race, and she was having a mental breakdown in the hallway that was much more important than my lesson on commas for the day.  Money has been freely given to students so they can go to a wrestling camp for the weekend and get away from their drug-filled homelife, even though that student is incredibly proud and would never actually ask for money themselves. I am now on a first-name basis with the school psychologist and talk to them at least once a week about a few students. If I had to guess, it would be safe to say that 70% of my week is helping with emotional/home issues and 30% is actually teaching.  I always, always try to help those students with resources, contacting the right people, or being a shoulder to cry on, but I never unloaded what I was taking on.  I pride myself on being someone students connect with and feel comfortable enough talking to that they will tell me about the issues they’re dealing with. After all, I’m there to help!  However, I never took seriously the idea that I need to help myself, too.

After breaking down over and over in private, I started wondering if other teachers had the same feelings I did.  I began asking my coworkers, former colleagues, and teacher friends.  Did they feel the same way?  Did they feel overworked and emotionally exhausted, but never did anything about it because our burdens were “not as bad as our students”?

The answer was a resounding and overwhelming YES.

This is something that every teacher I spoke to was dealing with.  I felt vindicated that I was not the only one feeling this way, but also very sad that all of us were taking on this burden and never setting it down.  How exhausting it was to be carrying such a weight, unable to unload it simply because we knew that someone else’s weight was heavier.

Since then, I have made a change.  Before, I would have never thought to take a day off simply “for me,” but I have started to take one every few months just to have the day for myself to relax, unload, and unwind.  It may sound ridiculous and grandma-ish, but I have started to cross-stitch as something to occupy my busy thoughts and busy hands.  Get this: I have started to leave work AT WORK.  I now set boundaries for myself, too, and I not to bring any work home at all because otherwise I can’t shut my mind off.  I’ve started trying to run.  Now, I feel like I need to say this: I hate running.  I absolutely cannot stand it; it feels pointless to me because I’m not running from anything.  This being said, I wanted to see if I could learn to love something I hate and have really tried to get into it.  As of right now I still hate it, but I at least know that I can do it now!  

The biggest thing I have done, though, is this: I have stopped thinking of teaching as being something I’m “pigeon-holed” in and started thinking of it as something I “get” to do.  Can I say for sure that I will teach forever?  No, I can’t.  No one can say that they will do something forever.  I’m not sure where this life will take me, but I can say for certain now that thinking of teaching as something I “get” to do has been a hugely healthy shift.  I have tried to stop thinking of it as an emotional burden on some days and start thinking of it as an opportunity I get to help every single day.  On the days when it’s simply too much, I take time for me to unload and unwind.  I no longer put everything else above myself.  That’s simply not healthy; it’s not how to sustain myself as an empathetic teacher. All of these things have helped immensely, and I have now started telling myself over and over, “Your feelings also matter.”

My feelings also matter.  It is a little reminder throughout the day, when I start to rationalize that I need to just suck up whatever I’m feeling because some of my students are feeling more, that no, that is not correct.  I care so much about my students and their well being, but I also need to care for myself so I can continue to be there for them.

So, to all of my fellow teachers who are feeling like a full sponge, I am here to tell you to wring yourself out. You do not need to continue on simply because you know some of your students are dealing with a lot.  You are also dealing with a lot, and you are just as important to take care of.  Please, please love yourself and take care of yourself first so you can continue to do the work that you love.  If you are there for yourself first, you will be able to give the best version of yourself to your students and, just as importantly, to yourself.

 Your feelings also matter.

 

Opposites Attract: Binary Opposites in Alice Sebold’s Lucky

By Tanya Stafsholt Miller

The cover of Alice Sebold’s memoir reads, “In the tunnel where I was raped, a girl had been murdered and dismembered. I was told this story by the police. In comparison, they said, I was LUCKY.”  By juxtaposing the incongruous words “rape” and “lucky,” Sebold invites readers to ask, what does it mean to be “lucky”? Are “lucky” and “unlucky” binary opposites, as they seem to be, or is it possible to be both? Sebold invites readers to question our understanding of binary opposites throughout the book, as apparent opposites prove to be more similar than different. Near the end of the book, Sebold states, “I live in a world where the two truths coexist; where both hell and hope lie in the palm of my hand” (254). She does not say “heaven and hell” which are the expected binary opposites. Heaven would have been too much to expect. Hope, however, casts a glimmer of light into the future, a way of coping with the unpleasant present.

The fact that Alice finds luck in her horrific rape and hope in the hell of the rape’s aftermath is a testament to her enduring optimism. Throughout the memoir, Alice consistently relies on literacy to give her hope in the hardest moments of her life, thereby turning hell into hope. Language and literacy are the salve she uses to heal from trauma, whether it be storytelling, poetry recitation, or creative writing. The shaping of painful experiences into literary art empowers her to not only heal from the victimization, but also to rise above it. She doesn’t just survive; she thrives.

The first time Alice uses literacy to find hope out of hell is when her father and grandmother take her to a burned down house to salvage treasures from the wreckage. The five-year-old Alice is fascinated by the Raggedy Andy doll and matchbox cars, physical reminders of the child who died in the fire. Although her father deems the toys unworthy, Alice is already making the tragic fire into a story of her own: “Out of the fire grew narrative. I created for this family a new life” (33). This early life experience of turning tragedy into narrative is just one example of Sebold using literacy to escape the harsh reality of her life. Salvaging redeemable treasures out of the wreckage of a fatal house fire is a tangible example of finding hope in a hopeless situation. The fact that Alice turns tragedy into narrative indicates her natural affinity toward storytelling. This predilection toward literacy will prove to be her saving grace at the fateful juncture in her life.

Literacy becomes Alice’s mental escape while she is being physically overpowered by her rapist. She endures the unendurable by reciting poetry in her head. “I went into my brain. Waiting there were poems for me” (6). She mentally detaches from her own body and finds hope by reciting poems committed to memory. At this pivotal moment, literacy helps her escape from the most hellish situation imaginable and gives her a reason to hope. The rhythm of language, the consistency of verse, the shaping of meaning into sound become an out-of-body experience for Alice. Poetry, like an old friend, presents itself when she needs it the most, giving her an escape, but also hope.

After the rape, Alice feels like her life has been cleaved in two: “My life was over; my life had just begun” (30). Sebold uses the binary opposites of “my life was over” and “my life had just begun” to reveal her optimism for the future. Yes, the life she had before the rape—as a virginal co-ed—is over. The contrast between the photos she poses for with Ken Childs and the photos taken by the police indicate this clearly. She goes from “smiling, smiling, smiling” for Ken Childs  to “shocked” for the police photos (20). “The word shock, in this context, is meant to mean I was no longer there” (20). The “I,” or the self as she knows it, is gone and will have to be re-invented.

The summer after the trial, she begins her makeover. “The possibilities of the before-and-after that I had been presented with all my life took hold” (210). Her enduring optimism arises as she begins to reinvent herself so as not to be “defined by the rape” (210).  Here again, two binary opposites—the before and the after, the end and the beginning—are presented for scrutiny by the reader. The end of the Alice she was before the rape opens up a window to set free the Alice she will become. The end is the beginning, and the beginning comes about because of the ending. They are mutually dependent; one could not exist without the other. Out of the ashes of this tragedy, like the mythical phoenix, Alice’s old self dies so the new one can arise.

Alice’ s new self emerges when she writes a poem directed to her rapist, at the encouragement of her poetry teacher and mentor, Tess Gallagher. By writing a poem to the rapist, she not only escapes her rapist, but she also empowers herself to confront her rapist. This shifts her perspective from victim to advocate. This is an important distinction. To be a victim, or even a survivor, is to be reactive to trauma, to be defined by something that is out of one’s control. To be an advocate is to be proactive in seeking out solutions, shaping one’s own future, and taking control.

Writing a poem directed to her rapist releases pent-up emotion, allowing Alice to express hatred and anger toward her rapist. Gallagher recognizes the importance of the poem.  By inviting Alice to write about the rape and to workshop the poem, Gallagher gives Alice permission to write about important content and to share it with an audience (103). When Alice workshops the piece, it evokes a visceral reaction from her fellow students, one of whom implies that Alice could not be both beautiful and filled with hate, as if the two were polar opposites (103). They are not, but that is the myth that he believes. The power of Sebold’s language evokes an intense reaction in classmate Maria Flores as her own memory of incestual rape surfaces (152). The pivotal moment in Alice’s healing journey is when she realizes the power of her writing voice. She uses literacy to save herself, to teach those like Al Tripodi who believe myths surrounding rape, and to advocate for other victims like Maria Flores who can not or will not use their own voices.

As if writing the poem “If They Caught You” were an appeal to a higher power, only one week later her appeal is made manifest when Alice sees her rapist and reports him to the police. Before doing so, she checks in with her teacher, Tobias Wolff, author of This Boy’s Life. At this hellish moment in Alice’s life, she receives poignant literary advice from one of the great memoirists: “Try, if you can, to remember everything” (108). Wolff practically invites her to tell her story, even if it is many years hence. As he well knows, writing about memory has power, and it can promote healing. Memory is “often the only recourse of the powerless, the oppressed, or the brutalized” (108). Once again, at a pivotal moment in her life, literacy provides Alice an escape from the hell of reality. At this point, it seems that Alice Sebold’s destiny is foretold through the power of language. The rapist will be caught, Sebold will get vindication, and she will write the memoir that will tell her story, using literacy to give power to the powerless.

In the end, Alice Sebold states that “I now feel I was destined to write Lucky” (256). If that is true, then does it follow that she was destined to be raped? Although Sebold would erase that moment of her life if she could (257), she realizes that by having that experience and writing about it, she is able to reach more people and do more good than if it hadn’t happened. Would Sebold have been a best-selling author if not for the first-hand experience of rape? It’s impossible to say for certain. One thing that is certain is this: the Alice Sebold who wrote Lucky could not have written it if she hadn’t been raped. Therein lies hell and hope in the same hand. By all means, Sebold would have erased that moment of her life if she could. Since she cannot, she uses the power of language to shape the story of her rape. By doing so, she empowers herself to be more than someone else’s victim; she becomes the author of her own story and an advocate for others. Literacy is the tool that Sebold uses to turn a hellish event into a vehicle of hope for the future.

Throughout the memoir, Sebold uses literacy to find hope in the hellish events of her life. During the rape itself, she escapes mentally by reciting poetry. Later, she finds her literary voice through poetry in Tess Gallagher’s class. This poem leads to an intimacy between Alice and Tess Gallagher that would lead Gallagher to attend the trial in lieu of Alice’s own mother. The poem also opens Alice up to the possibility of using her literary voice to write about the rape.

Alice Sebold’s optimism allows her to see herself as “lucky” in an unlucky situation. She chooses to see the positive, to go beyond victimhood to advocacy. Alice Sebold is acutely aware of the luck of her circumstances. The “superficials” of her case make her lucky in the courtroom (173). If her rapist had been “a middle-or upper-class white professional from a well-respected family,” she might not have been so lucky (267). She is lucky to be a virgin wearing nondescript clothing, and that her rapist is a man with a criminal history. All of these are lucky circumstances on the unluckiest day of her life. The unlucky circumstance of Sebold not being accepted into Penn State leads her to attend Syracuse University. If she had gone to Penn State, she wouldn’t have been walking home through that park on that fateful day. However, she also would not have had the luck of taking classes from such literary greats as Tess Gallagher and Tobias Wolff, and to take independent studies from the likes of poetry giant Hayden Carruth and fiction guru Raymond Carver (212). For an aspiring writer, that line-up of mentors is pretty lucky. Alice Sebold creates her own luck by using the unlucky event of her rape and making it Lucky.

Alice Sebold’s life is filled with binary opposites that she has pulled together into a new life for herself. Her life has a distinct before and after, she makes a beginning out of an ending, she finds the luck in the unluckiest circumstances, and she holds hope along with hell in the palm of her hand. Just as she did when she was five years old, the optimist in her turns tragedy into narrative, and Sebold finds a new life for herself as an author of books about rape and as a rape survivors’ advocate. Alice Sebold says that there is a “continual push and pull” between her role as advocate for rape victims and what she would have been doing if she had never been raped (260). In the end, to be “unlucky” is to see oneself as the victim of fate—to use the passive voice. To create luck in spite of unlucky circumstances is to be proactive, to take control, to shape the story, to focus on the future. “I was raped” becomes “I advocate for rape survivors.” To this end, Sebold’s own words resonate: “In the end I think my greatest luck has been in finding the words to tell my story and in the fact that they were heard” (268).

Works Cited

Sebold, Alice. Lucky. Scribner, 1999.

Write Anything: How STEM Connects to the Writing Curriculum

By Amber Beattie

I must begin with a confession: I am an English person. Truly, there is little that I love more in life than a new book or fresh sheet of stationery. So when I was hired to teach writing to grades 5-8 at a STEM magnet school, I spent a long time considering what it meant to incorporate Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math—subjects that I feel less comfortable with—into my curriculum. This experience led me to consider another crucial fact: for some students, writing is that uncomfortable subject. My quest to include STEM in my writing curriculum could serve multiple purposes, then: it would help those students feel more comfortable, and could create a seamlessness between my class and other subjects.

The more I focused on this cross-subject incorporation, the more I realized that teaching writing is, in itself, a medium for teaching any number of things. Almost every discipline, career path, or topic that I could think of not only includes elements of writing, but can also be written about—sometimes in new and surprising ways. I once believed that disciplines like engineering or math were incompatible with a writing class, but it was easier than I thought to include these topics in my new curriculum. What’s more, I realized that expanding my curriculum to include the STEM focus that made my school special meant that I could help students to make deeper connections to the topics they care about. It also gave me the chance to open up my curriculum to outside content taught by my new colleagues—people that I truly enjoy learning with and from.

Soon, I was pestering students to discover what they had done in science or social studies on that day—to learn what they had connected with and enjoyed that I could incorporate into future assignments. I asked my fellow teachers what “big topics” students would be studying so that I could help make connections through writing. I wasn’t giving up my writing classroom to other subjects; I was growing my toolbox of teaching strategies by learning to teach different material. Even more, I was engaging a wider array of students in my lessons.

As a relatively new teacher, I rely on established routines to help me manage the chaos of a 5th-8th grade room. However, as students get used to those established routines, they also enjoy the variety that cross-curricular writing builds in. Students come in wondering what they’ll be writing about that day. Their first question is usually, “What’s the warm-up?” followed closely by, “Are we having SSW [Sustained Silent Writing] time today?” Students who once groaned when writing time was announced were now asking for even more time to work on their projects. What’s more, students started to dive into longer writing projects on their own. Now, rather than half-heartedly responding to prompts, some students were starting stories on Monday that they continued throughout the week. One-paragraph responses became two-page stories. My email inbox quickly filled up with documents to read and respond to that I hadn’t even assigned. I attribute much of this excitement to the intentional use of various subjects in my prompts. Students know that I am careful to include a variety of disciplines in our lessons, so their particular interests will be represented sooner or later.

While it can be daunting at first, there are a number of easy ways to include multiple disciplines in your writing curriculum. The reward is definitely worth it: seeing a student who excels in math class applying that same excitement to their writing project is always a welcome sight. Below are a number of ideas that have been successful in my middle school writing classroom, divided by subject.

Science: How to Blow Up a Balloon

I got the idea for this lesson from a novel, although I can’t for the life of me remember which one. I was so inspired that I decided to give it a try, and now it’s one of my favorite lessons! To begin the lesson, I ask students to write a series of instructions for “How to Blow Up a Balloon” that I, their fearless leader and fellow balloon enthusiast, will follow. Then, I ask for volunteers to read their instructions and I follow them…exactly. If a student says to “blow into the balloon,” I’ll hold the balloon about an inch from my mouth and dramatically blow with my cheeks puffed out. Kids burst out with laughter and quickly realize that their writing needs to be detailed and specific in order to achieve the goal. We refine our steps until I am able to successfully blow up and tie a balloon, and the student with the “winning set” of instructions autographs the balloon for posterity.

We discuss how and when to write with this level of extreme detail. Students brainstorm situations that require exacting prose (lab reports, instruction manuals) and situations that don’t (poems, novels). Then, students practice writing with extreme detail by creating their own “how to” guides. Students are able to pick the topic for their guide, and they never disappoint. I receive guides for “How to Binge Watch Netflix,” “How to Score the Perfect Jump Shot,” and “How to Annoy Your Siblings.” I also receive detailed instructions for folding origami, making a slingshot, and creating an “elephant toothpaste” chemical reaction. No matter what topic students choose, their detailed, scientific prose is impressive.

As an extension for those who finish writing and illustrating their guides early, students can research the most efficient way to blow up a balloon. Soon, they are modifying their original set of instructions to include straws, baking soda and Bunsen burners. I take the opportunity to remind students that the writing process relies on revision and celebrate their willingness to refine their guides with new information. Students excitedly relate their findings to their classmates and compare notes on balloon experimentation. It seems that I’ve created a league of scientists in my writing classroom.

Technology: Heroes and Villains

 There is a wide variety of helpful educational technology out there. (I particularly enjoy using Storybird in my writing classroom.) However, I have found that students are also able to engage with technology as a subject for their writing. I like to begin this lesson by having students create a comprehensive list of all of the technology they encounter in a typical school day. I know that my students’ lives are inundated with tech, so they usually come up with a lengthy list. To help guide students, I’ll occasionally add suggestions, like light bulbs and electric cars. Once we have a good list going, I know students are ready for the next step.

We discuss personification and its role in science fiction. With older students, I like to read Ray Bradbury’s short story “There Will Come Soft Rains”to help facilitate this discussion. Younger students might appreciate a clip or two from Brave Little Toaster as an example to work from, although the movie includes objects that wouldn’t be considered strictly technological.

Finally, I ask students to reconsider the list that they made. What technology would they consider to be “good” or “bad”? What would they choose to be a “hero” or “villain” in their life? What human traits do they associate with items on the list? (Students might answer this question by saying that a light bulb is “hopeful,” a vacuum cleaner is a “neat freak,” or, my personal favorite, a clothes dryer is “full of hot air.”)

I give students the opportunity to choose a technological character, and then we dive into writing time. The only parameters that I give students are that they must include a personified tech character, and that character must be either the hero or villain of their story. The rest is up to them.

I have had wonderful stories that, happily, resist the “technology takes over the world” trope. For example, a student once wrote about an iPhone 7 who feels self-conscious when the iPhone 8 starts to bully her for being “outdated” (don’t worry—the day is saved by a friendly Update). Another student wrote about a night light that bravely slayed the “shadow monster” while the humans slept. Without fail, my students are exceptionally creative, and I enjoy seeing kids interact with technology in a new way.

Engineering: The Impossible Paper Project

Students enter the classroom to find a curious paper creation on my stool at the front of the room. As they grab their notebooks and head to their seats, some students take the opportunity to check out the cut and folded cardstock. Curiosity grows in the room.

Without giving too many instructions, I pass out a piece of copy paper to each student and tell them that they are to recreate the object at the front of the room. They can look at the paper from any angle, but they can’t touch it. Students quickly start to fold and cut their paper, and they just as quickly get frustrated. The task seems impossible, until, inevitably, one student shouts with glee: They’ve got it!

Other students ask for help, and soon there is a team of engineers walking around, helping to explain the paper project. Once everyone has succeeded, we take a few minutes to journal about the experience. What did students feel at the beginning, middle, and end of the task? How did they feel when they saw others “getting it”? How did they feel when they finally asked for help? How does this relate to the work of real engineers? What else is impossible?

It’s this final question that sparks the best discussion. Soon, students are discussing the impossibility of everything from flying to fitting in. Then, I challenge them to find a solution that is both detailed and plausible. I ask students to create a character that overcomes impossibility. I ask students to use their own frustration to make the character real. Soon, we will have Sustained Silent Writing time for students to begin their stories.

Mathematics: Grammar Math

There are many parallels between the world of algebra and the world of grammar. When students struggle to understand complex grammar concepts, it can be helpful to simplify subjects, predicates, phrases and clauses into algebraic formulas. Students who feel comfortable in the world of math might begin to feel more comfortable when they see that sentences can be written in familiar language. For example, S + P = C (Subject + Predicate = Complete Sentence). Having students write this formula on the top of their page can be crucial to helping students remember what’s required when they write.

This concept of “grammar math” can be expanded to more complex sentence structures, as well. I use a set of manipulatives that I found on TeachersPayTeachers in order to help students experiment with different equations. Students work together to solve the question: what successfully creates a sentence, and how do they punctuate it?

Manipulative pieces include simple subjects and predicates, as well as independent and dependent clauses, participle phrases, and different types of punctuation. Students begin in partners with some time for experimentation. I encourage them to make silly sentences with the pieces and give groups the chance to share. Then, things get technical. Students are asked to make sentences using different pieces (I color-code the pieces for students who are still mastering vocabulary) and then grapple with the results. Soon, students become investigators: what happens when two dependent clauses are put together? What about a dependent clause and participle phrase? Where does the comma go when a participle phrase is added onto an independent clause? What works? What doesn’t? Why?

It works for students of virtually every level. Emerging writers can use simple subjects and predicates to explore fragments. Advanced writers can work to add participial phrases in different places. All students can create new pieces to add to the manipulative set, and they love to see their suggestions pop up in class examples.

I’ll use these manipulatives as a stand-alone lesson, but also for times when students have grammar questions. For example, a student recently asked me if there’s a comma before the word “and” in every sentence. We tried a few configurations and figured out that he didn’t need a comma in the sentence he had written, but that he needed to add one in to a series he’d written in another sentence. In the end, being able to experiment and find the answer was more valuable for that student than just getting it from me.

Environmental Studies: 100 Words About a Pebble

One of my favorite adjective lessons centers around the natural world. I begin by collecting (or having students collect) items from the world around us—pebbles, leaves, sticks, etc. Each student needs at least one item to examine, ideally small enough to hold in their hand.

Students then number their paper from 1-100. I challenge them to write 100 adjectives that describe their object. This seems impossible at first, until I remind students that synonyms can count as separate words (for example, “delicate,” “fragile,” and “breakable” could all count). This exercise really stretches kids’ vocabularies, and it is also an exercise in patience. I push them to continue as far as they can on their own, then provide dictionaries or thesauruses to help get them to the finish line.

Once students have their lists, I give each kid a blank piece of copy paper. Their first job is to sketch their object. Students who chose leaves might also choose to do a crayon rubbing. The goal is to represent their object visually as accurately as possible—this is the basis for their poem.

We discuss environmental stewardship and the ways in which their item might change or be lost without proper care. To encourage conservation in others, students write a poem using their favorite adjectives from the list. I don’t give too many strict requirements, although occasionally an example is required. If I find that kids are stuck or struggling, it’s time to break out the Romantics. After all, there is no greater celebration of nature! We listen to bird sounds and create our own music with adjectives. Kids might enjoy sharing their poems in a “nature slam” in the school forest (or another natural space) once they’re completed.

Stepping outside of my “ELA only” comfort zone has helped me to become a more confident teacher. Sometimes I make a fool of myself as I attempt to help students solve a math problem or craft an analysis of a topographic map, but I love that students are asking for my help with new topics. Plus, it’s all fuel for new lessons—watching my 8th graders grapple with those topographic maps this past week has led me to begin crafting a lesson where students write a story based on a map of a fictional world. I’m lucky enough to see students during each of their middle school years—from 5th to 8th grade. I can’t wait to see the growth that occurs for my students as each year passes, as both writers and STEM students. By the end of their four years with me, I hope that my students see that writing and STEM are, in many ways, more alike than different—and that loving one means you might also soon love the other. After all, I’m living proof that even the staunchest ELA person can become a STEM person, too.

Owning Their Stories: Teaching Memoir at an Alternative High School

By Amy Vizenor

On a sunny afternoon in May, I sat in the parking lot of Midwestern Alternative (pseudonym), a high school for “at-risk” students where I was interviewing for an English teaching job. Watching the high schoolers spill out into the parking lot to leave for lunch, I felt intimidated by their stereotypically edgy, alternative dress, style, and behavior. I also felt intrigued and motivated to teach in a unique program, as my previous teaching experiences were in traditional middle and high schools. With anticipation, I accepted the job when it was offered. When I met these same students on the first day of school in September, I realized that while their appearance might have been tough, they were just kids—kids with stories to uncover about the life experiences that propelled them from their traditional high schools to alternative education.

My teaching assignment included three courses: English 9, Composition, and Independent Reading. A significant part of the curriculum for the composition class involved teaching concepts such as the writing process, types of paragraphs, organization, style, transitions, audience, and conventions. Students plodded daily through these exercises, working diligently but remaining detached from the class and from me, despite my efforts to interest them in the content.  A couple months into the school year, I had coffee with a colleague who had created a first-semester course for college students on the topic of memoir—with great success. I decided to encourage my students to own their stories by incorporating memoir into my composition class. Doing so transformed the complexion of the class and moved students from making it through the daily grind of the course to engaging as writers with expertise and investment in their craft—writers whose personal stories were valued in the classroom space.

Alternative Education

Alternative schools and programs are designed to meet the needs of students identified as at risk of failure to graduate from high school (Carver and Lewis 1). Not all alternative settings share the same features; rather, they provide extra supports to their student population through specialized structures and personnel. Midwestern Alternative employed several structures to promote student success, including (1) an onsite, free daycare, (2) a no homework policy, (3) weekly access to a chemical dependency counselor, and (4) an informal relationship between students and staff, as evidenced by students addressing faculty by first names.

Adolescents may enroll in an alternative school by choice or by referral of their home schools. Common reasons for referral to an alternative setting include academic failure, truancy, physically or verbally disruptive behavior, chemical use, pregnancy, and mental health issues. Traditionally, the numbers of students of color and students with a low socioeconomic status enrolled in alternative schools are disproportionately high (Farrelly and Daniels 107). The student demographics at Midwestern Alternative reflected this imbalance. Currently, the percentage of students of color enrolled in the school district as a whole is 25%, compared to 39% at Midwestern Alternative (Minnesota Department of Education (MDE)). The district’s student population receiving free and reduced-price lunch is 37%, while 69% of students at Midwestern Alternative are enrolled in the free and reduced-price lunch program (MDE). Thus, the student population at Midwestern Alternative reflects a high number of both students of color and students living in poverty.

Though traditionally underserved students bring a strong skill set to the classroom, it is often neutralized in a traditional system. As Herrera noted, “More often than not, however, CLD [culturally and linguistically diverse] students’ assets are left untapped because the classroom does not provide a place for them to become part of the curriculum” (14). As the school year progressed, I realized that I was leaving student assets untapped by slogging through an old-school composition curriculum. I was teaching my alternative high school class in a very mainstream and, for my student population, ineffective manner. My teaching was a disservice to them and to me—despite my best intentions.

Memoir as a Genre

Born of the nonfiction narrative movement begun in the 1970s, the memoir genre evolved from autobiography and enjoys widespread popularity today (Kirby and Kirby 22-23). While the autobiography is often a birth-to-death narrative, the memoir presents a “slice of ordinary life” (Bomer 4). Memoir relies upon the author selecting one key event or a handful of events with the same theme and requires the author to grapple with all of the complexities surrounding the topic of the memoir. In writing memoir, the author uses the genre to puzzle through, answer questions, and make sense of their experiences (Kirby and Kirby 23). This notion “puzzling through” was one of the things that appealed to me about memoir. My students had had impactful experiences, but they had not taken time to sort though the layers and make sense of them.

Academically, memoir offers a rich opportunity for meeting standards in reading and writing using a medium that, in our current culture of reality television and sharing life through various social media sites, appeals to adolescents. While reading memoir, students might engage in literacy standard RI.9-10.3: “Analyze how the author unfolds an analysis or series of ideas or events, including the order in which the points are made, how they are introduced and developed, and the connections that are drawn between them” (Common Core State Standards (CCSS). Teachers could incorporate several writing standards when students are writing memoir, most of which are sub-parts of standard W.9-10.3: “Write narratives to develop real or imagined experiences or events using effective technique, well-chosen details, and well-structured event sequences” (CCSS). English teachers can easily justify teaching this nonfiction genre as an avenue to reaching reading or writing standards.

Memoir in the Classroom

Inspired by the advice from my colleague to utilize memoir in my composition class and ready for a change, I planned for our journey into memoir. Included in my plans were framing memoir; reading memoirs and autobiographies; analyzing constructs of memoir; generating ideas through free writing and timeline creation; engaging in the writing process; exploring avenues for publication; and celebrating our success. From start to finish, we spent almost three months reading and writing memoir.

Framing Memoir

In January, we read excerpts from Bomer’s Writing a Life, exploring the history of autobiographical writing and the concept of writing about “a slice of ordinary life” through memoir (4). We discussed public fascination with peering into the lives of others and the insights gleaned from experiencing an event through the lens of another. We also addressed controversy regarding what constitutes “truth” in memoir, citing the example of James Frey’s expulsion from Oprah Winfrey’s Book Club for misrepresenting truth in his memoir, A Million Little Pieces.That example lead to dialogue about the difference between fiction and nonfiction and the percentage of  “truth” required for nonfiction.

Reading and Analyzing Memoir

After developing a shared understanding of memoir as a genre, we prepared for a trip to a large public library not far from Midwestern Alternative. Before the library visit, we reviewed how to search the library website for memoirs, each student creating a list of potential books to check out. When we had done all of our pre-work, we walked to the library so students could see and touch the books they had identified and choose one to read. Several of my students had never been to a public library before, and seeing the shelves of books stacked floor to ceiling was a novelty to them. Some of the students had their own library cards. For those who didn’t, I checked out their books on my library card. A few students signed up for library cards during the visit. The trip to the library was a highlight for my students. They were excited by the opportunity to choose what memoir or autobiography to read. Their palpable enthusiasm for checking out their selected books made me realize how little choice students might have in the materials the read and interact with over the course of a school year. There was something important about physically going to the library, too. It was an adventure and an opportunity to leave the school building. The impact of acquiring the books would not have been the same had I checked them out myself and delivered them to school.

Because of the no-homework policy at Midwestern Alternative, we used part of each class session for reading. As students read their memoirs, they analyzed the works in light of the following questions:

  1. Is this memoir a “slice of life” that includes just a phase or experiences in a person’s life, or is it a birth-to-death, chronological autobiography? What experiences are included in the memoir?
  1. Is the memoir believable and true? Do the experiences the author shares seem like they could have happened? Does the author write in a way (with details) that makes you believe him/her?
  1. Is the memoir reflective? Does the author tell you not just what happened, but how s/he felt about what happened and how it changed him/her as a person?

Ultimately, they wrote short essays addressing these questions and the degree to which the books they read fit Bomer’s definition of memoir as we had studied it (4). This analysis of memoir primed the students to write their own stories.

Writing to Generate Ideas

In addition to spending class time reading memoirs—both the ones they had from the library and other, shorter works taken from Ehrlich’s When I Was Your Age—we also devoted time to writing in a writer’s notebook. Each day, we completed “free writing” on a topic I selected or they chose. Sample prompts included topics like my earliest memory, my greatest accomplishment, something I didn’t tell my parents, an adventure with a friend, and my something I regret. We all (including me) wrote for 7-10 minutes each day. When time was up, we sat in a circle where people who chose to do so took turns sharing their writing.  I gave the option to “pass” for students who chose not to share. Time in the sharing circle was powerful. I think everyone recognized that sharing their writing required them to be vulnerable, and students were very careful with each other. In this writing and sharing practice, I saw the students create a classroom space in which all voices were honored (Herrera 14). I say all participants because the students honored my voice as a writer, too.

The day on which the prompt was “something I regret,” I wrote about an incident that happened when I was in fourth grade that later connected to my adult life. Matt Thomas was a large boy in my class who consistently came to school wearing dirty clothes and smelling of body odor. It was not uncommon for other students to make fun of him. One morning, before Mrs. Scanlan was present, one of my classmates sneaked into the classroom and placed a piece of dog feces under Matt’s desk. When Matt arrived, he was visibly upset, his face growing hot as other students snickered. Mrs. Scanlan demanded to know who was responsible. I had seen the culprit, but I said nothing. The next year, Matt transferred to a different school, and I didn’t think about him or the incident again. Twelve years later, I was standing in a check-out line at a stationary store when I noticed Matt standing in front of me waiting to make a purchase. My intuition that it was him was confirmed when he wrote his name on his check in scrawling script: Matt Thomas. In that moment, I struggled with indecision as my feelings of guilt washed over me as if the incident had just happened. Should I speak to him? Should I ignore him? What would I say? In the end, I said nothing, and Matt walked away.

As I shared this writing with my students, I noted how much regret I felt about failing to support Matt in fourth grade. To some degree, I revisited that regret and more when I didn’t speak to him as an adult. In revealing my shortcomings to my students, I showed them my humanity, my cowardice, and my shame. I was nervous to share my regret, and I was amazed by their ability to listen, empathize, and show compassion.

Another method we used to generate ideas was timeline development. Students each established a timeline of their lives, choosing events that were noteworthy and writing about them and the circumstances in which they occurred. As they considered important incidents, they reflected in writing about the meaning of the events, jotting down notes about the significance of each event.

The free writings, timelines, and other notes and reflections the students kept in their writers’ notebooks became a source of material to choose from as they prepared to draft their own memoirs. By the time they were ready to begin writing, they had much from which to choose.

Engaging in the Writing Process

In preparation to write, I had students review a six-step writing process: brainstorm, organize, connect, draft, revise, and edit and publish. They used computer-based, memoir-specific materials from the website Writing Matters: Writing Memoir to refresh and enhance their understanding of the writing process (Teaching Matters). As noted previously, students had invested a lot of time into generating ideas in class. To select their topics, students chose their top three ideas from their writers’ notebooks and completed a chart explaining the significance of each event. They shared their top ideas with a small group of their peers, whose insights they relied on to make the final selection. Often, classmates were familiar with ideas or stories from previous conversations, and they were able to make recommendations for the best material. Part of this selection process included consideration for whether or not the authors were comfortable sharing those experiences, as they knew that others would be reading their work. To their credit, most of my students did not shy away from painful topics, which included (1) finding out I was pregnant at age 14, (2) letting my mom down because I was high when she was dying from lung cancer, (3) getting arrested for possession of illegal drugs, (4) when my mom stopped coming home, and (5) immigrating to the U.S. from Somalia and forgetting what Somalia is like.

After choosing their topics, students organized and connected their thoughts and ideas by reflecting on the following questions:

  1. What is the key event?
  2. What happened before the event that will help your reader understand the experience?
  3. What happened after the event?
  4. Throughout the experience, what were your thoughts and feelings?
  5. How did the experience change you as a person or impact you? What did you learn about yourself as a person?

When students had completed their first drafts, I taught a session on improving writing using “show don’t tell” techniques. Students brought their drafts and participated in four different strategy-specific stations in small groups: use dialogue; use sensory language; be descriptive; and be specific, not vague. This task was one of the most challenging for students—to read, analyze, and improve upon their work. As they participated in the stations, they made minimal changes to their drafts. In retrospect, I should have provided better scaffolding to complete this writing exercise. It was challenging for them to step outside their narratives and identify ways to substantively change what they had already drafted. Instead of running stations, I should have offered more direct instruction and modeling of how to use the strategies.

Exploring Outlets for Publication

As students were drafting their memoirs, we started exploring avenues for publication, the purpose of which was to build authenticity into the writing experience. In the real world, authors write for a broader audience. Initially, some students expressed concern about publishing their work. They felt intimidated. However, as they researched publications that accepted student work and read student work published on various websites, interest increased. We found that many sites or publications did not accept work with the “mature themes” addressed in many of the students’ memoirs. In the end, all students submitted their memoirs to Teen Ink, a site that publishes online and paper magazine issues devoted to teen writing and artwork (Teen Ink). Teen Ink has few restrictions on the content for the work it publishes, making it a good fit for the memoirs my students were writing.

Celebrating Our Success

Final papers were due at the end of March, and all students self-assessed their work on the rubric I was using to evaluate their memoirs (Appendix A). Across the board, students were generally more critical of their work than I was. For the next two class sessions, we celebrated their success as authors by hosting a reading of selected excerpts from the memoirs for students who chose to share. We enjoyed snacks and invited other staff and students to join us. Students’ voices and stories were heard and valued.

At the end of May, we discovered that Teen Ink was publishing three of the students’ memoirs in one of its online issues: finding out I was pregnant, immigrating from Somalia, and being arrested for possession of illegal drugs. When I shared the publication news with the class, students were simultaneously incredulous and elated. Because of our shared experience of “writing a life” together, it felt like the success of one of us was the success of all of us. By the time the news of the publications arrived, we were in the last few days of school, which felt bittersweet, as our class was no longer; our time together was over.

Memoir in an Alternative Setting

While the genre is effective with high school students in general, there are three inter-related reasons why memoir is particularly significant for alternative high school students. First, connecting with their experiences through memoir empowers students by encouraging them to overcome shame and own their stories. Second, memoir aligns with several tenets of culturally responsive teaching. Third, writing memoir puts the student in the role of expert, setting up the student for success.

Overcoming Shame and Owning Their Stories

Whether they came to the alternative site by choice or by force, many students attending alternative schools have had challenging and possibly damaging life experiences that have interfered with their potential for success in a traditional school setting. As noted by Monroe, “Schools present many opportunities for children to feel a sense of weakness or failure. When children see themselves as deficient or having failed in some way, they experience a sense of shame” (58). Many, if not all, of the adolescents at Midwestern Alternative perceived themselves as having failed in their home schools. While in reality their home schools may have failed them, the students carried a sense of school failure and, in turn, shame. In her book titled Rising Strong, researcher Brené Brown asserted, “You either walk inside your story and own it, or you stand outside your story and hustle for your worthiness” (45). One of my goals for engaging students in writing memoirs was to help them process, reflect on, and walk inside their stories. In the pre-writing phase, students analyzed the events about which they were writing at length. Many of the events students chose were shameful to them—things most didn’t share out loud. On the rare occasion that students did talk about the circumstances that brought them to the alternative high school, they often did so with bravado, in a boastful, posturing manner in an attempt to mask the hurt that accompanied these experiences. However, when invited to engage in honest reflection about these events, many of the students revealed the pain and loss they felt. In bringing their stories out of the shadows and uncovering them for what they were, students found their worth, saw their resilience, and experienced success.

Alignment with Culturally Responsive Teaching

Asserting that meeting the needs of CLD students requires more than “good intentions,” Herrera identified several key components of culturally responsive teaching well addressed by incorporating students’ biographies into the classroom: (1) appreciating students’ and families’ “ways of being,” (2) constructing a classroom space in which all voices are honored, and (3) establishing classroom “ecologies” that demonstrate care and respect for all students’ backgrounds (13-14). As she described the importance of acknowledging CLD students’ experiences, she noted: “When educators work to move beyond the status quo, CLD students’ biographies, knowledge, and Discourse are valued and utilized beyond superficial attempts to ‘celebrate’ students’ culture and language” (14). Kirby and Kirby echoed this sentiment, explaining that inherent in memoir is a respect for difference and “transformative” opportunities related to cultural and ethnic diversity (24).

Memoir functioned as a vehicle for bringing students’ backgrounds, cultures, language, and ways of being to the forefront of the curriculum. Some of the students’ choices regarding the memoirs they checked out from the library were identity-driven; they selected works by authors whose cultural or linguistic identities aligned with their own. In doing so, they found mentors—like individuals who had navigated unique or challenging experiences, reflected on them, and learned from them. As students wrote their memoirs, they their experiences and the ways they framed those experiences became the curriculum. They each saw themselves represented in the classroom as they wrote about events in their writers’ notebooks, eventually choosing one theme or incident to unpack in their memoirs.

The Role of Expert in the Classroom

Kirby and Kirby explained, “When students write about their lives, they encounter a rare opportunity in formal education to know more about a topic than do their teachers” (24). This aspect of memoir was central for the students at Midwestern Alternative. For many of them, school was a place where they were far from expert. In their eyes, they were failures. My colleague once expressed that the students were so used to failing at school that they were almost afraid to succeed. However, one of the things they needed most to persevere through school was to be and feel successful. Gay asserted:

Success does not emerge out of failure, weakness does not generate strength, and courage does not stem from cowardice. Instead, success begets success. Mastery of tasks at one level encourages individuals to accomplish tasks of even greater complexity. To pursue [learning] with conviction, and eventual competence, requires students to have some degree of academic mastery, and personal confidence and courage. In other words, learning derives from a basis of strength and capability, not weakness and failure. (26)

In her book Pedagogy of Confidence, Jackson reiterated this idea: success breeds success, and students must have experiences in school in which they feel competent and confident in order to overcome the cycle of under-achievement (Jackson 80).

Writing memoirs enabled my students to experience success. The free writing exercises were key in building their sense of efficacy and accomplishment. They completed free writing knowing that they could not be wrong. They were the only ones with the right answers. Sometimes I shared my own free writes that were uninspiring and choppy. Though students never expressed it out loud, it seemed that me sharing my mediocre writing made them more confident in their own capabilities. I could almost see them thinking, “Huh. She’s not that good. I could do that—and better,” and they were right! When it came time to craft the memoirs, they were practiced and ready. Their incremental successes with free writing equipped them to write their memoirs.

I did not track my students’ academic journeys following participation in this composition class. I wish I had. In fact, as I was writing this manuscript, I found some of them on social media and caught up with their lives. However, I do know this: when we were engaged in memoir, students were invested. They worked (mostly) without a lot of prodding. They talked about their memoirs outside of class. They enjoyed learning. When I solicited feedback from students at the end of the year, many mentioned memoir in their comments, such as:

“The writing in general was great. I really liked writing a memoir.”

“This quarter I really enjoyed reading my memoir book so it made it easy to read.”

One of my students wrote, “What you teach sticks.” I hope that was true, but it didn’t stick because of me. It stuck because they were working with content that was meaningful to them. They were the experts.

Conclusion

Though my students at Midwestern Alternative certainly possessed ways of being, knowledge, and skill sets that they needed, most of the qualities they possessed were not valued in traditional schools. In fact, the school personnel often found these characteristics distasteful or inadequate—a detriment to school success. For my students at the alternative high school, memoir provided an avenue for promoting who they were by putting them at the center of their education. In this way, memoir facilitated their success on both academic and personal levels. Memoir facilitated my success as a teacher, too, by helping me see and appreciate each, individual student. Knowing my students changed the way I saw them and how well I could teach them. Being known changed the way students saw me, and they were willing to think, to try, and to risk. Because they were willing to write, students gained perspective and took back some of the power those perceived failures held over them. Because they were willing to write, they owned their stories.

Works Cited

Bomer, Katherine. Writing a Life: Teaching Memoir to Sharpen Insight, Shape Meaning and Triumph Over Tests. Heinemann, 2005.

Brown, Brené. Rising Strong: How the Ability to Reset Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead. Random House, 2015.

Carver, Priscilla Rouse, and Laurie Lewis. Alternative Schools and Programs for Public School Students At Risk of Educational Failure: 2007–08 (NCES 2010–026). U.S. Department of Education, National Center forEducation Statistics. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 2010.

Common Core State Standards (CCSS) Initiative. “English Language Arts Standards.” 2018, http://www.corestandards.org/ELA-Literacy/. Accessed 3 May 2018.

Erlich, Amy, editor. When I Was Your Age Volume One: Original Stories about Growing Up. Candlewick Press, 2001.

Farrelly, Susan Glassett, and Erika Daniels. “Understanding Alternative Education: A Mixed Methods Examination of Student Experiences.” NCPEA Education Leadership Review of Doctoral Research,vol. 1, no. 1, 2014, pp. 106–121.

Gay, Geneva. Culturally Responsive Teaching: Theory, Research, and Practice. 2nd ed., Teachers College Press, 2010.

Jackson, Yvette. Pedagogy of Confidence: Inspiring High Intellectual Performance in Urban Schools. Teachers College Press, 2011.

Kirby, Dawn Latta, and Dan Kirby. “Contemporary Memoir: A 21st Century Genre Ideal for Teens.” English Journal, vol. 99, no. 4, 2010, pp. 22-29.

Minnesota Department of Education (MDE). “School Report Card.” http://rc.education.state.mn.us/#mySchool/p–1. Accessed 3 May 2018.

Monroe, Ann. “Shame Solutions: How Shame Impacts School-aged Children and What Teachers Can Do to Help.” The Educational Forum, vol. 73, 2009, pp. 58-66.

Teaching Matters. “Writing Matters: Writing Memoir.” https://learn.teachingmatters.org/course/view.php?id=122. Accessed 8 May 2018.

Teen Ink. “Submit to Teen Ink.” https://www.teenink.com/. Accessed 9 May 2019.

 

Appendix A

Memoir Checklist: If you’re done, complete this checklist.

_____ My memoir has a title.

_____ My memoir is double spaced.

_____ My name is on my memoir.

_____ I have spell-checked my paper.

_____ I have read my paper one last time and corrected any errors.

_____ I have followed submission guidelines for the website to which I’m submitting my work.

_____ I have submitted my memoir to one of the websites we explored (www.teenink.com).

_____ I have printed a clean and final copy of my memoir.

_____ I have scored my own paper using Amy’s scoring guide (below).

_____ I have stapled this paper to the back of my memoir.

 

Memoir Rubric: Scoring Guide (30 points)

In each category, circle the description that you think best fits your paper.

Vizenor rubric.png

Educating with Little Tree: Reshaping The Education of Little Tree’s Cultural and Pedagogical Value in English Classrooms

By Chris Drew

At a recent conference session on literary diversity in classrooms, I and other attendees were encouraged to pass around a selection of books, examine them, and discuss their possible classroom use. A school librarian next to me picked up a copy of Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, and we began lamenting the scarcity of American Indian literature in classrooms. Then I asked her if she knew Forrest Carter’s The Education of Little Tree. Her smile tightened. “Oh, what a horrible book,” she replied. Her reaction did and didn’t surprise me. The book is a fixture in many schools, so I suspected she would recognize it. However, Little Tree’s broader history is still relatively unknown, so I was pleased to meet someone who knew the truth about this faux-memoir. Based on her reaction, I suspect Little Tree holds no prominence in her library, though it still does in numerous classrooms.

A 2014 episode of This American Life explored attitudes toward Carter and his book, including interviews with high school students that helped contextualize its classroom impact. A student from Massachusetts, Joseph, made the kind of connection English teachers dream of:

[Little Tree] was learning to deal with racial discrimination and prejudice and try and expand his understanding of the world and nature. And I’m trying to do that, too…. This is kind of embarrassing. But near the end, I really—I sort of found myself getting a little emotional. But I really liked it. I found that I really connected to Little Tree. I felt like he was a lot like me. Sort of I’m on the same journey that he was. We’re both trying to become better people. I’m trying to learn to be a good person, become who I am, be a man. But so was Little Tree. (“180 Degrees”)

Who wouldn’t want to teach this book? And how could Joseph be describing the same novel that horrified the librarian? As is often the case, the teacher knew a bit more than the student. Specifically, she knew that Forrest Carter was originally Asa Carter, the author of Alabama governor George Wallace’s infamous 1963 “Segregation Forever” speech. She knew that the writer whose novel inspired Joseph was a virulent racist in the 1960s. She knew that Little Tree began as a fraud, and negotiating space for it in today’s classrooms is a troublesome task.

Because of Carter’s deceptions and reprehensible past, Little Tree has garnered much critical disdain, but it is still a book beloved by readers, including many secondary teachers unaware of Carter’s past. For those educators who know its history, two concerns are central: does it still merit study in English classrooms, and if it does, what should that study look like? Continued critical engagement with the novel suggests that the first answer is yes, it still rewards thoughtful study. Addressing the second concern requires careful pedagogical consideration, but starts with acknowledging that it can no longer be approached as Carter’s mystical autobiography. Instead, it should be scrutinized as a duplicitous text by a deceptive author. Such an approach fundamentally alters its classroom use, challenging students’ preconceptions and impacting literature- and culture-based curricula. It also allows teachers to “unmask” both the book and its author in a controlled environment, plumbing its educational value while exposing the injustices its author perpetrated. More generally, new perspectives allow the dominant and sustained ignorance of the book’s true history to be exposed, transforming its classroom utility and adding necessary considerations of social justice, both textually and paratextually. Simply put, Little Tree offers more educational value today than it did before Carter’s past was revealed, and in the hands of a thoughtful teacher, it can bring unique opportunities to the secondary English classroom.

A Brief History of Little Tree

Some additional context may be useful for those unfamiliar with the book, its author, or its history. The Education of Little Tree by Forrest Carter was published with little fanfare in 1976, presented as the true story of the author’s upbringing in the Tennessee hills with his Cherokee grandparents, who served as guides toward a pan-tribal Indian spirituality emphasizing respect for nature. Many critics found it to be the perfect book for its time, offering the “primordial wisdom” (Browder 130) of American Indians (real or imagined) that non-Indians had begun seeking as an alternative to Western philosophies. Little Tree sat on bookstore shelves throughout the 1970s and early 1980s, gaining a small but loyal following, even as the author’s first book, The Rebel Outlaw: Josey Wales, was made into a blockbuster western starring Clint Eastwood. It didn’t enter the American consciousness, however, until the University of New Mexico Press obtained the rights and reissued it in 1986. This occasioned the book’s first serious critical attention—a foreword by Cherokee legal scholar Rennard Strickland identifying Little Tree as “one of those rare books like Huck Finn that each new generation needs to discover and which needs to be read and reread regularly” (v) and noting that upon its initial release, Little Tree was “universally acclaimed” (vi) and found audiences among young adults, librarians, secondary English teachers, and “students of Native American life” who “discovered the book to be as accurate as it was mystical and romantic” (vi). In 1991, it won the American Bookseller’s Association ABBY award as the book merchants most enjoyed hand-selling (Reuter 104), and a modest position in the modern literary canon seemed assured.  

Then the bottom fell out of the whole enterprise. In 1991, twelve years after Forrest Carter’s death, Dan T. Carter (a possible distant relative) wrote to the New York Times identifying Forrest as Asa Carter, a “Ku Klux Klan terrorist, right-wing radio announcer, home-grown American fascist and anti-Semite, rabble rousing demagogue” (A31). Though his business associates, admirers, and family resisted this information, by year’s end, Asa’s widow admitted the truth: Forrest was Asa. He had not been raised by Cherokee grandparents, and he was responsible for racist speech and activities during the Civil Rights era in the South. Immediately, the critical winds shifted. No longer was Little Tree “sold on the gift tables of Indian reservations” (Gates 15). Instead, academics vilified it as a manufactured deception, offering speculation of white supremacist agendas buried in its pages and eventually using it primarily as a referent to frame discussions of newer literary pariahs such as James Frey. Little Tree’s fall from grace reached its nadir when Oprah Winfrey removed it from her recommended book list, explaining that, while the book touched many people, the revelations regarding Carter meant that she “had to take the book off [her] shelf” (“Oprah”).

The book itself has not changed much in those forty years. Other than alterations to its cover art (removing the words “a true story”), it is the same text Freeman Owle suggested could help readers understand the Cherokee mind (Gates 15), the same text The Atlantic championed by writing, “Some of it is sad, some of it is hilarious, some of it is unbelievable, and all of it is charming,” and the same text of which the Chattanooga Times wrote, “If I could have but one book this year this would be my choice, for it is a deeply felt work which satisfies and fills” (Forrest Carter cover). Most importantly, it is the same text that continues to be taught to students like Joseph in Massachusetts by teachers who are either unaware of its history or simply desperate for a book that engages their students.

Shifting the Central Appeal

My mentor at my current institution has long asked prospective teachers to consider the “problems and possibilities” of any teaching text. I have continued using this framework, and in Little Tree’s case, it is especially suitable. The novel offers numerous teaching possibilities, but they depend on reexamining its pedagogical implementation. In the past, teachers and students valued its ability to inspire students like Joseph by teaching them something about the “Cherokee Way,” but this appeal is now valid only to the extent that it can be juxtaposed with the hard truths of its author.

Literary critics have explored this juxtaposition for decades. Daniel Heath Justice writes of his first encounter with the book as a young Cherokee boy, reading it once and then immediately reading it again, drawing parallels between Little Tree’s family and his own. He “memorized favorite passages and took to imagining [himself] as Little Tree” (20). As an adult critic, however, Justice describes Little Tree as a “fanciful story based on stereotypes and lies” (21). Viewing a text through the lens of its author’s fraud, especially when the fraud is revealed post-publication, complicates a reader’s relationship to any work, and exploring this complication helps students develop the critical faculties needed to conduct close textual analysis—a much more rewarding task than simply reading for enjoyment and inspiration. Because of this, studies of Little Tree can usefully shift to examine the book’s controversies, and in doing so, push students’ critical faculties to new heights, especially if they are also provided critical writings about the text before and after Asa Carter’s unmasking. In fact, many secondary education standards push students toward such considerations at higher grade levels. The Common Core Standards in Reading for 11th/12thgraders ask students to “Delineate and evaluate the argument and specific claims in a text, including the validity of the reasoning as well as the relevance and sufficiency of the evidence” (35), and the Indiana Academic Standards relevant to my own program require them to “[a]nalyze the impact of the author’s choices regarding how to develop and relate elements of a story or drama” (Indiana n.p.). Engaging students in the challenging work sorting fact from fiction in Little Tree helps address these standards and prepare students for the kind of close, intertextual reading that is expected in college.

Such reading leads to perhaps the most interesting pedagogical “promise” of an unmasked Little Tree: the opportunity to explore the central mystery of Asa/Forrest Carter. That Asa was a racist and a practitioner of hate speech in the 1960s is unquestionable, as is his attempted reinvention as Forrest, and much of Little Tree’s critical fate rests on a revisionist reading of the text based on such information. Shari M. Huhndorf writes that “the idyllic portrait Carter paints in The Education of Little Tree in many respects actually complements the author’s earlier Klan politics” (132), and that through the pretense of Indian family life in the Tennessee hills, Carter “attempts to vindicate the South from its violent racial history and to redeem an explicitly white supremacist perspective fallen into disrepute” (132). Her first point, that Carter sought to gloss over much of the racial history of the South, is beyond dispute, as is his fondness for an idealized antebellum South and the rugged individualism he believed had been suppressed by Northern aggression—ideas clearly typified in the character of Granpa, whose distrust of politicians and “big-city men” (Forrest Carter 123) echoes Southern sentiments popular during Carter’s lifetime. However, Huhndorf’s critical shift to her second point—positioning Little Tree as a white supremacist text—is less ironclad.

In her consideration of the book’s first scene, in which Little Tree and his grandparents board a bus shortly after his parents’ death, Huhndorf writes that the back of the bus, where the family is forced to sit, is “clearly a racialized space recalling the conflict over bus segregation and the subsequent boycott in the mid-1950s. In the novel, though, the back of the bus is not an undesirable place signifying its occupants’ oppression. Rather, it is a comfortable place where Little Tree finds a sense of love and belonging” (156). Does Carter mean to suggest there is nothing inherently wrong with their being forced to the back of the bus, thereby minimizing the pain inflicted on Little Tree and his grandparents by white racists, or does Huhndorf misread the passage in support of her thesis? Can the scene in question also be viewed as a gently ironic passage that emphasizes Little Tree’s innocence in contrast to the bus passengers’ blatant racism? The latter reading conflicts with much of what we know about Carter, while Huhndorf’s reading is more at odds with the text itself. These are fascinating questions, and though students may not understand every nuance of Huhndorf’s argument, an astute teacher can elicit their own critical responses by asking whether they see troublesome subtext in the scene, based on their symbolic understanding of the back of the bus and close readings of both texts. Such discussion can also usefully connect to current events and provide context for students to understand the horrifying resurgence of white supremacist ideologies in today’s political landscape.

Such passages also illustrate the difficulty of considering Little Tree through the lens of Carter’s politics. Though he never publically repudiated his racist beliefs, the question of whether he carried such sentiments wholly unchanged into the “Forrest” period of his life is less easily answered. Anecdotal evidence exists of at least two instances after Carter assumed his new persona when he used racial epithets in public and voiced racist ideas (Rubin 79-80). In contrast, his editor at Delecorte Press, Eleanor Friede, responded to the revelation of Carter’s true identity by saying, “Oh, no. It couldn’t be the same guy. He’s such a sweet, gentle, fine man. He would never say a word about anybody because of the color of their skin. And I know he’s not anti-Semitic, because my husband and I are Jewish, and we’ve had him to dinner a number of times. And he’s always just as nice as he could be. It just couldn’t be the same man.” Additionally, Chuck Weeth, a bookstore owner who worked with Carter during Little Tree’s initial publication, said, “I guess it’s sort of that feeling that give a man a chance, he might change himself. And we felt like, well, he tried to change himself and he succeeded with us. I didn’t like Asa Carter, I’ll guarantee you. But I did like Forrest Carter” (“180 Degrees”). Clearly, something had changed about the man, but whether it was sincere or performative is unknowable. Because of this, asking students about possible repentance or ideological shift in Carter’s later life requires them to delve deeply into assigned texts, cultivating more complex literary analysis.

Such analysis might also provide teachers with an opportunity to connect a controversy that might seem distant and minor to their students with more current and well-known events. In the past several years, the idea of cultural appropriation and impersonation has found its way into news headlines on a regular basis, from the case of white former-NAACP activist Rachel Dolezal’s self-identification as an African-American woman to the current political headlines relating to senator and 2020 presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren’s disputed family history of American Indian descent. While each of these cases (including Carter’s) should be independently considered in the classroom, aspects of their discussion might usefully overlap. For example, does Elizabeth Warren’s explicit apology separate her from Carter’s lack of clear repentance? Does Dolezal’s direct involvement with NAACP differentiate her from Carter’s more nebulous use of his assumed identity? Such conversations not only promote deeper consideration of Little Tree, but also encourage the sorts of intertextual and multimedia explorations valued in nearly all state standards.

As Gina Caison writes in her excellent reconsideration of Little Tree, “The three most common claims regarding Little Tree have been that it 1. represents Carter’s atonement for his racist past; 2. hides a sinister narrative of white supremacy beneath a hopeful exterior of ‘Cherokee’ mythology; or 3. produces such positive valuations of good morals that these contradictory possibilities and the immorality of its author become irrelevant” (575). Asking students to evaluate these claims in light of anecdotal evidence from Carter’s acquaintances and comparisons of his subterfuge to other cases of cultural appropriation gets to the heart of how teachers should be equipping them to engage with literary texts, and illustrates perhaps the most educationally useful “promise” Little Tree can make for today’s classroom.

The Caveat of Context

For teachers interested in using Little Tree to engage these teaching possibilities, it is also important to acknowledge its pedagogical problems and the resulting cautions teachers should take in their classrooms. The most important of these caveats has already been acknowledged: if Little Tree is taught, it cannot be read as it was in the past, despite students’ natural engagement with its surface appeal. Full context must be provided and processed. Because of this, it seems unlikely that the book can be effectively taught in middle schools, where students are less intellectually equipped to engage in such weighty critical considerations, and its use is probably most appropriate in high school courses designed for advanced students. The novel’s rewards are worth pursuing, but only by mature and inquisitive readers supervised by pedagogically sophisticated teachers. The prose remains appealing, but this allure should be treated not as an end, but rather as a means for deeper textual exploration. In capable hands, the book’s earnest simplicity is an excellent conduit for subtextual and paratextual considerations of the novel, whereas works with denser prose often complicate such analysis for students. In other words, because Little Tree is an easy read, students can better scrutinize subsequent challenges to their initial perceptions.

If educators should not dismiss Little Tree, but should also guard against its misinterpretation and oversimplification, what teaching methods successfully thread this needle in the classroom? Because of Carter’s political backstory, Little Tree cannot exist in a vacuum, and its teaching should be accompanied by secondary readings such as Justice’s, Huhndorf’s, and Caison’s, as well as the additional pedagogical and moral questions their inclusion elicits. Is it more effective, for example, to let the students experience Little Tree as Carter intended and then confront them with criticisms (thereby forcing them to challenge their initial assumptions), or is it more useful to provide all information up front for an informed initial reading? Any teacher using Little Tree in the classroom should have pedagogically sound answers to such questions.

Michael Marker articulates another caveat when he suggests that Little Tree should be avoided because of its reliance on American Indian stereotypes (226). While his caution is warranted, it presupposes viewing the book explicitly as American Indian literature, which is clearly no longer acceptable. However, Little Tree can provide effective object lessons if coupled with legitimate Indian writings by authors such as Alexie, Leslie Marmon Silko, or Louise Erdrich, as well as many of the primary Indian texts included in literature textbooks. Such works not only expose students to legitimate American Indian writers, but can also facilitate comparisons between Indian self-identification and non-Indian perceptions of Indian life. For example, how might students view the generic “Cherokee Way” of Little Tree against the specific tribal beliefs explored in many of Erdrich’s stories? Such lessons foster critical analysis and address standards such as Common Core Reading Standard 9: “Analyze how two or more texts address similar themes or topics in order to build knowledge or to compare the approaches the authors take” (35). As mentioned before, representations of American Indian culture are too often either absent in English classrooms or viewed reductively. Bringing Little Tree into conversation with legitimate Indian literature can provide useful perspectives on how and why that happens.

Such intertextual contact introduces another caveat: while Little Tree can be taught as a standalone text, it is most pedagogically valuable in multitextual units. Whether used as a comparative tool in American Indian literature lessons or interdisciplinary units on the Civil Rights movement, it can provide unique counterpoints to other writings. Caison explores this interdisciplinarity by reframing Little Tree primarily as a Southern novel, explaining that “The text’s articulation of a Confederate Lost Cause ideology further connects it to larger trends in Southern literature, as does its appeal to an affective bond of Southern identity that is highly invested in a quasi-mystical attachment to the land” (574). Imagine a Southern literature unit that assigns Little Tree alongside works by William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor, illuminating perspectives on Carter’s writing and persona that are often downplayed when the book is approached as American Indian literature.

A final, critical caveat: teaching a text as contentious Little Tree requires a good deal of foresight and preparation by the teacher. Understanding the nuances of the text and its author is important, but making them clear to students is crucial. It would be unwise for teachers to bring the novel into their classrooms without first consulting administrators and contacting parents to make their intentions clear and providing the necessary context for a successful unit of study, and those interested in guidance on initiating such actions are encouraged to consult the National Council of Teachers of English position statement, “The Students’ Right to Read.

Even more critically, teachers who choose to study Little Tree in their classrooms should explore resources and engagement opportunities provided by American Indian tribes, organizations, and scholars. Non-Indian teachers, however well-intentioned, must avoid the temptation to speak in an uninformed or underinformed manner about, or on behalf of, tribal members generally and those in the Cherokee Nation specifically. Most active tribes, including the Cherokee, offer educational literature and outreach programs through their websites and governmental offices, and a number of American Indian scholars, including several listed in the Works Cited page of this essay, have written extensively on the topic of Indian representation in culture, literature, and classrooms. No educator should undertake the formidable task of teaching Little Treewithout first utilizing such resources.

Little Tree as Teachable Moment

Given these cautions, any discussion of Asa Carter and Little Tree in the 21st century classroom begs a central question: why teach this troublesome book at all when there are so many better ones? There are more answers to the question than this article provides, but two seem particularly relevant. First, Little Tree is already included in many classrooms, where it is often taught with ignorance of its author. While it is possible to simply ask teachers to remove the book from their classrooms, such a request runs contrary to the aforementioned NCTE missive, which states that “[i]n selecting books for reading by young people, English teachers consider the contribution which each work may make to the education of the reader, its aesthetic value, its honesty, its readability for a particular group of students, and its appeal to adolescents. English teachers, however, may use different works for different purposes” (National Council; emphasis added). If such freedom is leavened with an earnest sense of responsible purpose, adjusting how the book is taught offers more benefit than simply decreeing that it shouldn’t be taught. This approach will more profoundly transform the book’s use over time, both revealing the full truth of Carter and his novel in a structured environment and educating students on key historical and contemporary issues in social justice. A corollary to these methods is that, when approached thoughtfully, Little Tree provides unique teaching opportunities that are difficult to find elsewhere, helping students engage a comprehensible text in complicated literary and cultural analysis.

Ultimately, secondary teachers should explore ways to reshape their use of Little Tree, shining a light on its blemishes, controversies, and authorial shame while also asking hard questions about its content and themes. It rewards careful study in ways it could not have when published forty years ago, and it should be both criticized thoroughly and recognized as the work of a talented and immensely flawed writer. In important ways, and especially in secondary classrooms, Little Tree faintly echoes Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice: both are the product of gifted but intolerant writers, offering substance, thoughtfulness, and deception. Just as the anti-Semitism of Shakespeare’s play forever bars it from being mentioned in the same breath as Hamlet or Macbeth, so Little Tree can never be the classic critics once suggested. Its innate contradictions and puzzles, however, alongside its engaging, lucid prose provide useful and unique pedagogical tools for English teachers. As Caison writes, “we should take the worst parts of our history out of the basement. Not because we want to celebrate them, but because we want to move forward—honestly and legitimately” (593). Few books provide this opportunity as fully as The Education of Little Tree.

 

Works Cited

“180 Degrees.” This American Life. National Public Radio, WBEZ, Chicago, 13 Jun. 2014.

Browder, Laura. Slippery Characters: Ethnic Impersonators and American Identities. U of North Carolina P, 2000.

Caison, Gina. “Claiming the Unclaimable: Forrest Carter, The Education of Little Tree, and Land Claim in the Native South.” The Mississippi Quarterly, vol. 6, no. 3/4, 2011, pp. 573–95.

Carter, Dan T. “The Transformation of a Klansman.” New York Times, 4 October 1991, p. A31.

Carter, Forrest. The Education of Little Tree. U of New Mexico P, 1991.

Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. “‘Authenticity,’ or the Lesson of Little Tree.” New York Times Book Review, 24 November 1991, p. 26.

Huhndorf, Shari M. Going Native: Indians in the American Cultural Imagination. Cornell UP, 2001.

Indiana Department of Education. Indiana Academic Standards. Authors, 2014.

Justice, Daniel Heath. “A Lingering Miseducation: Confronting the Legacy of Little Tree.”Studies in American Indian Literature, vol. 12, no. 1, 2000, pp. 20-36.

Marker, Michael. “The Education of Little Tree: What It Really Reveals about the Public Schools.” Phi Delta Kappan, vol. 74, no. 3, 1992, p. 226.

National Council of Teachers of English. “A Students’ Right to Read.” 1981, http://www.ncte.org/positions/statements/righttoreadguideline. Accessed 30 June 2017.

National Governors Association Center for Best Practices & Council of Chief State School Officers. Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts & Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects.Authors, 2010.

“Oprah Winfrey Spurns Racist’s Book.” New York Times on the Web, 8 November 2007, http://www.nytimes.com/2007/11/08/arts/television/08arts-OPRAHWINFREY_BRF.html. Accessed 30 June 2017.

Reuter, M. “‘Education of Little Tree’ Wins Booksellers’ First ABBY Award.” Publisher’s Weekly, 10 March 1991, p. 2.

Rubin, Dana. “The Real Education of Little Tree.” Texas Monthly, February 1992, pp. 78+.

Strickland, Rennard. Foreword. The Education of Little Tree, by Forrest Carter, U of New Mexico P, 1991, pp. v-vi.

Internalizing the Message

By Kay J. Walter

I had a few extra minutes that day when I entered the classroom in which I was teaching composition to second-semester freshmen at my university. I teach at the University of Arkansas at Monticello, a public university in rural Arkansas attended mostly by first-generation students of higher education. I try to start each of my classes promptly, but I was early, and lots of my students were already there, each absorbed in a virtual world deep inside a smartphone. I covet their attention at times like this. I want them to begin shepherding their thoughts toward one another, our class, and me rather than careening recklessly from one website image to another.

To begin collecting them and their thoughts, I wrote a URL on the chalkboard. They are conditioned to virtual tasks and they quickly took the hint. Almost immediately they started finding their way to it. “What do you see?” I asked them. “You,” they replied, delighted with sure knowledge of a correct response, and they began reading the blog post intently. I had committed the novice error of distracting them when I needed their attention. I had their attention now but not on the lesson I had planned. “Monitor and adapt,” I heard a teacher’s voice in my head remind me.

I had planned to discuss “Graduation” by Maya Angelou, which I had assigned as reading homework from their textbook. I like to teach the Angelou text because it provides opportunities to point out the value of human potential, which the graduation speaker overlooks in the story. When Mr. Donleavy has the opportunity to talk to a rapt audience celebrating the achievement of local twelve-year-olds, he instead spends his time bragging of kindnesses he has done to benefit others. His talk amounts only to a campaign speech and ignores the real concerns and needs of his listeners. His attitude entirely dismisses the children who hear him, and his tone inspires only reluctant support.  Audience members no doubt recognized that his opposition for political office had nothing to offer them, not even the time and attention necessary to appear at their ceremony and orate in distracted words about someone else.

In a typical lesson on Angelou, I would discuss the responsibility adults have for encouraging all children and helping them optimize their potential because some of them may grow up to be famous writers who will tell stories of their childhood experiences. I like to say, “It matters how I treat each of you because one of you may go on to tell stories about me.” This lesson works especially well at my university because the story is set in southern Arkansas, not far from us, and the students understand the cultural implications intuitively. I take particular delight in pointing out that our university gets mentioned by a former name in this story and recount for them a history of our institution. Oh, I had big plans for lecturing that day, but teachable moments arise without warning, and spontaneous reaction is necessary to optimize learning. I could save Angelou for another day, but I couldn’t skip the lesson. In order to begin class, I had to redirect them, but it goes against my better judgement to disturb students when they want to read. So I decided we would read together—aloud, taking turns, finding our way through difficult pronunciations, unfamiliar words, and sinuous syntax. In this case, perhaps one text would be nearly as good as another in serving the reading lesson.

They seemed absorbed by the blog post, and their interest is always productive to learning because a need to know precedes long-term storage of information. When they have a problem to solve, they can exercise critical thinking skills and remember what they discover. As the school where I teach is my alma mater, I can sometimes think in harmony with them. We paused mid-thought to discuss implications. We read about the need to support teachers of color and considered why it is important for children to learn from them. We recalled teachers who had taught us about diversity and how their lessons helped prepare us for college experiences. We wondered as we went along. We considered why a family might move from Alaska to Arkansas and imagined the culture shock a child might undergo as a result.

We puzzled over the idea of preservice teachers and thought about the ways in which teachers are servants. We thought about the literacy experiences newborns and toddlers can have and reflected on our own and their influence on our successes in school. We considered the idea of lifelong learning and its implications for life beyond commencement. They wondered what they would want to study after graduation and imagined themselves in graduate school or taking lessons in fields of study beyond their majors. We talked about the elders in our families and the wisdom they embody. We envisioned ourselves as octogenarians with a variety of interests and expertise to share with our progeny. We thought about the challenges of being non-traditional learners and remembered the people in our lives who say “I wish I had gone to college.” We discussed the reasons why they don’t go to college now.

Perhaps most importantly, we discussed why it is important to be active participants in our own educations, what behaviors demonstrate our active learning to others, and how active learning can enhance educational experiences. We changed readers often, but I did not read to them. I let them read to one another. We soon found that I had outstretched their vocabularies. “Matrilineal,” I prompted—a mouthful. I said it three times “Matrilineal. Matrilineal. Matrilineal,” and they repeated it after me three times. Three is the magic number in writing—three points in an overt thesis statement, three multi-paragraph areas of support in a strong essay. A word repeated three times becomes familiar, but that does not provide meaning.

Reading aloud is hard work for the inexperienced. My students come from a literacy-poor culture. Their worlds have an impoverishment of aspiration and a paucity of encouragement to read. John Ruskin says, “The main thing which we ought to teach our youth is to see something, all that the eyes which God has given them are capable of seeing” (VI.483). They have been taught to read—to recognize high-use vocabulary and to sound out exotic words rapidly, to devour pages whole, at a glance, never pausing to rest their eyes upon and delight in the nuances of prose at play. They are good at looking, but too often they do not see. What Ruskin tells us about talking is true in their reading: “Hundreds of people can talk for one who can think, but thousands can think for one who can see” (V.333). I wrote unfamiliar words on the chalkboard under the URL and showed them the keys to unlocking meaning for themselves.

In “matrilineal,” I underlined the letters L-I-N-E. I put square brackets around the initial [MA] to help them see. I watched them smile as understanding dawned. “Your mama’s side,” they nodded. It was a bright moment. They could see what I’ve been telling them about words having families—mother, mama, matrilineal. We paused to learn patrilineal too, just for fun. We were linguists! We were wordsmiths! We were poets! After a few new words, my students saw the efficacy of making a list of unfamiliar words we wanted to master. Problem solvers! We were cheerfully at work, relishing the textures and sounds and tastes of new words. We were children with toys—taking words in with our ears and our mouths as well as our eyes. We had read, closely and thoroughly—an accomplishment surely, but these are college students, so mere reading wasn’t the entire lesson.

“What did we learn?” I asked them. Besides the new words and the idea that Arkansas is encouraging diversity, “How will you internalize the message?” I understand that they can read for comprehension. These are successful college students, the ones who didn’t flunk out the first semester. Like Faulkner’s victors, they endured. We have fast hold on the meaning. But what about the message? Understanding ideas doesn’t help much unless you can act upon them. An internalized message changes something about the reader’s ideas, beliefs, or behaviors. Reading matters most when it makes a difference. If they are enlightened, they have a light to share. Envisioning a means for sharing is the purpose of reading.

This took considerable thought, but eventually my students were able to vocalize ideas they were forming. There are children in their families whom they want to teach, to spend time with, to share ideas with, just as the teachers they read about are doing. These children can get excited about learning new things, and my students can become their mentors, helping them see just as the teachers we read about are mentoring the little ones in their lives. My students expressed the desire to learn their own fields of study so well that they too can be excited about having knowledge to pass along. They wanted to be passionate about their studies in the way that the teachers I wrote about in the blog post are passionate about their work. They want to have something of value to share with others just as those teachers do.

Learning is enlightenment, and enlightenment is joyous, but learning also brings responsibility. We must use the wisdom we gain for good, sharing the light we have with others lest we all stumble in darkness. It gave me pause when my students asked me, “Is learning always good? Isn’t it bad to learn to use drugs?” I had questions for them in response: Certainly recreational abuse of drugs is bad, but is it ever bad to LEARN? Is there a way to use even this learning for good? If I learn the process for cooking meth and use that acquired knowledge not to cook meth myself but to recognize when a family in my neighborhood is doing so, and if I act upon the responsibility which comes with my new knowledge to save the children of that family from an environment in which cooking meth is a customary way of life, does that redeem my learning? Does it make the learning good? We learned that complicated ideas have no easy answers, but education gives us the ability to consider their implications for ourselves.

Education comes with the responsibility to enlighten others, and good multiplies the potential for good. Ignoring these responsibilities is wickedness. Our duty as educated and enlightened teachers is to find a way to make the wisdom we have gained, the accumulated facts we have mastered, the knowledge we have acquired, into actions which promote good. We must better the lives of others if we want a better life. We must all progress together if we want a better world. What we choose to read matters greatly. When we read something beneath our capacity—intellectually, morally, or emotionally—we miss an opportunity for growth. We limit our light and our opportunity to share. We fail to learn. Most of the textbooks for university students are now written at the seventh-grade reading level, and students struggle through canonical novels which were once considered junior high entertainment. We limit their ability to read complex texts by providing information at a reading level they have already mastered.

Complex texts challenge our understanding and teach us the joy of development, and this is always good. But whenever we read something excellent and challenging, our reading shapes our lives. Comprehension is necessary to learning, but the way we internalize the message will predict the world we live in. Our actions publicly reveal the light we have to share, and making my classroom glow frequently is my duty as a teacher. How far the glow can spread is up to my students. A classroom filled with internalized light glowed brightly in my presence that day.

 

Works Cited

Ruskin, John. The Library Edition of the Works of John Ruskin. Edited by E. T. Cook and A. Wedderburn, George Allen, 1903-1912, London.

The Same School Year: Narratives of Early- and Middle-Career Teachers in a U.S. Public School

By Lisa M. Dembouski & Kari Eloranta

At the Start of the Year

Kari:

I thought I was ready. Student teaching had been everything I’d dreamed it would be. I’d spent countless hours studying, training, and volunteering to be just the kind of teacher I had hoped to be. My teaching program prepped me with content and pedagogy and everything else I’d need. When I landed my first teaching job, I felt ready.

No one had described the butterflies I’d feel as I entered that room on day one. I’d arranged the desks in little collaborative pods and projected the seating chart on the wall. I had the Pandora Station “Pop Music” playing as the students came in.

They giggled nervously, seeing a young new teacher listening to “their music.” Many approached me right away and I started to feel good about the morning. The bell rang and I introduced myself and asked students to find their seats. I left the music on as they wandered around.

Fast forward to present day: I’m in my sixth year of teaching, and I made it to the semi-finals as 2018 Minnesota Teacher of the Year. I can honestly, unreservedly say I love my work and being a teacher. But if you had asked me two months into that first year if I liked my job, I would’ve lied and said I did. If you’d asked me halfway through it, I would’ve cried. And if you had asked again right before the end of third quarter, I would’ve told you I quit.

Lisa:

I returned to the classroom in the same school year, having spent the previous three in middle management hell as a TOSA—Teacher on Special Assignment—for my district. TOSA-ing, I’d thought, would be a delightful career move, an opportunity to apply my newly-earned Ph.D., and the chance to make a positive impact on a wider range of people. It actually just made me miserable. The TOSA role meant I spent most of my time with adults, with whom there is far less laughter and joy in one’s day-to-day. I was unprepared for the troubling and difficult challenges the grown-ups’ issues presented. And I was stuck in a position of having no power to actually effect any change, though the people I worked for believed I had such power. Only those at administrative levels above me could actually change anything, yet I was consistently expected to be someone who could. Or should.

So when I saw the opportunity to quit the TOSA position and return to the classroom, and to the same building in which I had already spent the majority of my teaching career, I seized it. This was an unexpected move that had its own negative repercussions, but I didn’t care: anything had to be better than what I’d just gone through.

“At last,” I thought with relief, “I can get back to my roots, do the work I know best, spend more time with kids, laugh again.” I felt positive and confident, eager to return to the familiar. It was going to be a great year.

Kari and Lisa:

We first met in a foundational class for teacher candidates that Lisa instructed as an adjunct for Kari’s teacher preparation program. We met again a year or so later when Kari took her first teaching job out of graduate school in the same district—and the same school—Lisa had taught in for most of her career up to that point. As it turned out, we even ended up across the hall from one another. Though we were literally just steps away, our paths rarely crossed, since we taught different students, subjects, and grade levels in that building.

Ours was a combined middle and high school in a large Minnesota city. The school district served nearly 40,000 students that year, and our building had over 1,000 of those. As urban schools go, it wasn’t that badly off. Paint and carpeting were added as our Principal could spare the funds, many of us had high-quality technology in our classrooms, and though it wasn’t perfect, it compared satisfactorily to other schools in the district and even around the state.

Nevertheless, we both left that school and district that academic year. We remained in touch in other ways, including co-authoring a book chapter about Kari’s preparation program (as yet unpublished, though the project is still in progress). In our collaboration, and as Kari shared more of her stories, Lisa recognized how instructional, emotionally engaging, and funny they were; it was refreshing to see this familiar school and district through the eyes of someone new. At the same time, it was difficult, extremely difficult, to read what Kari was enduring so silently there across the hall, to have had no idea what Kari was experiencing, and to have learned it well after the fact, after we both had left that district for other teaching ventures.

Now, Lisa finds the isolation and separation both shocking and unacceptable; she feels shame she did not recognize what Kari was going through—didn’t know she should reach out and offer support. Kari acknowledges she “felt bad” asking for anything from veteran teachers, who she could see were also swamped and struggling. At the time, immersed in the culture and chaos of the school, the fact that we rarely interacted with a known colleague teaching right across the hall didn’t seem all that strange.

We don’t often read stories of what happens to different teachers in the same school, during the same year, but during different stages of an educator’s career. We offer these glimpses into our 2013-14 academic year both to entertain and to instruct: how can we improve the quality of professional life for teachers in both their first and fifteenth years in the classroom, and what might have happened that would have kept us teaching there?

Improving Teacher Quality of Life, One Field Trip at a Time … or Not

Kari:

If there is any story I can tell that best epitomizes my first year of teaching, and embodies the reasons I left before the end of the school year, it’s this one about our all-school field trip.

Eighth graders are not what I expected; they can turn on you at any moment. Yes, they like and respect you, but they may also need to prove something to a peer or do something totally wild to gain respect. Those needs are more powerful than any relationship I had built so far. This understanding was cemented for me on an all-school field trip during the second week of school. Each grade headed somewhere different, and my eighth grade team was assigned to the zoo. As a first-year teacher, I was nervous and wondered how it would go. I didn’t know my students well enough to know how they’d act outside the school, but if my first week was any indication, it didn’t seem like it could go well. I tried to squelch my fears, trusting that this was what the building always did in the second week of school, and it would go fine. So, with my advisory class list in hand, we headed out to the bus.

We were only an hour into the field trip when zoo security asked all staff to make sure every eighth grader had an adult next to them. They were no longer allowed to walk around the zoo unattended. My group was surprised; what could their peers have done? We had been having such a great time! I walked around and found more eighth graders and welcomed them to my group. The students I started out with were helpful, pointing out other eighth graders that didn’t have an adult walking with them. I approached those students and asked them to join our posse, which was then about twenty students. Some wanted to stop and get ice cream. Some wanted to sit down. Most of them whined about the walking. I had to tell them to keep moving as one unit until we found another teacher. I found some of the kids who were in trouble for throwing food in the monkey cages. They weren’t throwing food for the monkeys to eat, but throwing food at the monkeys. The group was getting larger and more difficult to manage.

Seriously, why couldn’t I find another teacher?

I felt a tap on my shoulder.  “Ms. E., I don’t feel too good.”

“What do you mean? Are you dizzy, hungry—”

Before I could finish my question, I saw Harmony (pseudonym) start to flutter her eyes and fall backwards. I tried to stop her fall, but she had fifty pounds on me, and we both went crashing to the ground. My posse of eighth graders started to panic. I yelled to one of them to go get another adult.

I tapped her on the shoulder. “Harmony, can you hear me? Are you OK?”

Nothing.

Shit. Was I going to have to administer CPR?

“Harmony, let me know if you’re ok, otherwise I’m going to feel for your pulse.”

Maybe that will let her know, if she is just faking it, that I am very serious.

Still nothing. I started to feel for a pulse.

Thank god, I can feel it. But, what the hell do I do now? Why couldn’t I remember my CPR training? What do you do if a student collapses to the ground and has a pulse? And where was another adult?

I heard breath coming out of her lips, but she was still not answering me.

Finally, I saw the zoo First Aid Responder come running. I have never been so relieved in my life. I told him everything I knew. When he asked for her last name, I felt really dumb that I didn’t know. This was just another reason why we shouldn’t take a field trip on the ninth day of school. There were about 200 eighth graders on that trip. I saw about 170 of them in my classes. At that point, I was proud to have their first names down!

I ran over to my students and asked if any of them knew Harmony’s last name.

No one did.

Finally, another teacher showed up and I explained the situation again. He didn’t know her last name either. Thankfully, he did have important numbers in his phone like the school’s number and the teacher’s number who had Harmony in her advisory. He started making phone calls. After that day, I would buy a smartphone.

The ambulance arrived and Harmony still had not stirred.

They loaded her up on the stretcher. By then, about 100 eighth graders were watching. The only useful thing I did at that point was remind them to back up and give the EMTs some space.

The EMTs had some questions that were directed at me. I had to explain the situation again. I was so embarrassed that I tried to catch her and failed. Somehow the fact that I also fell didn’t justify that I didn’t catch her. The EMT tried to make me feel better by saying they don’t think she hit her head because her backpack was on and I helped slow her fall. Thank goodness.

The other teacher called the office and informed them that Harmony was being rushed to the hospital, and to tell her parents to meet her there. The EMTs needed to know whether we had a policy about a teacher needing to ride in the ambulance with a student. We had no idea. We called the school again. We did not have that kind of policy, so they rushed off to the hospital.

We gathered the rest of our students. There were still many kids wandering in the zoo who had no idea what was happening. A few teachers thought we should load the bus forty minutes early and head back to school after the incident of throwing food at the monkeys and now this. Almost all of our students were ready to go anyway. I rushed back into the zoo to make sure the other groups knew we were about to leave.

I started to count my students; I only had 25 of my 30. A couple other teachers were missing students as well. We even had a few teachers missing.

Another teacher ran back into the zoo. Apparently, a group of my students were playing in the elevator in the zoo lobby and got it stuck. Could the day get any worse?

Everyone was pissed. It was hot out. The zoo was “boring” and they knew they were in trouble. The ride back to school was silent.

We arrived with fifteen minutes left in the school day. My students told me that the administration would probably never let them go on a field trip again. I couldn’t disagree. The bell rang and I had never been so happy for a weekend in my life.

It was only my second week of teaching.

Lisa:

My experience of those all-school field trips is so different from Kari’s I can barely breathe. Their purpose was to highlight the school’s newer “environmental” focus. Because we served so many grades (six through twelve) and had such large classes, multiple field trips were dispatched to a variety of “environmental in some way” destinations. I didn’t really care which trip I took; I just knew how eager I was to get out of my classroom, a small one in the middle of the building with no windows and an average daily temperature of 88ºF that fall. Chewing gum melted in there, so I was looking forward to cool respite, courtesy of the environment.

Somehow I drew the long field trips straw and got to cruise a local waterway on a paddleboat with the senior class. I spent that day in breezy, seated comfort, taking multiple photos of scenic beauty, floating lazily down the river on a gorgeous autumn Friday. I was with students who by now totally knew how to do school and therefore had no conduct issues—who were, in fact, a delight to talk to as the day passed in easy fun. “They pay us to be here!” I exclaimed gleefully to my fellow educators on board. “What a wonderful day to be a teacher!”

By now I’ve read Kari’s zoo story over two dozen times, and on every reading, I see something new, something to question, problems to resolve with the comfort and ease of hindsight. Her story perfectly captures what that school culture always felt like—though it had been invisible to me, so I could never articulate as well as Kari does—and it tells me a great deal about the questions we asked earlier that frame our narratives here: what could have enhanced the professional quality of our lives on this field trip day, and what might have kept us teaching there?

Kari and Lisa:

Kari still thinks of that day with horror anytime someone says the word “zoo,” and probably will for the rest of her life. Lisa genuinely wonders whether the residual effects of traumatic teaching experiences like this could be something teachers carry with them forever. Thankfully, in her more recent years of teaching, Kari has not chaperoned a trip quite like it. She now realizes that that particular field trip was a bizarre and unusual occurrence.

We both agree that, nine days into the school year, Kari should never have been left to handle a large group of unfamiliar eighth graders on her own. Support in the form of veteran adults who knew the students should have been a given for any teacher new to the school (not just those new to teaching) that day.

Underlying this, and most everything in our stories (particularly Kari’s), is something we see all the time: teachers constantly thrown into untenable situations and expected to swim; sinking is not an option. They are given the loud and clear message that they are professional adults, entrusted with the care of children, and therefore must be responsible people—which, of course, they are. But why, particularly in the induction years, do we not also remember how much we relied on mentors in the early stages of our own careers? How we appreciated when someone understood and foresaw our challenges and provided support without our having to ask (because we didn’t yet know what would challenge us, did not realize what we didn’t already know, so therefore had no idea what to ask)? Why don’t we send them into the waters of their new profession with a co-captain and reliable ways to stay afloat?

What Ultimately Led to Our Leaving

Kari:

There were several things we didn’t cover in my teaching program—things that, as a new educator, I had to learn by living them. One such topic was a teacher’s prep hour. In my entire first year of teaching, I’m not sure I actually planned a single lesson during my prep hour. The first quarter of the year, I shared my room with the French teacher. So on my prep, I had to leave; I spent a lot of time organizing bins of papers to grade in a colleague’s room. I climbed a flight of stairs every day with those bins, praying I wouldn’t drop anything. Huge chunks of my time were spent just trying to decide which papers should go into which bins, and which I’d need for the big trek that hour.

Thankfully, by second quarter, I had my room back and could use my full prep hour, but I still didn’t manage to prep lessons. Instead, I spent more time cleaning my room after the day’s activities, or chasing down students who were so loud in the hall I couldn’t focus. Seriously, why were there so many kids in the hallway?

It seemed that the administration had bigger problems to worry about than why none of the kids were in class. And so, by week two of me asking where all these kids were supposed to be that hour, I devised a plan and informed them, “Any student left in the hallway in the next minute will be cleaning desks in my room.”

A few scattered back to their classes, but the majority wrongly thought that cleaning desks in the new teacher’s room would be fun. We got real cleaning supplies from the janitor’s closet. Every last piece of “Fuck you,” “Fuck this class,” “THOT,” and “Princess was here” was removed. The fumes were getting a little strong. Sadly, they joked about getting high. One student told me he wished he had gone to class on time, instead of this. I told him the best part: you still get to go to class.

Why was it that I, Ms. First Year Teacher, was the one who organized this plan of getting students out of the hallway? It seemed to work better than any phone call home or write-up ever did.

Once that problem was “solved,” I still managed to find something other than my lessons to work on during my prep hour. I started to use the time to connect with students who were at in-school suspension (ISS), making an affirming connection with them so they could get back on track in my class. I decided that I’d find a student who was in ISS and we’d apologize to each other for this morning when she swore at me and I kicked her out (a school policy I should’ve ignored), and then I’d make a positive call home. Great idea in theory, and I do thank my teaching program for that. I really believe it would’ve been a great moment if she had been in ISS. But, when I arrived at the room, she was not there.

I went to the office to let them know Tanya (pseudonym) was not in ISS.

“Are you sure?”

“Yes, I just checked.”

“Well, it says she was sent there 2nd hour.”

“Yes, I know. I was the teacher who sent her there 2nd hour.”

“Well, where is she?”

Deep breath. “That’s what I was wondering.”

I was directed to the IEP room. I’m not sure the secretary understood that the IEP room was for students on an IEP, which Tanya was not. But I went to check, and she was not there either. I reported back to the office and saw the usual ISS teacher. He had been in a meeting and there’d been a sub in ISS, which explained how Tanya disappeared.

Thankfully, he seemed to care just as much as I did that a student was gone. We joined forces and went to look for the missing Tanya.

The end of the school day quickly arrived, and I had just spent my entire prep hour looking for a student no one knew was missing. Right as the bell rang, we saw Tanya emerge with her friends. I called out her name and she turned her head back. After she saw me, she ran away. Literally ran down the hall. I looked at the ISS teacher. He only said, “Well, looks like that phone call home isn’t going to be a good one anymore.”

This moment stands out as one of the reasons I left this school. I felt like I cared too much. I don’t mean this in an “I’m good at everything, I just care too much” way. I just got so worked up about things other teachers had managed to put up blinders to. I cared so much that I’d spend a whole prep hour searching for a student who didn’t want to be found, and who knew no one else was looking for her. I think I could’ve survived the year had I kept to myself and just planned my lessons on my prep. But, as my teaching program taught me, simply planning your lessons is not what makes a good teacher. To be the kind of teacher I was trained (and wanted) to be meant connecting with students would always come before lesson planning; that’s what makes a good teacher.

Lisa:

I never used my prep hour to actually prep, either. Something more urgent always took precedence over teaching’s essential work like lesson planning. Often these related to following up on student issues or misbehaviors, as Kari describes above. There were always emails to answer, new (and, generally, reactive rather than proactive) building or district initiatives to be learned and implemented, and endless paperwork required of me as a SpEd teacher/IEP manager.

I also spent a good deal of time trying to convince my administrators that my teaching load was not making the best use of my training or experience. In an eight-period schedule, where one period was my prep, I taught a single class that actually utilized my knowledge and skills as an educator. The other six class periods were a mix of things, but the most galling was that I spent two of them commandeering the IEP room Kari mentioned above, which means I spent 90 minutes every day supervising kids with IEPs who were sent to the room because they weren’t meeting expectations in the class they were scheduled for that hour. The room was usually empty, too; in those days kids were rarely sent there. Now that I think back on it, I got more prep, grading, and paperwork done in those excruciatingly long and boring minutes every day than I ever did on my assigned prep.

As the year went on, and my pleas to actually be given classes to teach continued to be ignored, I realized that TOSA work wasn’t the only thing making me unhappy in that district. Rather, it was the impossible, demoralizing, and disempowering circumstances in which we were expected to work. Why wasn’t anyone listening to me? Why didn’t anyone care that I, an over-educated, mid-career teacher with 15 years of classroom experience, was languishing, sitting alone in an empty room for a large part of her day?

I finally acknowledged this was not what I had bargained for when I signed on as a teacher. My beloved job had been wrenched from my hands and mangled into something I no longer recognized. I also had to accept this truth: I was leaving that school and district at the end of the year. I actually had enough sick days accrued that I could have left sometime in January. I still don’t know why I didn’t just cash them in and walk away. I somehow felt a loyalty and a responsibility to my students that no one else even cared that I had. I could have saved myself so many sleepless nights, though, so many unpleasant thoughts and experiences, so many dreams of doing something—anything—except this.

When I realized that no one was going to change my situation in that building, I promised myself that, doctorate be damned, I’d rather open a tiki bar on a beach someplace than deal with this shit anymore. I was that burned out, that overcome. As comforting and restful as “tiki bar on a beach” may sound, I still knew it was not the best fit for me and my strengths, would not make a difference in this world that I so want to contribute to in positive ways.

My light at the end of the tunnel came in the form of the opportunity I am now in. By the end of that school year, somehow, all the planets aligned to bring me into my current role—teacher educator at a small liberal arts college—which I thoroughly enjoy. I do this new work in a community I love, and in systems and circumstances that more often than not include me when decisions are made about my professional work and expectations. I won’t lie to you, though: this new gig is still fraught with guilt, particularly my worry that I’m simply preparing lambs for slaughter as I train and send new teachers out into the world. I know the world I’m sending them into, because I left it the second I had the chance.

What Would Have Kept Us There

Kari:

I am so thankful now to be part of a district and building that is more able to support teachers. In my first year at my next school, I had an official mentor teacher. Her job on every Wednesday was to be available to all teachers, specifically new teachers. She was there to watch my class if I needed to run to the bathroom, make more copies when the printer was broken, and, best of all, just listen to me on my prep hour and talk through ideas I had for my students and lessons. More importantly, I also consider my principal a mentor. I know she is there for me, to support me in any way I need, which is an amazing feeling I wish all teachers could experience.

Now, I am able use my prep hour to plan lessons and grade assignments. Our building has enough staff that teachers aren’t responsible for hall monitoring, lunch duties, and any other issue that pops up. I know that my job is to teach students, and I don’t feel that I’m spread too thin.

Lisa:

Nothing. Nothing would have kept me there. It was tiki bar or bust.

I’ll admit that the (significant) pay cut moving to my new job has been a challenge, and I do miss working with younger students sometimes. However, I am so much happier and feel much more professionally rewarded now. I know I made the right decision; this move was a good one for me.

Kari and Lisa:

In the stories and comparisons above, we made several points critical to our experiences teaching in that school and juxtaposing those with what we’re doing now. We tried to illustrate what would have felt more supportive to us and our work, what might have kept us there. We parse out our key ideas more deliberately in the next sections.

What Would Have Made Things Better

The Right Kind of Mentoring

We both believe that a more consistent, responsive, and accessible mentor would have made a world of difference for Kari that year. Her official mentor was a representative in the district with whom Kari had to schedule time to meet. Kari would rather have had someone in the building who could come in to her room before, during, and after school, unannounced, and not have to arrange a time that worked with busy schedules to swing by and help with a problem that had likely turned into a different problem by the time they could meet.

Kari’s unofficial mentors were teachers she got to know and like, but if she asked them to help (and often she didn’t, because she could see it wasn’t just first-year teachers struggling), more often than not their response was the unhelpful, “You’re doing great, just keep going, it’s a tough job!” Resources, including the precious resource of trained and effective colleague and administrator time, must be a regular part of a student-centered/teacher-supportive school.

Realistic and Reliable Structures That Permit Teachers to Focus on Essential Tasks

We understand that teacher prep time, as well as the other, seemingly-infinite duties of the profession, are simply a part of one’s work, and that all jobs have these. We acknowledge the support that was there for us to do those tasks, in the form of allocated non-student-contact time built into our schedules each week.

Nevertheless, the time there for us “on paper” rarely translated to reality. Instead, that time was regularly on-contact with students—like chasing down a kid who wasn’t where she was supposed to be—and did not serve us for planning or other tasks essential to the actual pedagogical work we were there to do. The focus of teaching and learning was almost always subsumed into a much less urgent place in our daily hierarchies, and planning was usually something done on our own time, at home, on evenings, weekends, and even holidays.

We advocate that the focus of teachers’ school and work time be first and foremost on those essential teaching tasks. Relegate the extraneous, time-consuming demands that are unrelated to our work as professional pedagogues to a much lower and less important rung on our attention ladder, and let us use the school day for what we’re there to do: teach. While we’re at it, let us also devote our work day to the guts of good teaching: lesson planning and delivery, classroom management strategy development, relationship-building, providing effective feedback to students to support their learning, devising ways to better reach struggling learners, building our repertoires of inclusive teaching practices, and allowing us as educators to focus on why we’re there: to connect with students, facilitate their learning, and impart academic content to them.

Teacher Voice and Agency

We also craved a voice: the chance to see people trust our professional judgment, listen to our ideas for solutions to ongoing challenges, and utilize our strengths. It still baffles us that teaching is one of the few professions that is legislated and administered by everyone except teachers. Unquestionably, Lisa’s time was wasted supervising that IEP room, which these days is staffed by a paraprofessional—an aggravating fact given that Lisa had championed that exact change back when she was begging to be given students and classes to teach.

In the End

We could be here all day. Kari, in particular, has such vivid, descriptive memories and stories of her time in that school that she could simultaneously entertain and horrify you for hours. We imagine that this could be said for most teachers. We know what it’s like out there, day in and day out. We know the contexts in which we are expected to teach and how rarely those are determined by actual educatorsWe’ve had the joyous experiences, and the ones that pushed us beyond our limits or left us with scars that won’t ever fully heal. In the end, the outrageous challenges dominated, and we moved.

We didn’t go far, however, and we both currently find our career trajectories in education enormously fulfilling and, for the most part, positive. We feel healthy and stronger because of our trials by fire. We also know this: teachers should be allocated more time, more resources (human and otherwise), and more trust than they are given currently. We, as professionals, should be granted far more power and leadership opportunities that impact our careers and the teaching profession overall. We should be making the decisions that influence our work, because we understand the issues and have legitimate solutions that, if heard and implemented, would probably work. We need that chance, the opportunity to—at last!—be in charge of our own field, and to lead our profession into the future with the knowledge, expertise, and talents we all possess. The time is long overdue: teaching should belong to teachers.

Minding the Body: Towards a Pedagogy of Enactment

By Catherine Fox

Although unable to theorize it at the time, I dropped out of college when I was nineteen because the disconnect had become intolerable. To be a disembodied mind, taking in the “knowledge” of the professor and regurgitating it in the form of papers and exams, was severing me from the interconnectivity that, I now believe, is essential to a purposeful life. Driven by a passion to teach, I eventually found my way back to credentialed education, and like many in alternative educational circles, I have spent the better part of my career as an academic resisting the expectation that both professors and students be disembodied minds, talking heads divorced from our physical bodies as we engage in meaning-making processes.

It has become common within Composition Studies to situate discourse as embodied; however, actual bodies and their relationship to learning in general, and literacy practices in particular, are often curiously absent from these discussions.[1] As Kristie Fleckenstein argues, “[B]odies as sites of and participants in meaning-making have been elided” (“Writing Bodies” 281). Severing connection to our bodies and yet expecting fully engaged teachers and learners is one of the more egregious failures of higher education. Moved by my own battle with disconnection in education and Fleckenstein’s argument to bring bodies to bear on transformative pedagogies in ways that join them with the mind, I designed an experimental Honors first-year composition course named “Embodied Discourse” that thematically explores the mind/body relationship. Most importantly, I was committed to not reproducing the mind/body split of intellectual exploration that is devoid of attending to the material bodies in the classroom. Having practiced vinyassa yoga for nearly fifteen years and benefited from the ways in which attunement between body, mind, and breath allows for greater presence and mindfulness, I organized the course to begin with fifteen or twenty minutes of yoga practice, which was then followed by a more traditional discussion-oriented pedagogy. We would not just be talking heads discussing and composing texts that explored mind/body; we would be bodies and minds together, yoked through practices of yoga, listening, discussing, reading, and writing.

Often, we design classes out of an unnamed exigency, and what motivated the urgency to create a new learning experience for students gets fleshed out over time, sometimes after the class has ended. Although it challenged me, unnerved me, inspired me, and renewed my passion for teaching, learning, and writing, a nagging question persisted in the back of my mind: what does yoga have to do with writing? In this article, I explore this question in light of recent scholarship around issues of embodiment, agency, and responsibility. As a launching point, I use Marilyn Cooper’s conceptualization of rhetorical agency because she explicitly places embodiment at the center of her definition: “[A]gency is an emergent property of embodied individuals” (421). Central to Cooper’s theory of “responsible rhetorical agency” is the contention that students are already agents (entities that act and bring about change); thus, she argues that we need a pedagogy of responsibility, not a pedagogy of empowerment, in helping students better understand rhetorical agency. Disappointingly, although Cooper’s theory relies heavily on the idea of embodiment, her primary illustration draws almost exclusively on traditional textual analysis (a speech by President Obama). Equally important, her advocacy for a responsible pedagogy makes little mention of actual student bodies; embodiment is treated more as a neuroscientific concept in her theory of agency rather than a material reality to which we should attend.

In agreement with Cooper, I believe students are already agents; indeed, it is presumptuous to situate our roles within a framework of “empowerment.” However, devoid of material enactment and retreating into traditional textual analysis that solidifies the classic mind/body split, Cooper’s argument becomes a pedagogy of exhortation (Berthoff). Through an examination of my first-year composition course thematically designed to explore the relationship between mind and body, I offer to extend Cooper’s theory. Rather than a pedagogy of responsibility or empowerment, I advocate a pedagogy of enactment through which material engagement with bodies in the classroom can create the conditions whereby students are able to situate themselves as interconnected, meaning-making individuals. Yoga provides one means of achieving a pedagogy of enactment. I am not suggesting that daily yoga practice gives students explicit conceptual awareness of Cooper’s theory of agency, nor do I plan to prove that my students’ writing was more rhetorically responsible after sixteen weeks of a pedagogy of enactment. However, I contend that if we wish to develop responsible rhetorical agency in students, we need more holistic pedagogical enactments that engage both minds and bodies. Yoga is one such practice, and a powerful one, I argue, because it fosters a sense of mindful awareness and interconnectivity that can enable students to both understand and experience themselves as individuals within the context of a larger collective, a foundational premise for the practice of rhetorical responsibility.

Materiality of Moving Bodies in the Classroom

The materiality of the classroom, class size, and time within which we work significantly shape the degree to which we can meaningfully engage a pedagogy of enactment, particularly if we seek to integrate bodies and minds. Fortunately, I taught Embodied Discourse in 100-minute blocks twice weekly and had relatively low enrollment (13 students the first year, 19 students the second year). Before I offer a brief background on yoga and illustrate how the practice of yoga impacted students’ sense of interconnectivity and responsibility, I describe how yoga was incorporated into our daily routine. I offer this not as a recipe for a pedagogy of enactment, but as a backdrop for how we negotiated the material barriers in enacting a pedagogy that aimed to yoke mind with body.

I seek creative ways of helping students physically experience and reflect on how the material conditions of the classroom affect us. Classrooms in my department generally have four rows of long tables with eight students seated in each row, all facing the “smart” technology at the front of the room where the professor can literally hide behind a tall desk occupied by a large computer monitor, document camera, and several other pieces of equipment for commanding the technology. On the first day of Embodied Discourse, we begin in the departmentally sanctioned arrangement of desks with the typical first-day introductions.[2] I then ask students to bring awareness to how their bodies felt during the introductions and we free-write for a few minutes. After a brief discussion of their writing, I have students push all the desks together to create one large table with everyone sitting around the perimeter. We do another set of introductions (adding something new to our previous introductions), followed by the same free-write prompt, and another brief discussion. Finally, I have students move all the desks and chairs to the perimeter of the room, leaving the middle of the room entirely open. Sitting on the floor in a loose circle, we introduce ourselves a third time (again, adding something new) followed by the free-write prompt and discussion.

Materially experimenting with different arrangements and asking students to bring awareness to the physical experience of how classroom design and body arrangement affects them sets the framework for my pedagogy of enactment. This also allows me to introduce the theme and structure of the course: we would be exploring embodied discourse for the semester, but we would not just be intellectually discussing the mind/body relationship; instead, we would be both bodies and minds together each day, dedicating the first fifteen to twenty minutes to some sort of yoga practice and the remainder of each session to intellectual exploration. Another key element of a pedagogy of enactment for this course was explicitly introducing it as experimental.  Following in the tradition of écriture féminine from Helene Cixous, the purpose of “writing the body” is to move away from strict discursive forms and rules and instead engage a sense of play that opens fresh possibilities for writing. Thus, embodied discourse always retains a spirit of the ineffable. Enacting the spirit of the “unknown,” I explicitly frame the course as one in which we explore together; I don’t have any certain answers as to what “embodied discourse” might mean, nor where we might arrive at the end.[3]

There were many sideways glances and nervous facial expressions on the first day. Despite their clear hesitation, they were all willing to give the idea and practice of “being bodies and minds together” their best effort.[4] Beginning the second day of class, students stopped by my office, where they picked up a yoga mat; I gave them the key to the classroom and instructed them to move tables and chairs in any way they wished so that we would have room for moving bodies.[5] This became our daily routine: students arriving early to rearrange the classroom so that we had open floor space available for our mats and freedom of movement.

Even with my awareness of how classroom design orders bodies (and thus learning), I had no idea just how much of an impact this would have on students. Throughout both semesters that I taught Embodied Discourse, various students emphasized how “cool” it was that they got to move the tables and decide how to arrange their bodies. They had no problem moving the tables back to the sanctioned arrangement after class (I move the desks in each of my classes into different arrangements, and there are always a few in these other classes who get quite curmudgeonly about moving the desks each day). In retrospect, I also believe that the sensory experience of sitting on the floor together with our shoes off on multicolored mats in hues of purple, pink, yellow, and green contributed to students’ positive reception of the course. Thus, part of the success of Embodied Discourse was not only a pedagogy of enactment in which we were both thinking and doing beings, but also the materiality of making the classroom our own by moving desks and sitting on multi-colored mats in various arrangements that helped create a greater sense of collective ownership and control of the class. As mentioned above, I do believe that our students are already agents, but when forced to occupy space in pre-determined arrangements, their experience of being actors in their own processes of learning is diminished. Thus, a pedagogy of enactment sometimes requires literally turning the keys to the classroom over to the students to embody it in ways that reinforce that they are agents in their learning.

Yoking the Doing and Being Modes of Mind through Yoga

My choice of yoga for a pedagogy of enactment in Embodied Discourse was informed by Eastern philosophies of mindfulness and more recent scientific studies that integration of mind/body/breath leads not only to health and well-being, but also to greater meta-cognitive awareness.[6] Yoga is a contemplative art, where contemplation is understood as “cutting out” or marking out space for observation. It is a practice intended to bring about mindfulness, which Jon Kabat-Zinn defines as “the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally to things as they are” (Mindful 47). In Contemplative Practices in Higher Education, Daniel P. Barbezat and Mirabai Bush explain, “The word yoga, from the Sanskrit word yuj, means to yoke or bind and is often interpreted as ‘union,’ or a method of discipline…Yoga is different from stretching or other kinds of fitness because it explicitly connects the movement of the body and the fluctuations of the mind to the rhythm of the breath…to direct attention inward to the cultivation of awareness” (168).

This cultivation of awareness acts as a vehicle for activating the “being” mode of mind, as opposed to the “doing” mode of mind. Centuries of mindfulness practices as well as contemporary research in neuroscience associate the being mode of mind with remaining present and open in the midst of the ebb and flow of reality (Kabat-Zinn Mindful). It recruits our capacity for curiosity, compassion, interconnection, and larger awareness. The doing mode of mind is generally associated with problem solving and critical thinking, skills foregrounded in higher education. This mode recruits our judgment, comparison, problem-solving, analysis, and evaluation capacities. As Kabat-Zinn points out, the being mode is not better than the doing mode, but it provides a “whole other way of living our lives and relating to our emotions, our stress, our thoughts, and our bodies” (Mindful 46). It is an often neglected, but inherent, human capacity. Yoga provides one such means of attending to and developing the being mode of mind.

Not insignificantly, the body plays an important part in these modes of mind through hormone production and activation of the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. In other words, these two modes of mind are not simply cognitive dispositions; we have to actually work with the body to develop them. Neuroscientist Alex Korb explains that yoga is not a “relaxing” activity in and of itself; instead, yoga poses intentionally produce discomfort and disorientation to essentially retrain the autopilot stress mode of the brain:

Your brain tends to react to discomfort and disorientation in an automatic way, by triggering the physiological stress response and activating anxious neural chatter between the prefrontal cortex and the more emotional limbic system. The stress response itself increases the likelihood of anxious thoughts, like “Oh god, I’m going to pull something,” or “I can’t hold this pushup any longer”…The twisting of your spine, the lactic acid building up in your straining muscles, the uneasy feeling of being upside down, the inability to breathe, are all different forms of discomfort and disorientation, and tend to lead reflexively to anxious thinking and activation of the stress response in the entire nervous system. However, just because this response is automatic, does not mean it is necessary. It is, in fact, just a habit of the brain. One of the main purposes of yoga is to retrain this habit so that your brain stops automatically invoking the stress response.

The brain (as part of the body) is an evolving, changing organ, not a static one. Brain imaging technologies support long-held philosophical beliefs that yoga can alter mind-body interactions to create greater calm and presence, which are key elements to the being mode of mind. Yoking body, mind, and breath, Korb explains, mediates the “anxious neural chatter between the prefrontal cortex and the more emotional limbic system.” Re-routing the autopilot stress mode of the brain through minding the body opens empathetic pathways and creates greater cognitive presence and sense of inter-connectivity.

In Embodied Discourse, our daily yoga practice was generally focused on some variation of Sun Salutation coupled with a few balancing poses, such as tree or eagle pose.[7] We began by standing still at the front of our mats, and I invited everyone to bring their minds and bodies to the present moment. Coaching students as we moved through the poses, I also iterated elements of the philosophy undergirding the practice. Of particular importance, each day I reminded students that yoga is a practice; it is not goal-oriented nor is it about achieving the perfect pose. We don’t focus on mastering a pose or increasing flexibility or even perfecting a sequence of movements. Instead, yoga is rooted in the assumption that a sense of balanced, calm, and connected awareness arises naturally when we approach the practice regularly with non-violence and non-judgment.[8] We work with the strengths and limitations of our individual bodies, which are ever-changing. One day we may find ourselves totally unable to do a pose we did the day before—this is particularly true with balancing poses. Flexible response to the fluidity of the changing body can translate, over time, into how we relate to ourselves and the world around us. The arc of our energy and attention in yoga is quieting the doing mode of mind and engaging the being mode of mind: opening the body through movement and observing sensations and changes in both mind and body with non-judgment.

As I guided students through the practice, I also consistently reminded them that we practice with ahimsa (non-violence), and this non-violence begins with the self. Practitioners of yoga push against their edges of comfort but not beyond them into the realm of pain; likewise, we do not push our bodies to do the poses that a practitioner on an adjacent mat may be doing. Ultimately, it was not my aim to turn students into yogis; yoga was a vehicle to engage a pedagogy of enactment in which we could slow down, develop a sense of curiosity, and see what would arise from yoking minds and bodies in the process of exploring embodied discourse.[9]

Although I taught Embodied Discourse twice, each year I remained committed to an intention of surrendering to the unknown. Suspending the will to know in order to see what would emerge from combining yoga with writing instruction is in keeping with the curiosity and openness of the being mode of mind that is central to yoga practice.[10] One specific form of surrender in this course was carving out space for students to engage in weekly writing in a meaning-making journal that was not read by me. I wanted them to write a lot, and I wanted to make sure that their writing was not always subjected to the “gaze” of the teacher so that their intellectual processes could emerge more organically. I divided writing assignments into two categories: writing to learn (to engage the being mode of mind) and learning to write (to engage the doing mode of mind). The writing-to-learn assignment was a standard weekly journal entry: write three full pages, front and back, in a (paper) notebook of their choosing for each class meeting (six pages per week). Their task was to “meet their mind” on the page; the focal point was our weekly text (a reading, a TED talk, a podcast, etc.). They could write about anything related to the texts we used in class as long as they were engaging their curiosity to observe and explore their mind. I promised them I would never read their writing nor require them to read it out-loud (although I often asked if volunteers wished to share passages of their writing to initiate a conversation, to which almost all the students responded with enthusiasm once they developed a sense of connection to one another).[11]

Students asked if they could use a laptop or digital notebook for their meaning-making journal, but I did not want digital screens creating a barrier between bodies because they also used their meaning-making journals for note-taking and workshop activities. If the given text for the week was a video or podcast, we listened to/watched it together in order to create a collective listening/viewing experience and we discussed it immediately afterwards or during the following class meeting. When we listened to a podcast or TED talk together, students would sprawl out on the floor, some seated cross-legged with their meaning-making journals propped in their laps, others lying either belly-down or belly-up on their yoga mats with their meaning-making journals at hand to take notes. Although there was some resistance to this older writing technology, it was part of the experimental nature of the course to remove barriers between bodies, to surrender to the unknown, and to create a vehicle for “paying attention on purpose, in the present moment.” Digital writing technologies have too many distractions to achieve these goals, which students seemed to understand after a few weeks of writing and note-taking in paper notebooks.

Yoking writing to learn (the being mode of mind) with learning to write (the doing mode of mind) was another way to engage students more holistically. The meaning-making journal entries and notes became the foundation for their formal papers.[12] I wanted to illustrate several things with this writing-to-learn assignment: good writing comes from writing regularly; good writing comes from observing, questioning, and exploring; and writing is an intellectual process that occurs over time and space, not a rigid formula or set a rules. Using writing as an additional contemplative art that cut out space for “meeting the mind” on the page, I wanted them to see that writing a ten-page paper could be a far less painful experience than the last-minute, all-night writing marathons many of them had experienced.

Our daily yoga practice was intended to complement their development as writers in three ways. First, yoga was a way to engage the primary “content” of the course (exploring the mind/body relationship). Our practice of yoga (reflecting on it, writing about it, and talking about it) became one of the “texts” for the course that complemented more traditional texts. Second, yoga served as an implicit metaphor for the kinds of writing practices I wanted to teach students, such as engaging in the process rather than focusing on the goal, embracing curiosity through observation, suspending judgment, creating spaciousness through learning to be more flexible, and most generally, trying to slow down and go deeper into thinking and writing. Finally, yoga served as a method of yoking the being and doing modes of mind so that daily discussions and workshop were framed with a lived practice of cultivating mindfulness and the interconnection of body/mind.

Yoga and other mindfulness practices often have been targeted specifically to help with stress reduction and emotional turmoil; however, in what follows, I argue that the presence and connectivity developed through activating the “being mode of mind” in yoga are a precursor to rhetorical responsibility that Cooper advocates. Instructing students only through the “doing mode of mind” to enact responsible rhetorical agency will fall short if we are not also cultivating the being mode of mind in which students can experience connectedness to themselves, their learning, the course material, their peers, and the professor. Engagement of both modes of mind is crucial in a pedagogy of enactment.

Connectivity: A Foundation for Open Responsiveness and Meaning Making

As discussed in the introduction, Cooper’s new model of agency holds much promise because it brings embodiment to long-held debates over agency. She contends that “agents are defined neither by mastery, nor by determination, nor by fragmentation. They are unique, embodied, and autonomous individuals in that they are self-organizing, but by virtue of that fact, they, as well as the surround with which they interact, are always changing” (425). Cooper’s use of embodiment draws largely on neuroscientific research and systems theory through which she illustrates that minds are meaning-making organisms rather than merely information-processing organs in which “neurons interact to create a pattern…that is unique to each sensing individual, shaped by each individual organism’s history and shaped anew in every iteration” (427). It is this dynamic process of unique meaning making in interaction with one’s surround where intentionality (and thus agency) can be located in a series of stages that Cooper maps out as a continuous loop of both conscious and non-conscious processes of the nervous system (429). Within her model of agency, intent (to make making) is central, and conscious awareness is not. And perhaps most importantly, agency is effected through circular causation rather than linear causation: “[C]hange arises not as the effect of a discrete cause, but from the dance of perturbation and response as agents interact” (421).

In many respects, Cooper’s theory echoes central tenets of yoga: that we are emergent beings in continual processes of becoming and that we are simultaneously individuals and participants in a larger collectivity. Drawing on Bruno Latour’s work that rejects the idea of mastery and orderliness at the heart of the subject/object split, Cooper instead uses his notion of the “collective” to situate agency as an emergent property. The agent (or actor, as Latour calls it), is defined as “what interrupts the closure and the composition of the collective. To put it crudely, human and nonhuman actors appear first of all as troublemakers” (Latour, quoted in Cooper 425). Agents are “entities that act; by virtue of their action they necessarily bring about changes” (424). However, this notion of action is undergirded by the changing and ephemeral nature of the collective. In Latour’s words, the collective “is not a thing in the world, a being with fixed and definitive borders, but a movement of establishing provisional cohesion that will have to be started all over again every single day” (quoted in Cooper 425).[13]

A pedagogy of responsibility, according to Cooper, would help students hold in one hand the individuality of each organism’s complex nervous system and life history in the meaning-making process and in the other hand an understanding of how rhetorical actions can effect change through the interplay of complex systems and circular causation. As mentioned earlier, central to Cooper’s theory is the contention that students are already agents:

[W]e need to help students understand that writing and speaking (rhetoric) are always serious actions…What they write or argue, as with all other actions they perform, makes them who they are. And though their actions do not directly cause anything to happen, their rhetorical actions, even if they are embedded in the confines of a college class, always have effects: they perturb anyone who reads or hears their words. They need to understand that thus their rhetoric can contribute to the effort to construct a good common world only to the extent that they recognize their audience as concrete others with their own spaces of meaning.If they are not to negate others in this effort, they need to understand that their own persuasive acts as invitations, not as affirmations of absolute truth: they need to recognize that they might be wrong. Rhetorical agency is a big responsibility. (443; emphasis mine)

Cooper’s assertion that students’ rhetoric can “contribute to the effort to construct a good common world” certainly begs further interrogation given that common good rests on an unexamined assumption of shared values which has historically been an issue with critical pedagogies. However, if one of our goals in educating students (no matter what the subject) is to help them become more responsible (for their acts as agents already), and this responsibility is based on recognizing their audience as concrete others with their own spaces of meanings, then we must find ways to help students engage in processes of recognition.

To recognize is to find and feel some sort of connection, and there are layers of connectivity that are necessary in order for a sense of responsibility to arise. Such an understanding of responsibility is not just accountability for the effect of one’s actions; it also entails an open, responsive/response-able stance. I borrow the term response-ability from the work of Michael Hassett who, following Kenneth Burke, argues that creating spaces in writing and writing pedagogies for audience response is a central element in an ethic of communication where dialectical meaning making is the goal: Working in conjunction with the other, we are able to mitigate our own blindnesses and achieve together something more than we might have achieved separately. This occurs only as we affect one another, as we both respond, and it becomes mutually enhancing—together we make meaning in a dialectical relationship of response” (191). “Responsibility” holds a dual meaning of accountability as well as an ability to be responsive/response-able (rather than reactive) in one’s meaning making process. This kind of accountable, open responsiveness is contingent on the degree to which there is connectivity to the self as well as the world outside the self.

As mentioned above, in our practice of yoga I encouraged students to meet their bodies each day with ahimsa, responding flexibility and non-competitively to its fluidity with a spirit of non-violence. Through informal class conversation as well as a focus group interview,[14] students explained that they had spent much of their academic careers very grade-oriented and in competition with their peers, but the emphasis on ahimsa and doing their practice without competition with the person on a neighboring mat helped them feel more calm and connected to their learning. “There are some things that can’t be taught,” explained Angela.“They have to be experienced. And it’s one thing for us to read about how the body affects the mind, but it’s another to experience it firsthand…and doing it the way the class is set up, by being a body in the first part, allows the mind to be stronger in the second part.” She went on to describe how she had been so focused on competition and getting the best grade that she never really thought about ideas and learning in her education. Yoga practice and the emphasis on working with the body’s limitations had made her begin to develop a different attitude  (less aggressive, less goal-focused) towards herself as a learner. A spirit of non-competition and non-aggression towards self opens what I contend is the first layer of connectivity: connection to self.

For their final paper, I asked students to explore what they believed embodied discourse might be and to make an attempt to actually embody their writing. Carlin described embodied discourse as awareness and integration:

Embodied discourse is being aware and conscious of your mind and body and unifying them as one. They are no longer two separate parts of a function, but one whole. Apart, they can do only as much as they allow themselves, but together, a whole new creation evolves…Embodied discourse is similar to creating music. You have a harmony and a melody, a chorus and a bridge. A treble clef and a bass clef. Countless measures of individual notes that intertwine together and create a beautiful symphony. Isolate each piece and you have the start of something great, a resounding “g” on the bass staff or a gorgeous triad in the harmony, but put them together and you have created the final piece as a whole with layering tones. You’ve interlaced the product with a substance like that of magic. It’s captivating.

The metaphor of music and creating something more magical and captivating through integration suggests a beautiful connection to self, one that I have found rare in traditional undergraduates. Similarly, Sondra came to define embodied discourse as a sense of wholeness that gives meaning to life:

It [yoga] was a fun thing to do at first, but I gradually realized that the yoga helped to slow down my mind and allowed me to listen and notice others more…To me embodied discourse is being present in both the body and mind; operating as a full person rather than just a body or just a mind…we are often not creating mind/body connections as college students, which puts us in a perpetual state of disconnection. Disconnection leads to non-attachment to the experiences that form our identities and create a meaningful life. Ultimately without the integration of mind and body we are living less meaningful lives…. I struggled at first to understand why we need to be present and aware. I thought that should be a personal choice and who cares if someone chooses to coast through life. I realized how much you actually miss out on without being a body and a mind. I realized that relationships will be much harder to form and your self-esteem will not be where it should. I realized the meaning of life and the reasons I enjoy living come from my experiences.

As she indicated in her paper, Sondra struggled immensely in the course. She could not connect meaningfully with some of the texts, and she was far more comfortable with a product-oriented approach to school writing in which she could fulfill the expectations of a course and, as she puts it, “coast through” in a non-attached, non-present mode. I fully expected a more traditional paper from Sondra in which she simply captured main ideas from texts we had discussed and delivered them in a tidy paper with an introduction, three supporting paragraphs and a conclusion. However, she had a breakthrough during a brainstorming activity in which was able to focus more on what the yoga practice did for her (rather than ideas from texts) and how that was connected to what was most important to her in life: meaningful interpersonal experiences (school learning was not a meaningful experience for Sondra). For her, yoga became more than just a fun experience; it created the presence that she could then link to experience and make the argument that without presence and awareness, living life is less meaningful. College is a time when many students are exploring who they are and how to give purpose and meaning to their lives as the passages from Sondra and Carlin illustrate. The use of yoga proved to be one method that helped to create a sense of connectivity to themselves that is the first layer of connectivity necessary for responsiveness/response-ability.

Students repeatedly emphasized that yoga was challenging not only because of the physical stress it puts on the body, but also because it was difficult to express to their peers outside of the class why they were doing yoga in a composition course. However, they also noticed early in the semester that it actually helped them feel more grounded and present in themselves for the more traditional intellectual activities of reading, writing, and discussing ideas. Thus, a second layer of connectivity was greater attachment to writing. Erin, who had taken it upon herself to practice sun salutations before writing outside of class, explained:

I feel like being a body…really helps you concentrate and focus on the next activity…just yesterday I went to work on the paper, like doing final revisions, and it was just so nice. I was able to get right into the paper more easily and…my mind was flowing already. At first I didn’t think it [yoga] would affect it that much but it was kind of cool…I’m usually not able to start [writing] this quickly. And that’s how it is in class too, you’re able to focus and start talking more quickly.

Much like Sondra did not initially connect yoga to a larger purpose beyond being fun, Erin also found that yoga served a greater function of metacognitive awareness and focus. In their respective arguments, Geraldine DeLuca and Christy Wenger both contend that yoga practices develop metacognitive skills such as thinking about thinking, awareness of writing as a process, and self-awareness. These metacognitive benefits, along with the sense of connectivity to self and learning, help shift the emphasis away from creating better texts and towards creating better writers—writers invested in the meaning-making process with a spirit of curiosity and openness.

The theme of greater presence and engagement as agents in their learning (as opposed to focusing on grades and fulfilling course requirements) as a result of opening class with yoga was echoed by several other students. Angela explained that the non-competitive embodiment in yoga had changed her relationship to her learning: “What we take [from this course] is not career lessons, it’s life lessons…like getting outside of your ego can make you more successful…and that you can actually be in charge of your own learning.” Referencing a TED talk by Sugata Mitra on self-organized learning we had listened to and discussed earlier in the semester, Rebecca commented, “We come here and we’re experiencing our own things and it’s like you are teaching us, but in a way you are allowing us to kind of teach ourselves what we are learning…instead of you saying this is what you have to learn.”

For other students, a larger purpose in education was solidified through the sense of presence and engagement that yoga provided. The third layer of connectivity I identify is in relation to their learning. Nolan, who was already an excellent writer and probably could have tested out of a First-Year Composition requirement, came to me with questions about a research project after he had completed Embodied Discourse. In the course of the conversation, he explained that the yoga had been challenging because he is not very physically active and much more comfortable residing in his mind. The daily yoga practice pushed him to feel more connected to his writing because he never knew the point of writing papers in school. The emphasis on ahimsa during yoga and not proving himself coupled with the first paper instructions to “make a contribution” to the conversation that we had entered over the course of the semester created an “ah-ha” moment for Nolan. “I never understood that part of writing papers,” he said. “It was all just finishing the assignment, but now I get it, I write to make a contribution. That was huge for me. How come nobody ever said that? Papers were just proving ourselves, not actually participating.” I never would have suspected this was so powerful for Nolan because he was already a very good writer, astutely analytical in class conversations, and seemingly uninhibited during yoga. His comment (and his enthusiasm) strike me as another instance of how enacting the union of body and mind can create a foundation of connectivity that can lead to a greater sense of ownership in learning and writing. Nolan ended our conversation telling me, “My writing is so much better because of that class. I’ve written a lot of papers in school, but the ones I wrote in your class I am most proud of.” Given his disposition, Nolan could have easily engaged the course material that explored the relationship between mind and body on a purely intellectual level. However, materially joining body and mind produced the conditions in which he was able to have that “ah-ha” moment that helped him connect to the larger purpose of education and learning to write: joining the conversation as an agent with voice and influence.

Student feedback and examples from their embodied discourse papers capture how yoga in the first fifteen minutes of class engaged the “being mode” of mind in such a way that it complemented the “doing mode” of mind: cultivating of awareness and presence created greater connection that enabled more meaningful engagement with the discussions and writing. Rather than simply going through the motions of “schooling,” they are agents who act, influencing their education as well as the education of their peers through the meaning-making process. It was not enough to raise cognitive awareness of their agency; material engagement with both modes of mind were necessary to genuinely uncover connectivity to themselves, their writing, and their learning in a manner that exceeded the competitive, goal-oriented, grade-oriented emphasis that had framed much of their previous education. As a caveat, I also want to mention it was not always easy to begin the class with yoga; there were days when students were just tired and didn’t want to move their bodies and I had to put forth more energy to motivate them, which had its own tax on me and sometimes caused me to question my approach. There were other days when I felt that we had so much to cover that perhaps we should just skip the embodied practice and get to the more cognitive aspects of the class. Had I allowed these things to override my original goal to be more than talking heads, I would have abandoned a pedagogy of enactment and thus not laid the groundwork for students to experience a sense of interconnectivity, which I believe is another kind of connection essential to responsible agency.

Interconnectivity: A Foundation for Recognition and the “Dance of Perturbation”

The second tier, interconnectivity, entails a sense of connection with elements outside themselves such as other students, course materials, larger philosophical and social questions, etc. In both semesters that I taught Embodied Discourse, students described themselves as more willing to take the risk of meaning making, digging deeper into ideas with curious and more spacious minds, and more open to being challenged and pushed by others. Todd, a relatively reserved participant, commented, “I’d never do yoga on my own, but stepping outside my box is easier because everyone else is doing it. And then in discussion it’s almost easier to go deeper with our own views because I feel more connected.” Of particular importance to the students was a combined sense of being individuals situated within a larger community (which they attributed not only to yoga but to my daily reminders to practice yoga with ahimsa).They experienced not only a sense of greater attachment to themselves and their learning through minding the body, but also a greater sense of interconnection to others.[15] Lisa explained, “Yes, we get freedom from traditional education, from desks…and it gives us the idea that we are one mind and one body, we are in one boat together.” Drawing on a piece by Paulo Freire, Erin opined, “We all read the information differently and we come to discuss it and while we come to some of the same claims we have our own personal experiences and opinions tied to it…it’s what Freire teaches, we need to come together to find truths but also maintain our own personal truths.”

Connectivity to themselves as individual learners and interconnectivity to the group are the foundation for engagement in genuine meaning making as well as a sense of responsibility to a larger collective. Perhaps most powerfully, Anna, who was generally very quiet, explained:

In this class I don’t just feel like a student, I feel like a person that’s actually got worth, almost…like what I say towards the class is meaningful and I also feel like yoga helps with that because it’s not like we go to class, you sit, you take your notes. You get to go and do some yoga, relax, and get into the conversation. And we get to sit on the floor. I love that. I love sitting on the floor.

Although there is a bit of a hedge with the use of “almost,” Anna captured some of my own impressions of how being bodies and minds together disrupted our habitual (and often static) modes of being disembodied minds in the classroom. Yoking the being and doing modes of mind allowed students to feel not only more like agents in their learning, but also co-agents in their education.

As Cooper points out in her theory of agency, our minds are meaning-making organs, not information processing organs. Much like others have argued (Kroll; DeLuca; Fishman et al.), we need to provide students with more multimodal opportunities so that they are not just “thinking” together—they are also experiencing a sense of being together that can create the interconnectivity necessary to “recognize…concrete others with their own spaces of meaning” (Cooper 443). My students’ excitement about practicing yoga and sitting on the floor instead of at desks might not seem to evoke the kind of seriousness in understanding rhetorical agency that Cooper explicates, but I firmly believe that engaging students’ bodies can open avenues for precisely the kind of responsibility she calls us to foster in our classrooms because it enacts the connectivity necessary for recognizing the individual within the collective. In yoga, we each did our own practice as was right for us and yet we also did it together. We refused the disconnected approach learning. This yoking created the connection for greater risk in the more traditional classroom activities like discussion, offering genuine feedback and critique of peer writing, etc.

Interconnectivity was illustrated most explicitly in a workshop I conducted when students were struggling with thesis statements in their first formal paper. Mid-semester, I gave students their first formal assignment: synthesize relevant ideas presented thus far in order to identify a problem and make a contribution to the conversation in the form of a deliberative argument. Students had a great deal of difficulty offering more complex and nuanced thesis statements that met the expectations of a deliberative argument. Our discussions had been engaged and thoughtful, but when it came time to write a formal paper, their thesis statements were typical of flat, disengaged product-oriented school writing. With such a small class, I decided to slow down the writing process and workshop each person’s thesis using the “smart” technology. The author stood at the front of the room behind the computer while projecting his or her thesis statement on the screen. Scattered about the floor on their multi-colored yoga mats in various degrees of recline, the rest of the class read and responded to the thesis statement with questions and suggestions while the author responded and typed revisions so that the class could see the development of the thesis.[16] With little hesitation, students began asking questions for clarification about the author’s primary claims, genuinely challenging the author to think about the impact of those claims on potential readers. They also offered suggestions to make connections to texts we had read (or re-consider their interpretations of those texts) as well as suggestions about how to re-word or organize the thesis statement. Although each author clearly was unnerved when she or he first stood at the front of the class with a thesis to be critiqued, as the workshop progressed (it took two weeks to workshop everyone’s thesis statement) the momentum of the collective effort eased some of the tension, particularly as we could all see their arguments becoming more fine-tuned and both true to what the author was genuinely invested in arguing and responsive to the disparate ideas shared by individual class members.[17]

I share this particular workshop because it was no “desultory,” “half-hearted” discussion, as Fishman et al. point out so often happens as a result of disembodiment in our composition classrooms (244). The conversation around each student’s thesis statement was focused, deeply engaged, and had moments of edginess wherein each participant was forced to think more expansively and flexibly through the process of being challenged. In many respects their negotiation of making meaning and asserting claims reflects the circular “dance of perturbation” through which Cooper’s model of agency arises (421). Although I had a sense that this was a particularly successful workshop prior to student feedback, I had no idea just how powerful it was for students, not only as an opportunity to strengthen their papers, but as an opportunity to genuinely think about meaning making as a complex process influenced by the interactions between the individual and the collective. Several students drew a parallel between the yoga practice (being a collective of individual bodies) and the thesis workshop. Anna explained that she had always struggled with making interesting thesis statements, but the workshop was an example of “being in one boat together” because “I felt like I had a voice with this larger whole and doing yoga helped with that because I had my own ideas but people pushed me to think about other things and I still got to have my ideas but then there were these other ideas and it made mine more interesting.” Todd shared, “The hard part of the major paper was really going deep, the workshop pushed me and made my paper deeper.” Responding flexibly and openly to their peers’ challenges and suggestions, they were able to maintain their sense of individual agency in the meaning-making process even as they were open to modifying their viewpoints based on interconnectivity to the larger collective of their classmates and the larger conversation (framed by the texts we read and discussed). Student comments during the focus group interview about the thesis workshop as well as my own interpretations point to how material enactment of embodiment in the classroom helped them feel more connected and interconnected such that they had greater awareness that concrete others have their own spaces of meaning. Cooper describes the dance of perturbation of rhetorical responsibility:

Respect for listeners’ opinions, being open even to “unreasonable” opinions, to “troublemakers,” means being open to them as responsive beings who, like the speaker, will understand or assimilate meanings in their own way. It means recognizing both speakers and listeners as agents in persuasion, as people who are free to change their minds. It is this recognition that I argue defines responsible rhetorical agency. (441)

As a final example of how connectivity and interconnectivity are a necessary foundation for responsible rhetorical agency, I offer a passage from Nolan’s final paper exploring embodied discourse. Drawing on Toni Morrison’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech, Nolan connects language to agency:

Renowned novelist, professor and political commentator Toni Morrison once described the capacity of language as agency, not in the sense of measuring a human capacity, but rather in the sense of language itself being an agent: alive, volatile, being able to act of its own volition and fully capable of producing consequences, as any proper agent should.

He continues, linking agency to both the individual body/mind and collective social body:

If the student’s body is an expression of the student’s mind; if the student is the embodiment of the discourse of the mind, and our conscious minds express themselves through the independent agency of language, we must be the embodiment of our own capacities for language. Our minds, bodies, and, therefore, our identities, formulate and define our interactions with not only one another, but all in the world around, through our embodiment of language, which has its own agency and capacity for consequences, as previously described. Meaning, the definitions we use to describe the world around us are composed of the linguistic manifestations of the enactment of our personal will, which is, in turn, the outward projection of our conscious minds, of the embodiment of our capacity for language. Our language, our action, carries forth consequences of their own machinations, completely outside of the control of the individual they originated from. Furthermore, the individual consciousness does not operate within a vacuum, which means that the consequences that follow our embodied language affect not only the personal human body of their originator, but the collective “Human Body” of all of society.

In the remainder of his paper, Nolan reflects on the ethics of language use, urging readers “to understand ourselves in such a way as to leave the world a better place than we entered it…through our uniquely human capacity for language.” As mentioned above, Nolan was an exceptional student and an already well-read intellectual and analytical writer. In his paper, I read a level of connectivity to self and language and interconnectivity to others through language that I find rare. While I would not hold this out as an illustration of responsible rhetorical agency because he is theorizing agency and language, I am struck by how his discussion of embodied writing parallels key elements of Cooper’s theory: student writing makes them who they are and their rhetorical actions have influence in the “dance of perturbation” such that they can contribute to the larger collective of humans and should do so in a manner that is rhetorically responsible.

Cultivating What We Honor

In this paper I have attempted to extend Cooper’s theory by advocating a pedagogy of enactment in which material engagement of bodies and minds activates the being and doing modes of mind to create the conditions of connectivity necessary for rhetorical responsibility. Where disconnection flourishes, our sense of responsibility diminishes. To be responsible entails responsiveness, openness, accountability, a degree of flexibility and above all, a sense of connectivity. The yoking of mind and body that I sought early in my own education and now later in my career as a professor is both exhilarating and terrifying. I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge the latter. I was completely invested in the idea of joining minds and bodies in the classroom when it was an idea, an abstraction. However, both semesters that I taught Embodied Discourse, when it came down to actually being a body with my students, I literally broke out in a cold sweat. Over time I grew more comfortable in being a body with my students, but it always carried an edginess to it that I attribute to vulnerability.[18]

The risk of vulnerability is the heart of a pedagogy of enactment because it requires that we genuinely bring to the classroom all that motivates our desire to teach. In a word, it requires integrity. A pedagogy of enactment will be different for each one of us because it demands that we individually determine what defines our integrity and make that central in our classrooms. We cultivate that which we honor in our classrooms; when we honor our integrity through enactment, our professional lives can be infused with a renewed sense of purpose and meaning.

Notes

  1. When bodies do appear in our scholarship about writing pedagogy they tend to be focused on our embodied experiences as educators (Banks; Freedman and Holmes; Hindman; Kirsch; Moss; Royster) or on embodiment in texts (Alexander; Wilson and Lewiecki-Wilson; Fleckenstein). We give some attention to the fact that students are situated within particular kinds of bodies whose lived experiences affect their literacy practices, as Jenn Fishman, Andrea Lunsford, Beth McGregor, and Mark Otuteye do in “Performing Writing, Performing Literacy” when they argue that multi-modal performance in the class can “bring purposeful talk back to the center of the classroom” (244). However, we do little to bring the art of embodiment to the center of pedagogical practices.
  2. The students in these classes were relatively homogenous. They were primarily white Minnesotans who had fairly privileged academic backgrounds that had “tracked” them in college-preparatory classes in high school, which then led to their admittance to the Honors program. These students had experienced their bodies as relatively “unmarked” (in terms of race, class, gender-identification, and size) up until this course. Had the course been more heterogeneous, our conversations about the relationship between bodies and mind and bodies and learning would have shifted dramatically.
  3. Each semester I gave students the choice of returning to the chairs and desks after we finished the yoga practice as well as the option of choosing not to do the yoga practice if they didn’t feel up to it on any particular day. I also assured them that we could abandon the yoga if it became problematic or a hindrance to their learning.
  4. I received similar sideways glances from colleagues who often saw me walking to class with yoga mat in one hand and notebook in the other, which is part of what evoked that nagging question, “What does yoga have to do with writing?” Although unnerving to feel that I was operating under a cloud of doubt from both students and colleagues, it created an edginess that regularly renewed my commitment to enacting my belief that bodies and minds needed to be joined in the classroom. Interestingly, one of my colleagues approached me mid-semester and asked what I was doing in the class because he taught across the hall and regularly saw students arriving with their mats. He said, “They are always so excited and talkative; it’s exactly the kind of thing we dream of.”
  5. I purchased the yoga mats the first semester and students stored them in my office; the second semester I asked students to buy their own mats and bring them each day. Interestingly, the second time I taught “Embodied Discourse” students were often stopped on their walk across campus with inquiries about where they were doing yoga and how they might be able to get in the class. Whereas students the first semester wanted to store their mats in my office because it was “uncool” to carry a yoga mat on campus, the second semester students eventually became quite prideful in carrying their mats because of the positive feedback they received from other students.
  6. Wenger offers an extensive discussion of the philosophical underpinnings of yoga, particularly as it relates to a feminist pedagogy.
  7. All of the poses and movements we practiced were basic. I also always showed students how to modify poses to work with their particular limitations (knee-injuries, for example).
  8. DeLuca and Wenger echo this in their respective articles. DeLuca argues that presence in mind/body offers both a material and metaphorical reminder for writing instructors to return writing to a meaning-making process based in meta-cognitive awareness that cannot be reduced to a set of skills or formulas. Wenger argues that the use of pranayama (a form of focused, regulated breathing often practice in yoga) enables students to approach writing with greater physical ease, develops their meta-cognitive awareness of the writing process, and makes them more conscious of the ways bodies affect meaning making.
  9. I did not explicitly connect yoga philosophy or practices to writing, as Barry Kroll does in his use of aikido to teach particular rhetorical moves in deliberative writing. As mentioned above, I approached “Embodied Discourse” with a spirit of the ineffable. Rather than pre-defined objectives, I incorporated yoga into our daily routine simply as a means for getting curious about what might arise from enacting union of minds and bodies in the context of learning about writing. This open and curious approach also parallels a basic tenet of yoga. Although based in a set of guidelines, yoga is not designed to change people (make us stronger, more flexible); it is designed to allow a natural state of integration to emerge in us.
  10. Gesa Kirsch writes of a similar surrender to the unknown in her essay that explores how to create spaces of nurturance in the classroom where students are encouraged to bring their whole selves to the learning process (mind, body, heart). She describes it as a “risk of being vulnerable” (2) and encourages more experimental and experiential teaching and learning (8). However, where Kirsch emphasizes assignments that encourage reflective realization in her essay, I focus on how practices of embodiment through yoga can create the conditions for a sense of responsible rhetorical agency.
  11. Periodically throughout the semester when students were working with one another, I circulated around the room and asked them to flip through their journal to show me that they had completed the required “meaning-making writes” up to that point, thus they were still subject to a some form of the “gaze,” but I did not read their writing. Writing six pages, front and back, was the bulk of work assigned outside of class and I needed some way to keep them accountable. Additionally, I wanted them to take seriously the habit and discipline of using writing as a form of intellectual processing, so there was no partial credit for short or missed entries. I also wanted to remove some of the worry about grades and the ways in which students get caught up in writing as performance for what they believe the teacher wants them to write about, so I graded the journals as pass/fail—if they did of all the entries they received an A for this portion of their final grade.There were students who struggled at the beginning of the semester to completely fill three sheets of paper front and back because they didn’t have a familiarity with observing their minds in writing. I was able to work with these students through email exchanges, prompting them with questions and concepts they might explore from our course texts. Ultimately, I had to back off of the pass/fail approach a bit and I gave students one freebie week, which would drop their grade to a B instead of an A.
  12. The learning to write assignments were two deliberative arguments (spaced at the mid-term and the final) in which they synthesized material from course texts and conversations, proposed claims to identify a problem or set of problems, and offered conclusions about those problems. Other learning to write activities included fairly standard generative maps, flow charts, tree-maps, thesis statements, reverse outlines, and peer responses that all led up to the formal papers.
  13. Although often overlooked, Michel Foucault also articulated the space of impermanence and fluidity rather than stability as a place of hope in power relations whereby resistance to domination is possible through insubordination: “Every power relationship implies, at least in potentia, a strategy of struggle, in which the two forces are not superimposed, do not lose their specific nature, or do not finally become confused. Each constitutes for the other a kind of permanent limit, a point of possible reversal. A relationship of confrontation reaches its term, its final moment…when stable mechanisms replace the free play of antagonist reactions…It would not be possible for power relations to exist without points of insubordination which, by definition, are means of escape” (225).
  14. All students gave written consent to use their feedback and their writing. All names are pseudonyms. I conducted the focus group interview midway through the first semester I taught “Embodied Discourse” and the conversation was framed around the question, “What has it been like to be bodies and minds together in the classroom?”
  15. Interestingly, it was the fact that they didn’t know each other at the start that set the backdrop for their sense of greater connection as a collective, which Steve explained, “helped us take the risk of embarrassment together.”
  16. Most interesting to me about this particular workshop prior to the focus group interview was what the students did with their bodies. Normally in a peer workshop students’ bodies are huddled around a desk with their bodies closing in on either printed copies on their papers or laptops. In this particular workshop some were seated with notebooks in front of them, some were lying on their sides or their backs focused on the screen, and a few were leaning against the wall. Throughout the workshop they moved about freely, adjusting their positions or their vantage point in relation to the screen. Thecombination of their open, relaxed bodies and their engaged minds struck me as a wonderful visual representation of some of thephilosophical underpinnings of yoga practice I emphasized daily: flexibility and strength in the body opens avenues for greater flexibility and strength in being more present and open to the fluid nature of being in the world in connection to, and responsible to, others.
  17. By in large, I stayed out of the conversation. This was also a bit unnerving because there were times when it felt like chaos. Sometimes different members would push the author in different directions, but with small gestures on my part guiding them back to the author’s stated interests, they were able to stay relatively focused on the author’s primary standpoint.
  18. Gesa Kirsch also argues that teaching as whole beings (mind, body, spirit) involves the risk of vulnerability, but is far more professionally rewarding than teaching as partial beings.

 

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