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.

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.

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.

 

Works Cited

Alexander, Jonathan. “Transgendered Rhetorics: (Re)Composition Narratives of the Gendered Body.” CCC 57.1 (2005): 45-82. Print.

Banks, William. “Written through the Body: Disruptions and ‘Personal’ Writing.” College English 66.1 (2003): 21-40. Print.

Barbezat, Daniel P. and Mirabai Bush. Contemplative Practices in Higher Education: Powerful Methods to Transform Teaching and Learning. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2014. Print.

Berthoff, Ann E. “Is Teaching Still Possible? Writing, Meaning, and Higher Order Reasoning.” College English 46.8 (1984): 743-755. Print.

Cixous, Hélène. “Laugh of the Medusa.”Signs 1.4 (1976): 875-93. Print.

Cooper, Marilyn.  “Rhetorical Agency as Emergent and Enacted.“ College Composition and Communication 62.3 (2011): 420-449. Print.

DeLuca, Geraldine. “Headstands, Writing, and the Rhetoric of Radical Self-Acceptance.” Journal of the Assembly for Expanded Perspectives on Learning 11 (2005): 27-41. Print.

Fishman, Jenn, Andrea Lunsford, Beth McGregor, and Mark Otuteye. “Performing Writing, Performing Literacy.” College Composition and Communication 57.2 (2005): 224-252. Print.

Fleckenstein, Kristie. Embodied Literacies: Imageword and a Poetics of Teaching. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 2003. Print.

—. “Writing Bodies: Somatic Mind in Composition Studies.” College English 61.3 (1999): 281-306. Print.

Foucault, Michel. “The Subject and Power.” In Michel Foucault:  Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics.  Hubert Dreyfus and Paul Rabinow, 208-227.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983. Print.

Freedman, Diane and Martha Stoddard Holmes, eds. The Teacher’s Body: Embodiment, Authority and Identity in the Academy. Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2003. Print.

Hassett, Michael. “Constructing an Ethical Writer for the Postmodern Scene.” Rhetoric Society Quarterly 25 (1995): 179-196. Print.

Hindman, Jane. “Writing an Important Body of Scholarship: A Proposal for an Embodied Rhetoric of Professional Practice.” JAC 22.1 (2002): 93-118. Print.

Kabat-Zinn. Full Catastrophe Living. New York: Delta, 1990. Print.

—. Mindful Way through Depression. New York: Guilford Press. 2007. Print.

Kirsch, Gesa. “Creating Spaces for Listening, Learning, and Sustaining the Inner Lives of Students.” Journal of the Assembly for Expanded Perspectives on Learning 14 (2009): 5-67. Print.

Korb, Alex. “Yoga: Changing the Brain’s Stressful Habits.” PreFrontal Nudity: The Brain Exposed (blog). Psychology Today, 7 Sept. 2011. Web. 10 Oct. 2016.

Kroll, Barry.  The Open Hand: Arguing as an Art of Peace. Logan: Utah State University Press, 2014, Print.

Mitra, Sugata.  “Build a School in the Cloud.” TED.  Feb. 2013. Web. 7 Oct. 2016.

Moss, Beverly J. “Intersections of Race and Class in the Academy.” In Coming to Class: Pedagogy and the Social Class of Teachers. Ed. Alan Shepard, John McMillan, and Gary Tate, eds., 157-169. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton, 1998. Print.

Royster, Jacqueline Jones. Traces of Stream: Literacy and Social Change Among African American Women. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2000. Print.

Wenger, Christy I. “Writing Yogis: Breathing Our Way to Mindfulness and Balance in Embodied Writing Pedagogy.” Journal of the Assembly for Expanded Perspectives on Learning 18 (2013): 24-39. Print.

Yoga Minds, Writing Bodies: Contemplative Writing Pedagogy. Fort Collins, CO: Parlor Press. 2015. Print.

Wilson, James, C. and Cynthia Lewiecki-Wilson, eds. Embodied Rhetorics: Disability in Language and Culture. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 2011. Print.

#StayWoke: Empowering Students to Respond to Fake News

Mariah Morin and Heather Hurst

As my (Mariah’s) own social media feeds were flooded with fake news and articles about fake news, my thoughts turned to students who must also be grappling with the tricky questions of reliability and veracity in this digital landscape. In English classes, we often ask students to be critical consumers of texts and media. The Common Core State Standards require that high school students “delineate and evaluate the argument and specific claims in a text, assessing whether the reasoning is valid and the evidence is relevant and sufficient; identify false statements and fallacious reasoning” (CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.9-10.8). The news has existed, for many of us, as fact-based and credible, yet these times call for us to help our students make sense of what may be false or fallacious in media we once trusted unquestioningly. We wonder how students themselves are experiencing the news writ large. And perhaps more importantly, we wonder how we can empower our students not only to critique these existing “news” sources but also to produce thoughtful and substantiated responses. Just as the Common Core standards require that students evaluate existing texts, they articulate the need for students to learn to rise above the fallacies and fake news in the texts they themselves create: “Develop claim(s) and counterclaims fairly, supplying evidence for each while pointing out the strengths and limitations of both in a manner that anticipates the audience’s knowledge level and concern” (CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.9-10.1.B). Fake news fails to reasonably consider counterclaims, and perhaps more importantly, counterevidence.

Discussions about our students’ ability to interpret the news media they consume aren’t new. For instance, Regina Marchi interviewed teens from 2007 to 2011 to investigate their news preferences and found that most tended not to read newspapers or watch televised news; instead, they accessed news from sites like Facebook and YouTube. She wrote that the adolescents’ friends’ lists “served as news ‘filters,’ bringing various stories to the teens’ attention and helping them understand their relevance via posted commentaries” (252). Interestingly, more than 25% of these adolescents reported consuming “fake news,” although they meant satirical news productions such as The Colbert Report, and they in fact rejected the notion that the news media should be objective. As Marchi explains, “In contrast to the disinterested observations about the political world typical of ‘boring’ professional news, the ironic and passionate remarks of blogs and humorous or acerbic current events shows ‘put things in context,’ offered ‘different opinions,’ and were ‘not afraid to tell it like it is’” (256). In the past couple of years, however, the definition of “fake news” has evolved to mean texts (including non-print media) that are not satirical but instead masquerade as objective truth. Donna Alvermann, a prominent researcher of adolescent literacies, says that we are in a “post-factual era” and suggests that adolescents operate “in a digital culture that tolerates fakeness in its various disguises” (225). She urges us, as English educators, to engage in critical inquiry with our adolescents to help them discern factual news from fake.

Heather and I met in the spring 2017 semester when I enrolled in her adolescent literacy course. Although I have a master’s degree in English education, I am not currently teaching and needed a course to update my certification. One of the learning activities in Heather’s course was to develop a writing-to-learn activity. I created my writing-to-learn activity shortly after President Trump, concerned with “fake news,” tweeted that the media are “the enemy of the American people.” Because I take inquiry stance in my own thinking, learning, and teaching, I found myself preoccupied with what Trump’s remarks might mean for our society. My assignment evolved organically from my curiosity about how students would interpret and shape the conversation about fake news and the media. I wondered: How do students navigate this complicated digital and informational web? How would students situate themselves within the conversation about fake news? How might they build knowledge collaboratively and individually, demonstrate power, and make sense of their own agency in their writing about fake news? Essentially, how do students interrogate texts, and how do they influence and create texts?

Teaching the Assignment

After I submitted my assignment, Heather encouraged me to find a classroom in which I could teach it because the questions I explored in this assignment felt pressing and tied to the current moment. The topic of fake news seemed like one that mattered, both in terms of student interest (it was accessible and engaging) and educational value (with an emphasis on digital literacy, fact-finding, and crafting meaningful responses). We found a willing English teacher and arranged for me to investigate these questions in a living, breathing classroom. We also received IRB approval to collect data (which included student artifacts and my own notes) during my lesson and collected consent and assent forms from the students and their parents. The class at a school in Western Maryland was a blend of about fifteen sophomores and juniors whom their teacher described as “good critical thinkers.” I introduced President Trump’s role in the conversation around fake news by including a screenshot of his tweet about the media being the enemy of the people with other images of relevant headlines.

Designing the Lesson

I designed my lesson to give students the space to investigate the concept of “fake news” and disseminate important information about it to real audiences. The two-day lesson took place in stages comprised of a whole class discussion about prior knowledge of fake news, a quick-write to record their initial thoughts on the topic, further discussion, and student-driven research on their questions that developed from our discussions and their own “writing to learn.” Each student received a paper “Facebook post” template (see Figure 1) and instructions to “Write a post you could imagine going viral on Facebook. What do you think people need to know about fake news?” The bulk of the second day’s activity centered on creating the “posts” and responding to each other’s work.

Facebook seemed like an appropriate literacy tool as defined by Beach et al. because it is “neither static nor detached from social situations” and provides an opportunity and a venue “to transform relationships, spaces, the focus of people’s inquiry, and identities” (14). As demonstrated in Figure 2, the authors describe a literacy tool as one that contributes to transformation with its purposes of engaging in critical inquiry, constructing spaces, establishing agency, and enacting identities, existing in a “synergistic relationship” (21). Facebook seems to fit the criteria as it is a text to be read and written; it is text and tool. Additionally, it is a medium that most students are intimately familiar with, is tied to their identities, and has a direct relationship to the topic of fake news because so much of the conversation and fake news itself finds its way onto Facebook. Paradoxically, this digital literacy lesson took place without any actual digital tools. I assumed that an offline “simulation” would translate into online skills and stances and vice versa. In designing the assignment for the offline classroom, I built in opportunities to mimic the conventions and connectivity of Facebook: I encouraged students to use hashtags and tags to situate themselves in a larger conversation, and provided the opportunity to respond to each other’s work during a gallery walk via smiley and heart stickers (“likes” and “loves”) and sticky notes (“comments”).

What Did Students Have to Say About #FakeNews?

The students and I first engaged in a whole-class discussion about fake news. Because I am not their regular teacher, I wanted to assess their prior knowledge on the topic. Immediately, Darren (all names are pseudonyms) referred to “fake news” as a term used by President Trump to discredit news that puts him in a negative light. As we unpacked this statement through questions like, “What makes the news fake or real?” and “What are our expectations of journalists and the media?” students seemed to arrive collectively at the definition of fake news as, essentially, bias. Students then had ten minutes to write about these questions: “How should the media operate in a democracy such as ours? Is it currently operating that way? How has fake news influenced society?”

Given the collaborative definition the class had developed, many students focused their responses on bias. The majority of their answers went something like Margo’s: “I think in a democracy like ours the news should give us information straight up.” Joni echoed the sentiment, writing that the media “should speak the truth and let the people decide for themselves what is right and wrong.” She added, “Fake news changes people (sic) perspectives and some sources tell you what to believe or what they believe is right. They don’t let us have our own opinions.” She addressed issues of power by positioning the bias in the media as effectively silencing or reducing citizens’ ability to form their own opinions. Many of these initial responses included various levels of mistrust of the media. For example, Hayden directly wrote, “I would say fake news makes our society worry about if the system is corrupted or begs the question ‘who can we trust?’” Students seemed to be deeply ambivalent regarding the news and its effects on individuals and society as a whole.

Jonathan gave a slightly more nuanced interpretation: “The media’s job is to report the news. They should do it in a straight, fair manner. However, opinionated news cannot be illegal; that goes against the 1st Amendment… Our job, as good citizens, is to filter the news ourselves and realize what is factual and what is an opinion.” Jonathan demonstrated an unusual sense of agency and personal responsibility. Although some students, like Joni, felt that the media constrict and constrain our ability to respond, Jonathan saw private citizens as capable of and responsible for critiquing and responding to fake news and the media.

Next Steps: Posing the Questions

After sharing some of their quick-write responses, students created questions about what they wanted to know about fake news. I introduced the next step: independent research. I asked students to find three sources that would help to illuminate their questions about fake news. To support this research (and so I could map their thought processes), I provided students with a graphic organizer (see Figure 3). I also asked them to evaluate their sources and to talk about the bias represented and the reliability (or not) of the sources they chose. To this end, I showed students a viral graphic that positions a variety of news outlets across a spectrum of liberal to conservative bias and low to high journalistic integrity (see Figure 4). (The graphic I shared has been recently updated, reflective of the dynamic metadiscussion about the role of the news media.) “Source” was a flexible term; students were free to explore things like news articles, Twitter feeds, or YouTube videos. The only real criterion was that the sources would somehow advance the conversation or their knowledge of fake news.

This phase of the lesson is where student autonomy really began to emerge. Students asked a range of probing questions based on their interest in the topic. The questions fell into six broad categories: “What is fake news?”; “Why is fake news relevant/how does it affect society?”; “When did fake news start?”; “How is it created?”; “How does it spread?”; and “How to spot fake news.” Interestingly, and again reflecting students’ apparent belief that they are acted upon rather than actors in the conversation about fake news, Ellen was the only student to directly tackle the question of “potential solutions to the use of fake news.”

Our opening activity on day two involved an interactive sticky note activity in which students chose one of their sources and positioned it along the spectrum, similar to the viral infographic we viewed the day before. In this way, students could situate their sources in a complex landscape of media bias and reliability. Supporting students in recognizing the bias in their sources was one element of empowerment. In this activity, we conceptualized writing not only as the act of putting words to the page but also the act of articulating an interpretive response to these texts. This expanded definition of writing helps us position as writers those students who contribute thoughtfully to our collective thinking through class discussions but who would not traditionally be considered writers. As they had expressed distrust in the media and even in consumers of media to identify bias, including this activity was a subtle way to reinforce their own power in confronting and analyzing the media.

Going Viral?: Students’ Posts

Whereas students’ quick-writes were generally similar in content and style, their “posts” provided a great deal of individuality and variety. For example, Darren began his post with, “Yoooooo! It’s Darren here. I’ve been feeling really weird over this whole #fakenews thing @realdonaldtrump has been trying to push on us. I think I will finally speak my mind.” Hayden took a more philosophical approach: “Take such things as a grain of sand. Let it be there only to be there, the news. Do not let the waves of the ocean, one of opinions, engulf your thoughts. Believe none but what your mind and heart tell you, not what others force upon you.” Margo used rhetorical style to discuss the impact of fake news overseas, “Macron’s presidential campaign has been financed by Saudi Arabia? Wrong! Marine Le Pen criticizing a kids (sic) show because the little girl wears a veil? Wrong again!” Bea used more colorful descriptors when introducing her thoughts: “Contrary to popular belief our zany President, Donald Trump, did NOT make up ‘fake news’.” It seems that when students are offered the opportunity to write in a non-academic genre for their own interests, they potentially produce interesting, provocative, and powerful texts.

Their posts were also more authoritative, demonstrating greater agency, than their original quick-writes. As Beach et al. write, “We define agency as having the potential or capacity to enact change in status-quo practices, beliefs, or self-perceptions… Students who view themselves as change agents believe that they can make a difference in the world. They are willing not only to voice their beliefs about the need for change but also to enact change through active participation despite difficulties” (52). Many students called on their audience to “do a little research” and to “educate the people” about fake news. Hash tags that students used to reiterate the point included ones used by multiple students (including in their comments on each other’s work)–“#stopfakenews” and “#notmynews,”–and those used by individuals “#geteducated,” “#evaluatenews,” and “#staywoke.” A few students still mentioned being a “victim” of fake news or distrust of the media, but the majority of students seemed to demonstrate their belief that they could spot fake news and help others learn to do the same.

With some students, it was easy to see how their research influenced their final posts. Jonathan synthesized a couple of sources from his research organizer: “As good citizens, we have a responsibility to become educated and filter the news ourselves. According to one study, facts can ‘combat’ fake news effectively. Fake news goes both ways (liberal and conservative) and no side is to blame. False stories have always existed (yellow journalism) and we have a duty to know what is and what isn’t.” Margo used the BBC and CrossCheck to help compose her post about the French election, and Cassie referenced The Guardian as a resource for self-education about fake news.

Most students didn’t necessarily change their opinions but strengthened them (which they themselves acknowledged in the follow-up reflection questions). Miley originally wrote in her quick-write, “Fake news has changed the way Americans interpret things. Most people believe what they see because we usually trust the internet to give us correct information about certain issues.” But in her viral post, she wrote, “Fake news is taking over the internet and we need to do something about it.” Additionally, her follow-up writing offered more of her own opinion and demonstrates the desire for people to act in response to fake news rather than passively accept it. Tommy initially wrote, “The media should be truthful and unbiased to give citizens a proper view on current events… Fake news can misinform people and change their outlook on politicians and recent events.” By the end of the lesson he advocated for individuals to take responsibility for evaluating their news: “If a story seems fake, check multiple sources to confirm or deny its legitimacy. Inform others of the issue of fake news. Then we can all make sure we receive truthful news that allows us to make proper decisions and stances on events.” While their responses weren’t wildly different from start to finish, they clearly progressed in their thinking and evolved in their vision of themselves and others as active, critical consumers of media, which they expressed, at times powerfully, through their writing.

Reflecting: Do Students See Themselves as Powerful Contributors to Current Conversations?

I suppose I was asking students to make the mental leap from completing a hypothetical, in-class, offline assignment to imagining themselves as active participants in online discussions. Their willingness to engage in an in-class activity did not necessarily translate to an inclination to insert themselves into a broader social media conversation. Despite the overall strength and tone in their Facebook posts and their clear ease in writing in the genre, most students still did not express a desire to take their opinions online. As Bea wrote, “I prefer to look at what other people are saying rather than put myself out there just because I feel as if it’s pointless to comment on social media. The only thing that will happen is an online squabble with someone who has a dissenting opinion.” Miley felt similarly, saying, “I would not want to start an argument.” Cassie said she wouldn’t post her thoughts on Facebook “because a lot of social media discussions about these topics are arguments and I don’t like that.” Darren merged a few thoughts about social media discussions, saying “they tend to become negative… the internet isn’t the best place for political discussion.” Ellen and Jonathan both said they prefer to share their opinions “in real life.” Generally, it seems like these students wanted to add their voice “locally” with familiar people and in a familiar environment. This tendency leads us to consider how our students are conceptualizing digital spaces and social media; although they often share personal and intimate details on social media, these students are clearly reluctant to engage in political discussions in these spaces. Do they see face-to-face discourse as less argumentative and, thus, more productive, or is it that they have personal relationships with those with whom they engage face-to-face, whereas they imagine engaging with combative strangers on social media?

The Media: A Malevolent Force?

During our discussions, some students talked about the ways in which we tend to seek out news that affirms our beliefs. Reinforcing their own observations, many students claimed that their opinions weren’t changed by the sources they found, but were strengthened. Bruce Pirie queries, “Once we see audience and text engaged in a meaning-making transaction, two interrelated questions arise. First, how and to what extent is the audience constructing the text? Second, how and to what extent is the text constructing its own audience?” (29). I found it interesting that though social media are interactive, students still do not see themselves as capable of significantly influencing conversations on social media. To that end, Margo wrote, “I feel like my opinions are not important in social media discussion. I think this because I believe I do not have a big enough ‘Fan base’ to get my point around.” Some of their posts, and, even more so, their reflections demonstrate a reluctance to engage with what they perceive to be a force greater than themselves, one that has almost a sinister ability to cause division, arguments, and mistrust. For instance, Miley wrote, “I do not like the fact that I cannot trust sources that might have once been reliable. Americans cannot trust anything now.” In developing and enacting agency around the topic of fake news, I hoped to encourage students to be critical and active versus fearful and passive, but for some, the distrust remained.

So What Does It Mean to Have Power and Agency in Digital Spaces?

When creating this lesson, I imagined that students, by interacting with literacy tools, would somehow be transformed, and that they themselves would transform the literacy tools (in this case, a larger “Facebook” discourse). But agency and transformation didn’t happen in exactly the ways I thought they would. I imagined students would “take up the cause” to a higher degree, envisioning themselves as major change agents. Instead, transformation and agency were subtler. Students demonstrated agency and participated in meaning-making by:

  1. Taking responsibility for determining the credibility of their sources (both in their research and in their recommendations to their audiences in their posts).
  2. Creating and using hashtags that positioned themselves firmly within the conversation as knowledge creators and “interacting with each other’s texts” (Beach et al 48).
  3. Creating their own research questions based on their interests and charting their own course for their internet search.
  4. Using their unique voices that emerged to create more powerful and interesting writing; and
  5. Using the conventions of the genre (social media posts) proficiently to increase the impact of their positions about fake news.

The Inquiry Cycle Continues: Concluding Thoughts

The assignment was designed to support students in the development of their knowledge, and ultimately, their stance regarding fake news. As Beach et al write, “Adopting a critical inquiry stance also involves engaging in dialogue with others, and collective action leading to change” (30). My goal was to see a change in students’ views of themselves as influencers as well as a change in the actual dialogue regarding fake news—that students would feel empowered to affect this change through their writing.

As the teacher/researcher, I assumed that students would have a high level of engagement with the topic because of its relevance. Furthermore, I expected that students would have a strong sense of, and interest in, their own identities as creators and disseminators of knowledge. While the writing and research process included many elements of personal agency, culminating in what I would characterize as strongly-voiced manifestos on fake news, students still did not seem to perceive themselves as powerful contributors to the online discourse. Neither did they seem to desire to participate in such change-making conversations.

We’re left wondering how, as educators, we can mediate our wish for students to participate genuinely, especially in digital spaces, with students’ agentic responses of “I don’t want to.” How can—or should—students’ social and educational, personal and political, digital and local worlds overlap? We find ourselves thinking about ways to negotiate student interests with our pedagogical interest in social change, acknowledging that we assume that creating change is valuable and desirable. We recognize the myriad ways in which students enact power throughout the writing process and affirm their agency in choosing their audience. Meanwhile, we can continue to encourage them to shift toward a more nuanced understanding of “argument,” from a “squabble” to a well-researched, well-reasoned exchange of ideas. We can challenge them to strengthen their own capacities for civil discourse both online and off, skills that in these contentious times are desperately needed.

Works Cited

Alvermann, Donna E. “Social Media Texts and Critical Inquiry in a Post-Factual Era.” Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, vol. 61, no. 3, 2017, pp. 335-338.

Beach, Richard, et al. Literacy Tools in the Classroom: Teaching Through Critical Inquiry, Grades 5-12. Teachers College Press, 2010.

Common Core State Standards. National Governors Association Center for Best Practices, Council of Chief State School Officers, 2010.

Marchi, Regina. “With Facebook, Blogs, and Fake News, Teens Reject Journalistic ‘Objectivity.’” Journal of Communication Inquiry, vol. 36, no. 3, 2012, pp. 246-262.

Pirie, Bruce. Reshaping High School English. National Council of Teachers of English, 1997.

@realDonaldTrump. “The FAKE NEWS media (failing @nytimes, @NBCNews, @ABC, @CBS, @CNN) is not my enemy, it is the enemy of the American People!” Twitter, 17 Feb 2017, 1:48 p.m., twitter.com/realDonaldTrump/status/832708293516632065

@vlotero. “I made this chart about news sources.” Twitter, 13 Dec 2016, 7:33 a.m., twitter.com/vlotero/status/808696317174288387/photo/1

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Centering LGBTQ People of Color with Young Adult Literature in Secondary ELA

Cody Miller and Kathleen Colantonio-Yurko

As English language arts teachers, we believe young adult literature offers an avenue for voices and experiences that are largely ignored by canonical texts. LGBTQ voices are among those omitted from many English language arts textbooks. In the past, we relied heavily on young adult literature to provide our students LGBTQ texts. However, the mostly white faces on LGBTQ young adult titles did not reflect the racial diversity of LGBTQ students we taught. Finding and teaching young adult literature that focused on LGBTQ people of color became a professional missions of ours. Similarly, Durand calls for researchers to study young adult literature featuring LGBTQ people of color (83). Our paper seeks to answer Durand’s call through classroom practice by providing teachers texts and strategies to incorporate young adult literature that focuses on LGBTQ people of color into secondary English language arts curricula.

We offer texts that we have taught before in our 9th and 10th grade English language arts classes or texts we suggested to individual students. However, we want to recognize that there is no singular LGBTQ experience. There is no monolithic white LGBTQ experience, nor is there a monolithic experience for LGBTQ people of color. Furthermore, within the identifier “people of color” there exists broad cultural and racial diversity. Students and teachers must be cautious of not perpetuating singular views about LGBTQ people of color; they must recognize that race, ethnicity, religion, nationality, ability, language, gender identity, sex, class and other social identities intersect with sexuality to form an individual’s experiences of society and power. We offer texts we have taught and suggest other texts that we have read, but these lists are just a beginning; teachers, teacher educators, and students should work together to find, read, and teach more texts that center on the lives of LGBTQ people of color.

LGBTQ Young Adult Literature and Race

Recent writings on multicultural literature have been updated to include LGBTQ narratives under the umbrella of “multicultural literature” (Temple, Martinez, and Yokota). However, it is important to avoid the common tendency of treating “racial diversity” as a wholly separate and removed category from “sexuality.” Previous scholarship has found that intersectionality is typically lost when LGBTQ literature is used within secondary classrooms due to the myopic focus on characters’ sexualities, which is problematic considering “no one is solely sexual” (Blackburn and Smith 633). Furthermore, a narrow focus on the sexuality of characters for the sake of inclusion simplifies the realities and experiences of LGBTQ people and allows students to disregard sociopolitical and cultural factors that contribute to inequities and marginalization (Blackburn and Clark).

Unfortunately, too much of LGBTQ young adult literature has focused on white experiences (Garcia; Garden). White people do not hold a unique claim to LGBTQ identities, but we reproduce the idea that LGBTQ identities are white when we fail to acknowledge the role race plays while naming and teaching LGBTQ young adult literature. As Puar notes, “Any singular-axis identity analysis will reiterate the most normative versions of that identity” (93). In other words, a focus solely on sexuality will reinforce whiteness, while a focus solely on race will reinforce heteronormativity. All LGBTQ young adult literature is racialized, so we should call the majority of LGBTQ young adult literature what it is: white LGBTQ young adult literature. A failure to acknowledge the whiteness in most young adult literature will only perpetuate the message that LGBTQ identities are coupled to whiteness.

Fortunately, there is a growing number of young adult texts focusing on LGBTQ people of color. These texts can become powerful curricular material in secondary English language arts classrooms. Hermann-Wilmarth and Ryan note that texts focusing on LGBTQ people of color “help readers expand their notions of who ‘counts’ in various racial, sexual minority, and religious communities” (97). It is important to acknowledge that among the growing number of young adult literature focusing on LGTBQ people of color, the “T” is still largely underrepresented. Young adult literature publishing agencies must do more to support the work of trans writers of color and their work. Supporting trans writers of color means supporting work about trans youth of color. A report co-authored by the Trans People of Color Coalition and the Human Rights Campaign found that transgender women of color face an increased risk of violence and often feel unsafe in seeking resources due to the intersecting forces of racism, sexism, and transphobia. Our work does not remedy this problem, nor does it dismantle the political and cultural forces centering LGBTQ issues on whiteness. Nevertheless, honoring the reality of LGBTQ people of color in the classroom through literary studies is an important first step for fostering critical consciousness in students.

Instructional Strategies

We are critical of the standards movement, especially its emphasis on mandated testing and its neoliberal foundations which seek to usurp the democratic aims of education in favor of market-based approaches. Yet we also recognize that teachers and students live in a standards-based policy landscape. Thus, part of being a multicultural educator is understanding how to do social justice work while navigating oppressive school systems and mandates. Scholars like Beach, Thein, and Webb and Duncan-Andrade and Morrell have called for teachers to use the mandated standards to advance the aims of a social justice-oriented English education. We concur with their call and their assessment that critical curriculum and instruction will ensure that students exceed the demands of standardized tests. Duncan-Andrade and Morrell argue that teachers should be able to “justify” their social justice curriculum and teaching to cautious audiences, including parents and administrators. To that end, we have acknowledged how our strategies fulfill the needs of the Common Core State Standards. The standards do not drive our work. Rather, a commitment to equitable and inclusive classrooms grounds our curriculum and teaching. But being able to use mandated standards to “justify” the teaching of texts that feature LGBTQ characters of color is essential in navigating our educational reality while simultaneously working to change it.

Book Clubs   

We understand that homophobia and transphobia embedded in school systems makes teaching LGBTQ texts difficult. For many teachers across the nation, including ourselves, teaching an LGBTQ text as an entire class novel may be nearly impossible. Thus, we believe it is important to “do what you can” (Hermann-Wilmarth and Ryan) within your professional context. For us, that meant structuring “book clubs” for students and including titles that focus on LGBTQ people of color. We refer to “book clubs” as a curricular and classroom structure in which teacher select a variety of books and group them based on common themes so that students can read choice texts within a thematic unit. Incorporating LGBTQ texts through book clubs was an effective way for us to prevent parental pushback.

Clark and Blackburn have suggested that presenting LGBTQ texts as optional readings perpetuates homophobic and transphobic attitudes because students are able to opt out and thus avoid reading about LGBTQ experiences. While we find that argument defensible, we also feel it is important to acknowledge Burke and Greenfield’s suggestions that students may choose to not read LGBTQ texts because they themselves are LGBTQ or have LGBTQ family members but are not ready to share that publicly. Furthermore, sometimes the only way to incorporate LGBTQ texts into the classrooms is through choice reading due to the politics of the school. Teachers, parents, and administrators should do more to change those politics, but we want to honor the reality that many classroom teachers, especially new teachers, face. Book clubs are a seemingly small, but important, first step.

The following list outlines how we structure book club units:

  1. We provide an overview of all the available texts during a book club unit to the entire class when we begin a new unit. We note the basic premise of the plot and the major characters’ identities.
  2. We provide time for students to examine each book that seemed interesting to them in class after the introduction. Students usually take five minutes on each book they noted seemed interesting. Students are prompted to read the back of the book, the first few pages, and the synopsis.
  3. Students write down and rank their top three choices from the book club options. Students note why they want to read each book.
  4. We organize students into groups based on their book club comments. We strive to ensure that all students receive their top pick, but cannot guarantee it since the quantity of books is not limitless.
  5. Students create a plan for how they’ll complete the book given our schedule. We let students know how many reading days they’ll have in class. Students then note how many pages they need to read and if they need to plan to come in during lunch to catch up.
  6. From this point, students are given 30 minutes each day in class to read their book club. Students make annotations for the text after each reading period. Students can use these annotations for classroom discussions.
  7. Once a week, students are allotted time to discuss their book club text with their peers. These discussions can take a variety of formats as outlined further in the section below.
  8. We typically require students to complete a multi-piece project at the end of the book club units to demonstrate their understanding and meaning-making process with the texts.

Multimedia Character Analysis

Teachers should create assignments that require students to analyze topics around identity and power. Our Multimedia Character Analysis (Figure One) is an assignment to help students analyze characters in terms of identities, relationships, experiences, and changes. The cycle symbol in the center of the graphic indicates the relational nature of all four categories.

Students curate images from other texts to illustrate the four categories for a character from their book. In Figure One, we require students to select different number of images for different categories, but this can be amended. Students can create their Multimedia Character Analysis using technology tools like Piktochart, Glogster, Google Drawing or any other preferred application. We encourage students to use video or audio clips as their “images” if the platform allows permits. Finally, students should be required to write a reflection in which they explain the significance of their images to their books with textual evidence. Students should also be asked to explain how the four categories intersect within the text. This assignment can be implemented for all students during a book club unit, but we are most interested in helping students analyze LGBTQ characters of color. Students use this assignment to understand that no character (or person) is solely one identity, and the various identities characters hold shape their relationship to power.

In analyzing Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe using the multimedia character analysis, one student used the scene in which one of the titular characters is the victim of a homophobic attack point out that “men are socialized to be afraid of showing any affection for another male regardless of sexuality.” She placed this analysis in the “experience” section and used it to connect to the “identities” section. The student also used the identities section to observe that Dante’s shame of being Mexican is “related to his shame of being gay.” The student continued by adding that the “dominant racial group, white, made Dante ashamed of being Mexican. The dominant sexual group, straight, made Dante ashamed of being gay.” The student also noted how this shame impacts the character’s relationships with others for the “relationship” segment, and notes that the homophobic experiences the character faces cause a shift in the character in the “changes” segment. The student used the multimedia character analysis to connect the character’s identities, relationships, changes, and experiences throughout the course of the book.

Book Club Discussions

Book clubs usually offer small, intimate avenues for discussion that are different from whole class discussion formats such as the Socratic Seminar. The smaller setting of book clubs offers a wide range of types of discussion formats students can partake in. Figure Two provides different formats for discussions that we have used, as well as their strengths and points of concern based on our experiences. Students should be given a range of options for discussion formats and then select the one they and their group feel most comfortable with. Regardless of format, students should be given the autonomy to create their own discussion questions to pose to their groups. Teachers need to model how to write high-quality, open-ended, text-based discussion questions, and then allow students to generate questions to bring to their discussions. The content in students’ graphic organizers from the previous section can be a starting point for generating discussion questions.

Offering multiple ways to engage in discussions for the book clubs results in discussion days where some students are in a section of the room recording short videos while some students are at their desk writing blog posts, and other students are huddled together having a face-to-face conversation. Regardless of format, we provide students with 20 to 25 minutes to unpack their thinking about the books they’re reading. Face-to-face groups use this time to chat in real time while students who opt for digital responses can use this time reading and responding to their peers digitally. Students then write a brief reflection on what they discussed, what they learned, and how their thinking of the book has developed due to their discussion.

Additionally, teachers and students should collaborate to establish norms of discussion to ensure everyone’s voice is heard. At the beginning of the school year, we ask students to list what they think is necessary to have a dialogic classroom for our collective learning. From students’ responses, we establish our classroom norms. For instance, students note that it is important for us to focus on the content of classroom discussion contributions rather than the person making the contribution. Students also ask that we “call in” rather than “call out” peers when something problematic has been stated. Protocols can help ensure everyone’s voice is heard. We often use text protocols from the National School Reform Faculty to help structure our classroom discussions. Many of the protocols provided by the National School Reform Faculty are adaptable to the various types of discussion we outlined earlier in this section. It’s important to solicit student feedback when implanting a new protocol. We ask students what they believe the strengths and weaknesses of specific protocols are in order to tailor our instruction for future classroom sessions.

Teachers should also be prepared to challenge students’ thinking, especially if students are engaging in homophobic or transphobic discourse. Book discussions can be a powerful vehicle to transform students’ understanding of experiences dissimilar to theirs. However, teachers need to ensure that harmful myths and damaging misconceptions students may hold about LGBTQ individuals and communities are swiftly corrected. One way teachers can address such misconceptions is to provide an overview of important terms relating to LGBTQ topics. For instance, our students sometimes conflated sexuality with gender identity. Students would note that a character is “gay but not transgender,” thus setting up a gay or transgender binary. This observation opens up an opportunity to inform students that a character can be gay and transgender or gay and cisgender since all people have a sexuality and a gender identity. We would then provide an overview of the difference between sexuality and gender identity. It was also important for us to challenge notions of “normal” in book club discussions. Terminology plays an important role here. Students would note that one character is transgender while another character is “normal.” To disrupt this thinking, we introduced the term “cisgender” to students. Providing students with language like “cisgender” allows students to see that all people have gender identities, which decenters cisgender as the default identity. The organizations Teaching Tolerance and Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) have teacher-friendly guides to important terms and concepts relating to LGBTQ topics. We suggest that teachers first develop a robust understanding of the terms and concepts before attempting to address the terms and concepts with students.

Suggested Books

We have our list of suggested young adult literature focusing on LGBTQ people of color (Figure Three). By no means is this list exhaustive. Rather, the list is composed of books we taught in book clubs or texts we recommended to students individually. Nearly all of the texts on our list are realistic fiction. We recognize that as a limitation. The number of science fiction and fantasy young adult titles feature LGBTQ characters of color is growing, and it is important for students to understand that LGBTQ people of color belong in all genres. Incorporating young adult literature that focuses on LGBTQ characters of color in other genres, like fantasy, is an important next step for this work.

Our list also includes suggested pairings for the titles. Dodge and Crutcher suggest that pairing LGBTQ texts with canonical texts can fulfill the demands of the Common Core State Standards while promoting the aims of social justice teaching and creating inclusive classrooms for LGBTQ students. Our own high school English language arts teaching experiences bolster their argument. One way we organized our curriculum is to have the entire class read the suggested “pairs well with” text and then provide book club options that thematically relate to the whole class read. Many, but not all, of our “pairs well with” texts come from the Common Core Text Exemplars for grades 6-12. Teachers can then construct thematic essential questions to allow students to analyze across the texts. These essential questions can guides students with writing sub-questions for small group discussions. We have provided sample essential questions for the pairings in Figure Three. Of course, we encourage teachers to create their own “pairs well with” texts and essential questions for their students.

Conclusion

Despite legal wins such as the right to marry and serve openly in the military, LGBTQ students and teachers still live in a society and learn in a school system that is structured to oppress them. To say that LGBTQ students endure less safe and affirming school environments than their straight peers would be an understatement. In addition, LGBTQ students of color face more types of discrimination than their white LGBTQ peers in public schools across the nation due to their racial and ethnic identities (Diaz and Kosciw; Fondas).

Too many schools still lack LGBTQ-inclusive curriculum and affirming teachers. Even teachers who see themselves as supportive of LGBTQ individuals and rights express trepidation in using LGBTQ literature in their classrooms (Thein). Malo-Juvaro’s mixed-methods study found that pre-service teachers held a variety of views about using LGBTQ YAL in their future classrooms. Some saw LGBTQ YAL as a way to reduce homophobia and support inclusion for LGBTQ students in schools, while others suggested that LGBTQ issues were unnecessary to teach and could offend other students. Greathouse and Diccio found that pre-service teachers who develop an ally stance by studying LGBTQ YAL in their teacher education programs do not implement ally work in the classroom due to fears about negative responses from parents, community members, and administrators. These findings reveal that the potential for LGBTQ literature instruction to transform classrooms and schools has yet to be met in teacher education programs or classroom practice. In short, serious obstacles still remain for creating inclusive schools for LGBTQ students.

Given this less than ideal picture, our commitment to equitable and inclusive classrooms remains crucial. Making our classrooms inclusive and equitable spaces for LGBTQ students must involve acknowledging that “LGBTQ” is not synonymous with “white.” In working to implement anti-heterosexist pedagogy, teachers must include the impact of race in their content, analysis, and instruction. Our article offers suggestions for how that work might look while still adhering to state-mandated standards. It is our hope that providing instructional tools, texts, and ways to “justify” the work to other stakeholders will open the door for more teachers to teach young adult literature titles that center on LGBTQ people of color. Our students deserve nothing less.

 

Works Cited

Beach, Richard, Amanda Haertling Thein, and Allen Webb. Teaching to Exceed the English Language Arts Common Core State Standards: A Critical Inquiry Approach for 6-12 Classrooms. 2nd ed., Routledge, 2016.

Blackburn, Mollie V., and Caroline T. Clark. “Analyzing Talk in a Long‐term Literature Discussion Group: Ways of Operating Within LGBT‐inclusive and Queer Discourses.” Reading Research Quarterly, vol. 46, no. 3, 2011, pp. 222-248.

Blackburn, Mollie V., and Jill M. Smith. “Moving Beyond the Inclusion of LGBT‐themed Literature in English Language Arts Classrooms: Interrogating Heteronormativity and Exploring Intersectionality.” Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, vol. 53, no. 8, 2010, 625-634.

Burke, Brianna R., and Kristina Greenfield. “Challenging Heteronormativity: Raising LGBTQ Awareness in a High School English Language Arts Classroom.” English Journal, vol. 105, no. 6, 2016, pp. 46-51.

Clark, Caroline T., and Mollie V. Blackburn. “Reading LGBT-themed Literature with Young People: What’s Possible?.” English Journal, vol. 98, no. 4, 2009, pp. 25-32.

Diaz, Elizabeth M., and Joseph Gregory Kosciw. Shared Differences: The Experiences of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Students of Color in Our Nation’s Schools. GLESN, 2009.

Dodge, Autumn M., and Paul A. Crutcher. “Inclusive Classrooms for LGBTQ students: Using Linked Texts Sets to Challenge the Hegemonic ‘Single Story.’” Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, vol.  59, no. 1, 2015, pp. 95-105.

Duncan-Andrade, Jeffrey Michael Reyes, and Ernest Morrell. The Art of Critical Pedagogy: Possibilities for Moving from Theory to Practice in Urban Schools. Vol. 285. Peter Lang, 2008.

Durand, Elizabeth Sybil. “At the Intersections of Identity: Race and Sexuality in LGBTQ Young Adult Literature.” Beyond Borders: Queer Eros and Ethos (Ethics) in LGBTQ Young Adult Literature, edited by Darla Linville and David Lee Carlson, Peter Lang Publishing, 2016, pp. 73-84.

Fondas, Nanette. “Schools are Failing Minority LGBTQ Students.” The Atlantic, 18 Nov. 2013, www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2013/11/schools-are-failing-minority-lgbt-students/281600/.

Garcia, Antero. Critical Foundations in Young Adult Literature: Challenging genres. Vol. 4. Sense Publishers, 2013.

Garden, Nancy. “LGBTQ Young Adult Literature: How It Began, How It Grew, and Where It Is Now.” The ALAN Review, vol. 41, no. 3, 2014, pp. 79-83.

Greathouse, Paula, and Mike Diccio. “Standing but not Delivering: Preparing Pre-service Teachers to use LGBTQ Young Adult Literature in the Secondary English Classroom.” Study and Scrutiny: Research on Young Adult Literature, vol.  2, no. 1, 2016, pp.  35-52.

Hermann-Wilmarth, Jill M., and Caitlin L. Ryan. “Destabilizing the Homonormative for Young Readers: Exploring Tash’s Queerness in Woodson’s After Tupac and D Doster.” Beyond  Borders: Queer Eros and Ethos (Ethics) in LGBTQ Young Adult Literature, edited by Darla Linville and David Lee Carlson, Peter Lang Publishing, 2016, pp. 85-100.

Hermann-Wilmarth, Jill M., and Caitlin L. Ryan. “Doing What You Can: Considering Ways to Address LGBT Topics in Language Arts Curricula.” Language Arts, vol.  92, no. 6, 2015, 436-443.

Human Rights Campaign & the Trans People of Color Coalition. A Matter of Life and Death: Fatal Violence Against Transgender People in America 2016. Human Rights Campaign & Trans People of Color Coalition, 2016.   

Malo-Juvera, Victor. “A Mixed Methods Study of Pre-service Teachers’ Attitudes Toward LGBTQ Themed Literature.” Study and Scrutiny: Research on Young Adult Literature, vol.  1, no. 1, 2015, pp. 1-45.

Puar, Jasbir K. Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times. Duke University Press, 2007.

Temple, Charles, Miriam Martinez, and Junko Yokota. Children’s Books in Children’s Hands. 5th ed., Pearson, 2014.

Thein, Amanda Haertling. “Language Arts Teachers’ Resistance to Teaching LGBT Literature and Issues.” Language Arts, vol. 90, no. 3, 2013, pp. 169-180.

 

Literature Cited 

Alexie, Sherman, and Ellen Forney. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. Little, Brown, 2007.

Alvarez, Julia. How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents. Algonquin Books, 1991.

Bambara, Toni Cade. Gorilla, My Love. Reissue ed., Vintage Books, 1992.

Beam, Cris. I am J. Hachette Book Group, 2012.

Cisneros, Sandra. Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories. Vintage Books, 1992.

Davis, Tanita S. Happy Families. Random House, 2013.

Farizan, Sara. Tell Me Again How a Crush Should Feel. Algonquin Young Readers, 2015.

Hansberry, Lorraine. A Raisin in the Sun. Random House, 1995.

Lahiri, Jhumpa. The Namesake. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2003.

Lee, Harper. To Kill a Mockingbird. Lippincott, 1960.

Revoyr, Nina. The Necessary Hunger. Simon and Schuster, 2011.

Rice-Gonzalez, Charles. Chulito: A Novel. Magnus Books, 2011.

Rivera, Gabby. Juliet Takes a Breath. Riverdale Avenue Books, 2016.

Sáenz, Benjamin Alire.  Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe. Simon and Schuster, 2014.

Salinger, J.D. The Catcher in the Rye. Little, Brown, 1951.

Shakespeare, William. Twelfth Night. No Fear Shakespeare Ed., SparkNotes, (Original work published 1602), 2003.

Woodson, Jacqueline. The House You Pass on the Way. Penguin Group, 2010.

Yee, Paul. Money Boy. Groundwood Books, 2013.

 

Organizations Cited

“Creating an LGBT-Inclusive School Climate.” Teaching Tolerance, Southern Poverty Law Center, 30 Nov. 2017, www.tolerance.org/magazine/publications/creating-an-lgbtinclusive-school-climate.

“GLSEN Terms and Definitions.” GLSEN, Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network, www.glsen.org/chapters/massachusetts/terms.

“NSRF Protocols and Activities … from A to Z.” Protocols A-Z | National School Reform Faculty, National School Reform Faculty, 2015, www.nsrfharmony.org/free-resources/protocols/a-z.

 

Figure One: Multimedia Character Analysis

 charanalysis.png
Common Core English Language Arts Reading Literature standards addressed:

Cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.

Analyze how complex characters (e.g., those with multiple or conflicting motivations) develop over the course of a text, interact with other characters, and advance the plot or develop the theme.

Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in the text, including figurative and connotative meanings; analyze the cumulative impact of specific word choices on meaning and tone (e.g., how the language evokes a sense of time and place; how it sets a formal or informal tone).

Common Core English Language Arts Writing standards addressed:

Use technology, including the Internet, to produce, publish, and update individual or shared writing products, taking advantage of technology’s capacity to link to other information and to display information flexibly and dynamically.

Draw evidence from literary or informational texts to support analysis, reflection, and research.

 

Figure Two: Small Group Discussion Formats

Discussion Format Strengths Points of concern
Small group discussion Students are probably most familiar with this format of discussion.

Students are able to receive support or challenge from their peers and teach immediately.

Students have a limited audience as they are only able to discuss with peers in their class.
Book chats on Twitter Students can have real time conversations with peers, including peers in other classes.

Students can create their own hashtags, which makes following and archiving the discussion easier.

Students learn how to cultivate a professional identity on social media.

Students need parent permission to create a Twitter account.

Some schools may block Twitter. The use of Twitter relies on school’s Internet access.

Blogging Students can set up their own blogs, post their questions and insights, and respond to peers. Responses from students will not be immediate due to nature of posting and responding.
Video Responses Students can create video responses to share with their peers and respond to their peers via video. Flipgrid is a good tool for this type of discussion.

This format supports students who are more comfortable with speaking than writing as their form of expression.

Teachers will need a learning management system to post and store the videos for students to view and post a reply.

Responses from students will not be immediate due to the nature of uploading and watching a video.

Common Core English Language Arts Speaking and Listening standards addressed:

Initiate and participate effectively in a range of collaborative discussions (one-on-one, in groups, and teacher-led) with diverse partners on grade-level topics, texts, and issues, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively.

Present information, findings, and supporting evidence clearly, concisely, and logically such that listeners can follow the line of reasoning and the organization, development, substance, and style are appropriate to purpose, audience, and task.

Make strategic use of digital media (e.g., textual, graphical, audio, visual, and interactive elements) in presentations to enhance understanding of findings, reasoning, and evidence and to add interest.

 

Figure Three: Suggested Books

Title Centers on Pairs well with Sample essential questions
Chulito: A Novel by Charles Rice-Gonzalez Protagonist is a gay Latino.  Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare How does society define and regulate “masculinity”?
Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz Titular characters are Mexican-American boys who are questioning their sexuality. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie How do community expectations impact individual’s actions and choices?
Happy Families by Tanita S. Davis Protagonists have a transgender African American parent. A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry What responsibilities do family members have to each other?
The House You Pass on the Way by Jacqueline Woodson Protagonist is a biracial (white and black) female questioning her sexuality. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee How do gender and race shape an individual’s power within a community?
I am J by Cris Beam Protagonist is a biracial (Puerto Rican and Jewish) transgender boy. “Eleven” by Sandra Cisneros What signifies someone’s growth from “childhood” to “adolescence”?
Tell Me Again How a Crush Should Feel by Sara Farizan Protagonist is a lesbian daughter of Iranian immigrants. How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents by Julia Alvarez What social and cultural factors impact the relationship between parents and their children?
Juliet Takes a Breath by Gabby Rivera Protagonist is a Puerto Rican lesbian. Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger How do gender, race, and class shape “coming of ages” narratives?
Money Boy by Paul Yee Protagonist is a gay Chinese-Canadian immigrant. The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri How does being situated between two cultures impact individuals?
The Necessary Hunger by Nina Revoyr Protagonist a gay Japanese-American female. “Raymond’s Run” by Toni Cade Bambara

Centering Students’ Voices in a Public Speaking Genre Study

Burke Scarbrough

Today’s students have access to stirring, powerful text in an ever widening array of forms. As we invite our students to discover the power of the carefully crafted written word, many of those students are even more strongly inclined to celebrate the power of language in oral performance. I’m referring to the genres and media in which artists breathe life into the written word through a sort of magic trick: they develop performances that make painstakingly crafted writing look and sound natural, spontaneous, or even effortless. In speeches that inspire, songs that transfix, movie moments that land, stand-up comedy that doubles us over, and spoken word poetry that sets fingers snapping, artists are hard at work behind the scenes—sweating the details, practicing to exhaustion.

English teachers can invite these oral performance genres into the classroom as the stuff of rigorous literacy learning. Whatever else they leave out, the Common Core State Standards emphasize the importance of organizing opportunities for students to read and write in a range of forms, and as they do, to learn to see writers’ choices as careful design moves that authors make depending on their genre, audience and purpose. They should make different decisions depending on whether they’re trying to persuade, inform, or tell a story. They should make and defend choices about language depending on what sort of communicating they’re doing, and to whom. And, we keep telling them, they should read like a fellow writer and write with their reader in mind. Too often, though, school reading and writing assignments come with the substantial baggage of being business as usual in the classroom; some students read with the hope of enjoying a good story, but when that doesn’t work out, they read and write (or don’t) because they’re told to.

Bringing public speaking into the English classroom, and widening the definition of public speaking to include many sorts of oral performance of written text, lets students treat popular and engaging works as texts worth studying. It can empower students to crack the codes of texts that move them and put those codes to use in the arguments they want to make and the stories they need to tell.

A Workshop for Text and Performance

As a former high school English teacher turned teacher educator, I scratch my secondary school teaching itch these days by teaching at a summer academic enrichment program at a New England boarding school. I work with high school students who come from around the US and the world to challenge themselves with enrichment courses and try out a boarding experience before many of them encounter it in college. When they walk through the door on the first day of my Speechmaking class, they’re not chasing grades or transcript credits; they want the academic challenge that they associate with a prep school, but they also want to be excited and inspired in ways that justify their choice to spend the summer back in a classroom. This is a motivated and self-selected student population, and the class sizes are small, so the summer program has always been an exciting space for me to try out engaging teaching units before doing the head-scratching work of adapting them for the other school settings in which I’ve worked.

The structure of the summer Speechmaking class follows an approach to writing workshop I got to know well through an earlier study of a high school English class taking on spoken word poetry (Scarbrough and Allen). While some famous examples of reading and writing workshop involve letting students choose the sorts of texts they want to read and write (Atwell), Speechmaking is different in two ways. First, the whole class works together to study a single genre—speeches—as a strange and mysterious type of text that the class needs to hack. As Sarah Andrew-Vaughan and Cathy Fleischer ask students to do individually in their Unfamiliar Genre Project, I ask the whole class to join me in an inductive inquiry process: to “gather and analyze model examples of that genre, to identify key characteristics of that genre, [and] to write in the genre” (38). Students have quite a bit of choice in what they want to communicate and accomplish through oral performance, but as they make those decisions, we are there to help each other figure out the rules and moves that characterize powerful public speaking.

Second, the class treats both written speeches and the performances of those speeches as types of text that we are there to study, draft, and revise. As obvious as it might seem that delivery is its own set of skills in public speaking, we bring that point home by switching our focus back and forth between the moves that seem to characterize effectively-written speeches and the performance choices that seem to do the most justice to those words. Part writing workshop, part performance workshop, the class gives me the chance to fuse my experience teaching English and teaching drama—a pair of skill sets many language arts teachers bring to their jobs or are asked to develop after they arrive.

Cracking the Code of a New Genre

Doing this inductive study of a genre—poring over examples in order to derive important features and patterns together—empowers students to do the noticing and thinking that teachers and textbook authors so often do for them. That said, it is time-consuming to have our students derive the very things we could show them. The Speechmaking class takes something of a middle ground, using a book about effective speechmaking to get us started with some important features, and then using extended discussion of sample speeches to first look for the features we’d read about and then widen our view to other aspects of the speech that we found valuable.

Public speaking textbooks are pricey, but Carmine Gallo’s Talk Like TED is an inexpensive paperback that presents features of popular TED Talks through the same sort of inductive process the Speechmaking class was undertaking; Gallo reviewed dozens of TED Talks, determined what many of them have in common, and suggests ways we might do something similar in all sorts of public speaking situations. Each chapter focuses on a particular facet of effective public speaking, and it refers to numerous famous TED talks as illustrations. Of course, there is more to public speaking than TED Talks—in fact, such a lengthy staged lecture might bore or scare off many students, including those with a strong interest in a distinctly different form of public speaking (spoken word poetry, perhaps, or church sermons). Still, TED is a vast, free digital resource for storytelling, teaching, and persuasion, so it offers us a starting point as we develop our own language for effective speechmaking. Moreover, Gallo approaches the crucial but sometimes tired trio of classical appeals—ethos, pathos, and logos—as a modern set of speaking principles that students can see and hear in many of the TED Talks he cites. Students can study ethos through chapters that emphasize how good speakers unleash their passion and reveal themselves authentically through their speeches; they can consider pathos in chapters that examine how good speakers tell stories, make the audience smile, and deliver jaw-dropping moments; and they can approach logos by being exhorted to teach the audience something new and organize clear main points and supporting evidence around the “rule of 3s.”

Of course, there are many other public speaking textbooks and online primers available. I have found excerpts and sample speeches in Stephen Lucas’s The Art of Public Speaking to be useful. In particular, I have used (with permission) an excerpt about different ways speakers establish credibility, another about different approaches to introductions in speeches, and some model informative or persuasive speeches (of manageable length) written by college students. Crucially, though, our purpose is not to march through any public speaking textbook from start to finish; textbook readings are there to model and reinforce the sorts of patterns we might go on to notice as a class as we spend time responding to all sorts of speeches. A few days each week—and numerous homework assignments—are devoted to reading or watching a growing variety of texts: TED Talks, political speeches, spoken word poetry (see YouTube channels for All Def Poetry or Youth Speaks), personal stories (see themoth.org), speeches from movies or TV, videos by YouTube celebrities, and written speeches by former students. While I come to the unit with numerous examples, it isn’t long before students begin nominating all sorts of oral performances that they love, and as time permits, I challenge interested students to prepare a rationale for why a given speech is worth studying and, if their rationale is compelling, invite them to present their chosen speech and facilitate the class’s analysis.

One way to keep track of the traits of good speechwriting and delivery that we discover is to develop a shared Speech Feedback Form and update it every few days. This Google Doc rubric includes a growing and reshuffling set of traits that the class is ready to hold each other accountable for in our own writing and speaking. By the time we add a new trait to this rubric, the class has identified it as a key to good speechmaking, discussed it in the context of several speeches, and talked about tips for adapting that trait to other speaking situations. Students’ speech assignments then follow this growing rubric: for instance, once we discover and discuss “passion” and “credibility” as keys to good speechmaking, students draft short informative speeches that teach the class something meaningful to the speaker; once we become aware of an effective “rate of speech” and study how speakers make a main point clear and relatable through “storytelling” as well as “volume” and “tone” of voice, students draft and revise a speech that makes a point by telling a story (see Figure 1 for how the co-constructed rubric might look at this point); and as we go on to focus on “body language,” clear and engaging “introductions” and “conclusions,” and “content” that brings together evidence and storytelling around the rule of threes, students begin to research, draft and revise persuasive speeches on a topic that moves them. In other words, our rubric serves as common ground between the features we notice through reading and the writing and performances students develop.

What’s Worth Speaking About?

With structures in place for annotating sample speeches and assessing what students come up with, I want to make sure that my students have ways to generate speech ideas that matter to them. For some, this is as easy as pausing after the speeches we study to let students take note of possible speech topics in a growing notebook list. Upon hearing a spoken word poet or a storyteller on The Moth recount a personal story with deep significance, some students quickly identify life-altering incidents or deceptively significant small stories that they want to craft for an audience. Upon hearing TED Talks or political speeches or speeches by students addressing social injustices, some students identify issues that make them want to speak out. Others come to class already motivated to speak out about current events. And on a lighter note, a few have been interested in the rhetorical challenge of arguing a counterintuitive point, as I have sometimes done by inviting students to give me an “impossible” topic to address in a speech at the end of the unit. Past examples have included “Water: A Threat to Us All” and “The Many Uses of Rubber Ducks.”

As students brainstorm topics of personal interest, I challenge them to go one step further and consider—particularly in their persuasive speech, the longest speech I assign, and one that includes a research component—speech topics that occupy a “sweet spot” among three criteria: being of interest to the speaker, being of likely interest to the listener, and being something that many people don’t know or disagree about (See Figure 2). I also have students come to class with two potential speech topics, and for each one, a brief rationale and a few questions they wish they could ask their audience before preparing the speech. After writing this information at the top of blank sheets of paper (or posting it electronically), students pass papers from one classmate to the next, engaging in a “silent conversation” (Wilhelm) that lets each speaker read reactions and answers to a few audience analysis questions before committing to a topic and beginning a draft. Amid the hard work of reconciling their own interests with the varied responses of their classmates, speakers are learning to consider their responsibilities to an audience and to strategize about what it will take to persuade that audience.

Studying Performance As a Text

The classic features of a writing process workshop appear in the Speechmaking class: students spend time generating ideas, drafting and revising text, and giving and receiving feedback from peers and from me. But a key feature of studying the public speaking genre is splitting this workshop time between drafting and revising written speeches and drafting and revising performances of those written words. One of the first challenges I find in studying performance with students is helping students to see performance choices as choices. One powerful way to make that visible is to show students short scripts or transcripts from a video performance before they have the chance to see the performance. Many genres can work nicely with this, but I tend to use TV and movie scenes. Students read and mark up bits of text that range from a single line to a full dramatic monologue, and they use annotation markings to indicate where they would use pacing, pauses, pitch, or volume to bring the words to life. Hearing volunteers share different choices about the same text, and then turning to the filmed performance by a famous actor or passionate spoken word poet, students see how much decision-making there is in the move from page to stage. Once we began to play with vocal performance choices in this way—and, soon, eye contact and gestures as well—students are also more likely to refer to these features of speechmaking in each of the speeches we watch and discuss as a class.

Another challenge in performance workshop is getting students to commit to trying out strong performance choices, including some that might be more extreme than what the speaker will ultimately settle on. I explain this as a version of the goldilocks story: for choices about volume, rate of speech, variety in pitch and tone, emphasis through volume and pauses, or emphasis through facial expression and gestures, sometimes it is useful to make a choice too extreme in one direction, and then too extreme in another direction, before settling on a middle ground that is (for the particular situation) just right. Sometimes students practice delivering portions of a speech draft in each of these three ways, playing with what it would mean to go “too far” in one direction or another and, in the process, discovering the full range of performance choices they have available. Other times, I bring children’s books or short ghost stories to class for shared reading—for many, a familiar context for making dramatic choices about vocal delivery when reading. As we make these performance styles visible, we begin to discuss the sometimes subtle similarities and differences between reading, acting, and delivering a speech without quite sounding like one is reading or acting.

Above all, students need rounds of practice that let them try to bring words to life, get quick feedback, set a manageable goal, and try again. While there isn’t time for me to give every student individual coaching during each day of performance workshop, I try to create spaces for students to accumulate some “reps” making and evaluating performance choices. Sometimes, students pair up and practice delivering part or all of a draft speech for a peer; these sessions go best when each speaker identifies one aspect of performance that would be a particular focus in this round of practice. When technology allows (and, increasingly, it does), students might film or audiorecord their partners so that each speaker can spend time doing the awkward but private work of seeing oneself on screen. Other times, I organize students into an inner circle and simulate “speed dates” in which pairs would take turns delivering part of a speech, hear a moment of focused feedback from a partner, and then rotate to a new partner for another round of practice. Sometimes students would tell their partners what they were interested in working on with this round of delivery; other times, I would call out instructions for a given round of practice (“this time, try adding in one really dramatic pause,” or “this time, see what happens if you deliver the speech a little too loudly”). Students are often surprised how well-received their attempts are when they thought they were speaking too loudly, too slowly, or with too much emphasis on important words or phrases. Whatever they discover, the best way for them to develop performance choices that work is to have numerous rounds of low-stakes practice with the chance to see how choices look and sound to oneself and others.

An Adaptable Unit

For a final speech of the unit, I want students to have lots of freedom, but I also want us to be able to organize some speaking situations that were one step more authentic than sitting in our classroom pretending to be one audience or another. As a middle ground, I often have students choose one of several types of speeches, and the class then travels to a different space each day to hear the relevant speech: toasts in the cafeteria, stories or spoken word poems in the theater, and mini-TED Talks in the classroom. Grading student work isn’t a priority in my summer course, and the speeches that closely match our developing speech rubrics are already behind us, so we focus on positive feedback after each speech and only record them if the speaker wishes. Rather than a culminating assessment, this final speech is a low-stakes celebration; the students’ hard work and learning is evident in their annotations, discussions, co-constructed feedback forms, and many cycles of drafting, revising, assessing, and goal-setting for written speeches and performances.

Over nearly two decades of teaching Speechmaking in the summer, I have expanded and contracted the course to prioritize different speech assignments, different speaking traits worth working on, different ways of balancing textbook readings with analysis of real speeches, different ways of balancing reading and writing emphases, different ways of balancing writing and performance workshop time, and different outside-of-class expectations given students’ workloads and access to technology. What has stayed constant for me is the power of defining “public speaking” in a way that includes a variety of texts that many students already find powerful, treating students as capable critical analysts who can help author the speechmaking principles we study, and treating skilled writing and performance as important enough to hand over to students.

That said, the scope of the unit will change depending on how many students are in the room, how safe the classroom community is for sharing writing and taking risks with performance, and what sorts of work can be expected outside of class. This unit is useful in that the oral performances we study are short; each of them can be viewed, discussed, and even emulated within a class period. Similarly, the writing and performance workshop process can unfold largely or entirely during class time. With students who are less immersed in a discussion-driven pedagogy, as students in my summer enrichment setting are, I would be more deliberate in modeling the ways of annotating and responding to printed speeches. I would also ramp up to student-driven discussions by making explicit the sorts of moves that help people build on and politely challenge each other’s comments. And with students who are less likely to think of themselves as current or future leaders likely to speak in public, I would spend more time uncovering the interests and issues that might motivate students to speak out, making sure that analysis and workshop practice are clearly serving goals that students find relevant.

There are many other ways to adapt the broad strokes of this unit into assignments and daily lessons that match different school settings and learning goals.In addition to the perennial balancing acts I listed above, here are a few more choices and challenges that I’m excited to think about each time I prepare to teach Speechmaking:

  • How can I organize authentic audiences for my students? It’s not easy to create spaces for someone other than teachers and classmates to give the gift of their attention, and it’s even harder to organize this for many students at once. Often, my summer speechmaking students write and deliver speeches to the class with future audiences in mind—they write toasts for upcoming family events, speeches for student government campaigns, public service announcements about issues in their home towns, or speeches to motivate their sports teams. But I continue to look for ways to use the school, the community, and the virtual world as audiences my students can address and hear back from.
  • Should textbook excerpts lead or follow? In some ways, Talk Like TED presents the very sorts of insights I’d like my students to notice on their own. Students come with substantial prior knowledge about what moves them, so consider how you’d like to balance letting students work up best practices from studying speeches together vs. letting a text like Talk Like TED lead the way.
  • Is there time for play? I value bringing a real sense of play into the classroom, letting students enjoy the creative challenges of performance in a low-stakes setting. When time allows, one way to do this is to play theater games; I recommend Glyn Trefor-Jones’s book Drama Menu as a useful compendium of fun games that get students working together to make performance choices. Another way is to practice impromptu speechmaking, in which students draft speech topics they’d be excited to take on, and then they are assigned one of these at random. (There are also many lists of fun impromptu speech topics available online.)  In a first round of practice, students might have three minutes for jotting a few main points on an index card plus one minute of practice speaking to the classroom wall before turning and delivering the short speech to a partner. After a round or two like this, students might get only 30 seconds to think (no jotting) before it is time to speak. Once they are reminded that this is a nearly impossible challenge, many students are excited to give it a try.
  • How much work can I hand over to students? For classrooms with widespread technology access, consider letting students take charge of choosing and presenting analyses of speeches in class. A service like Vibby (www.vibby.com) lets users highlight and clip specific segments of YouTube videos, helping presenters move seamlessly from one highlight to another as they share their thoughts or pose questions to the class. Users can also post and respond to comments on each video highlight. A different approach to involving most students more of the time is to adapt a Toastmasters meeting format for a class (or, through a fishbowl structure, half a class at a time), distributing the work of giving prepared speeches, giving short impromptu speeches, giving oral feedback to speakers, and running the meeting itself (“Club”).
  • How can I make self-assessment and feedback quicker? Technology is making it easier to integrate cycles of practice, feedback, and self-reflection into the unit as students work on speech performances. A variety of apps can capture audio or video and, if necessary, push it to storage spaces for students and teachers to review. Consider ways to help students get quick access to recordings of their own rehearsals, describe what they notice, and set a goal for their next attempt.

Oral performance is a vital part of language arts, and it is too often either neglected or relegated to elective courses and after-school experiences. Workshop and genre study pedagogy gives students the opportunity to analyze, draft, revise, and “publish” oral performance in many of the same ways, and in service of the same learning standards, that teachers readily apply to print genres. The more widely teachers can define “text” (and “public speaking”) in the classroom, the more that literacy learning can emerge from forms of art that truly stir students’ passions.

Works Cited

Andrew-Vaughan, Sarah, and Cathy Fleischer. “Researching Writing: The Unfamiliar-Genre Research Project.” English Journal, vol. 95, no. 4, 2006, pp. 26-42.

Atwell, Nancie. In the Middle. 3rd ed. Heinemann, 2015.

“Club Meeting Roles.” Toastmasters International. www.toastmasters.org/membership/club-meeting-roles. Accessed 29 August 2017.

Gallo, Carmine. Talk Like Ted: The 9 Public-Speaking Secrets of the World’s Top Minds. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2014.

Lucas, Stephen E. The Art of Public Speaking. 11th ed. McGraw Hill, 2012.

Scarbrough, Burke, and Anna-Ruth Allen. “Writing Workshop Revisited: Confronting Communicative Dilemmas Through Spoken Word Poetry in a High School English Classroom.” Journal of Literacy Research, vol. 46, no.4, 2014, pp. 475-505.

Trefor-Jones, Glyn. Drama Menu: Theatre Games in Three Courses. Nick Hern Books, 2015.

Wilhelm, Jeffrey D. Action Strategies for Deepening Comprehension. Scholastic, 2002.

Feedback form for storytelling speech.png

Fig. 1  How our co-constructed feedback form might look by the time of a “Storytelling Speech” assignment

Persuasive speech topic venn diagram.png

Fig. 2  What makes a good persuasive speech topic?

Addressing Racial Injustice Through Allyship: Teaching to See by Using Poetry

Sharon Rudnicki

Introduction

    In 2016, America was treated to two excellent television series that focus on the life of O.J. Simpson, FX’s American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson and ESPN’s O.J.: Made in America. By delving into Simpson’s murder trial against the backdrop of Los Angeles’ unchecked police brutality in an honest and thoughtful manner, both shows succeed in explaining why the majority of white Americans were so shocked when Simpson was found innocent of murdering Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman and why the majority of black Americans were elated when the verdict was read. While it would seem that everyone was watching the same trial and considering the same evidence, this was clearly not the case. What most white Americans, including myself, did not see was how most blacks historically saw the LAPD – as a group of powerful, government employees who had no regard whatsoever for the civil rights of black people and who were never held accountable for using excessive force or even killing black people whom they encountered on the job. Even when cameras captured every moment of police brutality, as in the case of Rodney King, the justice system failed, thus perpetuating the message that black lives didn’t matter. These television treatments of Simpson’s trial hopefully allowed many white Americans to see – and, therefore, understand – the reaction of many black Americans to the verdict. Black Americans could see – because they had seen – police plant evidence, lie on the witness stand, and abuse their powers. The issue for the purpose of this article is not whether Simpson should have been found guilty or innocent or whether the prosecution should have prepared better or whether Simpson’s “dream team” of lawyers conducted themselves ethically. Instead, the purpose is to show how English teachers can take a lead role in educating students to see the lasting effects of slavery on the African American community; reading selected poetry can prompt greater understanding and bring students who have not been affected by racism to a place of action and allyship.

American Slavery

     In his book Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates discusses the difficulties black Americans have had protecting their bodies, both from acts committed by white people in power and by members of the poor black community who use violence to assert  a semblance of status and power. By using the form of a letter written from father to son, Coates writes,

You would be a man one day, and I could not save you from the unbridgeable distance between you and your future peers and colleagues, who might try to convince you that everything I know, all the things I’m sharing with you here, are an illusion, or a fact of a distant past that need not be discussed.  And I could not save you from the police, from their flashlights, their hands, their nightsticks, their guns. Prince Jones, murdered by the men who should have been his security guards, is always with me, and I knew that soon he would be with you.” (90)

     For the 15% of the students at my all-girls’ school who identify as African American, Coates’ words are not shocking. However, for many of the remaining 85% of students at my school, it is unimaginable that a father, today, in the United States, would feel powerless to protect his child. While our school has been educating faculty and students about white privilege, it is understandable that my students have a hard time talking about race when the country as a whole struggles to do the same. It is difficult to see an issue from another person’s point of view when the majority of our schools and neighborhoods are not integrated. And while most of my white students can share experiences of how it feels to be viewed suspiciously as potential shoplifters when they go shopping, they do not experience being the subjects of the gaze because of their race. When a parent is pulled over by the police for speeding, they may fear that their parent may have a pay a hefty speeding ticket. However, I doubt it would ever cross their minds that an encounter with the police may result in bodily injury. So how can students who are not black gain a fuller understanding of Coates’ words? Is the Black Lives Matter movement only a result of the past few years of police brutality? If slavery ended so long ago, how could it possibly be relevant today? In 11th grade, students at my school study American history. Reading literature allows them to see human faces beneath the textbook and to connect with other people’s experiences on a more emotional level. In my English class, reading poetry written by black Americans not only validates these writers as artists worthy of study in a high school curriculum, but also allows all students to reach a new critical understanding of how our country’s history has shaped the experiences of the black community.

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Closing the Door on Standardized Test Preparation and Opening the Door to Next Generation Literacy

 

Vicky Giouroukakis, Ph.D., and Maureen Connolly, Ed.D.

Introduction

     “I want to facilitate learning that helps students be the best versions of themselves.”  

     “I teach to inspire a new generation of book lovers!”

     “I teach to change lives!”

     “I teach to show students how BRILLIANT they can be!”

These are the words of four graduate students who are excited about becoming English teachers as of September 2016.  Notice anything about their reasons for teaching?  No one mentions wanting to increase students’ test scores.  We believe that you would be hard-pressed to find a teacher candidate or practicing teacher who chose this profession because of a passion for test preparation, but as teachers and students are facing mandated standardized assessments like PARCC, Smarter Balanced, the new SAT and ACT, as well as local measures to determine student growth, we are growing concerned that the level of importance placed on these assessments will lead to teaching to the test in order to ensure student promotion and teacher retention.  According to Neill, “humans learn best through active thinking. ‘Learning’ while not thinking is like remembering lists of phone numbers one will never call. Memorization of facts and procedures has its place, but deep learning must engage the brain and spur thinking. Teaching to the test rarely accomplishes either” (43). This phone number analogy brings to light the importance of authentic learning experiences rather than test prep; however, many teachers may believe that they can only teach effectively if they close the classroom door to surreptitiously engage students in authentic learning experiences that don’t look like standardized test prep.  We believe that the door needs to stay open, and teachers and students alike need to make the case that learning is about more than a test score.

This seems like an obvious statement.  We know plenty of teachers, parents, and students who would agree.  Guess who else agrees? The College Board.  In 2014, The College Board issued the following statement:

We firmly believe that rates of college and career readiness and postsecondary success will not improve if teachers and students are distracted by the need to speed through impossibly broad course content and spend time on narrowly cast test preparation in an understandable but misguided effort to boost scores at the expense of mastery of critical knowledge, skills, and understandings. Further, we believe that the rates of college and career readiness and postsecondary success will improve only if our nation’s teachers are empowered to help the full range of students practice the kinds of rigorous, engaging daily work through which academic excellence can genuinely and reliably be attained. (14)

In this article, we share ways to close the door to test preparation and open the door to authentic learning that will help students succeed not only on standardized exams, but also in life beyond school. How do we determine student success when it comes to Next Generation Literacy?  As English teachers, we look to the Capacities of the Literate Individual.

Opening the Door to Developing Next Generation Literacy

     Think of the daily literacy practices of one adolescent who is typical of many of his peers. We will call him Ben. Ben wakes up in the morning and checks his cellphone for texts and emails; he responds and maybe uses social media to post something online. He scans Flipboard for the latest news. He gets ready and puts on his headphones to listen to music as he rides the bus to school. In school, Ben travels from one subject class to the next and learns content through reading, writing, and speaking as well as research and study in various ways. Both in class and at home, Ben works on varying assignments that require him to use his knowledge and experiences to understand and acquire new information as well as express his opinions verbally or in writing while using supporting evidence and logical reasoning. Technology is used to varying degrees as a means of learning and communicating content. What technology he selects to use and how he uses it in order to demonstrate his knowledge depends on the task, audience, purpose, and subject-area.

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Writing is Elemen‘tree’: A Visual, Auditory, and Tactile Framework for Navigating the Writing Process

Lyndi Maxwell, PhD

Abstract

This article describes how teachers can use manipulatives, visual aids, and poetry to help students navigate a process-approach writer’s workshop.  The workshop is presented as being analogous to how a squirrel navigates an oak tree, as the squirrel represents the writer, each part of the oak tree represents a stage of the writing process, each acorn represents an element of writing, and the harvested acorn collection represents the finished piece of writing.  A rhyming verse accompanies each stage serving as a reminder of what each stage entails.  The workshop includes the following six stages: 1) rehearse; 2) write; 3) receive; 4) revise; 5) publish; and 6) share.  Each stage is discussed individually in terms of: 1) writing activities; 2) an example of how to apply each stage to whole-class interactive writing; and 3) an example of how one student applied each stage to his own work as he transitioned from interactive to independent writing.

Introduction

     “I’m done!” “I already checked it.” “Nothing needs fixed.”  Writing time seemed to sound an alarm of restless third-graders hurriedly making these claims.  Discouragement would immediately set in, as I knew it wasn’t “done”, they hadn’t “checked it”, and a lot of things needed “fixed!”  I wondered why, even after modeling and interactively writing our way through the writing process, students consistently struggled to retain and execute it.  It was spelled out so clearly and sequentially to me: 1) pre-write, 2) write, 3) revise, 4 ) teacher conference, 5) edit, and 6) publish.  Where was the disconnect?

Eventually, the work of writing research pioneers such as Don Graves (1983), Nancy Atwell (1998), and Lucy Calkins (2003) illuminated my mistakes.  I had not made writing the predictable, recursive process that students needed.  Instead, I had expected them to take leaps and make assumptions that, without explicit instruction, guided practice, and specific feedback, are not developmentally realistic for third-graders.  Specifically, I had expected them to read their own writing, find fault within their own writing, and revise it into something that was “good enough” for me.  They had no conceptual understanding of the writing process, and I had been conflating my “teaching” writing to their actual “learning” of it.  In reality, our “writing process” looked more like this: 1) student writes something, 2) reads it to me, 3) I edit it and return it, and 4) students neatly rewrites draft, having produced a final piece that showed no noticeable growth from the original one.  It had become to feel more like my grade than theirs, and problematically, I had allowed it to become more of a transaction rather than the transformation I had envisioned.

My students needed writing instruction opposite of what I had been giving them.  They needed to write within a systematic framework to understand that writing is not a transaction, but a transformation in which they see their thoughts and ideas take shape and unfold.  They needed to understand that writing is enhanced through social interaction via peer conferences, teacher conferences, and also through individual reflection.  Most importantly, they needed to experience the sense of pride that comes with seeing how far one’s writing has progressed.

While the writing workshop I implemented is derived from the seminal work of Graves (1983), Atwell (1998), and Calkins (2003), it supplements their work in that it provides students with a predictable, comprehensive visual display of the writing process.  Moreover, it combines visual, auditory, and tactile modes of learning (See Figure 1).  For instance, students visually see each stage of the writing process, which provides a sense of comfort and understanding of where s/he has been, where s/he is currently at, and what s/he must do in order to progress to the next stage.  Students benefit from accompanying rhyming verses, which signify the writing expectations at each stage, while they also move a squirrel around an oak tree as a representation of oneself progressing through each stage of the writing process.  Please note that the intent here is to guide students in understanding the stages of the writing process, rather than an in-depth how-to guide to enhance the quality of students’ writing.

The purpose of this article is to share how in a rural Midwest, general education classroom  I implemented a process-approach writer’s workshop complete with the aforementioned visual, auditory, and tactile components to guide twenty-one third-grade students through the writing process.  A research and theory section first underscores the importance of early childhood writing and briefly describes the workshop’s theoretical framework.  This is followed by a description of the workshop’s conceptual model, and proceeded by the “Writer’s Workshop” section, in which the following six stages are discussed: 1) rehearse; 2) write; 3) receive; 4) revise; 5) publish; and 6) share.  While it is understood that the writing process is recursive rather than linear and not every student will progress through the workshop in exactly the same manner, in the interest of clarity, each stage is discussed sequentially in terms of: 1) the writing activities; 2) an example of how to apply each stage to whole-class interactive writing; and 3) an example of how one student applied each stage to his own work as he transitioned from interactive to independent writing.

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Dogmatism and Teaching Writing

Alexandra Glynn

The great writing textbooks seldom prompt aspiring writers to be certain. The ancients assumed that they would already be, so there was no need to discuss it. The moderns deride certainty. But how many times have writing teachers had to correct an “I think that the political atmosphere is…” by deleting the “I think”? And put a question mark in the margin next to “People generally believe in my opinion that we are all…” and the like? Fish states that the advice found in books like Strunk and White’s Elements of Style, which he sums up as “write short sentences, be direct, don’t get lost in a maze of piled-up clauses, avoid the passive voice, place yourself in the background, employ figures of speech sparingly” is helpful only as it relates to a purpose (37). So people learning to write need to know what their purpose in writing is, and what their audience is. But it is also true that the problems of long sentences, indirectness, masses of vague clauses, and the like, come from writers who are not certain of what they think, or what they are trying to argue.

Wayne Booth once illustrated the need to address root causes when he wrote of a man he worked with who had taught composition many years and who was “incapable of committing any of the more obvious errors that we think of as characteristic of bad writing” but yet this gentleman “could not write a decent sentence, paragraph, or paper until his rhetorical problem was solved.” In this particular instance, the rhetorical problem was that the gentleman had to find “a definition of his audience, his argument, and his own proper tone of voice” (139). Once he was able to be sure of even a few important things, he wrote wonderfully.

Nowadays, as mentioned above, a rhetorical problem is the lack of certainty. The creeds that laud lack of commitment are found in all intellectuals from French philosophers to Samuel Beckett, and even T. S. Eliot says, “We shall not cease from exploration / And the end of all our exploring / Will be to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time” (510). Thus the emphasis in writing studies in on exploring and being creative, not on understanding and repeating to others that which is true. Susan Sontag, writing about Roland Barthes summarizes his style as confidently asserting yet it “insists that its assertions are no more than provisional” (427). Not many people can be so unsure and still write well.

The problem of lack of sureness also comes at least partly out of the celebrated romantic ideology that “the act of composing is a kind of mysterious growth” that comes from the great well of wonderful things that is in each person (Young 132). Forsyth, in The Elements of Eloquence, notes this truth about the romantics that they celebrate the individual’s creativity above all else. He also says there is a notion out there that if “somebody learns how to phrase things beautifully, they might be able to persuade you of something that isn’t true” (4). So, I might add, the beautiful phrasing is left to the demagogues, hucksters, and charlatans who are unafraid of persuading people of that which is not true. But whether lack of sureness is from an over emphasis on celebrating the creativity that is in each of us, or if it is from a commitment to the truth that there are no truths, it seems to me it is still an issue worth discussing. I think perhaps even a student’s desire to cheat comes from being assigned a certain controversial topic about which one is not at all sure of anything.

In terms of teaching writing, when the dominating ideology is that we are never allowed to settle on an assertions and be sure of them, the teacher is to design “occasions that stimulate the creative process” (Young 133). What results, it is widely thought, is always worthwhile, good, and should be agreed to by all, even if it logically contradicts that which comes out of someone’s own well. Now, this can make for interesting compositions, all this creativity and experience-arguing, but is that the only possible way to teach writing? People are reasonable, or assumed to be, and when presented with two incompatible truths they don’t all automatically weave leis and dance around the oak tree celebrating diversity of thought. Mainly students get confused. And their confusion is reflected in how they communicate. They cannot write a thesis statement because they don’t think anything is true for sure. Alternatively, as writing teachers constantly see, they write four theses statements in one paper. Continue reading

Featured Article–Implementing Tabletop Gaming in the English Classroom: Promoting Literacy through Interactive Gameplay

Implementing Tabletop Gaming in the English Classroom: Promoting Literacy through Interactive Gameplay

by Mike P. Cook, PhD, Ryan Morgan, and Matthew Gremo

[pdf version here: cook-implementing-tabletop-gaming-in-the-english-classroom]

 

Introduction

Table-top gaming, at its core, is simply a term used to refer to any social game that is traditionally played in person around a table. Over the years, the term itself has become an umbrella for all forms of board games, but in gaming culture it is most commonly applied as a label for various role-playing systems. While the concept of a role-playing system may seem like a rather complex idea to fully comprehend, it can most easily be explained as a traditional game that has been stripped of all of its fluff and niceties in order to exist as a system of bare-boned mechanics, which govern gameplay. The entire history of the characters within the game, as well as the entire story and how those characters interact with it, is created and executed by the players themselves while operating within this system of overarching rules and mechanics.

The onset and initial popularity of roleplaying systems can most easily be traced back to the 1974 publication of the original Dungeons & Dragons. Since the inception of the original D&D, however, a myriad other systems have spawned under the same guiding principal of creating the structure by which players could relate and interact with their own stories. One of the most popular of these systems was released by Paizo Publishing in 2009 under the title Pathfinder. While the system itself was a fairly direct reflection of one of the many modern versions of D&D, it varied in two very important ways. First, the system itself is more accessible, as some of the more complex and troublesome mechanics of the original D&D systems have been stripped in order to facilitate more streamlined gameplay. Second, and perhaps most important, Pathfinder offered free digital publication of all of its materials. While Paizo did, and still does, publish vast tomes of rules and mechanics for the Pathfinder system—in the same vein as D&D—all of the materials are available for free online to any player interested in engaging with the system. Because of these two very important differences, the Pathfinder system became the springboard by which our new roleplaying system could be created and implemented in the ELA classroom.

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Spring 2014 Featured Article: Comics, Dickens, and Teaching by Serial Publication by Michael MacBride

Comics, Dickens, and Teaching by Serial Publication

by Michael MacBride
Teaching the “huge” text s-l-o-w-l-y: taking your time with Dickens and Comic Books
How do you teach a 500- or 900-page Dickens’ novel—heaven forbid a 1,500-page Richardson novel? (1) How do you teach a comic book, like Detective Comics, that has been running since 1937, or a comic strip, like Katzenjammer Kids, that’s been around since 1897? These texts are culturally rich, offer a unique snapshot of a historical period, and are relatively untapped, but their sheer length can be daunting. While serialized novels (usually) offer a consistent narrative, comic books and comic strips frequently diverge into “alternative universes” and offer new tellings of old stories. Spider-Man, for example, offers several books that take the hero in different directions–The Amazing, Spectacular, Sensational, Friendly Neighborhood, Ultimate, and, most recently, Superior Spider-Man. Where do you start? How do you dig in?

My contention is that the best place to start is one issue, or one monthly, at a time. Then the class, high school or college, will spend a month with that issue or monthly–just like the original audience would have. Comic books are (mostly) published on a monthly basis, and Charles Dickens released (most of) his works on a monthly basis as well. Taking time with a smaller text has many benefits, which will be enumerated shortly. Continue reading

Peer Reviewed Article 1: Rhetorical Empathy in the Writing Classroom by Erin Kunz

Rhetorical Empathy in the Writing Classroom

by Erin Kunz

When developing a college composition course, content and methodology are always important considerations, but as instructors we also must consider how we can develop good practices in order to foster an intellectual environment. We try to create community for our students, but because of a number of issues—resistance, apathy, and misunderstanding, to name a few, establishing a community where we can openly discuss the human condition is a difficult endeavor. The ideological nature of feminist writing, feminist theory, and feminist politics can make it even more difficult to create community. Therefore, we must be particular about our approach when teaching ideological methods and topics. Continue reading

Peer-Reviewed Article 2: Social Injustice in Multicultural Literature in an Elementary School Setting by Jongsun Wee and Nicholas Wysocki

‘Why did he get all mad?’: Talking About Social Injustice in Multicultural Literature

by Jongsun Wee
Winona State University, Winona, MN

and Nicholas Wysocki
Winona State University, Winona, MN

Discussing issues related to social justice in multicultural literature can help our children develop an understanding of this concept. (1) These discussions provide a space where children can achieve several Language Arts and Social Studies goals, such as developing critical thinking and comprehension skills concerning social inequalities that require agency on the part of democratic citizens. These goals are important for children to achieve, but social justice issues are sensitive and difficult topics for them to understand, especially when they do not have much background knowledge of them. However, we believe both that teachers should make efforts to bring these social justice issues to their classrooms and that children are able to handle those difficult issues.

In this article, we show how third grade children talked about social injustice issues in the story, The Friendship (2) in small group literature discussions. The children who participated in this study did not have much background knowledge of inequality and maltreatment, which are part of black history in the United States. At first, some children did not notice the social injustices happening in the story, but through discussions, they were able to see the unfairness and inequality experienced due to racial difference. The findings suggest that teachers need to bring multicultural children’s literature with a social justice theme to their classrooms and to create a space and time for children to discuss them. Continue reading