This article was on pages 22 & 23 of the Winter 1997/1998 issue of Rethinking Schools.
1998 Volume 12 Number 2
INVITING STUDENT LIVES INTO THE
Where I'm From
By Linda Christensen
I remember holding my father's hand as he read my story hanging on the display wall outside Mrs. Martin's classroom on the night of Open House. I remember the sound of change jingling in dad's pocket, his laughter as he called my mom over and read out loud the part where Id named the cow "Lena" after my mother and the chicken "Walt" after my father. It was a moment of sweet joy for me when my two worlds of home and school bumped together in a harmony of reading, writing, and laughter.
In my junior year of high school, I skipped most of my classes, but crawled back through the courtyard window of my English class where Ms. Carr selected novels and volumes of poetry for me to read, where she wrote notes in the margins of my papers asking me questions about my home, my mother, my sister who'd run away, my father who'd died three years before, instead of responding by correcting my errors like my other teachers.
These two events from my schooling capture part of what the editors of Rethinking Our Classrooms meant when we encouraged teachers to make students feel "significant" in our classrooms:
The ways we organize classroom life should seek to make children feel significant and cared about -- by the teacher and by each other. Unless students feel emotionally and physically safe, they won't share real thoughts and feelings. Discussions will be tinny and dishonest. We need to design activities where students learn to trust and care for each other. Classroom life should, to the greatest extent possible, prefigure the kind of democratic and just society we envision and thus contribute to building that society. Together students and teachers can create a "community of conscience," as educators Asa Hilliard and George Pine call it (p. 4).
Mrs. Martin and Ms. Carr made me feel significant and cared about because they invited my home into the classroom. When I wrote and included details about my family, they listened. They made space for me and my people in the curriculum.
Today in my classroom at Jefferson High School, I attempt to find ways to make students feel significant and cared about as well, to find space for their lives to become part of the curriculum. I do this by inviting them to write about their lives, about the worlds from which they come. Our sharing is one of the many ways we begin to build community together. It "prefigures" a world where students can hear the home language from Diovana's Pacific Islander heritage, Lurdes' Mexican family, Oretha's African-American home, and my Norwegian roots and celebrate without mockery the similarities as well as the differences.
Sometimes grounding lessons in students' lives can take a more critical role by asking them to examine how they have been shaped or manipulated by the media, for example. But as critical teachers, we shouldn't overlook the necessity of connecting students around moments of joy as well.
This year I found a poem in The United States of Poetry1 that I used to invite my students' families, homes, and neighborhoods into the classroom. It's called "Where I'm From" by George Ella Lyon. Lyon's poem follows a repeating pattern "I am from..." that recalls details, evokes memories -- and can prompt some excellent poetry.
Lyon's poem allowed me to teach about the use of specifics in poetry and in writing in general. But the lesson also brought the class together through the sharing of details from our lives and lots of laughter and talk about the "old ones" whose language and ways continue to permeate the ways we do things today.
|Where I'm From
I am from clothespins,
I am from fudge and eyeglasses,
I'm from Artemus and Billie's Branch,
George Ella Lyon
TEACHING PROCEDURE [Click here to go to the lesson that we did in PANYC.]
The following excerpts are from student poems that Lyon's piece provoked:
I am from bobby pins, doo rags, and wide tooth combs.
I am from chocolate cakes and deviled eggs
I am from Genesis to Exodus,
I am from a huge family tree that begins with dust
I am from old pictures
I am from carne con chile
I am from awapuhi ginger,
I am from warm rain cascading over
I am from poke, brie cheese, mango, and raspberries,
I am from Moore and Cackley
I am from Aztlan
I am from the blood of my ancestors,
I am from the survivors.
I am from the land that struggles for freedom.
Innocent souls are trapped under the ground.
It wasn't supposed to be like this.
I am from the place I hold now only as a memory.
"Where I'm From" is one tiny lesson in a year of critical teaching. But as we create schools and classrooms that are "laboratories for a more just society than the one we now live in," we need to remember to make our students feel significant and cared about. But these kinds of lessons keep me going, too. When the gray days of budget cuts, standardized tests, school restructuring plans gone awry, and bad teacher room talk pile up one after another like layers of old newspapers on your back porch, pull out George Ella Lyon's poem and invite t he stories and voices of your students into the classroom.
Linda Christensen ( Lchrist@aol.com ) teaches high school English in Portland, OR, and is a Rethinking Schools editor.
1The United States of Poetry is both a book and a video published by Harry N. Abrams. I used both with high school students. Some pieces, like "Where I'm From" could be used with elementary students as well. It's an MTV format, and introduces the idea of performance poetry. Most of the pieces are more appropriate for older students. United States of Poetry introduces students to political poetry and to some old and new poets from diverse racial, social backgrounds.
2William Stafford, Oregon's poet laureate for many years, published many outstanding books of poetry as well as two wonderful books on writing: Writing the Australian Crawl and You Must Revise Your Life.