What Is Hidden in Language?

I just finished watching “Freedom Writers” for the first time. Admittedly, I should have run right out to the theaters for the first screening but I did not want to: 1) be disappointed, 2) see the same old superhero teacher flick, 3) rehash “Dangerous MInds,” 4) be drop kicked into the work I do as a teaching artist for entertainment, and/or 5) all of the above. So this morning, with a huge mug of tea, I popped the DVD into the trusty machine, got out the knitting/crocheting project I am desperately trying to finish, and I finally watched the movie.

Decidedly, it is a Hollywood rendition of a process that was likely much more scary, touching, frustrating, and ultimately successful than 2 hours can accommodate. But it had a lot of poignant moments and spoke to me directly in my work, particularly one project this year.

One of the students asks Erin Gruwell (in Hilary Swank form), “Why should I trust you? Because you are a teacher? How do I know you aren’t lying?” This had a deep resonation for me. I addressed this factor briefly in another recent post and these are questions I keep asking myself. I know that I have a certain intention in the classroom, in fact, with all teaching I do, even adults. But why should a student trust me, just because I ask them to or, more likely expect and demand that trust and respect? As a young person, I had not yet drawn the conclusion that not all adults could be trusted. It took me a long time to build that defense, in fact, in spite of a great deal of personal trauma, a significant death in the family, even a date rape at 16. I still worked from a belief system that people could be trusted. Sometimes I regret that now but I don’t think I would change it if I had the power. I still trust and respect people until they prove to me that I cannot. But not all of our youth are given that chance, even luxury.

This is how I start with all students: I respect them. I trust them. I expect reciprocity in that respect. I maintain that respect to the best of my ability and most of the time I am given the opportunity to continue. Even students who violate my respect for them have the chance to regain it through their actions. Each day is a clean slate to me and I hope that the students in front of whom I stand see me for my intention. I am never sure and I try to be unattached to the outcome. I simply enter with a lesson plan and a hope that it serves the class in a positive way.

I recently had a very challenging experience in a school; in fact, I nearly walked away in defeat, something I have never done. In the 10 years of my practice, this was the most difficult assignment I have faced. The concerns and issues were multifaceted and very deep rooted. Something in the dialogue of the film kept echoing this teaching experience, the terminology of “these kids.”

What is hidden in that label? I was told by one educator at the end of my residency in this recent challenge that I needed to “change my approach to teaching ‘these kids.’ ” I was also told at one point that I needed to learn a different way to teach in inner city schools. This certainly surprised me since I teach at least half of my time in urban settings as well as youth community programs, afterschool programs, and juvenile detention. What was I being asked to understand here? The veil was fairly thin to me, given that this school is probably 98% African American. I was informed that “these kids have no vocabulary,” so I was advised to prepare worksheets and then model creative processes through graphic organizers. I know how to do that. I incorporate elements of these things into my instruction. But I also engage students in dialogue. That was a challenge with this group for many reasons, some of which were the inherent group dynamics, but I think that since there was a lack of experience in effective, respectful dialogue that this process can be modeled as well. I am a perfect foil for that as the visiting artist. I expect that schools will anticipate that I go beyond the usual fare when I am in residence; otherwise, why hire me in the first place.

“These kids cannot…” is the overarching theme of “Freedom Writers.” I was faced with a dilemma in which all 100 students during the day were being labeled similarly and had been since perhaps 4th grade. I saw at least half of the students as being willing to learn with me or able to be “won over,” given the time and space. I advocated for those students instead of bailing entirely. I got a pull-out group for the second half of my residency. Even then we had challenges but far fewer and the student involvement was much greater. In spite of the evidence of involvement, the seasoned educator determined that I did not really know how to teach “these kids” and I believe she could not see the triumphs because it did not fit her scope for success. My scope is different. I saw adolescents pouring through thesauruses for dollar words to replace the penny words. They stayed focused and productive at the computers. They all wrote, they gave peer review that strengthened both themselves and their fellow students, and they produced work they were proud of in the end. Some came to spend lunch with me to not just chat but work on their poems. I earned their trust. They gave me their effort. The other half of the students had their regular lessons with their classroom teacher. I hope that it was easier for her to accomplish what she needed to do with a class half the size she usually has to work with any given period of the school day.

I feel that we were ultimately successful, the students and me. I am proud of what they created. I don’t know if I will be invited back to that school but I hope so, for the students’ sake. Not because I am so great but in hopes that they see that I come back for them and that the school will invest in them in this way. We shall see. Until then, I will keep growing and checking myself for my intention and my practices. I also refuse to give into the belief that I can’t teach “these kids.” In my own way, as I slipped through the cracks in high school and college, I see now that I was one of them. I won’t let anyone impress in me a lack of belief in myself anymore. It took too long to get beyond those messages and I will work to show every child, every human I teach that they are of tremendous capacity and I believe in them.
Thanks again for following my blog. I appreciate your consideration of my words and thoughts.

1 thought on “What Is Hidden in Language?”

  1. i am honored to be counted as a friend of yours, and cherish that like a treasure. you have a tremendous capacity for patience and for bringing out the very best in a person. i speak from experience. and if a person is a student of yours, they will have learned things and grown in ways that will be evident in years to come. much like your garden. your students may think they've learned about writing and poetry, but the real sneaky thing is…you've taught them their worth and their self-respect and their potential. that poor teacher of "those kids" who only taught what was in the book, all she gets is a paycheck. Linda E.

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