Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Making the Writing Real

As my students and I finish The Freedom Writer's Diary, we've written letters to one of the Freedom Writers whom we hope (God? Are you there? It's me, Ms. Duckworth....) can come visit us. Some barriers still stand in the way of this happening but I find myself determined to do all I can, including considering nutty things like paying $300 myself for a copy of the books for each kid if that's what it takes. I've approached folks for funding and am hoping the city will see the importance of an event like this too. I will be persistent.

While there were a number of "grammar and style" aspects of the kids' letters to work on (at least in some cases), I was impressed especially by some of what the kids shared with our Freedom Writer. They took to the spirit of what I'm tryin to do. They wrote about relating to her struggles, making mistakes (of course, that's why they're here at the Detention Center), and respecting her strength to overcome it all. I'd love for them to be able to tell her that themselves. I don't want this to fall apart as the last pieces fall into place. Two students in particular stand out because of the difficulties they have with writing (one of whom I suspect is dyslexic); despite this, they wrote with detail about the book and their lives. It's amazing the difference that a "real" audience makes. So many writing theorists know this, and yet it seems to happen in so few writing classrooms. I sure don't recall it as a student at all.

And so, I keep making phone calls and writing emails am willing to come in for her visit on a day off (Veteran's Day) if that's what it takes. I want to deliver for them and see what the results may be.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Practicing What You Preach

A quick note today, but I couldn't let this conversation with a student today go by. We're in the middle of Freedom Writer's Diary and of course one of the major themes is how these students grapple with racism and stereotypes. One Middle Eastern female student of mine raised her hand and said she'd just earlier that day been stereotyped by another teacher here. Apparently the teacher had asked her if she ate couscous! The student--quite rightly in my view--felt demeaned. I asked her if she'd shared how that comment by one of my colleagues had made her feel, and she said yes, but apparently the teacher didn't really respond. This left the student with the impression that the teacher "just didn't want to own up" to what she'd said.

It also left me thinking, as I sometimes do, of the invisibility of my own ethnicity as a white woman. My race is the standard. No one will ever look at my skin color and ask me if I, say, eat burgers or hot dogs. I am therefore expanding my call for peace education in every classroom; let's be sure it is a part of every teacher education program too!

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Keep on Moving

Komplex's third and final visit was today, and I was blown away by several of the poems my kids shared. One was called "The Next Great Black", wondering where the next MLK could be hiding. It was inspired by our class conversations on the Letter from Birmingham and "Beyond Vietnam". A second student read a poem about past pain and the reality that here, locked up, is not where he wants to spend the rest of his life. I hadn't heard either of these poems before (apparently they wrote them in math class *sigh*) but I was amazed by the coherence, voice and images. I wish more students had shared, but I wasn't about to force anyone, and I think it's especially intimidating to share your work with a professional hip-hop poet whose work is so strong.

I have been building on KOM's presentations to impress on my students that they already know a lot of what in previous English classes may have seemed so removed or obscure--alliteration, metaphor, plays on words, rhyme, rhythm, this is what poems and hip hop are both made of. They already know it! It's just a matter of, as I said to them, realizing you already know it. Their reaction to his presentation convinced me that more slam poetry and creating a class book (even if it's "just" online) is the way to go. Publishing is the most powerful experience I think a writer can have.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Can We Get There from Here?

First, a shout out, much love and a thank you to Komplex, who came to visit us today to share some of his music and hip hop poetry. If you haven't had a listen, treat yourself. I can't wait for his final workshop for us on Tuesday, our poetry coffeehouse.

I'd asked him to focus on the themes of the course, which are peace building and non-violent conflict resolution. The kids free write daily, as a way to "get their heads on paper" and focus. Daily writing builds fluency. It also makes the curriculum about them (always everyone's favorite subject) and I can see it's also allowing them to really connect with the characters in the Freedom Writer's Diary. They've asked if we can bring Meip over to visit; she's in her 90's now, so that's not likely possible but why not a "real" Freedom Writer or two? I don't see why we can't make that happen. I'm looking for grants and will challenge the kids (and my colleagues) to think of ways we can fund raise. But at the same time, I find myself asking the question I always ask when funding raises its nasty ugly head: don't we all pay taxes? Isn't this why I pay taxes? Why are teachers being asked and encouraged to write grants for "special projects" when those are kinds of things that bring a curriculum alive and that therefore should be the standard, not the exception. And doesn't expecting grant writing discourage overworked teachers from doing that "extra mile" thing, when precisely the opposite incentive is what we want? Do I feed a broken system by helping it continue to limp along? Educational leaders and theory types talk so much about "teaching the whole child" (including character and citizenship education, for example), but when educators are atomized and disincentivized, is this possible?

I was reminded in reading Freedom Writers with my students that over half of teachers leave within 5 years, and understood again as I prepared to research a grant or two why.

Can we get there from here?

Monday, October 8, 2007

My Native Costume

We've been reading The Freedom Writier's' Diary for about a week or so now, and the kids are responding well. It's so accessible and relateable for them that there is plenty of time for real discussion, which is my highest priority. As I say, I'm anchoring our curriculum around the themes of nonviolence, tolerance and peace building. FWD of course is perfect for this, but I am bringing in a number of other role plays, speakers, news articles, poems, short stories that are centered around these themes.

Along those lines, we began class (after our daily free writing) with Martin Espada's "My Native Costume". It's a sharp, funny, sad and powerful poem all at once. With some guide questions to lay the mental groundwork (how does the narrator see himself? how does the teacher in the poem see him?), they readily connected this poem to the Freedom Writer's and our themes of the dangers of stereotypes. As they put it, all the teacher in the poem sees is the he's Puerto Rican.