Spoken-word Week: Why dip into youth culture?

I’m going to write about my best teaching experience. It took place at Edison High School in Minneapolis, Minnesota in March of 2009. It was the best experience because it encompassed all the best things about teaching and learning: modeling the joy of meaningful learning, supporting students in directing their own learning, and honoring all of the demonstrations of learning. Of importance to them was a change in their thinking, mostly about themselves and their capacities, and about their interest in learning. I called the lesson Spoken-word Week. Of importance to me was the opportunity to learn with the students and as a participant on their field of engagement, to bond with them.

I am certainly not the only teacher to use spoken-word as a teaching tool. I wasn’t first or even remotely early in doing so. That is only to my discredit. I do take credit for something more important than a race to be first. My goal was not to be a good teacher; being a good teacher is professional vanity, and worrying about it is driving American education nowhere. My goal was and remains to help the students have a better shot at a good life. I have wanted them to know themselves and the world they live in and, using that understanding, to continue to learn and to flourish. In the end, I think we accomplished that, at least to the point of moving in the right direction. Moreover, we accomplished a coup on a broken educational system. Students gained the kind of understanding of the power of words that adds depth to reading and strength to writing beyond the shallow mandates of education policy. My four classes of sophomores did outscore other sophomore classes at Edison on state mandated reading tests, but my classes included the only sophomore honors English class. So much for comparison testing.

My goal in doing a Spoken-word Week has roots in my longstanding desire to do a better job of connecting with my students. I have always felt effective teaching, like effective parenting, is an act of mutual love. It is after all a very personal activity, nurturing personalities, shoring up vulnerabilities, meddling with a person’s thinking. It has to do with feelings as well as cognition. Good learning does after all feel good. Good teaching feels good too, and it’s no blind luck that the two good feelings are concurrent. To access this sort of relationship meant knowing myself and my students at more than a casual level, and attempting to access this relationship revealed how little I knew them. They were not white, middle class, suburban, adult males! And since I was teaching in a multi-racial, increasingly multi-lingual and multi-national urban district, none of them ever would be. I had a lot to learn.

As it turns out, this was a good thing. Not only did I learn about them, I also learned a little about how to learn about others. As a survivor of the hippie years, “white, middle class, suburban, adult male” was something I had already done and had been moving beyond. Here was an opportunity to enrich my life enormously, because an asset almost all students have is that they are not locked into the “who” about themselves or others the way adults are. But there’s a downside to that too; they aren’t often very good at explaining from whence their “who” was coming. They live their values, they don’t recite them. They may know that Our Lady of Guadalupe is significant in their community and may even know the story of the vision, but few know the connection to Tonantzin. So they weren’t able to tell me about their psychological and moral development or their cultural or historical roots. To help me know my students, I have turned to professional sources to develop that knowledge, which I could then use to refine and individualize my instruction.

So when the Minnesota Humanities Center[1] offered a two day workshop on East African history and culture in 2008 and another on Teaching Latino Students in 2009, I jumped at the opportunities. Such offerings were not available to me for teaching Vietnamese, Lao, Hmong or Bosnian students when those waves came. Teaching African American students has been for a long time buried in teaching race relations. Teaching American Indians is still suffocated under the blanket genocide denial. And help in how to teach to poverty is unlikely to happen in our free-market equity glut. At Edison, my students were African American, Latino, Hmong, Congolese, Egyptian, Somali, Oromo and European American. Among these were many practicing Evangelical and Roman Catholic Christians, Shamanists and Muslims. A considerable number were out LGBT and allies. About one fifth lived in homes where English was not used regularly and 95% received free and reduced cost lunch. One in four was homeless or highly mobile. The Minnesota Humanities Center’s workshops were helpful to my understanding this feast of diversity. They gave me a cultural math to count my blessings.

From the East African history and culture workshop, I learned about the history of the region of the Horn of Africa and its relationship to Ethiopia, the European colonial powers and, of course, Islam and the Arabian influence. I also learned that oral poetry remains the traditional literary form of Somalia. Poems are created and recorded on cassettes now, and these are copied and distributed widely, their poets virtually universally recognized, respected and cited without any copyright law. The poems often deal with an admiration and respect for the land, and at other times commemorate leadership and bravery in colonial resistance or tribal conflicts. Both themes are deeply bound to the cultural roots of the nomadic people of the region.

The workshop on teaching Latino students was even more explicit in using poetry to explore and declare cultural roots. “Knowing one’s cultural roots is essential to forming a complete identity,” was the message central to the workshop and widely held by those in cultural studies and social justice. An excellent recent example of this is the Tlingit produced documentary Smokin’ Fish[2]. Learning from whence one comes informs us greatly on where we are going, and where they are going is the biggest part of school children’s life.

Learning about one’s roots was not the only recommendation for identity building however. Also significant to understanding one’s identity is understanding one’s place in the world, one’s situation or condition. Abuse and oppression ranked high with my students. Poverty is so shamed that it was not owned by many of them, even though most lived in unhealthy and dangerous poverty. So my students steered well clear of painting themselves with that brush. Yet these were the highly charged energy sources that made the poetry purposeful. Their spoken-word poems would be a way to assert this developing identity, a way to fight back at damage, and move forward with pride.

At the time of the workshop, a spoken-word open mic club thrived on St. Paul’s Latino West Side, and YouTube offered tens, perhaps hundreds of videos of spoken-word poetry by Latino, African American, American Indian, GLBT and other poets. These were messages confronting the denial, damage and destruction of group and personal identity. Victims spoke out against their abusers. Oppressed spoke out against their oppressors. A few spoke out about the liberation of being able to speak out. The message was clear; who they were was not going to change and their identities were not going to be denied. That meant that how they were viewed was going to have to change. Because the students in the classroom were preaching to a choir, of course, the wide world did not change, but my students did. It was clear to them and me that it is not necessary for any of them to accept the flawed view a repressive society had of them. Who they were and were going to become was up to them. These young poets stood up and declared who they were. They expounded a view of their world past and future that was theirs. They spoke with strength and pride, and that was just what my students needed to be able to do to break through the ceilings of race, language, culture and poverty that limited their futures.

That was my goal: empower students to be themselves and assert themselves into the best life possible for them. Spoken-word poetry was the vehicle, their identity the engine, their personal and cultural experience the fuel that would carry them forward. Would this improve their language skills? Students learn to read and write according to their perceived need for these things. Would the power of words to set one free, and the opportunity to be accepted and respected as ‘who one is’ help shape that perception? If this activity could open a door through which the possibility of a better life would appear, then walking through that door would indeed require one to develop one’s language skills. Pedagogically then, this was a good thing to do.

As a lover of literature who favored nineteenth and early twentieth century British novelists, I found spoken-word coarse and grating. As a privileged 63 year old, planning to retire from the classroom in just over two years, I had nothing to gain by going so far off my turf. But as a teacher, I had no choice; I believed this was the best thing I could do with my students. And I was right.

I would have to learn about this stuff with them. In fact, I would have to learn more and sooner. I would have to learn how to learn this as a student as well as learning about it for my knowledge base and lesson planning. Learning, however, is something I do well. I immersed myself in examples of spoken-word, listened, watched and reflected. I read about spoken-word and its background and activity—Harlem Renaissance, beat poets, hip-hop, Nuyoricans, Gil Scott Heron, Bob Dylan. I read about the background of Somali poets and poetry, and contemplated the parallels to Western styles. I explored how the poets worked and where they performed. As a past actor, I appreciated the value of sharing space and time with a performance. The dynamic of that sharing is unique in its immediacy and temporality. I understood that memorizing meant rereading and reexamining text for a deeper connection. As a poet, I knew that poetry can capture and express that about which we might otherwise say there are no words. I began to plan the lesson. They would have to do what I had done to learn what I had learned.

What have I done?

The lesson was simple: introduce with examples, discuss with open-ended questions, explore on the Internet for inspiration, write as groups—comparing and sharing as you go—refine and rehearse, present and listen to presentations. It would, I thought, take about a week to create and another to present.

Did this work?

Well, “work” is a relative term. Did this show demonstrable results on standardized tests that indicate something about America’s competitiveness in the global marketplace of the future? I don’t know, and frankly, I don’t care. I care about the individual student’s competitiveness in the American workplace, and I care about what the students see in the commonplace of a mirror. And in this assessment, it worked.

The most requested activity from the same students in the following year in my junior classes and those of others was classroom or school-wide open-mics for spoken-word. Their genre had been honored, their language had been honored, their words had been honored and they had been honored, and they liked it. Several of the students participated in an emerging spoken-word club and a school-hosted, public open-mic. A few participated in the city-wide slam later in the spring.

One poet, using the piece she wrote for my class, won an award at the city-wide slam. Hers was an intensely personal piece exposing the pain and rage her sexual abuse and the eventual forgiveness of her perpetrator. Najma, on the other hand, was able to leverage her college admissions the following year with the poetic skill demonstrated in my classroom, where she stunned her American classmates with an incredible, memorized poem expounding the endurance of national pride she held for her homeland and its people. Before her performance, she was simply another demurring Somali girl. From almost all, it was noted as the best, most remembered lesson of the year in my year-end survey.

I would have to say it worked because it changed their thinking about themselves and their capacities and about learning. And it worked for me because I modeled the joy of meaningful learning, supported students in directing their own learning, and honored all of the demonstrations of learning. Then I have often been the subversive in the system, who didn’t do as I was told and still got good results.

Would I do it again?

Well, I am doing it again. Now retired from the classroom, but still teaching and volunteering with the Latino Youth Development Coalition in Minneapolis, I was asked to help with a college entrance essay writing project for Latino middle and high school students. Their interest is to get these students, at high risk of dropping out, to start thinking about college as a real possibility in their lives. As part of what I will do in preparing them, spoken-word should help in focusing those with as yet forming self-identities, to aid in building a positive self-image, and to assist in revealing an understanding of their strengths and weaknesses that writing the essays will require. So, yes, I would do it again.

[1] Minnesota Humanities Center, 987 Ivy Avenue East, St. Paul, MN 55106, http://www.minnesotahumanities.org.

[2] Smokin’ Fish. Luke Griswold-Tergis & Cory Mann, Producers, Native American Public Telecommunications, 1800 N. 33 St., Lincoln, NE 68503, 2011.

About Jay C Ritterson
The only failure is the failure to try.

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