Monday, June 24, 2013

World Lit, Single Stories, and "Drop-outs"

Though Philly education is being cut to the bone, my program was fortunate enough to set aside money to run our 60-student summer school.  The program fits in with our year-round, accelerated model and allows my students to continue their trek to graduation by earning 3 credits in 6 weeks.  I’ve taught summer school for the last three years and I love it. Though three 90-minute blocks back to back to back is a little grueling, I love having more time with my students and the smaller class sizes that this program affords. 

Anyway, all of this is mealy background for a sort of revelation that we had in one of my classes yesterday. I’m teaching two different classes this summer, Memoir (English 3) and World Lit (English 4).  Because it’s the summer and some of the students have already taken (and failed) my English 3 & 4 classes, I like to use this time to try out some new ideas, texts, projects, etc.  This summer, I’m totally reshaping my World Lit class and I wanted to start by setting the stage with the question “Why bother reading stories from around the world?”

It may seem like a simple, even elementary question, but I posed it genuinely and I think it’s an important one to ask, especially since some of my students have very Philly-centric world views (when a student asked where I went to college, I said “in Vermont, up north”.  He nodded his head, “oh north, I don’t really go up that way” [implying North Philadelphia]).

I asked them to individually brainstorm a “quick list” of reasons why reading world lit could be beneficial and then we started to discuss.  First, several students parroted the answers they thought I was fishing for:
  “Understand different cultures.”
  “See what life is like outside of Philly.”
  “Think about different people, religions, and foods.”
  “Expand our world view”
  “In case we travel:
All great answers, but I felt like they Googled my question rather than thinking about it.

After pushing farther, a few students started to get frustrated and offered:
  “Because the District says we have to read it.”
  “cause we need this credit to graduate”
Fair, although I have a ton of autonomy and probably could work around the world lit side of things if I wanted. 

Just when I thought they were tapped out, a quiet guy sitting in the corner mumbled something. 
 “to combat ignorance.”
I had to ask him to repeat it:
 “To combat ignorance.” he said plainly.

I wrote it on the board. Paused and asked him to explain. His peers chimed in and it was settled.  That’s the answer we -as a class- had selected. served as a great segue to the clip from Nigerian writer Chimamanda Adichie‘s TED Talk “The Danger of a Single Story” that I wanted to share with my students.  As they watched I asked them to break down some of the different “Single Stories” that she discusses - reading & writing stories about white British people and snow because she thought that’s what books had to be about; pitying a local boy who worked for her family only to find out his family, though poor, were incredibly talented weavers; and being greeted by a college roommate at Drexel who was surprised that her Nigerian roommate could speak English and didn’t listen to “tribal music”.

I was first exposed to this clip in one of my masters’ classes at Temple and was taken aback by her seemingly simple, yet poignant message.  I’ve wanted to use the clip in class for a while, but this was the first time I went for and, as with the first time using any text, is was a little nervous. 

After discussing some of these and the impact of “single stories”, I asked my students to describe a time when they fell victim to the danger of a single story. 

As they often do, my students blew me away. 

First some students told stories about times they had stereotyped others.  They judged their peers and even total strangers based on “single stories”.  Wanting to forge an even more personal connection with “single stories”, I pushed for times when they’d felt like Adichie when she first arrived at college.

A few students shared stories of being stereotyped because of their skin color or dress.  They talked about being followed around H&M in Center City or being harassed by police in their neighborhoods.  Others mentioned being told by teachers or even family members that they’d never amount to anything.  One young mother described the judgment that she faced the first time she took her daughter to the pediatrician.  She even teared up a bit remembering the harsh words and demeaning tone as the doctor asked her accusatory questions about her child.  However, she beamed with pride as she described how she proved the doctor wrong and talked about what a wonderful mother she is. 

The final “single stories” centered around being out of school and labeled “drop outs”. Working at an alternative school for the last five years, I’ve become keenly aware of the danger of the single “drop-out” story - that of the kid who quits school in favor of life on the corner.  While I have encountered students who openly admit this was part of their story, it is hardly emblematic of my population.  To be sure, my students are not defined by their past, but it is an important part of their identity and when they share it with me I realize that the “single story” of the drop-out is so far from reality.  Many of my students faced trauma, chaos, and crises that I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemies.  They recount crowded classrooms and dispassionate administrators, harsh judges and unfair incarceration, homelessness and accelerated adulthood.  When I first started teaching, these stories led me to pity my students, but even in that reaction I was falling victim to a “single story”.

As we wrapped up our discussion, I brought it back to the student’s comment about world lit as a way to combat ignorance. I reminded students that as we work through our World Lit stories and texts in general, we’ll continue to break down “single stories” and combat ignorance.

These are the kind of classes that can’t be measured by the Common Core and high stakes testing. 


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