At the beginning of the pandemic, teachers received hundreds of emails with online resources. We were overwhelmed with PDs, free online platforms, tips, and more. We soon realized it was more challenging than any of us thought it would be.
Distance teaching is not ideal for many students, and is frustrating for many teachers. Some teachers (like me) are finding it hard to engage their students, and it is difficult to gauge how much students are involved and doing some school work. Nevertheless, some creative projects are happening - teachers are adaptive and resilient. When I saw this collaborative poem by students on one of the 7th grade teams at my school, I was impressed by what I read. The teachers, Heather Sullivan-Flynn and Patrick Hunter, gave me permission to publish it here.
I asked the teachers about their process in guiding students during this unit. The teachers explained that students read Kwame Alexander's crowd-sourced poem "Social Distance" so they could see how it worked. Previously, they had responded to a prompt for individual poems where they had to look in nature or their homes for something that stood out or seemed like it didn't belong, hence the theme "belonging" for their final poem. The teachers created a slide show of images to show belonging, such as multicolored, clasped hands, and a photo of the team of 130 students. Then, the students were asked to write 1-2 lines about belonging. They were encouraged to use poetic language, such as metaphors, to express their feelings of belonging. The final result, after some editing by the teachers, is this awesome collaborative poem! Read below:
Belonging: a collaborative poem written by Team Midnight students
a feeling of togetherness,
being a part in this world,
where you talk and feel heard
but it doesn't matter because we are all the same
A herd of mustangs
a mob of black, tan, brown, white
galloping in a sense of togetherness
A collection of ocean rocks
refusing the ocean’s force
never have to hide
secrets kept frozen under goosebumps
and stale smiles.
Knowing this is the place for you
like knowing the answer on a test
we are worthy of kindness
it is working together
that makes us feel like we belong
A warmth like bat’s wings
wrap around to feel comfort and peace-
Belonging feels like connecting, heart to heart
We all should be treated equally
even though we may disperse,
we won’t cascade apart
our hands are locked
holding you up, and keeping you safe
we are in this together
Hands, reaching out to hold one another,
the colors of fluffy pillows,
and deep warm browns-
Like the stalks of a new plant-
Like birds chirping in the summer-
as the dandelions sway
holding each other’s hands to create one family.
Separate we are just people,
but together we are a family-
we come together and our community grows
searching warm gazes
your heart beats with the knowledge
that you are loved-
that you belong here:
a loving community where you can be you
As humans we want to be in the circle
to stay in the circle
to live in the circle
being human and having fun-
we are all in this together
we will all have each other's back
and we will each be there for someone
You're not alone-
we are all here in this circle
It’s a good feeling to know that you fit in
to feel that you belong.
Everyone in our community belongs-
no matter our differences we get along
Everyone has different backgrounds,
but everyone has feelings.
Though sometimes things are rough
and looking very tough
the strength and love of a community
holds us together-
you can be different but still belong
where one becomes many
and many make a difference
It feels like sunlit gold
Like a sweet smelling flower
Always together with bees
Together is always better
Similarities are only found with differences
Peace is a miracle,
working together is another
But finding a place to belong
is full of mixed emotions
I belong when the people around me accept who I am
Belonging feels like a piece of an image fitting with the other pieces
another piece to a greater puzzle
that soft, warm, delicate feeling
of knowing you are loved.
We are all together drifting through the current
all wanting to get to the same place
all doing it together
and though we don’t know
We will all drift past each other
not even noticing that
we all were once in the same boat
rowing in unison
to the beat of the waves.
It’s easy to think of belonging
when you already have help
Everyone plays a role in society to help everyone belong
everyone is different
and deserves to be included
Belonging isn’t always easy
Belonging is warmth
Belonging is comfort and relief
but most importantly
Belonging is safe
Together we all stand, included-
you are meant to be here-
To know belonging is to know there is a place for you
like a petal on a flower, you belong-
You are meant
Heather Sullivan-Flynn has been teaching middle school English for 22 years, the last 18 of them at Amherst Regional Middle School. She lives in western Massachusetts with her family where she writes fiction and drinks tea.
Patrick Hunter teaches English and Social Studies at Amherst Middle School.
Dr.Keisha Green is Assistant Professor in the College of Education at UMass, Amherst, whose scholarly work revolves around English Education, critical literacy, critical pedagogy, and youth literacies. In Dr.Green's class, African-American Literacies and Education, students are asked to write a "dialectical rewrite" of an issue that "keeps them up at night."
Emma Canales, one of Dr.Green's students, decided to write about To Kill a Mockingbird. She explained her rationale for writing about this book: "I teach 8th grade ELA in [a local city with schools that have a high population of African-American and Latino students]. My students are predominantly of color and I realized after taking Dr. Green's class that education is vastly out of touch with the lives of these students. I was teaching To Kill a Mockingbird and happened across the scene that I examined in my writing. It was really disheartening to hear my students agree that Calpurnia shouldn't be code switching and that if she "knows how to talk right then she needs to talk right" implying that Black English is "wrong." The rich and historical heritage of Black English is being ripped away from our students and I realized that the curriculum needs to be recentered around them."
Below, I share her dialectical rewrite with you. I'm interested to hear thoughts from people who also teach TKM, or have taught it in the past!
My urban English Language Arts class is currently delving into the high school classic To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. This is my third year teaching the novel and my first year realizing that, as a white teacher in a predominantly Latinx and Black classroom environment, I need to recenter the curriculum around my students and what is relevant to their lives and away from has always been a white supremacist agenda. Harper Lee was a white Southern woman, and although she certainly did encounter brutal racism and violence, she did so from the safety of her own whiteness, and was merely a spectator. To Kill a Mockingbird is often used as either a launching pad in the classroom to discuss race and equity, in most likely a watered down context so that it can be discussed “safely”, because many teachers and school administrators fear such heavily charged discourses.
Educators need to step away from their safety net, which may be their pre-designed curriculum or the curriculum that they’ve been following unwaveringly for years, and ask themselves: who are they centering? What books are they reading and discussing in the classroom? Who wrote the books and under what circumstances? Finally, if teachers cannot deviate away from what books they are being required to teach, they need to examine their practice to ensure that their methods are not only inclusive of Black and Brown students, but that these students are able to participate fully and in a way where their voice is valued.
Why is there such a reluctance to include literature written by authors that students can actually identify with which demonstrates topics and ideas that students can passionately discuss? H. Samy Alim and John Baugh (2007) phrase it perfectly when they state, in Talkin Black Talk: Language, Education, and Social Change, “...the American public education system [is out] of touch with both contemporary reality and the historical reality of Black Americans” (p. 19). The majority of teachers are white and it would make sense that the public education system is “out of touch” because white teachers are designing and creating curriculum centered around the white experience. This is their comfort zone and their default approach. There needs to be a push, and it may prove to be difficult and feel uncomfortable, for teachers to get in touch with what can be relevant in the lives of students that may not look like them.
For example, To Kill a Mockingbird is written from the perspective of Scout, a white child. It is easy to teach from this character’s perspective, but in doing that the teacher is once again furthering and valuing the white perspective. More attention and character examination must be paid to the Black characters in the novel, but this must be done carefully. A teacher may choose to focus on the character of Calpurnia, but if this focus is done around the fact that she has literally lived to serve the white Finch family, then once again this furthers the notion that the Black experience is only worth mentioning when it is tied to white lives. An educator should try recentering this character around key questions such as: even though Calpurnia is “employed” by the Finch family, given the historical context, did she have much of a choice? What were Calpurnia’s options in the 1930’s in Alabama? These questions could be discussed in a larger lesson around the political, cultural, and economic context of the South in the era of the Great Depression and what impact these factors would have had on Calpurnia.
There is a scene in To Kill a Mockingbird that shows the slow and insidious creep of oppression working its way into the curriculum and mind of the youth in urban schools in particular. In this scene, Calpurnia takes the Finch kids to her church which serves the African American population of their town. When they arrive, Scout and Jem observe Calpurnia speaking differently to “her people” (code switching) than how she speaks to the children at home. Near the end of this scene the following exchange takes place:
“Why yes sir, Mister Jem.” Calpurnia timidly put her fingers to her mouth. “They were the only books I had. Your grandaddy said Mr. Blackstone wrote fine English—”
“That’s why you don’t talk like the rest of ‘em,” said Jem.
“The rest of who?”
“Rest of the colored folks. Cal, but you talked like they did in church…”
That Calpurnia led a modest double life never dawned on me. The idea that she had a separate existence outside our household was a novel one, to say nothing of her having command of two languages.
“Cal,” I asked, “why do you talk n-talk to the—to your folks when you know it’s not right?”
“Well, in the first place I’m black—”
“That doesn’t mean you hafta talk that way when you know better,” said Jem.
Calpurnia tilted her hat and scratched her head, then pressed her hat down carefully over her ears. “It’s right hard to say,” she said. “Suppose you and Scout talked colored-folks’ talk at home it’d be out of place, wouldn’t it? Now what if I talked white-folks’ talk at church, and with my neighbors? They’d think I was puttin‘ on airs to beat Moses.”
“But Cal, you know better,” I said.
“It’s not necessary to tell all you know. It’s not ladylike—in the second place, folks don’t like to have somebody around knowin‘ more than they do. It aggravates ’em. You’re not gonna change any of them by talkin‘ right, they’ve got to want to learn themselves, and when they don’t want to learn there’s nothing you can do but keep your mouth shut or talk their language.”
This scene has so much to unpack for educators. It has the potential to be a great discussion topic and learning experience for all. It also has the potential to further the implications that speakers of Black Speech are unable to speak Standard English and instead have to speak in a way that, as Scout put it, is “not right.” Calpurnia doesn’t correct Scout, but instead perpetuates this oppressive narrative by agreeing that she has to speak their language despite its apparent incorrectness. Remember, Calpurnia is a Black character being written by a white woman. Of course she doesn’t correct Scout...the author is showing that Scout is correct in her thinking that the English Calpurnia speaks is incorrect.
While Harper Lee does use the word “language” multiple times to describe Calpurnia speaking Black English, she also includes the n-word to describe it, thus delegitimizing it. Harper Lee also has Calpurnia admiring the “fine English” of Blackstone’s Commentaries, which suggests that she appreciates Standard English more than she does her own English and that she only speaks Black English because nobody in her Black community wants to ‘learn” how to speak correctly...in other words, she chooses to only speak Black English to stoop to their assumed lower level of intelligence.
I can’t imagine how students reading this scene in an urban classroom feel. By the time my students arrive in my 8th grade classroom, I can guarantee they’ve already felt the unrelenting oppression of educators trying to force Standard English upon them because public education has deemed that Standard English is correct and what students of colors speak isn’t. To make things worse, we open up a book that has been a classroom staple for decades, only to have a white author try to speak as Calpurnia, a Black character, and read that Black English is the language spoken by those who don’t want to learn how to speak “right.”
While I was checking for understanding around this scene, an African-American student raised their hand and told me that Scout and Jem were surprised because they thought that Calpurnia was “smarter than that.” I asked what the student meant and they responded with something along the lines of, if Calpurnia were smarter she would speak “properly” all of the time and not just when she chooses, and that she is “fake” for switching how she talks depending on who she is talking to. My student’s response also shows that code switching or having, as Harper Lee put it, a “command of two languages” isn’t valued as an extremely useful ability, or even acknowledged as a necessity in the lives of many students. An educator that doesn’t have a goal of recentering curriculum around Black students may very easily accept the scene at face value and lead a discussion around the improperness of Calpurnia’s speech. This projects the message to the Black students in the room that the way they speak is wrong. The way their family speaks is wrong. When everything about you is made out to be wrong and harshly criticized, then what is the use of participating in class? In speaking up? Black students begin to internalize this racism, lose faith in the educational system, and eventually lose confidence in themselves (Baker-Bell, 2019).
It is our responsibility as educators to inform ourselves in ways that classroom cultures and curriculum continue to oppress Black students and their voices while furthering white supremacist agendas. It is then our responsibility to put the hard work in by taking a critical look at our curriculum and our methodologies and pushing through the discomfort of discovering our missteps. We need to correct these missteps. We need to sit with the discomfort and push back against the oppression that we are being asked to replicate. We need to reframe curriculum, reframe novels, and reframe discussions to make space for Black voices to be heard and valued, not squashed and dismissed for being “improper” and thus invalid.
April Baker-Bell (2019): Dismantling anti-black linguistic racism in English
language arts classrooms: Toward an anti-racist black language pedagogy, Theory Into Practice,
Alim, H. S., & Baugh, J. (2007). Talkin black talk: Language, education, and social change. New York: Teachers College Press.
Emma Canales has always called Massachusetts her home and obtained her Bachelor's of Arts degree at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and is attending UMASS for her Master's of Education as well. She is an 8th grade English Language Arts teacher in Springfield, Massachusetts and loves hanging out with and listening to her lively middle school students' thoughts about the world.