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Part 2: Extending Student Voice and the WinS Experience to a Social Experiment

This is the second of two posts written by NCTE member, Topher Kandik, the 2016 State Teacher of the Year for the District of Columbia. See Part I

Topher headshotThe idea of honoring student voice fits perfectly within the context of my AP English Language and Composition class. My students are all African American, and the AP curriculum I designed has focused on African American nonfiction narrative and essays. My students read Frederick Douglass over the summer, and we continue reading African American voices throughout the year, constructing our own alternate narrative of US history, one that challenges the dominant narrative. Through the voices of Harriet Jacobs, Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. DuBois, Carter Woodson, Zora Neale Hurston, Richard Wright, James Baldwin, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and others all the way up through Ta-Nehisi Coates and Cornel West who are adding to that narrative today, we retell the story of America. We become, as Cornel West puts it, part of the “grand tradition of struggle,” and my idea is that the students in the course will be the next voice, will write the next chapter in this American story.

Inevitably the idea of education and literacy arises early in the year. We read about the struggle for freedom and education by African Americans, and we see the power that literacy gives to an oppressed people (and the fear it causes to the dominant group). This naturally leads to a year-long discussion of segregation and its effects on African Americans. Even though Brown v. Board of Education is over 50 years old, we still see the evils of segregation today. Students ponder why charter schools (schools of choice, like ours!) are even more segregated than traditional public schools. They wonder why, as District of Columbia Councilmember LaRuby May told us at George Washington University’s 2016 Commencement for the Graduate School for Education and Human Development, our city’s Ward 8 has 2 public schools (which are overwhelmingly African American): one of them has a 2% literacy rate and the other has a 0% literacy rate for 10th graders as measured by last year’s PARCC testing. They wonder why they have never been in a classroom with a white student before, a point that civil rights educator and 2016 National Teacher of the Year Finalist Nate Gibbs-Bowling blogs about in his post “The Conversation I’m Tired of Not Having.” We struggle for answers to all of these questions. We struggle authentically. And we struggle together with trust and openness.

So it is within this context that I listened to my students when they told me they have never been in a class with white students. They proposed that I put together a partnership (it sounds so simple!) so that they can participate in a class with white students before they go on to college. After all, many of these students will matriculate to predominantly white institutions of higher learning, and they want to be prepared for what they encounter there. What better way to get these students ready than to use literature as a means to bring students from different schools together?

I endeavored to do just this with the help of PEN/Faulkner’s Writers in Schools program (which I wrote about in part 1 of this blog post). This school year, my students read three of the same texts as a World Literature elective class for juniors and seniors from the Maret School, a private school in DC located on the other side of our city. With literature as our unifying factor, we set about on a social experiment in integration on a small scale. The results were powerful to witness.

Maret instructor Claire Petengill and I met over the summer to flesh out some ideas about the meetings. We decided three meetings throughout the year would be manageable enough to fit into our current curriculum. We wanted to plan the timing and basics for our first meeting, but ultimately decided on a less-is-more approach. If we put our students together, it might be awkward at first, but they would find common ground on their own.

Our first meeting was in a neutral location. We kept the text relatively simple since we were at the beginning of the year. Our primary motivation for the first meeting was to get students talking, so we read a couple of short stories by Tope Folarin, an immensely talented writer who lives and writes in Washington, DC. The stories we read had to do with the immigrant experience in America, but they also touched on themes of family, love, loss, and change. These are themes that all students—no matter their race or background—have experience feeling for themselves. We created a couple icebreakers, but the texts themselves did the heavy lifting.

Once Tope arrived, his charisma carried the day. Students got to ask him questions, but they also learned to listen to each other and interact together in a meaningful way. By the time the pizza arrived (food, of course, was an intentional and integral part of each of our meet-ups), students from both classes had settled into a slightly awkward, but trending-toward-natural, rapport. It was great to see. After the pizza was consumed and the students from Maret left, my own students showed their joy by cleaning up the room without prompting. As they did this (I tried not to betray my own shock and sense of elation), they articulated what the visit meant to them. The experience confirmed their notion that they could hold their own in an academic conversation. Society regularly sends messages of inferiority, so it is a relief for them to know, really know, that they are equals in and out of the classroom. These lines are difficult to write, but they are true.

This is what literature can do, and this is how we can use it to explore our similarities and create bonds where previously they have been absent.

Our second meet-up was on our campus. Although it did not fit perfectly into my curriculum for the year, we agreed to read Celeste Ng’s novel Everything I Never Told You, using the method I described in yesterday’s post. Ms. Ng was available at the time we agreed to meet, so we went with it. This novel explores a family’s feelings as they respond to the disappearance and suicide of a family member. As the date approached, we received some sad news. A student in the class at Maret had tragically ended his own life. Suddenly, the literature we were reading didn’t seem so important. My students—many of whom have experienced loss in their lives—empathized with the class at Maret. I was going to suggest—but didn’t have to—that we read something else by Celeste Ng. My students suggested this for me. They automatically felt that it wouldn’t be right to discuss the topic with students whose feelings would still be so raw

We found a couple other short texts to read and discuss when Ms. Ng visited. The visit was a little subdued because of the loss, but our students took another step toward being comfortable with each other. After the Maret students left to go back to their school, we had a little extra time to talk to Ms. Ng about her novel that we read.

When we were confident that our students were comfortable, we decided to throw a curve. The final meet-up was to be at the Maret School. The book we ultimately chose, The Beast Side: Living (and Dying) While Black in America by D. Watkins, was bound to make us uncomfortable again. Here we were, going to a high school campus that literally used to be a summer home for more than one POTUS, to talk about race and racial relations in America. I do not believe this meet-up would have been successful if this was our first time together, but because of our positive experiences earlier in the year, we decided to cross our fingers and trust our students.

First of all, in the words of one student, D. Watkins’s book is “fire.” Another student raved, “He seems to write everything I am thinking.” As our intense discussions turned from the theme of our course and the theme of the book, we started to think how we could approach our discussion with D. and with the Maret students. This gave us pause. What if students in the other class argued with the ideas that seemed so natural to us? What if the environment was not accepting of us? What if no one said anything? These were our fears, but I told them to trust the books. Trust the process. Trust each other.

We were not disappointed. D. was a natural. His experience working with students was immediately apparent. He set us all at ease as he started answering questions and talking about his experiences. His wisdom seeped into the group. As the discussion wrapped up and we transitioned to the area where D. was going to sign books for our scholars, I distinctly remembered looking out over Rock Creek, a vista once selected by former presidents for its beauty. I thought about literature and the impact it can have (and has!) on the course of our lives.

Some students drifted off to a basketball court to play with Maret students while we were wrapping up. Others sat and chatted on the porch overlooking the fields and the stately trees of Rock Creek Park. I was reminded of Keats’s sonnet “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer” in which he describes the “new world” that reading literature provides:

Then I felt like some watcher of skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He star’d at the Pacific—and all his men
Look’d at each other with a wild surmise—
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

This program has had value for my students, and I can only believe that it did for students at the Maret School too. The partnership was conceived by a group of students, and I had the flash of brilliance to listen to them. Claire and I have agreed to continue and grow the idea by working together again next year. There are so many possibilities.

I don’t know for sure the impact this program will continue to have on my students, but I do know that I will continue to ask them.

And I’ll be sure to listen to what they have to say.

Topher Kandik is the 2016 Teacher of the Year from the District of Columbia. He is a recent contributor to the book Arts Integration in Education: Teachers and Teaching Artists as Agents of Change (Intellect, 2016), and the 2013 recipient of the Mayor’s Arts Award for Language Arts. He lives in Washington, DC with his wife, Allison; his son, Theo; and his pug, Molly Bloom