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An Equitable English Education Begins with Dignity

From the NCTE Standing Committee on Global Citizenship

 

This post was written by NCTE member Danielle Filipiak, a member of the NCTE Standing Committee on Global Citizenship. 

 

If I didn’t define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people’s fantasies for me and eaten alive.

Audre Lorde

While there are many figures I look to for inspiration and guidance when it comes to teaching, the example set by Black womxn in the Detroit gradeschool I attended across the 80s and early 90s undoubtedly left the strongest impression. Modeling a deep sense of care for their students, they consistently enacted pedagogical stances that recognized and validated us as full human beings who were worthy of love, respect, and honor. They treated us like we mattered always and without condition, deserving of their abounding love and affirmation daily. They provide us the space to define ourselves, for ourselves, unapologetically.

From their example, I came to understand the deep and spiritual work of a dignity-centered practice.

A dignity-centered practice, one that holds each child as a full and valuable member of a learning community, is fundamental if we are to authentically work toward educational justice in classrooms and schools.

Why do dignity and justice go hand in hand? Because teaching for justice requires that we love the children we teach. And to love young people, we have to fundamentally believe that they matter. Mattering isn’t a feeling; it’s an action. It’s respecting the richness of young people’s identities and acting in the best interest of their humanity.

It’s working to dismantle structural ideologies that render some as disposable, less American, or ignorant simply because of the way they choose to talk, to dress, to love, or  to practice their faith. If you say you love a young person but subscribe to beliefs or worldviews that position them as deficit, justify their mistreatment, or strip them of the ability to assert their full identities, then you are perpetuating violence, not love.

So how do we teach with dignity in mind? How does a dignity-centered practice live inside of classrooms and schools?

While this is a question I’ve continued to revisit across the last few years, I draw mostly on the encounters and experiences I had with beautiful, brilliant womxn in my Detroit public grade school experience nearly 25 years ago.

Here’s what they taught me about a dignity centered practice: 

 

A dignity-centered practice equips young people to critique systems that don’t honor their full sense of humanity. 

Etched in my memory is the example of Mrs. Merkerson, my middle school humanities teacher who would perch herself atop the corner of her desk at the end of each day leading up to summer, reading from Richard Wright’s Black Boy as we wiggled and paper-fanned ourselves through sweltering conditions in a cramped classroom.

Her syrupy sweet voice delivered Wright’s stinging self-portrait of growing up in the Jim Crow South, and she would gently follow up with questions about issues like hunger, poverty, and racism.  By inviting us into conversations about textual themes that mirrored forces shaping many of our own lives, we were provided with the vocabulary to name and critique racialized systems of oppression so that, as Bettina Love so aptly notes, we didn’t blame ourselves instead.

Our under-resourced and overcrowded classrooms, the incinerators in our neighborhoods causing high asthma rates, our hungry bellies—these weren’t because we lacked intelligence, or because we didn’t care about our neighborhoods, or our caregivers didn’t work hard enough.

The origins of inequality that shaped our experiences could be traced back to a long-standing history of racial violence and discrimination, executed through practices like red lining, school segregation, and job discrimination.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but through her critical questioning following each read-aloud, Mrs. Merkerson was engaging us in the practice of critical literacy, helping us to, as Paulo Freire puts it, “read the world to read the word.”

Through such an excavation, we were able to shift our perceptions and reposition ourselves as we came to understand the ideological, cultural, and racial underpinnings of the sanctioned discourse of disposability that punctuated our experiences.

Such a reframing was transformative in that it gave us permission to assert the full value of our existence and define ourselves on our own terms, achieving a kind of personal freedom that catalyzed healing and allowed us to employ a radical re-imagining of ourselves and our communities.

A dignity-centered practice cultivates joy and celebration of culture and community.

Nothing captures this sentiment more accurately, I think, then the leadership example set by our school principal, Ms. Maxine M. Mills. Enjoying our post-lunch recess outside in the school yard, we’d occasionally catch a glimpse of Ms. Mills returning back from whatever administrative commitments she had outside of school—rolling up in a clean, pearl-white Cadillac with jazz music blasting from the window, and always dressed like she was going somewhere important. Her swag matched her motto of “Black Excellence,” and her creed was probably best demonstrated in the way she engaged with the local community.

The Detroit mayor, our governor, district administrators, community organizers, professional athletes, and black celebrity figures were invited in for speeches, pep rallies, and graduations. Parents packed the auditorium for gospel choir performances, plays, and Black history quiz bowls. And every morning after we sang the Star Spangled Banner we’d belt out “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” the National Black Anthem. For part of my career as a student, our school even adopted an African-Centered curriculum. Black swag, Black joy, Black love, Black knowledge were centered and celebrated and every student knew, in their bodies, their hearts, and their imaginations, that Black lives mattered.

Ms. Mills knew that our ability to exercise self-determination, or the ability to define ourselves and create and speak for ourselves, was attached to our ability to love and celebrate Blackness. At every turn she made moves to validate our everyday experiences and positionalities in the world—as well as those of our families, our neighbors, and our community leaders. This created a sense of solidarity and joy that inspired us and ultimately encouraged us to develop deep relationships with ourselves and our culture in ways that sustained our spirits.

A dignity-centered practice nourishes purpose.

According to Ms. Mitchell, our school librarian, every student had something to offer the world, and it was her mission to help us unearth these gifts. Her mantra was, “You can’t stand up for things bigger than yourself if you haven’t found your own purpose.”

To nourish this sense of purpose, she offered unwavering support, daily verbal affirmations, a listening ear, and an apprenticing into an intellectual community through her offering of books related to our interests. Checking in with her at lunchtime or after school, I’d be welcomed with, “Ms. Danielle, I just know one day you are just gonna’ change the world. I just feel it in my bones.” She’d ask me about what I was learning in class and who I wanted to be. When I told her in fifth grade that I was fascinated by the work of zoologists, she pointed me toward books about animals. In seventh grade, when I demonstrated an interest in Georgia O’Keeffe’s paintings of flowers and skyscrapers, she shared books about modern art.

In many ways, Ms. Mitchell served as what Deborah Brandt names as a “literacy sponsor,” inviting students to explore texts that fed their passions while also nourishing a sense of purpose that she saw as necessary in our pursuit for collective liberation. She prodded us to think about the kind of person we hoped to become, and invested in small but radical acts of love and care that affirmed our sense of desire and later, agency.  

If we enjoyed something or found it interesting, why not pursue more knowledge concerning that topic? And didn’t we, at the very least, deserve attentive company to share our thoughts and dreams with?

Ms. Mitchell taught me to seek out, listen to, and trust the voice that directed me toward a purpose, confirming that my soul’s yearnings deserved to be honored and held with esteem.

Where are we now?

Nearly 25 years later, this idea of a dignity-centered practice seems even more urgent than ever before.

As it currently stands, we have a rapidly shifting demographic, nationally and even globally. That means that we have to teach in ways that support plurality. We also live in a world where young people are using digital media tools in all sorts of interesting and innovative ways—to create content, to amass movements, to document stories.

This means we also have to teach in ways that encourage imagination and ingenuity. But these alone aren’t enough. Above all else, we have to maintain a steadfast, unapologetic commitment to creating spaces where dignity is affirmed—the dignity of the young people in front of us as well as the dignity of human beings across the planet.  We can’t talk about technology without also talking about who gets to innovate and imagine in school spaces and who doesn’t—about who has access to digital media tools and who doesn’t.

We can’t talk about plurality without unpacking who is rendered invisible in public discourse and who is painted as recognizable, sensible, significant. These are issues of equity, yes, but equity begins with this concept of dignity. An equitable English education is one concerned with preserving, upholding, and nourishing dignity.

Cast in such a light, English education has the potential to direct our country toward its best self, I think. It’s just that powerful.

For a healthy democracy to thrive—and arguably at this moment we might say survive—it is urgent that young people interact with adults who model pedagogical stances that reflect standards of basic humanity and compassion.

How can we ask students to navigate today’s political climate with a sense of criticality, or to view their neighbor with empathy, if we don’t enact pedagogies that reflect the fullness of those who are in front of us?

The books we choose, the version of English we sanction as acceptable, whom we deem as expert writers or readers, ways that we invite students to share their voices and perspectives—all accumulate into a powerful force that mediates how young people see themselves and who they believe they might become.

It is up to us then to design experiences that tap into that force, to shape humanizing and powerful experiences with literacy that reflect back to students the best that they can be, while simultaneously affirming the best of what is already within them. This is the power of centering dignity: it lets young people know you believe in them and their right to live a full and vibrant intellectual, emotional, and spiritual life that matters, unconditionally and without exception.

 

Danielle Filipiak is an Assistant Professor of Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Connecticut, where she also directs the Secondary English Education Program. Her research interests focus on literacy and English education in plural contexts; civic learning and critical digital literacies; and identity construction of urban school administrators and academic achievement.

“The Standing Committee on Global Citizenship works to identify and address issues of broad concern to NCTE members interested in promoting global citizenship and connections across global contexts within the Council and within members’ teaching contexts.”