I can’t stress enough how important it is to encourage student voice. When students are allowed to speak and to write their truth, they begin the process of introspection, inquiry and critical thinking. While this process may be rudimentary at first, and the words may seem to be reactive rather than reflective, it is crucial that the words come before real reflection can begin. Below is an essay by one of my former high school students, a young man with dreams of being an artist, torn by the need to maintain street cred, survive in the neighborhood, struggle with lack of finances, and still pursue his art. His words, while they may seem on the surface to be juvenile rantings about life being unfair, when examined more closely, show a deep commitment to his art, a will to survive and succeed, and a rage born of frustration and lack of real guidance. By fostering student voice, we create an opportunity as teachers to understand, to intervene and to guide our students as they go forward.
Just the Beginning
My dream for the future is that someone can help me show my life, my expression, through art. I would like to be an artist. My skill is in play now but I want to go to the Academy of Art in San Francisco. First I need to graduate from high school. I don’t know how to make my way out there. Life is full of obstacles and I am just a Mexican that lives in a messed up town with the worst people in it. I know I’m with the wrong people, and if they say I can make it, that doesn’t mean I can. The only way I can come up with them is if I start making my money the way I used to make it. But I don’t want to do that anymore, not unless I really have to. In this freakin’ town we cannot even get a waiver to go to college. I was rejected once all ready and that was just because I didn’t have the hundred dollar application fee. What would it take to actually go there or even spend one day there? Imagine that!
In this life we have to learn how make it on our own. Maybe teachers will help a little, but they don’t know what we go through all day just to find out that we can’t go to a high quality school. That still isn’t going to stop me. I do my art now when I want, at the time I want. People say that we can do a lot around here to display my art and attract the eyes of the world. But that’s just an American dream. People like me know how to learn off people’s mistakes. My cousin helped me see that. He told me to see how the world works before I play it. He’s an art teacher. He had a tough time getting to where he is. His life was similar to mine. He also did drugs. For people like us it’s very hard to get somewhere. My cousin had a hard time and so will I, but I might get farther than him. This is just the beginning.
Bathina (2007) Dreams are for Others: Voices of the Children Left Behind.
Many years ago, when I was teaching at a small liberal arts college, and suggested introducing a course on literacy and diversity, I was immediately encouraged. Although this was a good thing, and my chair meant well, it was the term she used that bothered me. “I’m so glad you are doing this. Any efforts we can make to help our teachers manage diversity are more than welcome.” It’s the word manage that I took issue with then and continue to find disturbing today.
I see it in schools, as well as in universities, this effort to manage diversity, as if it were some unwieldy negative force that needed to be quelled and streamlined in order for us to make progress. While we have definitely moved forward from the old days when diversity was a thing to be either submerged or ignored, we still have a long way to go in moving from merely managing it to fully honoring the multiplicity of languages, cultures, religions, socioeconomic levels, and backgrounds that exist in our classrooms today.
So how can a teacher honor the diversity in his or her classroom with something more than the usual show and tell, or international food day? There are several immediate ways in which we can honor the richness our students bring and at the same time provide them with more material for honoring their own identity.
Acknowledging Students’ Funds of Knowledge
Too often, we tend to push our content, with no regard for the contents already within our students’ minds. I tend to repeat this often, but it’s an important point. Our children do not come into the classroom as blank slates. They have a wealth of knowledge, a unique perspective on the world, informed by both their circumstances and their experiences. While this perspective or knowledge may not always be positive, it is a rich soil in which to sow the seeds of further learning. When we ignore what our students bring to the table, good or bad or mixed, we are dumping more manure on a well-tilled field that is open for sowing, rather than using that opportunity to plant new ideas that can flourish.
Choosing Materials that Reflect our Students’ Lives
In our eagerness to present curriculum, we forget to take into account the individuals we have in our classroom. An effective teacher plans carefully for the specific population they are dealing with and chooses materials accordingly. True, they may be limited in their choice of textbook, but bringing in articles on female scientists, or African American inventors, or Hmong athletes, or Latino political leaders is easy to do. If some students are interested in sports, or others obsessed with music, art or fashion, a little planning will yield plenty of materials that tie content to those specific arenas. When we tie our content to what students care about and at the same time bring in cultural references, we increase engagement and provide role models for our students, enabling them to see themselves as capable of success in their chosen field.
Honestly Discussing Stereotypes, Racism and Violence
We tend to think that such topics are taboo in the classroom. Yet, these very topics are relevant, urgent and necessary for the well being of our students. Those who feel that we need to stick to our content and leave such topics to counselors, are missing an incredible opportunity to reach and to teach their students. After all, what happens outside the classroom doors immediately impacts what happens inside. For real learning to occur, students need to feel safe and respected. How can they, when their teacher does not even acknowledge issues that affect their lives on a daily basis?
The classroom is often the only place where students, led by a skilled and sensitive teacher, can discuss such topics in a balanced and safe manner. Such discussions allow them to see multiple perspectives on the same issue and to realize that others may be going through similar experiences.
I am sure there are amazing teachers out there who continue to find other ways to include, encourage and honor students from every background within their classrooms. Unless we take the time to be mindful of who our students are, we may manage them, but we can never fully honor them.
Book Launch in India
Television Interview in the Bay Area
Beyond the Fields Release- Sanger
|Left to right: Jyothi Bathina, Seth Gardner, Aaron Galbraith and Stacy Lazzari (Photo contributed)|
The Literate Voices project will celebrate the coming publication of two books of Sanger middle school and Visalia high school students’ narratives at a launch party 6-9 p.m. Thursday, May 27, at the California State University, Fresno Satellite Student Union.
The project director is Dr. Jyothi Bathina, an assistant professor of literacy and early education in the Kremen School of Education and Human Development.
“The project has proven to have amazing success at motivating, encouraging and inspiring students to read and write and engage in the literacy process,” said Bathina, who worked with students at Sequoia High School in Visalia and Fairmont School in Sanger.
In June, “Against the Odds: Visalia Voices” and “Beyond the Fields: Sanger Stories” will be published.
At the May 27 event, budding authors from both schools will present their work and sign books. The event is free and open to the public, and will include live entertainment and refreshments.
The unit is designed to meet English Language Arts standards, while providing students opportunities to learn to voice their opinions and to analyze their world and effect positive change, Bathina said.
“Students learned to apply grammar, syntax and literary devices in their writing and editing, knowing they would soon be published authors,” she added. “Students also learned other relevant cross-curricular life skills such as designing their covers, marketing their book, creating promotional materials, and calculating royalties.
The Literate Voices project is founded on the belief that all students learn best through finding and expressing their personal voice. The project resulted in a previous anthology “Dreams Are for Others,” written by students in East Palo Alto.
I came home furious the other day after class. It infuriates me when student teachers, who have barely entered a classroom, profess to already know everything there is to know about reaching and teaching their students. I never lecture to my students, encouraging instead a sharing of ideas and a willingness to be open to new ways of thinking. But there are those who resist even that kind of interaction, who are completely closed off to learning. I’ve been teaching for over a decade now, first as a high school teacher, then as a university professor and I still barely know what I’m doing. How can these college students assume they know it all? How will they deal with the reality of teaching students who could care less what they know? But then, after a cup of tea, I calm down and remember how long it took me to realize I didn’t know much. When I first started out teaching high school, I thought I was the one with the knowledge and that I would distribute that precious knowledge to my eager students. Little did I know what lessons I had yet to learn from those very students.
I muddled through my first years of teaching, confident that I was the expert and that my students needed to just listen to me and they would succeed. After all, I had a Ph.D. in English. I was baffled by their resistance but kept plowing ahead on my own. It was in the South Bronx, in one of the worst schools in terms of violence, poverty and drug use among students, that I finally realized what I was doing wrong. One day out of sheer frustration I asked them what they did care about, because it certainly wasn’t Greek mythology. They responded with a litany of their troubles, their challenges, the incredible hardship in their own lives. I told them to forget about writing an essay on the Odyssey. I asked them to write about their own lives and their own stories. The results were miraculous.
Once I stepped off my pedestal and allowed them a voice, my students blossomed. They wrote and filled volumes with their writing. They responded to each other’s stories with profound discussions and deep reflections. They read authors who spoke to their own experience. Every day was a chance to learn from each other. I believe I learned more than anyone else in that room. No longer was I the expert. No longer was I the sole holder of knowledge. Once I recognized their funds of knowledge, their street literacies and their rich experience, we became co-learners in the truest sense.
Finally, by giving up some of my own power and acknowledging theirs, I became truly powerful. I was able to guide the discussions, to help them articulate what they wanted to say, to lead them to deeper reflection through questioning and challenging their thought process. It was amazing and so rewarding. Together, my students and I created our own vision of the world and how we wanted it to be. Together, we created a space of learning and sharing and personal growth.
In all societies throughout history the teacher has been accorded a prominent place. He is bearer of wisdom, guide and mentor. But if you look closely at the most revered teachers, such as Christ, Buddha, Mohammed and Krishna, you find that they did not sit on a pedestal and hand out wisdom. They lived among their disciples, sharing thoughts, working beside them, fighting battles, experiencing pain and suffering, begging for alms. They encouraged discussion, pushed their disciples to think independently and to become powerful agents of change. If they had not, their teachings would never have survived, for their students continued to spread those teachings long after the teacher disappeared. Because they had co-learned those philosophies, adapting them to the reality of their time and place, they were able to create their own vision through the ages and keep those precepts alive.
We are all teachers to someone, whether our children, our employees, our patients, our friends, and we are also students who continue to learn until the very end of our lives. Perhaps in my eagerness to share my hard gained experience with my student teachers, I am becoming didactic. It is important to remember in both roles that we need to be open to those around us, to never feel we know all there is to know, and to be humble enough to acknowledge the wisdom of those we seek to teach, as well as those from whom we seek to learn.