Rachel Boccio has taught incarcerated adolescents in Cheshire, CT for the past thirteen years. She has a BA in English from the University of Delaware, an MA in Reading from Saint Joseph College (Hartford), and has recently graduated with honors from Trinity College (Hartford), with an MA in English. Rachel will be starting a doctoral program in English at the University of Rhode Island this fall.
All societies have a fundamental need for narrative; culture is literally formed through public discourse, i.e., the sharing of stories and ideas. Therefore, whose stories get told and how groups of individuals are represented in the texts that we teach must be a crucial element of debates concerning social justice and democracy.
I am reminded of the popular National Public Radio show called This American Life. This weekly broadcast features tales from across the nation – occasionally serious or poignant, more often witty and amusing. The theatrical and extemporaneous style of the show’s host, Ira Glass, has garnered This American Life the kind of attention (and Glass the kind of celebrity status) rarely experienced in public broadcasting. Even so, I wonder at an essential assumption the show seems to make. Is there, after all, an American life? As an avid listener, I can attest that the American life most often put on display through the broadcast is, by and large, white, middle class, literate, and self-reflective. In a similar way, the historical and cultural narratives taught repeatedly in public school classrooms reinforce particular attitudes, interpretations, belief systems, and life experiences; and thus act in constructing American society.
The emergence of multiculturalism in the 1990’s challenged teachers to overcome naive and flawed assumptions about the homogeneity of their student populations. Teachers were encouraged to acknowledge cultural, racial, economic, religious, and intellectual differences among their students and to draw upon these distinctions in ways that enriched the educational experiences of the entire class- no easy task to say the least. Nevertheless, teachers committed to this process (as I am) ultimately find that recognizing diverse perspectives, abilities, and personal and cultural trajectories is not enough to empower students who are suspicious of the very notion of democracy.
Real pedagogical change – the sort that has liberating potential- requires educators to reject their own fixed ideological perspectives, which are – like the attitudes of our students- dependent upon our personal histories and on our positions (geographic, economic, and political) in the world. Moreover, we must look carefully at the extent to which language and narrative privileges our lived experiences and belief systems.
For the past thirteen years, I have taught reading and language arts to incarcerated, male adolescents at a correctional facility in Connecticut. Students are enrolled in my class after placement testing indicates a reading and literacy level at or below third-grade. Illiteracy is not the only thing my students have in common; rather, the vast majority of them are poor, minority kids from inner-city neighborhoods. An enormous hierarchical gap exists between me and my students. I possess the requisite economic, linguistic, and critical knowledge to participate in mainstream culture – in this American life – in a way that my students, quite literally, have difficulty imagining.
The questions I struggle to answer include: how can I close this gap as I develop the literacy of my students? What role does literature and story play in introducing learners to the ideas and social practices of mainstream culture? I recognize that the very terminology I am using to articulate this dilemma is fraught with value judgments. My penchant for favoring my own attitudes and assumptions over and above those of my students complicates my best intentions. I am often guilty, for example, of privileging book-reading when I speak about meaningful engagements with narrative, forgetting the countless ways our lives can be, and are, enriched by story. I remain concerned about authority in my teaching, most especially the extent to which my pedagogical choices strengthen or limit the agency of my students.
Educational advocates in whole language, multiculturalism, social justice, and urban reform generally concur that students need to participate in selecting the literature that they read and write about if language arts classrooms are to become a forum for teaching the values of democracy. If equality and fairness are our goals then, as educators, we cannot take lightly the kinds of stories we choose or what groups of people are represented in these stories and how. This being said, I commiserate with teachers who attempt to share decision making with students so socially, politically, and educationally disempowered that meaningful conversations about text selection, instruction, and assessment options are difficult.
In reality, not all topics, interests, and experiences are of equal value in the classroom. Not all subjects lend themselves in the same way to critical thinking. Though on the one hand I do value the stories my students are able to share – the particular “life lessons” they have learned; in truth, their ability to reach financial independence and to live a life free of crime, drugs, and violence requires that they navigate a cultural climate very different from that of their neighborhoods- one that is recorded in the literature and encoded in the language of texts that I am familiar with.
My initial intention in writing this entry was to speak about a particular poem I use in my classroom, “They Went Home” by Maya Angelou. In considering how and why I selected this poem in the first place, I was reminded of the complications and paradoxes that beset classroom teachers when we plan instruction. It is my hope that educators committed to social reform will remain in conversation about these challenges until our classrooms become sites that reflect our finest democratic ideals.