Composition Theory and Pedagogy
What I Knoww
by Jaimi Meehan
Of all the reading assignments that we have read so far this semester, one that is particularly compelling is that of Linda Brodkey entitled “On the Subjects of Class and Gender in ‘The Literacy Letters’”. Her study of Adult Basic Education students with their teacher pen-pals is both enlightening and disheartening. I believe that the topic of class discrimination in education transcends adult education and can be evidenced in the typical public education classroom at the secondary level today. In my student teaching experiences, I have witnessed first hand how the dimension of socioeconomic status effects student learners, and it is both shocking and sadly commonplace. I always have been interested in how class distinctions function to maintain the social status quo in our society and Brodkey’s article sums many of my own observations up nicely.
As I read Brodkey’s article, a subversive mantra was echoing through my brain--“Write about what you know!” How many times have writing teachers repeated that phrase to me in my academic career? Many, many times. Clearly, in Brodkey’s article, the ABE students were writing about what they knew. For instance, consider the case of Dora (ABE student) and Don (her pen pal). Don laid out some of this pastimes to Dora to try to find commonalities they shared. He spoke of a movie he had watched, Police Academy Three and asked her if she had seen it as well. Dora replied,
I don’t have must to siad this week a good frineds husband was kill satday at 3:15 the man who kill him is a good man he would give you the shirt off of his back it is really self-defense but anyway I see police academy three it was funny but not as good as the first two. (Brodkey 647)
Dora was obviously writing about her own reality in painful, moving, vivid detail. However, she felt that it was more important that she mention an inconsequential movie than continue to explore her own feelings about the tragedy that had touched the perimeter of her life. I was sick when I read this excerpt of her letter. It was clear that Don, her pen pal had somehow made it tacitly clear to her that his prompts and questions for discussion had more validity than her own. She tried to broach the subject of this painful even; yet, in the end, she remembered her “proper” place in the teacher/student, privileged/marginalized, self/Other relationship and quickly reverted back to her prescribed role.
As a teacher, did Don realize what he had done? I am idealistic enough to want to believe he did not, but realistic enough to know that subconsciously he probably did although why he did was not questioned by him. It tormented me when I first read this why any teacher would relegate a student to such an inferior position in their relationship. The longer I thought about it, the more convinced I became that Don is really just a reflection of society at large. There is a strange dynamic in our society that subversively seeks to maintain strict classifications among us--we don’t seem to care what dimension we classify along, as long as there are enough labels for everyone and a hierarchy of superiority to go with them. Brodkey kindly labels Don’s act “professional class narcissism”, but I would give it the much less euphemistic and more accurate name of discrimination (Brodkey 646).
In an ideal world, teachers would come to the profession to make a difference in students lives, to help them to discover the joy that education can bring to their lives--no matter how grand or how humble their future goals are. Most teachers believe that is what drew them to teaching, I am certain of it. However, what most teachers believe and what most teachers subconsciously embody in their classrooms are two different species. Something subversive happens in the public education system in America. It begins in Kindergarten and continues throughout all the years of publicly mandated education. Language Arts/writing teachers are set up as the ultimate arbiters of literacy. They are armed with a canon (sorry for the pun!) of literature with which to teach society’s children that often has little to no relatability to the actual lives that those children live.
Picture Little Dora, years before her ABE class--she is five years old, going to Kindergarten on her very first day of school. Imagine her hungry because she did not eat breakfast, not because she overslept but because there was no breakfast to be had. Imagine her distracted by all the pretty, new things in her classroom, the brand new crayons and pencil, the colorful toys, none of which she has had in all her five tender years. Imagine her feeling ashamed because all the other little girls have brand new patent leather shoes, while she has dirty hand-me-down sneakers.
Can anyone really believe that Dora will relate to the shiny, happy, people in her Kindergarten books? Does she really care if Jack and Jill make it to the top of the hill if all she can think about is snack-time when she will have crackers and milk to quell the rumbling in her empty belly? When her teacher reads the class Dr. Suess books, will Dora find anything to relate to on those glossy pages of happy, white, middle-class, nuclear families if she, herself, has none of those things in her own world? When asked to share details of her family life, will Dora be honest, or will she somehow tacitly have been programmed by this environment to know that there are some things that would be unacceptable for her to share in school, realities that are not valued as a part of the Kindergarten educational discourse?
Where is Dora’s reality represented in the classroom?
It is not.
Why not? I am not saying that teachers need to expose Kindergartners to all the inequalities and sadness that exist in society, but why is the middle-class considered the role model of the masses? How does a child feel when they come to school for six hours every day, for 13 years and rarely see anything that they can relate to? How do they write about what they know, when there is a socioeconomic stigma that says that what they know is not important or valid to the rest of society? My educated guess would be that they begin to feel that nothing they can add to the educational discourse of their classroom has value. They squelch any contributions they might make that could enlighten others and bring about greater understanding. They self-censor because they don’t want to be considered abnormal, underprivileged, Other--just as ABE student Dora did when she stopped herself, mid-emotion, and shifted her writing gears back to a movie that has absolutely no importance to her life at all. The educational system has an inherent component that makes students subconsciously subjugate themselves to their teacher. Typically, for reasons that go unchallenged and unanalyzed, teachers allow it.
In my current student teaching assignment, I was shocked the first day of school to hear how the teachers spoke of the children in the faculty room at lunchtime. One student in particular, I’ll call him Brady, was the subject of their disdain. They were all commiserating on the type of kid he supposedly is. “He’s no good.” “That family is all no good!” “He must be just as stupid as his brother was.” “Have you seen the house that family lives in? They didn’t have running water until 1989!” This is a paraphrasing of the conversation. My cooperating teacher has since shown absolutely no interest in engaging this child or even made a pretense of trying to tolerate his negative behaviors in the classroom. She prejudged him on the very first day based on his socioeconomic status and will not be proven wrong, because the child can sense it and is defeated already.
Teachers are inherently given the position of authority over their students. As Brodkey states, teachers control “what does and does not count as knowledge” (Brodkey 651). This comes to the teachers in the form of the curriculum they are required to teach. The local school board gives us a list of what is important for our students to know, to experience, to be able to make connections to through their writing. Yet, these lists are typically discriminatory on every level imaginable. The curriculum in Language Arts classrooms is largely made up of works of literature that were written eons ago by dead white men. It is not a living, breathing curriculum; but a mausoleum, a shrine to what a largely male, economically successful community believes to be important and Great [the capital G is intentional and meant sarcastically!]. Students are left to flounder when what they “know” doesn’t jive with the socially accepted image of literacy. All this does is frustrate and alienate students and inflames the “unacknowledged tension over the control of subject positions” and “contributes to rather than alleviates class antagonism” (Brodkey 649). How could it not?
Many teachers feel the limitations of the strict boundaries of their curriculum. Many teachers wish they could rebel against the elitist, marginalizing practices of the public school system in our country, but feel that realistically they can do nothing to rock the boat. Teachers who do rock the boat, do so at grave risk of losing their jobs. School districts are political bureaucracies that have little tolerance for change and diversity. Resisting such ingrained educational discourses is difficult, especially when they are handed to us gift-wrapped in brilliant scarlet tape.
However, resist them we must. Teachers need to find a way to thwart the system as much as they can realistically. If, as Brodkey contends, writing is “both the production and the reception of self”, then we owe it to our students to help them produce themselves and also to receive their selves without judgment on their realities (Brodkey 643). Teachers must organize their classroom to curricula to contain the pieces of literature that the system says must be taught, but they must supplement those mandated pieces with others that speak to and for their classroom demographics. The power of the educational discourse cannot dominate if teachers are conscious of it and working against it every opportunity they have.
As teachers we control the authority of language and written expression in our classrooms. This is both handicap and the gift we are given. If we are, truly, in charge then we have the power to make a difference in our individual school environments. I agree with Brodkey that personal narratives are invitations to sharing experiences that will receive validation and thus, encourage tolerance and understanding in our classroom discourse. By giving students a chance to write what they do know, and to make it clear that what they know is valuable and worthy, we give them an opportunity to resist the dominate culture of marginalization in our schools. Personal narratives become the subversive means to overthrow the current, moldy system that needs to be tossed out in favor of something new and diverse. If, in fact, “to teach is to authorize the subjects of educational discourse”, then we simply must reevaluate what that authority should encompass and use it for good and betterment of our students, and not to succumb to the elitist, subconsciously discriminatory practices currently being abused by teachers in positions of authority.
How do we do this? I don’t pretend to have one answer that will work for everyone in every setting, but I am developing an ideology and pedagogy that I believe in and am implementing as much as I can within my confines as a student teacher. I believe each teacher needs to do the same, and that the answer will be slightly different for every one. For me, subverting the system means going against every instinct I have some days. Instead of ignoring the topics that are considered untouchable in the classroom--class, gender, race, socioeconomic status--I try to discuss them openly as much as possible.
I make it clear that there are many different realities and that all have value just by the sheer fact that they exist. I think some teachers suffer from the misguided feeling that to acknowledge the Other is to participate in its relegation. In other words, to mention that class discrimination exists somehow means I contribute to it. To be a teacher of the privileged class and to discuss realities less fortunate than your own, is taboo. The perception is that you will come off as condescending. How do you come off if you pretend that all your kids come from the same financial background as you do?
Ignoring difference is never the answer, you must acknowledge it, validate it, and seek to understand the reality of it. I believe that teachers should stress with their kids that individual realities are constantly changing. An individual who is living a privileged reality today may lose everything tomorrow--just as an individual who is underprivileged today may soar to great heights in the future.
As far as writing assignments go, they are the key to circumventing the elitism that predominates in American society today, especially in our public school systems. I believe we must make assignments a true vehicle for expression of what the students know, their reality. To impose tacit educational discourse on writing assignments is to eliminate and suppress our students’ true voice. It diminishes their Self and relegates their realities to a place of shame and Otherness. It makes them feel unworthy of validation through sharing of experience.
Is this easy? Certainly not. I am daunted by the task at hand, and often wonder what I am doing in this profession where we are not appreciated for the tremendous responsibility we undertake. For we hold society in our hands every day that we step in front of our classrooms. We construct the future every day. The one thing I do know is that you cannot expect that to be easy--but worthy endeavors rarely are.
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