Friday, March 10, 2006

Facing the Reality

As a teacher, I’ve taught at all levels in our public school system and I have always emphasized the multicultural aspects of my classroom. From information on various cultural holidays throughout the year to Black History Month, I have attempted to make information available to my students. I feel it’s my duty to make sure they know their own history—and the background of their own as well as other cultures.

This year I have been teaching high school English in a self-contained special education classroom. After spending time last fall writing research papers, the students and I went on to the stories and poetry of Edgar Allen Poe. We listened to audiotapes of short stories by O. Henry. We read novels by Jules Verne and Robert Louis Stevenson. In between we talked about American tall tales and European fairy tales and fables and how they mirror real life at times. Then, for the last few weeks, I chose to celebrate Black History Month in my classroom.

Black History Month has been officially celebrated in the public school system for years. From time to time, the various schools where I’ve worked have had trivia questions, poster contests and speakers or programs about famous African-Americans during February. The students can tell you about Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, Rosa Parks, and Douglas Wilder. They might have heard of George Washington Carver, Booker T. Washington and Frederick Douglass. That’s been a part of the lessons they’ve gotten over the years. But, in the teaching of this latest unit, I realized how limited the students’ exposure to all aspects of their history has really been.

As a part of our study, I had my students reading selections by African-American authors from our literature books. We discussed the stories’ conflicts (slavery, being poor, and segregation). We read about the amazing things done by some of the poems’ characters (Harriet Tubman, the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, and John Henry). We even talked about conditions which existed during the various pieces’ settings (the crowdedness of the slave ships, the secrecy and danger of the Underground Railroad, and the unfairness of separate bathrooms, water fountains and seats on buses). And my students were amazed at these historical and social aspects of their culture. But not as amazed as I at what else they didn’t know.

These students are not familiar with the music and literary history of their own people. In all of their music classes over the years, they had never heard of Duke Ellington, Bessie Smith, Louis Armstrong or Charlie Parker. Their opinions of the original recording of Paul Robeson singing “Ol’ Man River” by Thomas Edison ranged from “scratchy” to “too slow.” They didn’t even connect to the fact that the recording was over eighty years old and was sung by a black man who couldn’t use the same stage door as the actors with which he worked.

They knew nothing about Langston Hughes, Lucille Clifton, and Eloise Greenfield. When Langston Hughes talked (in an audio collection) about Josephine Baker arriving in Paris while he was there, they had no clue who she was or why she had to go to Paris to become famous. And Langston Hughes’ poetry was weird because it didn’t rhyme. Listening to Lucille Clifton recite her poem “Homage to my Hips” on the Internet made them laugh. But they didn’t understand the meaning behind many of the lines. Don’t get me wrong. There were a few bright spots where they could relate to what we were discussing. As we read excerpts from Eloise Greenfield’s “Childtimes,” I showed them the clapping game “Old Mary Mack.” They recognized the rhyme as something they had learned when they were younger, although their versions differed from both mine and Greenfield’s. They also remembered “Mother May I” and the big giant steps. This led to further discussions of other childhood games like “Red Rover” and “Simon Says.” But, the discovery that children of all ages and all times have played the same games was truly eye-opening for some of them.

My students also didn’t realize what their ancestors have gone through for them to be where they are now. While reading “Lineage” by Margaret Walker, we discussed how hard it had been for the women to plow the fields back in the old days with a horse and mule. We talked about the injustices of the sharecropper system—just one step above slavery at times. In “Ballad of Birmingham” by Dudley Randall, the students were shocked to learn about four young girls who died in a church during a freedom march protest. Before we read the poem, I asked them the safest place for a person to be and they automatically replied, “A church.” In “She Taught Me Purple” by Evelyn Tooley Hunt, we talked about how parents have always encouraged their children to rise above where they grew up—and reach for the gold that lies just out of reach. (I chose this poem for the unit because it was the inspiration for “The Color Purple” by Alice Walker, which was made into the movie of the same name starring Oprah Winfrey.)

It is not just their youth that has caused this deficit in knowledge, as they also don't know about contemporary writers as well. When I mentioned that Tupac Shakur wrote poetry, most of my students thought I was only referring to his songs. One student had transferred into my class from an inclusion class and knew a little about his work. Amazingly, Maya Angelou was an unknown entity as well. So, I didn't push the issue any further. However, you can believe I am already planning my literature unit for next year’s classes. I’m also planning to bring some of my own music collection to class for them to listen to this spring as well—especially the jazz, big band and blues CDs by the artists listed above. I will include more recent artists as time goes on.

Today, as we prepared to move on to “The Red Badge of Courage” by Stephen Crane, I asked them to use their laptops to brainstorm and research the Civil War. While some of them were more interested in listing how many battles had been fought and naming the various generals from their side of choice, others were more impressed by the audio clips of slave stories and songs collected about the time period and made available over the Internet. Perhaps I’ve made an impression on a couple of them. Only time will tell.

Note: Currently, my enrollment is about one-half African-American and one-half Caucasian. In about two months my sole Hispanic student will return from Florida, where her migrant family lives during the winter. I can’t wait to welcome her back, as I’ve truly missed her eager attitude and smile. I’ll be sure to also include some stories by Hispanic authors from our literature books as well. And we'll just have to see where those discussions lead.


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