Extended teacher’s reflection (2016-17)

The world is not a safe place to live in. (Anzaldúa 2012 [1987], 42)

In many ways, I carry Gloria Anzaldúa’s belief into the classroom. This has been true from the beginning. That is, it has been true since I started teaching English-language learners in a squat gray recreation center in Atlanta in 2010. These were undocumented students, Spanish-speakers, women from México; they knew the world as an unsafe place. I, too, was transitioning and vulnerable, recently divorced, living above a demented man’s garage, and starved for human connection.

After a year and a half as their teacher, I moved to Colombia as a volunteer with a nonprofit offering language practice to public-school teachers. I worked at an activist teachers union, la Asociación de Institutores y Trabajadores de la Educación del Cauca (ASOINCA). Before I left Atlanta, I wrote my students a bilingual text (see artifact) and made them a video from a march and rally for migrant rights at the Georgia State Capitol (see also testimony before the Georgia State Legislature Special Joint Committee on Immigration Reform):

I said to them, “Those who cross boundaries are the most courageous people on Earth.” When I wrote that I was thinking particularly of one student, María (all names of students have been changed), who told me how she had decided to practice her English at the elite Atlanta social club where she worked as a food runner and table busser. She nervously approached one of the regular patrons before breakfast. This petite Mexican woman – who had crossed the U.S.-México border at night, dodging surveillance, with her four-year-old daughter under her arm – watched as the man walked past her without a word or glance.

This reflection will focus on silences and transformations. Typically I regard silence as a warning signal, an alert that someone, maybe me, has opted out of the Gricean cooperative principle. Yet this is not an obligatory association; thus, I will confine my comments to situations of imbalanced power dynamics, starting with the silent response that María describes in her workplace encounter. In my first reflection (see artifact) as a new instructor of English 103, “Rhetoric & Composition I,” I thought back to my first-semester experience at the University of Maryland. That campus, too, featured monolithic brick buildings and oceans of parking at its perimeter. And like today’s freshmen, I crossed a threshold and did not know how to react. My only communication with teachers was through the page. In class I said nothing. Faced with the disconnect between my written self-expression and lack of a spoken language, my English instructor was curious. “Can you speak?” he finally asked of me as he handed back papers toward the end of the school term.

In various reflections over the 2016-17 academic year (see 4 Apr 17 and 23 Nov 16), I wrote about my interest in silence. As a master’s student on the TESOL track, I am researching the connections among undocumented immigration status and willingness to communicate in English as a second language; in particular, I’m looking at the triggers that make ESL learners stay quiet, both in classroom and naturalistic settings.

The same question interests me in freshman-composition classes. English 103/203 presents a liminal space that new students enter with trepidation, insecure, in many cases, about their knowledge and identities. Silence seems like a natural defense mechanism, and it’s hard for me to get past. I cringed and felt shame when first-year composition director Michael Day read back to me his notes from a class observation in March: “And you said … and students were silent. Then you said … then silence.” The student silences pain me, because I feel that I am doing something to silence them. Thus, I say in my statement of teaching philosophy, “Classroom learning can be characterized both by violence and by transformation,” to note that I have experienced both.

In the conversation that I imagine between Peter Elbow and Paulo Freire (see artifact), the latter challenges the split between discipline-centered and student-centered pedagogy about which Elbow writes in “Contraries in the Teaching Process.” For Freire, the options are between humanization and dehumanization, which reflects better the way that I see the classroom process. Freire writes, “Education, which must never be neutral, can be at the service either of decision, of world transformation and of critical insertion within the world, or of immobility and the possible permanence of unjust structures, of human beings’ settling for a reality seen as untouchable” (2012 [1997], 48).

The stark choice between paralysis (dehumanization) and change (humanization) does not have to be made at the expense of loyalty to a discipline. I don’t have to water down content to meet students’ perceived needs. It is important to ask, however, whose discipline is being represented: that of the “oppressor,” which can be imagined as Henry Giroux’s modern-day “culture of cruelty” (2012), or that of a pedagogy aimed toward liberation of student and teacher (see Freire 2000 [1970]).

As an alternative to Freire’s theoretical formulation, I actually prefer Anzaldúa’s exegesis in Borderlands La Frontera (2012 [1987]) of nepantla, the Nahuatl word for “the space between two bodies of water, the space between two worlds. It is a limited space, a space where you are not this or that but where you are changing. … It is very awkward, uncomfortable and frustrating to be in that Nepantla because you are in the midst of transformation.”

Trying to address this tension has been a primary motivation in my writing and teaching. In my favorite pieces of journalism, I like to insert myself in that “space between two worlds” (see artifact). For several years, I was fortunate to exist in that space along with English-language learners at the Latin American Association in Atlanta. I try to acknowledge the risk that students are taking by encouraging, then celebrating, their acquisition of language. In the past I have done this with blogs, acrostics, and abecedarios.

For freshmen shifting into university-level writing, I work to stay aware of the students’ “invisible disabilities” (see artifact). One way to do this in English 103 was through an awareness circle that we did outside in the sculpture garden behind Reavis. Students stepped forward if they heard identity statements that they agreed with (“I have been treated differently because of my skin color,” etc.).

The pedagogy in 2016-17 emphasized group work, which I found was necessary to seed discussions. For example, as students learned objective and evaluative summaries in the fall semester, they broke into “debate clusters” to take different sides on the question of whether National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden should be pardoned (see artifact). The advantage of these spoken exercises, too, is to hear different voices and to realize that collaboration and free speech – often easier to maintain once the class has broken from the Ping-Pong back and forth with the instructor – feed into the written word.

Ideally, students in these ungraded experiments or rhetorical occasions realize they can be authentic with their language. Linguistically, there is no right or wrong. “Reducing written and spoken English to inflexible rules,” writes Lindemann (2001, 63), “is linguistically inaccurate and also increases students’ fears of making mistakes.” It’s likely also true that composition students are not unlike ELLs in that they, too, are learning a second language – the written language of the academy. As composition instructors we should assume, along with Matsuda (2006, 649), that the “presence of language differences is the default.”

Another way to ease the anxiety over mistakes in 2016-17 was to emphasize revision (Clark 2010). No piece of writing is ever finished. This is the art of composition in its organic relationship to life itself, as Anzaldúa suggests: “The art of composition, whether you are composing a work of fiction or your life, or whether you are composing reality, always means pulling off fragmented pieces and putting them together into a whole that makes sense” (Ikas 2012 [1999], 276–77). I enjoy showing students evidence that writers, even songwriters, must set aside the notion of perfection if they are to produce anything (see artifact).

The job of validating students for their talents comes easily to me. I worry, though, that I fail to challenge or to make enough demands – that I do not expect enough. In my enthusiasm to work alongside, do I circumvent my own voice as teacher? I’ll be thinking about this question before the next academic season. I don’t believe the question, for me, will ever go away. I will continue, though, to prioritize encouragement in individual conferences and in written comments.

I want to end with an extended summative comment that I wrote for a student on her final reflection in English 203. She was frustrated with her performance, concluding that the research focus in 203 “made me feel like I didn’t know what I was doing while writing.” I valued her honesty and told her so:

You name precisely the discomfort that learning and growth often bring about. Of course, it’s always possible to say, in class or elsewhere, “I feel like I don’t know what I’m doing.” But this is easier said than done, because students feel they will be judged badly for not knowing how to do something.

Your reflection shows that you have thought about these issues, and I encourage you always to be straightforward with your teachers as you are here. …

Your natural intelligence and writing skill will continue to help you. Some courses are more research-oriented than others. Yet clearly you have analytical ability and the capacity to work in groups, and these talents will always be with you, in addition to the skills you keep adding.

I encourage you to write and to believe in your voice.

Hopefully I will read the last sentence and apply it to myself and to all students I might have in the future.

References

Anzaldúa, Gloria. 2012 [1987]. Borderlands La Frontera: The New Mestiza. 25th anniversary 4th ed. San Francisco: Aunt Lute Books.

Clark, Roy Peter. 2010. “How Writers Can Learn From Documented Cases of Revision.” Poynter, 17 February.

Freire, Paulo. 2012 [1997]. “On the Right and the Duty to Change the World.” Pp. 45–52 in Critical Pedagogy in the New Dark Ages: Challenges and Possibilities, ed. Maria Nikolakaki. Studies in the Postmodern Theory of Education 422. New York: Peter Lang.

———. 2000 [1970]. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. 30th anniversary ed. London: Bloomsbury Academic.

Giroux, Henry. 2012. Disposable Youth, Racialized Memories, and the Culture of Cruelty. Framing Twenty-first Century Issues. London: Routledge.

Ikas, Karen. 2012 [1999]. “Interview with Gloria Anzaldúa.” Pp. 267–84 in Borderlands La Frontera: The New Mestiza, by Gloria Anzaldúa. 25th anniversary 4th ed. San Francisco: Aunt Lute Books.

Lindemann, Erika, with Daniel Anderson. 2001. A Rhetoric for Writing Teachers. 4th ed. New York: Oxford University Press.

Matsuda, Paul Kei. 2006. “The Myth of Linguistic Homogeneity in U.S. College Composition.” College English 68, no. 6 (July):637–51.

Nikolakaki, Maria. 2012. Critical Pedagogy in the New Dark Ages: Challenges and Possibilities. Studies in the Postmodern Theory of Education 422. New York: Peter Lang.