Sunday, April 25, 2010

The Context

"But controversial language in fiction can lead to powerful discussions, deeper understanding of sensitive topics and critical thinking. Diversity of race and experience can add insight and perspective to classroom discussions. Students can often be the guide to what is right and fair."

My workshop has come and gone. I was slightly nervous because I hadn't done this kind of teacher workshop for a few years. It's always frustrating to have to modify the time as you go. Knowing just when to start, dealing with people who enter after you have begun, and then all the anxiety surrounding does anybody care?
ten people attended. Not as many as I hope for, but then not one or two which I feared. I know using Alice Walker's short story Elethia was going to be problematic. Aside from the intensity of the topic: racism, racist advertising icons, covert action...there was "the N word."
I know it's the context that's important and Alice Walker provided that. My gut tells me that any kind of censorship is cowardly so I forged ahead. Did I get it wrong?
Here's the thing: The story is a powerful tale that involves some adolescents removing a racist stereotype from a restaurant window, burning it, and keeping some of the ashes for a talisman so they remember the pain of the past. I was using it as a springboard to have these teachers write about something that would function as their own talisman. I think the workshop went well. A few people shared their writing which as always was outstanding. So many teacher write so well. But afterwards the dissonance in my mind began to grow. Did I get it wrong? Fortunately, the woman assigned to facilitate the workshop for me (that means collect the evaluations, close up the room, etc.) was a local teacher who gently stated that " these days we don't use literature with the n-word because we don't want our students to use it or be exposed to it anymore."
I must have got it wrong.
But today, I spent a couple of hours researching the issue. If nothing else, I think I'll write a piece about this issue. There are teachers and writers and social activists who have weighed in on the issue. Especially useful were a couple of articles from Teaching Tolerance and the words and experiences of Emily Bernard, an African-American woman who happens to teach ethnic studies at the University of Vermont. This is a complex issue, to be sure. The quote above comes from one of the articles I read. It reminded me that I am interested in powerful discussions and deeper understanding that comes from facing difficult topics. When I read in another article that many teachers simply do not read words that are racist, regardless of context. Many simply avoid anything that might be interpreted as controversial.
Other articles I found detailed a litany of books that have been banned because of the language they contain. Some of the regulars like Catcher In the Rye, and Huck Finn were present, still others cited were Of Mice and Men and To Kill a Mockingbird.
I get that some of these texts might need to be replaced because they are dated or considered the same old chestnuts. But preventing students from reading them because they contain rough language like the n-word, is chilling to me. It's the context folks...the context in which that work is used.
I even found an article by a teacher whose students found the word Negro offensive when he used it to replace "nigger." Where's the context?

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Walk a Chalk Line

I took a ride out to a rock and gem shop the other day. It occurred to me that chalk was a good talisman for a retired teacher. You see, I've been working on a writing workshop I'll be doing at a big conference next week that just happens to be in Portland. My workshop revolves around writing about a personal talisman that helps us "re-member," that is put the pieces back together. It's based on Alice Walker's short story "Elethia," where a young African-American girl keeps a small jar of ashes as a talisman. The ashes are from the burned racial stereotype of an extremely racist portrayal of a character called "Uncle Albert." It's similar to the Uncle Tom or Aunt Jemima stereotype.
I'll be asking the participants, in this case teachers from around the country to think of a talisman they could keep to "re-member" something from their past. Here's where the chalk comes in. As I drift in and out of classrooms observing student teachers these days it's quite clear that chalk belongs to another era. Chalkboards and even in some cases white boards have been replaces by computer projections or Smart Boards. The technology enables teachers to easily access the Internet or other electronic files, from photos to films. It's quite an improvement.
But it had me thinking about my old classroom and the role of chalk. My chalk board(s) were al prominently placed along the front and side walls of my classroom. It's where both students and teacher wrote everything from definitions, to quotes, to assignments, to important messages. If it went in your notebook, it probably originated on the board. By the end of the day my hands and sometimes face always bore the results of working with chalk. I once told a class while doing a lesson on working conditions in coal mines that teachers suffered from "White Lung." We all had a good laugh but ask a teacher about dustless chalk-it isn't.
Chalk is weather resistant, it's porous, makes great lines on baseball diamonds, and useful for many other unintended things. Just like a teacher. Chalk also comes from limestone. That's what brought me to the rock shop the other day. Just looking for a small piece of limestone suitable enough for a talisman. Like so many folks here in Portland, the people at the shop were extremely friendly and helpful.
"You know the limestone I have mostly has fossils on it." the owner said.
He showed me some beautiful prehistoric fish preserved on limestone. I saw the $25.00 price tag and asked if he didn't have just a little piece of limestone. He returned with three brownie size pieces.
"Here's 50 cents worth," he said. "And this one here has a little piece of a fish fossil on it."
Now I have the perfect talisman. Some natural "chalk" with a permanent reminder of life in another time.
The next day I got an email from a former colleague of mine who still works at the newly rebuilt El Cerrito High School where I taught. "Your heart still beats in the halls of El Cerrito High," she began.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Hot Chocolate

I've been listening to the new album by the Carolina Chocolate Drops. Such a wonderful mix of very traditional folk and skiffle band music with some blues arrangements and some more contemporary things.
One of the pieces is called a traditional "Negro Jig." That's just what it is, a traditional jog that was played by African American musicians. I've been explaining to some of my friends that dating back to the "peculiar institution" (slavery) there is a long heritage of Black jug bands and fiddle tunes. Given that the banjo (banjar) came over from west Africa, and the fiddle was part of the English Irish tradition, it's easy to see how this very American original music developed. It's important to note, also, that when African Americans held as slaves were skilled musicians that meant they had some special opportunities to make money being rented out by their owners for dances, parties, and various celebrations and holidays. Trouble was they rarely kept all the money they earned, if any at all.
When I see these talented young African Americans that call themselves the Carolina Chocolate Drops I see their history. I love that they have embraced this music because it keeps it alive. It also completes some long lost broken cycle. This time they keep the money for their talent and the pleasure they bring to all fortunate enough to hear them.
I was reading a review of their album recently that mentioned how dicey it is to record black string band music because the original is still available. Seems to me that just seeing this trip perform can do wonders for our acoustic-challenged music culture.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Mr. Mo

Yesterday I got a birthday phone call from an old friend and colleague of mine. Some of my friendships with people I taught with go back many years. My friend just happened to be sitting with a lunch table full of former colleagues so I spoke with all of them for a few minutes.
Afterward, it became clear to me how that world and that life and those days are so over. They really are then.
That's what makes thee days so sweet. I'm not missing out on anything because the universe that I inhabited then does not exist. Yet a few things linger. During the conversation I learned of the death of another former colleague: Jim Morehouse. Mr. "Mo," as many kids called him, was one of the few extra special people I've known. Born into the pre Civil Rights south, his Louisiana upbringing could have given him plenty to be angry about. He transcended that anger and forged a life of service and became a mentor to generations of young Black men. Of course, in his role of school supervisor he helped everyone, it was his presence with those kids that had no role models that made his impact so vivid.
Mr. Morehouse was probably the most honest man I've ever known. Maybe his religious upbringing had something to do with that, but his ethics centered more on responsibility and thoroughness. He had your back. In my first decade as a high school teacher, I'd get in the mix when kids got into fights. There were no thoughts of guns then. In fact, the boys mostly postured, but the girls got into it with hair pulling, scratching and biting and back in the 70s with Afro combs known as "cake cutters." They really were cake cutters; they could really slash up an adversary if unchecked.
When Mr. Morehouse arrived on the scene I knew I could exhale. He could be strong physically and move an angry student to a safe place quickly. He could be strong emotionally, playing the father who'd seen enough. He could put his hands on kids without any backtalk.
"Son, get yourself together," he'd say. Many of the toughest kids respected him so much that their bravado melted instantly.
Last year a new health center at my newly rebuilt former school was dedicated with his name. In the years to come the students and the staff won't really know much about him. They'll read some plaque somewhere, or a description on a web site about who James Morehouse was, but it will no doubt hve little meaning for them. That's inevitable I suppose.
If they have a picture of Mr.Mo there I hope it's one with his big smile, his blue jeans rolled up a tad and his gold teeth glinting. He always smelled great with some delightful cologne.
Jim Morehouse was, for many years, the audio visual guy too. Movie projectors, slide projectors, audio tape, tape recorders, films, videos, anything electrical. He saved many a teacher from techo-disaster in his day. Everybody needs a face in their life that lets you know it's gonna be alright without saying a word.