Overly Ambitious


I am quickly coming to the realization that my reach is going to far exceed my grasp in the English III/IV class.

I decided to arrange the course this term around the observances we make during the months we are in school.  We started in February; thus, Black History Month.  We’ve already stared Richard Wright’s Native Son (Carson, give me a call; I’m working on my second reading in a month and MAN, have I got a lot to say about this book!).  So far, we’ve been talking almost exclusively about the novel; the only supplemental material I’ve given them has been this article about the Scottsboro Boys.

I’m distressed by this, though.  For as much as I understand that I’m going to be exceedingly lucky if all the kids make it to the last pages of the books we read, I can’t shake the feeling that what I’m able to give them – scratch that; what they’re able to manage – is woefully insufficient.  I spent this afternoon trying to figure a way that I could give them Brother Malcolm’s The Ballot or the Bullet (11.5 pages), Brother Martin’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail (also just about 12 pages) and President Obama’s A More Perfect Union (which clocks in at 7 pages).  I want my students to read these speeches to see – and then to think about and articulate –  the very different ways these men, all leaders in their time, addressed the issues of race in society, and how the issues they raise are still issues today.  From here, I want to give them several articles I’ve come across in the last several weeks (the Universe has this lovely habit of putting important and relevant materials right in my path just when I need them): the BBC report on race issues in St. Louis after the President’s State of the Union address a few weeks ago (start listening at about 18:29; the description of the black neighborhoods is eerily reminiscent of the talk of “the line” in Native Son ), this article from NPR about racist language written into deeds for houses all over the country, and this article about a kindergartener who came home to tell her mother that she was told she was “scary” because she is black.

Yeah… that’s practically an entire semester’s worth of work right there; there’s no way in God’s little green apples that I’m going to be able to cover all that in the two weeks we’ve got left before vacation.

So, I’ve decided to do this: I’m going to have my students read (and watch) Dr. King’s I Have a Dream speech.  I’m going to ask them to investigate one incident of racism in our time – like, from the last three weeks or so (trust me; that won’t be hard) – and I’m going to ask them to synthesize the thinking they do about those two things with the reading of the book to come up with a descriptive essay about how racism affects the individual.  I’m not looking for answers in the abstract, either; I want to know how they, themselves, are affected by it.  Reverend Archbishop Tutu tells us that we cannot be oppressors without also being oppressed; that we cannot hold someone down in the gutter without also demeaning ourselves.  I wonder if I can get my (white, mostly affluent) students to see that.

As always, I welcome your input.  What do YOU think a student should come away from a unit like this understanding, believing, or knowing?



Filed under admiration, analysis, compassion and cooperation, critical thinking, frustrations, General Griping, great writing, I love my job, lesson planning, Literature, out in the real world, politics, popular culture, self-analysis, Teaching, winging it

4 responses to “Overly Ambitious

  1. Melissa

    I love your learning objective: that oppressing others oppresses ourselves. I think that showing your students that they too suffer as a result of racism segregating them from other people will be very valuable.

    The essay sounds cool, but my juniors w0uld struggle mightily synthesizing all that info cohesively. For the essay I would be very concrete about what you want, and model examples for them.

  2. You have a lot to say. Wait and hear my Marxist rant on class conflict and societal notions shaped by Jim Crow in Native Son. Will do!!!

  3. You know how much I heart Native Son. Combined with the other readings you’ve mentioned, I’m in a swoon. What’s difficult when there’s so much great reading and discussing to be done, is to edit. Do you want them to read as much as possible and gloss over the issues or do you want them to read fewer texts but really get to the meat of them. That’s a struggle for me every semester.

    In response to your oppressed/oppressor discussions, if you can squeeze another reading in (I know, I know, I was just talking about editing) try Walker’s Am I Blue? from Alice Walker Banned. Excellent stuff about oppression.

    You also might want to read (for yourself) White Like Me by Tim Wise. It will give you some ideas and talking points when discussing racism and oppression with white, mostly affluent students.

  4. Thank you for the work you are doing with your student. I’m Marley’s mom (the kindergartener who was called scary because she’s black), and I am so grateful that her incident (which is surely one of many) can create the much-needed conversations that need to be had across our nation.

    Thank you for sharing this with your readers.

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