This summer I attended ArtsPowered Schools (APS), a week-long intensive workshop on integrating arts into literacy in the K-12 classroom. The following month, I enrolled in a graduate critical pedagogy seminar with Donaldo Macedo. We discussed literacy a lot there, too, particularly related to English language learners, and students who have been historically oppressed.
On Monday, I wrote some frustrations on how APS fell short in engaging students’ full experiences in connecting to literature and art. I asked, How is an arts practice accessible if it only speaks to the positive experiences of our students? Macedo asked, How can we continue to educate students while insisting on the separation of cognition and emotion?
Regarding APS, I elaborated:
Case in point: one of our activities, as a whole group learning to integrate performance (and later visual art) into the literacy curriculum, used the text Where the Wild Things Are, by Maurice Sendak. This is a rich text, full of rich illustrations, deep subtext, and an opportunity for students to read both the word and the world. We got only the text, removed from the book entirely. All of the activities were upbeat and engaging, and while they brought the text alive, got the text on its feet, breathed life into the words… I felt that the activities were devoid of any deep meaning. And we completely neglected the fact that Maurice Sendak had a long legacy of children’s books that were not shiny-happy.
[…] But children also bring their own texts: themselves. Their environments are texts. Max being sent to bed without supper? His anger at his mother? That raw, childhood anger that students feel toward parental injustice is a text, and should not be ignored in the discussion or art-making process. Doing so is insulting to children as full humans capable of complex emotions and complex art.
So what is the alternative?
In the pedagogy seminar, and in my children’s literature course last spring in the bilingual education department (taught by my adviser, who was responsible for bringing Macedo to campus), we used student-generated, open-ended literature responses in the target language. These enable us, as teachers, to simplify a complex text to make it more accessible to our students; through the same process, we can also take a simple text and dig deeper into it through discussion cycles and semantic mapping.
Below are two maps from my seminar this summer, based on the discussion around a short poem by Francisco X. Alarcon. The first is on “Silences,” on the things that keep people silent or silenced; the second is on “Noise,” the things in life that distract us or drown out issues requiring our attention. Although “silence” and “noise” are opposite words by denotation, these concept maps are fairly similar:
So taking this, I read the book My Friend is Sad, by Mo Willems with my students. I projected it on the interactive white board so the English text was visible and read the story in ASL, making connections to the English text. We talked about opposites: happy and sad. In their journals, each kid drew and wrote about their favorite part of the story. The next day, two students (who do not have nicknames yet because it’s too soon in the year!) read and acted out the story. Then, we got down to mapping.
We started with the HAPPY map. Happy is a safe emotion. You can share stories and phrases and synonyms for happy with new people, and you don’t have to be very vulnerable. We referred to the story, and then we branched out. Some of the things that make us happy:
- snow board
- play tag
- yellow blanket
The next day, we talked about things that made us sad. The kids started out timidly with single words, and got a little bolder:
- feeling scared
- Mom took my iPod
- JoJo broke my doll and the head came off
Then the floodgates opened:
- No dad because he’s in jail far away. Then jail finished, still lives far
- Go to a funeral and miss your grandpa. Hold your heart and carry his casket (This was in reference to my grandpa dying in April 2014, which a student remembered and shared. I was a pallbearer. I was not expecting this, and yes, I teared up.)
- Want more money and patient working (The ASL sign for patient can also be translated as bearing, suffering, or enduring)
This. This is what my students produced on the first week of school…
…from a book that looks like this:
My students don’t always need upbeat. They don’t need hyper-engaging. They need real. They deserve authentic. Sure, My Friend is Sad is a really funny book (the lengths to which Piggie goes attempting to cheer Elephant are extraordinary, indeed). But the basic human desire to take care of one’s friend and to alleviate loneliness is totally accessible. They really just needed me to operate the markers. For now, anyway.