Part II: getting to know the classroom and developing a curriculum

An Introduction to Naomi Pierre’s Sixth Grade Class

Prior to the first day of my internship in a sixth grade class at Miller’s Hill Elementary, I had known the teacher for a total of ten minutes. We had met once – during the previous week in her classroom, on a late, blustery afternoon. An apocalyptic snow forecast had sent students home early. When I arrived, the entire office staff – in addition to most of the teachers – seemed to have taken off as well. The exception was Naomi Pierre, whose heels I could hear clicking somewhere nearby as I wandered the deserted, echoing hallways, searching for her classroom. I passed wall after wall of student work – self portraits, artistic renderings of inspirational people, letters to the late Charlie Brown creator Charles Shultz – following the rapid clicks until they stopped, and suddenly found myself standing at the opposite end of a hallway from a petite black woman in a high necked shirt and ponytail. She was paused halfway inside a doorway, holding a sheaf of papers and peering at me.

“Are you Mical?” she called out tentatively. I was relieved. Our meeting was short and simple. After we had introduced ourselves and briefly discussed our respective schedules, a knock on the open door announced the arrival of the principal, Perry Peterson, a tall, white man with short blonde hair and a large forehead who always seemed too congenial to be entirely sincere. He told us that the school was closing because of the coming snow, and that we would have to leave. Naomi and I quickly settled on a day and time for me to begin interning, and left the rest to be decided later.

*      *      *

When I enter the classroom on my first Monday morning, Naomi is at the front of the class leading a grammar lesson. I am immediately struck both by how small and how racially diverse the class is. There are only fourteen students in total, all sitting at individual desks which are pushed together in a sort of unclosed rectangular arrangement. Most of the kids appear to be students of color. I peer around the room as Naomi finishes the lesson. A timeline for Black History Month made up of tiny, dangling note cards with things like “Brown V. Board of Education” and “Malcolm X” written on them in the colorful, untidy scrawls of sixth graders stretches along the left hand wall. Behind Naomi is a chalkboard with the half-erased notes of this morning’s math lesson, and the back wall is filled with a white board displaying the day’s schedule and homework. On the far end of the back wall, a door connects Naomi’s room to that of the neighboring sixth grade teacher, Ms. H. During certain subjects, students from the two classes study together.

Naomi soon finishes the lesson and invites me up to the front of the class to introduce myself. I tell them my name, what I am studying, and why I am in their class. When the students’ curiosity is satisfied, Naomi moves into spelling. Without hesitation, she hands me a yellowing, spiral bound book of spelling exercises (which I later learn was printed well before I was born), and asks me to give the “brown group” their spelling pre-test while she administers the rest of the class a different spelling test.

I move to a large table at the back of the room along with three students I will grow to know well. One is Jaden, a light skinned boy of Puerto Rican descent with greasy, shoulder length dark brown hair. He is one of two or three class clowns, and by far the most vocally contentious student in the class. The second is Stacy, a tiny black girl with long, wispy hair and wide eyes which emphasize her exuberance that many students her age have unfortunately outgrown. Her best friend, a quiet and thoughtful white girl named Mary Beth, is the third member of the trio. Mary is also short (though not as twig-skinny as Stacy) and wears glasses which slightly magnify her eyes.

As I read out their spelling pre-test, I have fun making up sentences to go along with the words. “Perform,” I say, “I hope you perform well on this test, that way you won’t have to take the real test. Perform.

“Wait, is it per-form, or pre-form?” Jaden asks, testing me.

I smile, and add,  “I hope you perform well,” without emphasis on the prefix. Later, during the of the identity unit, I will challenge myself to formulate spelling-word sentences which relate to my curriculum. (“A lot of people think that gender roles are natural, but the rules for gender are actually made up. Natural.”)

As the students finish their test and return to their seats, Mary Beth turns to me and says, matter-of-factly, “I think you’re a really good teacher. You should stay.” Blood rushes to my cheeks as Naomi announces the next lesson.

“So what should I call you?” I ask Naomi at lunch, the first time we have had a chance to talk since I arrived.

She smiles. “Hmm… I guess Ms. Pierre is fine, or Naomi?” she pauses. “I only became ‘Ms. Pierre’ when I got here. At every other school I did anything at I was ‘Naomi,’ or ‘Ms. Naomi.’ But when I got here, Perry – the principle – told me I needed to go by Ms. Pierre, to make it uniform for the kids, or something.”

“Ah,” I say simply.

“Yeah…” She gives me a sideways glance. “But anyway, you can call me Naomi if you want. And if you just want the kids to call you Elliot, that’s fine.”

By the end of my first week in the classroom, I know much more about Naomi. I know that she is a fairly reserved woman, and sometimes difficult to read. She is also an unflinchingly kind and flexible teacher. She is a first generation Haitian immigrant with a tendency to slip into Creole when she loses her patience (which is rare). She is young – only about three years older than I. Almost directly out of graduate school, she took up a post at Miller’s Hill and is now in her second year of teaching sixth grade. I am thrilled to be working with someone so close to my own age; it is at once surreal and inspiring to see someone I would have considered a peer – had I bumped into her on campus – leading her own classroom and working full time as a teacher.

Her teaching philosophy is difficult to discern. From our conversations, I glean that Naomi’s studies in college did not necessarily involve critical educational theory, but it has become clear that some of the bedrock ideas of critical pedagogy are an everyday part of her teaching style. The most major way I see this is in the way Naomi views and treats her students –as whole people capable of making their own decisions, people whose emerging understanding of the world needs to be treated with understanding and respect. This is evidenced in the trust and rapport I observe between her and her students. In the same moment, Naomi is able to joke with and gently tease her students, and follow it up with a (quietly obeyed) explicit directive without changing her tone or the mood. I never hear her yell, and rarely see her punish (which typically involves the loss of a student’s recess).

By the end of my first week, I have also begun to understand the everyday routine of the classroom, its’ ebb and flow. I arrive at eleven AM, at the tail end of break, and just in time for spelling or G.U.M (Grammar Usage Mechanics), which usually leave us about forty five minutes for writing before the lunch period. During lunch, I remain in the classroom to check in with Naomi and begin writing up my field notes from the morning. The first half of the period is recess, which students typically spend outside playing soccer, or alternately, in Ms. H’s room doing silent reading or other schoolwork. The second half of the period is lunch. At precisely 12:35 PM every day, students burst into the empty classroom in a flurry of noise and activity, retrieve their lunch boxes from their cubbies, and whisk themselves out again with the force of a back draft, all in under thirty seconds. The afternoon schedule varies from day to day, but usually involves some combination of reading, social studies, and occasionally, math. At 3:00 PM, students pack up and wait for Naomi or I to check their planners to make sure they have written down the homework before they are dismissed.

There are a lot of adults in and out of the classroom. Robert, a densely built Latino student with small, deep-set eyes, works with an aid, Ms. N, for much of the day due to behavioral and learning disabilities. Another teacher, Ms. D, sometimes comes in to assist Robert with his reading. Additionally, Susan, an intern, works on completing her practicum hours for teacher licensure and is shuffled to different classrooms as needed; she occasionally finds herself in Naomi’s room. Finally, there is Ms. F, an older woman from Palestine with a graying mass of curly brown hair down her back, and tiny, oval spectacles which cling to a deeply wrinkled nose. She is a substitute, though her specific job has proven impossible to determine. She also moves about the school, and spends much of the time in Naomi’s class in the back of the room whispering vicious critiques of the United States to me while I nod my head and struggle to keep a straight face.

“…And America has the gall to claim the moral high ground?” she hisses in my ear one day, supposedly responding to a point Naomi has mentioned about the Tuskegee Experiment, but more or less continuing a devastating monologue on American foreign policy that I suspect started before we even met. “Look at slavery in this country, look at Jim Crow, look at the way it still treats black people – absolutely horrific, unconscionable institutions… and yet it still thinks it has the right to dictate what other countries must do.” I often wonder if other teachers are as privy to her political views as I.

In addition to the merry-go-round of adults in Naomi’s room, I have also met several college students from Hampshire, Amherst, Mount Holyoke, and Smith who volunteer at Miller’s Hill. Many of them TA in another classroom or come in to help out with Achievement Academy, an after school homework/schoolwork help session for struggling students in the upper grades, which takes place in Naomi’s room most weekday afternoons.

Due to scheduling conflicts, it isn’t until the end of my first week that Naomi and I can find a time to meet. Shivering on a playground bench during a frigid recess session, we discuss my work and what I hope to accomplish with the students. It is the first time we have really talked about my project. I explain that I am interested in facilitating discussions on socially constructed identities and then having students reflect on the lessons through writing. I tell Naomi that my time frame is flexible and that my project should fit her class schedule in whatever way it needs to.

“Oh that’s great, it may actually work out fine then,” she says, running her finger down her curricular calendar for March. “I have about two weeks I need to fill before the next writing unit.”

 

Crafting a Curriculum

In about two weeks, I turned my plans for a one to three day writing workshop into a twelve day unit on socially constructed identity, systemic oppression and autobiographical writing. Given the extensive struggle to find a classroom to work with – a primary hindrance of which was incompatible schedules between teachers and myself – I had low expectations for the extent of class time I would actually be able to use for my workshop. That first conversation with Naomi changed everything, and in retrospect, I honestly have no idea how I could have accomplished what I wanted to in only three days.

Instead of a one to three day, exceedingly general workshop on identity and autobiographical writing, I developed lesson plans spanning twelve writing periods, which are usually about forty-five minutes to an hour long in Naomi’s class. I had deliberately left my workshop plans open so I could adapt to the specific needs of whatever classroom I was in, and suddenly I was given more class time than I ever thought possible. I had originally conceived of my workshops as a kind of mirror image to my own creative writing I undertook in the first part of division three: I wanted students to explore their own identities and examine issues of socially constructed identity, oppression, and privilege in relation to themselves. Sixth graders can easily do that, right?

Understandably, the harder I tried to create a workshop aimed at getting young students to address these intense themes, the more I realized how deeply complex a task it really is. To get to a point where I was capable of writing my own pieces addressing those themes, I had to first undergo years of schooling on socially constructed identity and systemic oppression, and a (never ending) personal deconstruction of my own privileges and oppression. For students, it was almost as if I was attempting to work backwards: “write about yourselves in relation to these themes, and then we’ll talk about them.

The problem is, unless students have at least some grasp of the themes their writing is supposed to address, asking them to write about socially salient identity – like, for example, how they have experienced gender – is near impossible. I realized that in order to get students to even begin addressing their own socially constructed identities in their writing, they would first need lessons explicitly about identity and systemic oppression. I also began to realize that I was more interested in (and indeed, felt more prepared to) engage students on issues of social justice than working on developing overall writing skills. To be sure, strengthening their ability to write coherently and passionately about personal experience was something I hoped my lessons would do. However, discussing socially salient identity and systemic oppression gradually took prominence over building specific writing skills.

Naomi and I met several times in the week leading up to the workshops to discuss what we wanted to do. I felt it was important that she, as the teacher, give as much input as she wanted to as to the content and direction of the lessons. As we talked, it became clearer and clearer how lucky I was to be working Ms. Pierre. Not only did she mention that she “had been looking for an excuse to talk about this stuff” (referring to the social justice themes), but I soon learned that her understanding of systemic oppression and socially constructed identity were very much in line with my own. As I listed off the topics I hoped to include (sex/gender, race, sexuality, class, oppression as systemic), I decided it would be best to make sure Naomi and I were on the same page before planning any further.

“Since we’re going to be discussing race and racism, I wanted to be clear on the definition of racism I use, since it is probably different from the one your students are used to,” I said uncertainly. “What definition do you use?”

Naomi faltered. “Well, I’ve been using ‘prejudice plus power.’” I beamed, and explained that her definition was the same as mine, and that I had asked because the mainstream definition of racism does not require power. I had another question. “How political do you want to be with this?”

She laughed. “Well, I would like to keep my job.”

“I know we aren’t going to be advocating anything obviously partisan, but in a society some have deemed “post-racial” even talking about systemic racism as a contemporary problem could be labeled political.”

Naomi paused, frowning. “I hadn’t even considered that… I guess we should just hope that it’s something we won’t run into…”

As she and I continued to plan the identity unit, as we had come to call it, I felt us shifting away from creative writing and more into social studies territory. In addition to the reasons discussed previously, I think another big part of this shift was that Naomi was planning on teaching a memoir unit at the end of the year. While I was initially thrilled when she said we could merge the memoir unit with my project, we soon realized that this would mean spending a lot less time talking about social issues and a lot more time talking about writing conventions. As they were going to get the memoir instruction either way, I felt it would be more valuable – both for the class and for myself – to create a new unit more geared toward understanding socially constructed identity than writing as an art form.

Using Naomi’s curricular calendar, the two of us hammered out a rough schedule for the identity unit. We would start with an introductory day simply meant to get students thinking about their own identities, and to begin conceptually separating socially constructed identities from personality traits. After that, we would move into specific identities, beginning with gender. The format was fairly straightforward: there would be a workshop day meant to educate students about a particular aspect of identity, followed by a day when they would write about that specific identity in relation to themselves. Somewhere in the middle, we wanted to include a day when students would read how other authors – preferably other youth – have written about identity and social justice. Towards the end of the unit, we would lead a lesson on the real world effects of identity in which we would examine inequality and the systemic forces which cause and perpetuate it.

To conclude the identity unit, we decided to devote two lessons to a final writing assignment, which would be an opportunity for students to synthesize some of what they learned, or bring one of their earlier pieces of writing to a final draft. By and large, I developed the specifics of the lessons with limited input from Naomi, but the two of us decided to lead all the lessons together. During the three-week period of the identity unit, I would come to Miller’s Hill every day. Though the specifics of the schedule – especially the relative allotment of days per subject – shifted as the unit unfolded, we were generally able to follow our plan. (The twelve lesson plans I created for this unit will be posted with the narrative accounts of their implementation.)

My past studies of critical educational theory, most notably the radical educational principles famously theorized by Paulo Friere – and soon critiqued and advanced by theorist such as bell hooks – commonly referred to as “critical pedagogy,” heavily informed the creation of my curriculum. As the focus of this project is on practical application, I will refrain from discussing the theories at length here, though I do think some of the foundational principles that guided the formulation of my curriculum bear mentioning.

First and foremost, a critical pedagogy seeks to engage students with subject matter that is relevant to their lives, with concepts and information that will help them survive in an oppressive society. Critical pedagogy has the explicitly political aim of encouraging students to become conscious of – and actively combat – systemic oppression. This means encouraging students to ask questions about the structure of the world and their position in it, to wonder why things are they the way they are, and to actively and vocally seek those answers, even when others encourage their silence. Critical pedagogy seeks to empower students by cultivating this kind of critical inquiry – by developing a “critical consciousness” – in order to work toward a more just and equitable world.

Obviously, the theories of critical pedagogy are just that –theories. They are idyllic, romantic, and exceptionally hard to implement, especially at a public institution constrained by all manner of legal and social requirements. However, the philosophy behind critical pedagogy can provide powerful guiding principles for teachers and students alike. It is my hope that I stayed as true to them as possible in creating and implementing my curricular unit at Miller’s Hill Elementary.

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