We teach who we are.—Parker J. Palmer
If I teach who I am then I imagine that alongside English I would teach tolerance, love, kindness, self-respect and hope. However, as Invitations & Inspirations: Pathways to Successful Teaching highlights, how I notice myself may not be the same as how my students notice me (Moss et al, 2005, p. 133). In multiple tutorials throughout the term I was implored to notice the students, to learn about how their cultural backgrounds, personal beliefs, and ideas affect their educational experience. Yet, in the words of Mary Dixon, when I notice I also “bring my beliefs about what it is to be human, what it is to be right and wrong to the classroom.” As a result, noticing is a circular process that reflects both upon the kids and myself. The completion of this assignment is an attempt to continually notice; to meditate upon my students and on myself.
As illustrated above, I often define myself in abstract terms (eg, as a tolerant, hopeful person). Such abstractions are useful when attempting to develop metaphors of the self and the teaching profession. Various scholars support employing metaphors when thinking about teaching and education because metaphors make concrete what is abstract; can articulate a person’s values; shape an individual’s actions as a teacher; and can construct new realities (p. 17-18). Throughout the course of this subject I constructed two metaphors: the teacher as a builder of bridges and the teacher as an ambassador to the world.
I start with the premise that a teacher is a builder of bridges because a bridge functions as a means to lead people from one place to another. With my teaching I hope to lead students into new terrains. Not only do I want them to explore diverse forms of literature, I want them to explore the society around them and their various roles within society. Not only does my metaphorical bridge lead towards new experiences, it leads towards equality and away from injustice. M. Apple (1990) writes, “for a society to be truly just, it must maximize the advantage of the least advantaged” (Apple, p. 32). Upon completion of my Education course I will work with the least advantaged, the students who are (un)knowingly socialized to “correspond to the requirements of a system of work relations within an economic mode of production” (p. 32).Oftentimes these ‘work relations’ position individuals in low socio-economic strata and, in so doing, can relegate them to a place with little political, economic, or personal agency. As a result, I plan on working in an area that is often considered ‘marginalised’. That is to say, I will work in an area of low socio-economic status with a high percentage of students of colour. The debate surrounding how I name a ‘marginalised’ group when compared to the hegemonic centre is outside the confines of this essay. Suffice it to say that the historically Othered demographics (eg, people of colour, people of low socio-economic status, people of various sexual orientations, etc) are the demographics that I believe would gain the most from a bridge that leads towards equality.
The above picture of the Sydney Harbour Bridge does not simply function as a visual representation of my personal metaphor. For one, the picture (taken with my own camera) illustrates my position as an American tourist visiting Sydney for the first time in April, 2007. As a United States’ citizen who had never left her country’s borders before arriving in Australia, the Harbour Bridge symbolizes the multiple opportunities afforded to me. The opportunity to travel as an exchange student is a privilege that gives me a different vantage point from which to reflect upon myself and my home country. Put differently, the Harbour Bridge symbolises my own path into not only a new educational system, but a new mode of thinking. The memories I take with me from Australia—from the most overt forms of racism I have ever encountered to the beautiful “no worries” attitude—are all items that will influence my way of viewing the world and, as a result, my educational practices.
My second metaphor also incorporates a travel component. I equate teaching with being an ambassador between various modes of thought. For example, within English coursework European literature—which usually translates as European men’s literature—is often juxtaposed against people of colour’s literary works. It is important to note that I am making the broad assumption that people of colour’s contributions are incorporated into school curriculum at all. For example, throughout my four year secondary education experience I can only recall reading two works by people of colour. The two literary groups, European literature and everyone else’s literature—often reside in tension with one another.
Jamaica Kincaid’s (1989) germinal work A Small Place serves as a wonderful example of this ongoing tension. In this book the Caribbean author argued that English was “the language of the oppressor.” Kincaid further develops her argument by defining the oppressor as the White coloniser. If one was to follow this line of thinking, teaching “the classics”—which is a narrow, Eurocentric definition of what makes great literature—is teaching oppression. Conversely, teaching indigenous literature or simply non-European literature is teaching freedom. As a teacher I do not wish to serve as a soldier in the war between European literature and the Other’s literature. Rather, I see myself as an ambassador between the two.
Serving as an ambassador between the various literary works is in accordance with Principle 1.2 of Victoria’s Principles of Learning and Teaching (PoLT). Under the premise that “the learning environment is supportive and productive,” Principle 1.2 “promotes a culture of value and respect for individuals and their communities.” This includes exploring cultural differences and acknowledging viewpoints that are not within the mainstream. Teaching a book such as A Small Place alongside a European work like Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness raises important questions concerning how societies define truth, injustice and power. Thus, intellectual discussions are engendered as students debate these topics and the merits of each work.
The aforementioned literary examples span two very different areas of the globe, which is precisely what I intend. In my classroom I would display a map of the world and ask students toinsert a push-pin for the country of their birth. Afterwards, I would ask students to place pins on the nations whose literature interests them. Although I would be facetious if I presumed I knew a literary work from every country in the world, such an activity can engender a learning experience for both me and my students as we explore (for possibly the first time) a particular nation’s literary heritage. Similar to what W. Ayer’s (2001) brother did with his classes in the essay “Beginning: The Challenge of Teaching,” I would surround required curricular readings with the students’ choices (Ayers, 2001, p. 13).
The theoretical underpinning of such an intellectual environment can be found in the work of William Glasser (1986). Glasser argues that “95% of discipline problems are misguided efforts of children to achieve power” (1986, cited in PoLT Online Professional Learning Resource, 2005). Allowing students to choose the world literature they wish to study is allowing students to take ownership of their learning experience (Moss et al, 2005, p. 47). When working with a disempowered, marginalised group, such personal ownership can have profound impacts on the learning experience. Glasser also states “disengaged students view their schoolwork as irrelevant to their basic human needs” (1986, cited in PoLT Online Professional Learning Resource, 2005). As a teacher, if I allow a class to choose which world literature they wish to study, I can safely assume the class somehow believes the literature is relevant to them.
In order for course work to be personally relevant, I must return to noticing my students. Here I will give one example of how I noticed past students in order to create a personally relevant curriculum. In the United States I used to volunteer at an alternative school for students who had been suspended or expelled. Many of the students were of African descent, court-monitored and heavily gang-involved. Many more had experienced at least one negative interaction with the police. It is important to note that police forces in the United States face a huge problem with racial profiling. Once I acknowledged these students’ social experiences, I decided to introduce a spoken word piece titled “Just Another Routine Check” by Dahlak Brathwaite.
“Just Another Routine Check” criticised both racial profiling and its negative impact on an individual’s psyche. Although there is course language in the poem, I was at a school that understood how the poem could be used as a vehicle for academic learning. It is important to note that I was given permission to use this piece before proceeding with my lesson.
After the students expressed their initial excitement over the work, I was able to get them to discuss which segments of the poem they appreciated and why. If I was working on an entire poetry unit with the students, we would have analysed both Brathwaite’s political message and the conduits he uses to portray that message (eg, similes, symbolism and irony). This activity highlights Principle 3.1 of the PoLT. Using as its foundation that “students’ needs, backgrounds, perspectives and interests are reflected in the learning program” Principle 3.1 states that teaching strategies should be “flexible and responsive to the values, needs and interests of individual students” (State of Victoria, Department of Education, PoLT Online Professional Learning Resource, 2005). Similar to the example given in the PoLT, I employed popular media to address the students’ backgrounds, perspectives, and social concerns.
As evidenced in the past two examples, I believe personal relevance is of the utmost importance. This may seem to lie in tension with my earlier statement that social reconstruction is my primary aim as a teacher. Briefly summarising a discussion in Mary Dixon’s tutorial will clarify my position. In this particular discussion Mary stated that the scholar Elliott Eisner argues one of five factors will determine an individual’s teaching style: personal relevance, social adaptation, social reconstruction, academic rationalism, or curriculum as technology. When asked to choose one factor, I opted for personal relevance. Social reconstruction supporters argued that they wanted their students to critique the world in order to change the world. I responded that in order for a student to critique the world, or a particular situation, they must first find it personally relevant. In the words of another student, personal relevance is a vehicle for social reconstruction.
The word vehicle returns me to the importance of my bridge metaphor. If a personally relevant curriculum can be represented as an actual vehicle, it is my goal as a teacher for this vehicle to drive across a bridge that leads towards new opportunities for my students and, additionally, towards a more just society.