by Linda Christensen
I believe we need to create a pedagogy of joy and justice. When Michael writes a stunning essay about language policy in Native American boarding schools, there is joy because he finally nails this form of academic writing, but there is also justice in talking back to years of essays filled with red marks and scarred with low grades. There is joy because he’s learned a craft that he felt beyond his reach; there’s justice because Michael and his classmates learned to question policies that award or deny status based on race and class. When Bree writes a poem so sassy that we all laugh and applaud in admiration, we rejoice in her verbal dexterity, but we recognize the justice of affirming the beauty of black/brown women whose loveliness has too often gone unpraised in our society. When Jacoa speaks to a class of graduate students at a local college, she exudes joy in taking what she learned about Ebonics out of our high school classroom and into the university, but she speaks about justice when she tells the linguistic history of a language deemed inferior in the halls of power — including schools.
I begin my teaching with the understanding that anyone who has lived has stories to tell, but in order for these stories to emerge, I must construct a classroom where students feel safe enough to be wild and risky in their work. My curriculum uses students’ lives as critical texts we mine for stories, celebrate with poetry, and analyze through essays that affirm their right to a place in our society. I attempt to craft a curriculum that focuses on key moral and ethical issues of our time because I have discovered that students care more about learning when the content matters. Writing and talking about these issues — like race, class, gender, and solidarity — takes them out of the shadow world and into the light of day, so students can understand why things are fair or unfair and how to change them. When I “correct” student writing, I embed the instruction about conventions, nitty-gritty skills, in the context of students’ writing about their lives and the broader world. I make their growth transparent, and we celebrate it inch-by-inch. Teaching for joy and justice makes students the subject of their own education.
Teaching for joy and justice also begins with the non-negotiable belief that all students are capable of brilliance. Some students arrive in my classroom trailing years of failure behind them. Students in low-income communities are often tossed like loose change into overcrowded and underfunded classrooms where elementary teachers didn’t have enough hands, materials, or time to build every student’s literacy skills. Then we blame those students for arriving in our secondary classrooms without the tools they need to succeed. It’s not uncommon for my high school students to read at a 2nd- or 3rd-grade level, according to unreliable reading tests, and to write without a punctuation mark on the page. But just because students lack skills doesn’t mean they lack intelligence. My duty as a teacher is to attempt to coax the brilliance out of them.
After teaching for 24 years at Jefferson High School, located in an African American working-class neighborhood in Portland, Ore., and for a few years at Grant High School, where rich and poor, white, black, and Asian rub elbows in the hallways, I came to know that kid s’ lives are deep and delightful — even when they have low test scores. Their language is a history inherited from their parents, their grandparents, and their great-grandparents — a treasure of words and memories and the sounds of home, not a social fungus to be scraped from their mouths and papers.
Reading Writing and Rising Up Introduction"My students walk out the school door into a social emergency,"Linda Christensen writes. "They are in the center of it. I believe that writing is a basic skill that will help them both understand that emergency and work to change it."
This practical, inspirational book offers essays, lesson plans,and a remarkable collection of student writing, all rooted inan unwavering focus on language arts teaching for justice.
"Linda Christensen has created a profound work of emancipatory pedagogy that brings together theory, classroom practice, personal narrative, and student work. She has distilled her 24 years with students in a rainbow classroom into a major accomplishment that is a must-read for every teacher seeking to reach students that are 'unreachable.'"
— Geneva Smitherman, University Distinguished Professor atMichigan State University and author of Talkin' That Talk: Language, Culture, and Education in AfricanAmerica.