Part of our work as teachers is to make what is invisible - or taken for granted or ignored - visible for our students. Sometimes this means excavating historical injustices, sometimes it means looking at literature or history to find whose voices are marginalized or silenced. And sometimes it means asking students to look for those stories in their own lives.
Although the book's intended audience is elementary students, ¡Sí, Se Puede! Yes, We Can! can be used as a model across grade levels. Teachers might use the book as an opening for a variety of lessons - on unions, strikes, solidarity, or local cuts in education budgets. In a recent workshop, I used it to raise the question of who is invisible in our lives.
As the high school language arts coordinator in Portland Public Schools, I miss my daily work with students, for the contact with hilarious, outrageous teenagers, but also as a laboratory for my teaching ideas. However, in my new job, I use the same prompts I developed for students as model lessons for teachers in my district.
I read aloud ¡Sí, Se Puede! Yes, We Can! to our Portland Writing Project meeting. After reading the book and discussing it, I come back to the man who said he'd never thought about the janitors who clean his office. Making those invisible hands visible means seeing the people behind the labor as Cohn does in this picture book. Then I give the writing assignment: Describe a time when you were invisible - or part of what poet Luis Rodríguez calls the "nameless, the scorned, the ignored." What were the circumstances? Where did the incident(s) take place? What were you doing? Who else was there? How did you react? How did the situation make you feel? Or, tell the story of a time when someone who was invisible to you became visible. Who was the person? Where did the story take place? Who else was there? What happened to make the person transform for you? How did you feel about the experience?
Before we begin writing, I share some of my own experiences and ask participants to create their own list: the time when my P.E. teacher doted on my friend Janet, but couldn't remember my name; at dances, when I stood alone waiting to be asked to dance - actually then I wished I were invisible and instead felt like I had a neon sign flashing "loser" across my forehead. When I worked as a waitress and became accustomed to being the hands and arms that served food. I became visible only when the customers realized they needed something and I wasn't there. I tell about the experience of going out with my friend Nicole, an African- American woman. Waiters, store clerks, taxi drivers always spoke to me as if Nicole was not present. I also share how my student Tri, an immigrant from Vietnam, melted into the background for me. He was quiet. He slid into class and did his work. He never asked questions, nor did he ask for help. As I read his stories and poetry - which he rarely shared in class - it was like watching a black-and-white movie take on color. With every paper, with every conversation those papers generated, he took on more color, more life. He no longer disappeared.