Students, particularly students who don't fit the social norm because of their race, language, sexual orientation, weight, or ability to purchase the latest fashions, bear the brunt of such stereotypes. They sometimes share their anger and frustration at inappropriate times and in inappropriate ways. But the classroom can be a safe place for students to not only talk back, but to affirm their right to a place in the world.
During the years I worked at Jefferson, I found it necessary to help students "talk back" to disrespectful and untrue stereotypes of our school. In one particularly helpful assignment, they write a poem as their way of "talking back."
I begin by reading Margaret Walker's powerful poem "For My People." Walker's poem teaches about the hardship that African Americans endured, but also celebrates the triumphs of her people. She ends the poem with an exhortation: "Let a new earth rise. Let another world be born. ... Let a race of men now rise and take control!"
We look at how Walker constructs her poem with the repeating phrase "For my people." She uses the phrase as an introduction to her theme for that stanza and follows it with a list. For example:
- For my people everywhere singing their slave songs repeatedly: their dirges and their ditties and their blues and jubilees, praying their prayers nightly to an unknown god, bending their knees humbly to an unseen power;
Walker's poem teaches the strength of using repetition and lists in poetry. I also point out the rhythm of the line — "their dirges and their ditties and their blues and jubilees," and the repetition of sounds — singing slave songs, dirges and ditties, and praying prayers.