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 kids' 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.
When we begin from the premise that students need to be "fixed," invariably we design curriculum that erases students' home language; we fail to find the strength and beauty in the experience and heritage that students bring with them to school. When our curriculum attempts to "correct" their supposed faults, ultimately, students will resist.
My student Jerald taught me the importance of searching for a student's talents instead of lining up his writing in the crosshairs of my weapon?a red pen. Jerald entered my classroom years behind his grade level. One day he sat at the computer behind my desk working on a piece of writing?a narrative, an imaginative story, I can't remember. Jerald knew how to write stories and essays in the big ways that matter. He knew how to catch the reader-listener by creating characters and dialogue so real and funny or tragic that we leaned in when he read his pieces out loud. And the boy could out-argue anyone, so essays were a matter of lassoing and reining in a thesis and lining up his arguments. Jerald had been kicked out of most of his classes, so he came to my class about four times a day. He was placed in special education, and clearly, Jerald lacked the conventional skills that mark literacy?sentences, spelling, paragraphs?but he didn't lack intelligence.
One morning during my prep period, I decided that I would teach Jerald how to punctuate. I printed out his piece where verbs not only didn't agree, they argued. And Jerald, depending on his mood, either loved the comma or left it out completely. So on this day, I was determined that I would teach him where the periods and capitals went once and for all. "Come here, Jerald," I said. "Let's go over your paper. I want to show you how to correct your punctuation." I bent over his dot-matrix print-out and covered it with cross-outs, marks, and arrows.