Teachers College, Columbia University
What did you notice about Stan's approach to teaching?
Stan begins with this idea that teachers have to know where students come from, who they are, what they come into our classrooms with, what understanding, what skills, in order to then move into a larger conversation about issues of freedom, rights, independence, and any other issue. The idea of really understanding that this one student may be different, in terms of learning level and learning skills, than another student is really significant, especially when we talk about multiculturalism: various voices, perspectives, perceptions, ideas, opinions, beliefs about who one is, and then who one can become in society.
I think that's very helpful because when we have students whose learning levels are different inside of one classroom, we can talk about issues of differentiated instruction, cooperative learning, collaborative engagements, but we're really talking about how best to give students the skills and the knowledge and the literacy practices that they need before they move on.
From there, we can actually include various texts, various writing assignments, various assessment measures that stimulate what they already know, but at the same time give them something to learn, to comprehend, to understand, to grapple with, and then to take with them as they move on to their journey of learning.
Comment on Stan's introduction to the unit using the selection of texts.
Something that is very powerful is the collage of texts that he has in front of his classroom. He has a text by Booker T. Washington and one by Frederick Douglass; he has Maya Angelou's text; he has Julius Lester's text. And then he also has the Breaking Ground, Breaking Silence text that they will eventually study. Looking at all of these texts and asking the students if they're familiar with them or not reiterates this idea of getting to know where students are.
These various texts were written during different time periods, written about different time periods, and written about different social conditions in society. One may think that there is not a connection among these texts, but there is a connection, and in the beginning of this unit, Stan makes that connection clear. We are talking about issues of rights, freedom, independence, perspective; and in talking about these issues, we have to consider the various texts, the various experiences, the various voices of people, whether it's Julius Lester talking about being a slave or Booker T. Washington talking about bootstraps and lifting oneself up. All of the texts are talking about rights and some form of independence from a particular institution, whether that institution is localized in terms of segregation or more nationally based in terms of this oppressive system that lets people assume that they don't have rights.
The inclusion of these various texts is very important and critical to what students will eventually do with the larger ideas of rights and independence -- by looking at the text, by looking at the video, by listening to the guest speaker, by going on field trips, and then by coming back into the class to produce a culminating activity that may not look at all of the various texts, but looks at the overall ideas presented within these various texts.
Why teach Langston Hughes at this grade level?
Langston Hughes is one of many poets who should be studied from sixth grade on to high school. Langston Hughes's poems are so rich with emotions and ideas and thoughts, and his works enrich what students are able to do with issues of identity, culture, race, location, representation. In seventh grade, students are still learning how to form sentences, form ideas, and to make arguments more complex. Langston Hughes's writings can assist in that learning and in how students learn to grapple with other writings, other literary works.
He is definitely a poet, a writer, a creator who transcends boundaries, and every student can learn from him and his writing. His writings demonstrate lyricism, the beauty of music, the beauty of identity in this perpetual search for understanding. I think that should be incorporated in all grade levels.
Comment on the writing process in the poetry exercise.
It's really important to have students ... sharing their writings with other students and not just with the teacher of the classroom, because then everyone feels a part of that community of learners. Stan is really strong on getting students to present, getting students to talk, getting students to share, and then having other students really listen by either taking notes or by remembering something that a student has said in order to eventually offer concrete criticism and feedback, which he talks about at the end of the poetry-reading assignment. There's honesty, there's openness, and then there is room for improvement.
When Stan shows them a copy of a draft of Langston Hughes's poem, it represents this point in the classroom where students are able to understand that writing is indeed a process, that someone as great as Langston didn't write all of his poetry the first time around, but he went back and he revised. Students need to know that a published writer goes through many stages, and therefore they should go through many stages. Students need to see that in order to model that behavior for themselves.
How does the field trip enhance students' learning?
In this unit, students are being taught how to empathize with the past, to assume the character of someone or something from the past. Stan has allowed them to walk into that character by looking at the video, by questioning Christopher Moore, by engaging in a poetry discussion, by looking at Langston Hughes as one artist who memorializes a past, and now they have to see, experience, feel how a different past is being memorialized and what that means. All of that reiterates this idea of empathy -- not just feeling sorry for the people who died and were buried and left, but empathizing with the work that they did, the labor that they produced, the colonies that they built, the meanings that they gave to New Amsterdam, to New York, and to the entire world.
One key moment is when a student is able to stand there at the African Burial Ground site with a group of other students and say, "My goodness, Langston Hughes wrote a poem that we read in class that relates to what I see here, what I am feeling right now in this moment." So a connection with the texts that the students are reading and critiquing leads right into how those students understand the African Burial Ground. This student is able to make larger connections across time periods, across pasts, across experiences and histories, in order to say, "There is a connection here. I can now understand; I can visualize what Langston Hughes is talking about, what he is doing in his poem. At the same time, I can better connect with the African Burial Ground in terms of representing and giving life to something that is no longer here, but in memory and in spirit, this thing will always be here."
What is the academic value of the commemorative stamp project?
The students are not just ending this unit by having a fun time doing something that's not critical. In fact, this is a critical assignment because they are responsible for incorporating ideas from the various class sessions into this project. Students have been exposed to these various literary texts that Stan brings into the classroom. They have listened to Christopher Moore's presentation on the African Burial Ground and examined the video. They visited various sites -- the Trinity Churchyard as a point of comparison for their entry into the African Burial Ground site. They have engaged in a poetry circle. They talked about all of the issues around freedom, rights, representation, and what it means to remember the past. Now what do we do with this information? What do we do with the learning that has happened in this classroom?
One thing that Stan asks students to do is create a commemorative stamp project that incorporates their learning into a design that symbolizes not just the beauty of the past, but the struggle and the pain of the past as we understand it by looking at something like the African Burial Ground site.
He provides an opportunity for students to experience the visual aspect of being a learner in a classroom: "This is what it means to be a slave and to be excavated, and to be forgotten for so long; and when I read this text or I visit the African Burial Ground, this is the image that comes to me." After looking at that past very critically, reading about that past, associating that past with various other texts, students are able to create a text of their own. And that text is the commemorative stamp project, which I think, is very powerful.
How might a teacher assess the stamp project?
I think it's really important for teachers to understand how they're asking students to make generalizations about something; they're asking students to summarize their learning, their experiences with documents that they've studied in this unit. At the same time, they have to tell a story by using symbols, by creating a symbol.
So in one way, teachers have to look for the stories that the students are telling. At the same time, I think teachers need to be aware of how literature informs writing and how writing can inform what students produce symbolically. It's not enough to just take the project and to assess it, and that's it. One would have to assess everything that the students have done, everything that the students have taken notes on, or particular aspects about their questioning of Christopher Moore and their understanding of how so many people were enslaved and so many people were buried at a particular site.
Teachers should be looking for some of the same things that we look for when we're assessing a written product -- structure, cohesiveness, engagement with the text (in this case, the text being everything the students have read and what they have seen at the African Burial Ground and even at the Trinity Churchyard). They should also try to understand how that image is in itself a story. Is this an accurate depiction of this particular time period? Or is it more of a contemporary creation, and if it is, does it somehow relate to the history of the African Burial Ground?
So in order to assess a commemorative stamp project, teachers would have to look for critical thinking, critical engagement with the text, a certain understanding of the history as represented in other things that they have done that somehow combine into the final project. They would have to look for structure, organization of ideas, and ask why this particular symbol represents the African Burial Ground, or an aspect of rights or freedom.