Listening to James Baldwin

20150918_101025I have been meditating on James Baldwin’s “Talk to Teachers” these last few weeks.

People. In case you’ve forgotten, the man can WRITE.

Although it is a very challenging text, I wanted to use this text as a mentor text to help my students address one of our year’s essential questions: How might we use writing as a tool of defiance? I owe a debt of gratitude to a member of my PLN, Jessica, who, in a thoughtful and prescient blog post, suggested that we frame powerful writing as powerful resistance. I am centering my writing coaching this year around the idea that we can and should use writing as a way to resist and reimagine anything that threatens our humanity. So, naturally, I have been reading Baldwin.

Before I geek out on all of the different teaching techniques and ideas I messed around with in this lesson, I would like to point out: the student writing that is coming out of this investigation is kickass. And I will post it. But not quite yet. Here is how the sausage was made.

I started my school year by asking my challenging my juniors with another essential question: how might we own and control our education? I’ve asked them to think about why they are still in school (they all know plenty of people who have dropped out or been pushed out of school), and what they want out of the valuable hours of their wild and precious life that they spend in our classroom. This resulted in a classroom manifesto, and in my serious consideration about how to radically individualize my class. It’s exciting and it’s dangerous, so, naturally, I’m digging it.

I also want my beautiful young people to realize that, as 11th graders, they have more immediate experience and expertise in American public schools than any other young people, save the (frazzled, worried, ass-kicking) seniors.  They have a lot to say. I am re-envisioning an important part of my work as being ways for other humans in the US to hear what our young people need, what they notice, and what they are thinking.

In order to have kids start thinking about the depth and breadth of their expertise, I had my young people listen to James Baldwin. They listened to this four minute piece of a 1973 discussion with Baldwin speaking on the schizophrenia African Americans are forced to endure living in the United States.  

Baldwin is speaking in 1974, but the content is eerily current, and it challenged many students who thought that progress in racial justice was more tangible.

After the video, I had students read Baldwin’s beautiful, generative, and difficult piece. Here it is.

My objective in assigning this was for students to identify what makes Baldwin’s prose so powerful, and for them to then use these criteria in creating their own Talk to Teachers. To make meaning out of this difficult read, and to honor their desire to choose modalities in which to work, I had students choose between a See-Think-Wonder visual organizer, or to use blackout poetry on one or two pages to capture the ideas that captivated and spoke to them, and phrases and sentences that were defiant.

In a small groups, students then investigated what writing moves Baldwin made that were so powerful. The criteria they generated was clear and, to me, is a clear and strong baseline for what powerful, defiant writing is. Here are some of their criteria:

  • He speaks from the heart
  • He does not sugarcoat the truth
  • He uses repetition to build intensity and cohesion
  • He uses powerful language
  • He is fearless
  • He uses history to talk about the present

Then, students took out their paper and bic pens or chromebooks or smartphones, and began to plan and write their own Talk to Teachers using two guidelines to help guide their thinking. They had to choose three criteria through which to assess their own work (I have 21 different rubrics in the room!  I’m delighted!) and they had to choose a real audience that they would be writing to and, importantly, delivering their writing to. Some of the audiences students chose:

  • The teachers at all the schools that suspended or expelled me
  • Teachers of African American students
  • Arne Duncan
  • Elementary school teachers in Oakland
  • My middle school teachers who didn’t care about me
  • Future teachers
  • The board of education in Arizona (we are in CA, but AZ’s refusal to allow ethnic studies weighs heavily on some students’ minds and hearts)
  • My little siblings’ teachers

I am reading drafts with students now. They are flooring me. I will allow them to speak for themselves, as I will post those students who wish me to. Expect some Talks to Teachers here soon, people (including one that I am drafting).

I am listening, to James Baldwin, and to these brilliant Oakland young people. I hope others do, too.

4 thoughts on “Listening to James Baldwin

  1. I am a teacher in a public high school at the heart of Little Havana in Miami, FL. I am with you in solidarity on not only presenting students with the words of James Baldwin, but of beginning to cede control to my students regarding owning their education and fighting systemic oppression. Full on year one of this done… ready and planning for year two!


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