At Metropolitan Community College in Omaha, Nebraska, I teach developmental English and first-year composition. Over the five years that I have been there, I have come to think of my teaching in drastically different ways than when I started. There are many reasons for this, all of which I think are germane to a discussion of what an authentic and useful teaching practice does in the 21st century. Yes, I am making the bold claim that my experience can serve as a symbol for teachers and that it can be drawn on productively. Part of that reason is embedded in the title of this blog: Teaching the Work. When I arrived at Metro, even though I had had training in discourse, multi-cultural education, composition pedagogy, and had years of experience. I found myself flummoxed by the students—I was failing them and failing to engage them. What’s more, the students had a list of circumstances in the way of their education, things that served as problematic, often traumatic, complicating factors, that if I listed them, many people would not believe me. Thus began my journey to be a teacher for these students. And thus began the journey of the students awakening in me the realities of my own working-class identity. And from all of that came a radicalization that hasn’t stopped. And part of that radicalization is an exploration of critical literacy and pedagogy as a way to train and educate students in their own best interests.
Paulo Freire asks us to “begin to understand literacy as the relationship of learners to the world, mediated by the transforming practice of this world taking place in the very general social milieu in which learners travel, and also mediated by the oral discourse concerning this transforming practice. This understanding of literacy takes me to a notion of a comprehensive literacy that is necessarily political” (Paulo Freire Reader, 174). If we take this expansive definition of literacy, then we can see the work of the teacher, my work, as building connections and consciousness for students to transform them politically. When my students read Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian we are able to explore the forces that shape junior’s life, and by proxy and extrapolation, those that shape my students lives. We see institutional racism, trauma, violence, alcoholism, lack of real educational resources—all of which students quickly note as extant in their lives as well. When we read Miss Lasko Gross’s A Mess of Everything or Sandra Cisneros’s The House on Mango Street we explore Melissa and Esperanza’s identity and my students’ identities. These are consciousness-raising discussions, for both the students and myself. But they are also political because they begin to move students from what Patrick Finn calls domesticating education to empowering education. We move away from the conformity of current rhetorical pedagogy, to the work of listening to and developing our ideas together.
Paulo further predicates that literacy “even in this global sense […] should never be understood as the triggering of social emancipation of the subordinated classes. Literacy leads to and participates in a series of triggering mechanisms that need to be activated for the indispensable transformation of a society whose major reality destroys people. Literacy in the global sense takes place in societies where oppressed classes assume their own history” (Paulo Freire Reader, 174). When my students and I make the moves to understand ourselves differently and more completely through texts, then we are triggering the students to begin to own themselves, their identities and their histories. In these classes, we build from these experiences in discussion and reading to develop a writing and thinking practice that begins to define the students outside of the deficit model by which they’ve always been categorized. This action is liberatory and Freire tells us it is revolutionary: “Literacy must be seen and understood in the global sense. Since the reading of the word is preceded by the rewriting of society in societies that undergo a revolutionary process, it is much easier to conduct successful literacy campaigns in these societies” (174). We are teaching the work to create local and global connections, to become better writers and thinkers, and yes, that all fulfills the course objectives and gives students transferable skills—it also transforms them in astonishing ways.