Today’s blog features two writings from the three-week workshop in writing, critical pedagogy, and digital media SAC just completed for the New Orleans public school system. A regular feature of SAC work is to work in settings where teachers and students are learning from each other. The pair of writings we share today illustrates that practice.
The first selection by Janay Barconey was written in a 20-minute writing session following one of our readings and discussions. Janay, who graduated from McMain this May, has been with SAC since her Hurricane Katrina-interrupted 10th grade year. She spent her senior year as an intern with us, so she comes to this writing with some understanding of the educational process.
Janay is also comfortable working in a setting that features many guests in our classrooms and workshops. The second essay—really a letter—in this blog is written by Ricardo Dobles, a college education professor and a staff member of the Andover Bread Loaf Writing Workshop, with which SAC has partnered over the years.
Ricardo’s essay is a commentary on the SAC workshop and a reading of Janay’s essay. We read and discussed Ricardo’s letter on the last day of the workshop, continuing the recursive dialogue that is central to the SAC approach.
I was placed on the Trane to go to a place that I didn’t want to go to. Full speed ahead to my destination. I was forced to watch my world quickly pass me by. I was alone in this cold car. So I began searching outside through my window for warmth. Then I saw the Sun Ra blazing its warmness not on me but on my window. I then placed my cheek with its deep dimple onto the window, trying desperately to feel some of the heat. I felt some, and it felt good.
I had so many miles ahead of me, that instead of being filled with warmth the whole ride I instead would be gazing upon a full, half, quarter, eighth, or even sixteenth moon. And I’d be once again cold in my cart.
“Excuse me, ma’am. Would you like to have something to eat?” asked a strange lady.
I had seen her patrol the halls like security in a high school. But she rolled around with a cart with food and drinks instead of detention and suspension papers.
“Yes ma’am, I would. So what do you have today?” I asked her trembling and shivering.
“We have turkey and mashed potatoes today. Excuse me ma’am. You can also turn the air on and off in your cart.”
I didn’t know that there was a way to control the air. I had adapted to this situation by falling asleep in the morning with my face pressed against the window. I felt so ignorant, because the information was there. Now that I did know how to control the air, would I keep it on or would I take control and just turn it off.
“Yes ma’am. I would like to have some of the mashed potatoes and turkey.” As my words came out of my mouth, she began to uncover this plate of hot and steamy food. Then she set it on the small wooden table in front of me.
Well, I was hungry and this hot food was just what I needed to fill my appetite. I wasn’t only hungry for food but for the information and the warmth that came from it. I could now be comfortable. I could now ride on this cold Trane, because I could control my environment instead of letting my environment have control over me.
Ricardo Dobles, Andover Bread Loaf Writing Workshop and education professor at Holy Cross College, Worcestor, Massachusetts
I’m sorry I haven’t written sooner to share some thoughts with you and the rest of the workshop participants. As I mentioned to the SAC staff members who were kind enough to speak with me for a few minutes, it is an odd feeling to sit back and take notes during a workshop that clearly calls out for hands-on participation…problem posing not banking method! I am not comfortable commenting beyond some simply reflecting on my time in the workshop (I will certainly be happy to share anything I write up more formally at a later date, but right now I am only beginning the process of looking over my notes and the materials you shared with me).
Needless to say, I left the workshop with my head spinning over the many issues that were raised in only the three days that I was there. Of course the discussion on Freire and narration was a very important event in the course of the three days, and for me the issue of narration was set aside but certainly not put to rest. In fact, I was made to think about narration in the piece written by one of the SAC staff members (although I know her name I will not attempt to spell it for fear of being way off). This young woman wrote a largely metaphorical piece that even she admitted not really knowing the motivation behind it. And yet, the piece spoke directly to the conversation that had taken place the day before. In the piece she is on a train and she is cold. She makes due by pressing her face against the window for warmth. Finally a kind employee of the train asks if she is hungry and informs her that she can control the temperature in the cabin. I think anyone in the workshop would recall the piece to which I am referring.
When I first heard the piece, I was impressed with the use of metaphor, but I did not know what the metaphor was meant to represent (a problem that others, including the writer, recognized). But when I heard the piece the next day, it struck me how very connected this story was to our discussion on Freire. If we look at the passenger on the train as a student, the education she is receiving is not providing any comfort whatsoever, and it is leaving her feeling cold and unfulfilled. Through her own initiative she tries to make the best of a bad situation and she adapts. She takes what she can get from her environment to achieve some level of warmth (knowledge?). Along comes the train employee, (teacher?), who not only addresses her hunger (to learn?) but also tells her how to control the temperature in her car. But what the teacher does not do, and this is the issue Freire would raise, as do I, is ask this young woman whether she even wants to be on this train, and whether she has a say in the direction the train is headed. The train employee provides the young woman the information she needs in order to control her immediate environment while at the same time ensuring that her sphere of influence is limited to that train car. She has no say, nor will she ever have a say, in the direction of the train. This is the essence of narration sickness. The teacher is also on the train with no control over the direction. The oppressor directs the train and the teacher merely attempts to ameliorate the effects.
So what is the responsibility of the teacher? Does she go from car to car (student to student) trying to alleviate the suffering…give them some food if they are starving and give them some clue of how to manage the pain…never calling into question nor helping the student to question why it is that they find themselves in the car in the first place. Some students will be helped (and some may even ride comfortably), but the train of oppression keeps on rolling. Freire invites us to DERAIL the train. To invite the solitary passenger in the car to join with the other passengers, to probe, to question (why am I cold? Who is making me cold? Why am I alone?) and to collectively take charge of the final destination. Of course the problem posing option is a dangerous one for those of us who have had such success under a banking method. As teachers, we are by nature conservative creatures who have functioned well within a particular system (otherwise we never would have made it into our profession). We may feel like hypocrites, I often do, to tell students to question and problem pose when we owe everything we have to the banking method. But, as I have stated before, if we do not join with our students in challenging the existing system and pedagogies of inequality, if we do not put the brakes on that train, neither we nor our students will ever be free from oppression…free to think outside of the box(car) and inside the circle!
Now, it is entirely possible that I am way off the mark on my interpretation of the poem, but that is the invitation of the circle: to take an idea as far as you can take it, to engage in dialogue with your colleagues, to imagine all of the possibilities in our words and in our world.
Thank you again for the opportunity to spend an uplifting three days with you.
The opinions expressed in Student Stories: A New Orleans Classroom Chronicle are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.