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Tuesday, March 1, 2016

I will let them lead while I simply follow.

This is the response my good friend Collette wrote after reading my post about our conversation on Saturday.  I find it beautiful, flattering, and emblematic of the best of what it can mean to teach.

"They Wanted to Celebrate; I Wanted to Solve

More often than I might like to admit it, I don't always know what I'm doing as a teacher. I have a great deal of vision, but I have to talk myself through all of the muddy logistics before I fully understand the weight of my goals. Fortunately, I work with a great listener. 

At the conclusion of a rather invigorating Write to Learn conference, I arrived at my colleague's home in Florissant, Missouri. I updated her on the textbook curation project my Multicultural Literature & Film students and I have been creating, and I asked her what I should have them do with the information they'd just finished collecting about African American culture.

She told me I should be asking a different question. She told me I should ask them who they want to share the textbook with.

I was sort of stunned. Up to that point, for the most part, they'd simply been researching and curating information for the classroom, but the idea of creating a textbook about culture, as they see it, is an idea that should definitely be shared.

And that is why I am telling you this story now. We are writing a textbook for the world. We are gathering information about different aspects of culture with our own unique lenses, and we're reflecting on what we find.

What I found is that I have a deep sense of activism. I started out my chapter about African American lit and film by sharing excerpts of Brent Staples' "Just Walk on By: A Black Man Ponders His Ability to Alter Public Space." I shared Malcolm X's essay, "My First Conk," and I posted William Raspberry's "The Handicap of Definition." I shared videos like "The Enduring Myth of Black Criminality" from Ta-Nehisi Coates and "I Was Almost Another Dead Black Male" a conversation archived by StoryCorps between a young black man and his white mother concerning a traffic stop gone horribly wrong. I was obviously making a statement. I saw an injustice, and I wanted to incite a passionate response from my students. I wanted us all to feel the #BlackLivesMatter movement because I was feeling it.

But that wasn't the direction they wanted to go.

Instead, they researched and curated information on Blues and Rap, and Jazz and Hip Hop. They posted beautiful lines of Harlem Renaissance poetry. They gravitated to fashion, sports, and food. They included striking images in our text of African American art and dance. They saw the things that I wasn't seeing. They were celebrating African American history, and I was trying to solve it.

For me, teaching has always been about learning; I just didn't know that I would be on the receiving end of such a big lesson. Next time, I will let them lead while I simply follow." 

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