Looking at The Bigger Picture: Students Finding Their Voice and Power

by | 05.26.21

Darius Wimby is an ELA teacher in Georgia. Follow him on Twitter @DariusBWimby.

Currently, I teach 9th grade English at Dr. Ronald E. McNair High School in Atlanta (DeKalb County), where I graduated from this same school in 2005, so it’s a humbling experience to return to my alma mater to teach. I’m currently in my third year of teaching, and I teach a year-long English class for students who haven’t yet found success with reading and writing. My students should feel like readers and writers by the end of our time together. I empower my students by teaching them skills and demonstrating their mastery of the tools they’ve learned and used in culminating unit projects.

As I was planning for this current school year, I knew I wanted to do something different, curriculum-wise, with my students, because I felt like I wasn’t giving them the total learning experience in my first two years. When I was first developing the course, I came across the question, “What is power?” I was struck by how seldom we pause to think that through – and how important that question is. I want my students to understand the power they have, even as young people. I want them to realize that they can use their voices now to seek the change they want, and I want them to see how reading and writing can be instruments of their power.  

I decided to build the course around interrogating what power is and how it shapes society – and that question has new resonance this year, with all the difficulties our students are facing. 

By finding and feeling their power, my students can develop a new relationship with learning. 

I show my students they have the power to hold me accountable.

On the first day of class, I ask my students, “What are your expectations of me?” They usually look surprised. They’re used to having teachers’ expectations given to them, and they have difficulty responding at first. It leads to a conversation about how we build and own the learning space together. I’ll tell them, “If we want to be successful in this class, we need to hold each other accountable.” Once they come up with some expectations for me, I flip their answers and say, “Okay, I have these same expectations for you.” Something clicks when they see their own words setting the classroom guidelines. They’re more eager to learn. 

I guide my students in an exploration of identity and power.

Reaching an understanding of our power begins by understanding who we are as individuals and how we fit into our communities. I lead students in an identity activity where they list all the terms they use to describe themselves. I push them to recognize that identity goes so much deeper than just saying, “I am a Black girl,” or “I am a Latino boy.” Identity is multilayered. It includes religion, sexuality, history, class, family background and so much more. Even with remote and hybrid learning, these discussions always lead to challenging, but meaningful, conversations about how those identities affect our experiences in the world – and how all of us can use our voices for change.

I show students that they have the power to reshape their relationship with learning.

My students haven’t seen themselves as readers and writers in the past, so I encourage them to shake off what they think reading and writing are. I tell them, “Let’s retrain your mind, so you can learn these skills in a way that will stay with you forever.” We do read-alouds, and I model what it means to make connections while reading. I’ll ask them questions, not just to check for comprehension, but to push them toward meaning-making: How would you feel if you were in the character’s shoes? What does this passage remind you of? At first, they’re surprised. They’re used to being quizzed for the “right” answers. Then, they’ll start having rich conversations, using the text to connect to what they see within themselves and what they see in the world.

I offer students the power to co-design the curriculum and co-select reading materials.

When I shared my class syllabus at the beginning of the year, one of my students said, “I’ve never had a syllabus this colorful before.” And I said, “Well, we do things differently in this class.” I am very intentional about connecting students with books in which they can see themselves, and I give them an “interest inventory” that helps me learn which books they might connect with. 

When we read all-class novels, we pull in other texts that are connected to students’ lives. For instance, if we read Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye and talk about colorism within the Black community, we might also connect that with Beyoncé’s “Pretty Hurts” and an episode from Blackish.  Even if we read Lamar Giles’ Not So Pure and Simple and talk about gender roles and the #MeToo movement, we might connect that with several news articles about the pay gap between women and men in sports and other careers.  Bringing in multiple texts opens multiple entry points for students to plug into meaningful conversations on topics like, “Who determines what beauty is?,” and “Why are there antiquated expectations for women to follow in the 21st century?” 

We’re spending the year exploring topics that draw students’ interest and help us answer our essential question about power. We’re reading and writing about beauty, the Black experience, language and gender roles. I want students to feel empowered to discuss and process whatever comes up over the months to come. 

I make sure they know they have the power to achieve.

When I first meet my students, I tell them, “Forget any negative experiences you had in elementary and middle school. That’s all going to change now. You’re in my class, and I have high expectations for what you can achieve.” Most of the time, their perceptions of school change as time goes on – and so do their perceptions of themselves. 

It’s not easy to have authentic conversations about identity and interrogate the meaning of power, especially in a remote setting. But sometimes, the most difficult discussions are the most rewarding – and the most powerful. 

Together, my students and I create a classroom that is a microcosm of the world we live in. A world in which they can find and feel their power – and carry that power beyond the confines of the school day and out into their real lives. 

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