Blog Post

The Feminist Art of Writing About Teaching

The Feminist Art of Writing About Teaching

Danica Savonick, SUNY Cortland
@danicasavonick
Thursday, August 2
1:00 - 2:15
Digital Pedagogy Lab Institute

Today I was honored to share some of my favorite writings about teaching with a group of passionate educators at the Digital Pedagogy Lab Institute in Fredericksburg, Virginia. I was so grateful to our participants, and for everything they refused to leave at the door and instead throw on our messy table. As I told them from the get-go: this was an experiment. Together we tested the modest hypothesis that poetry can help us think differently about learning. I had never tried this before, and it was thrilling to see how these activities I’d been imagining (fantasizing about, really) for weeks were experienced by participants. Together, around that oblong table on the secluded fourth floor, we braved an impending tornado to try and unlearn, or at least briefly bracket, the ways we’ve been trained to think about learning through narrative.

In the wake of the workshop, I have come to think of these intrepid participants as the DPL Poets. I hope they won’t mind the moniker. #dplpoem

Description

What would happen if we wrote about the classroom not through narrative, but as a collaboratively-authored poem? How can space—on the page, on the screen—convey the complexities of learning? Is the classroom, in Adrienne Rich’s words, a “prison cell,” a “commune,” or something else entirely, and what do metaphors make possible? These are just some questions participants will be invited to consider in this hour-long workshop, in which we think with and alongside four feminist teacher-poets—Toni Cade Bambara, June Jordan, Audre Lorde, and Adrienne Rich—about the art of teaching. While these authors are most often studied for their literature, they were no less bold in their pedagogical creativity; in fact, their literary sensibilities shaped student-centered classrooms organized around social justice across multiple registers and scales. In addition to discussing the aesthetic, literary, and rhetorical strategies these authors use in their essays and poems on teaching, participants will experiment with the techniques we encounter and author short reflections inspired by their writings.

Think-pair-share

  • Describe a transformative moment you experienced in the classroom.
    • Keywords from conversations: Authenticity, Trust, Student-led, Student-driven, Empathy, Compassion, Narrative, Embodiment, Perspective, Difference, Centering the student, Lecture, Place, Student agency, Against authority, Pecan pie, Horizontality
  • What is feminist about think-pair-share?
    • Decenters instructor, centers student voices
    • Helps students connect with each other
    • Shows students they are active knowledge producers
    • Low stakes, no expertise
    • Platforms are not neutral. Neither are index cards!

participants seated around table doing think pair share

Context: 1968, Insurgent Knowledge, the art of teaching

Some context: my research "Insurgent Knowledge: The Poetics and Pedagogy of Toni Cade Bambara, June Jordan, Audre Lorde, and Adrienne Rich in the Era of Open Admissions" analyzes the reciprocal relations between teaching and writing in the work of these four teacher-poets. 

  • Today, educators are exploring multimodal, student-centered, project-based, collaborative, and public-facing learning.
  • Many of these have their origins in the feminist, antiracist, and anti-imperial social movements and activism of the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Shout out to Jesse Stommel, who showed us that 1968 is the year that students became more talked about than teachers! 

Big questions

  • How do we make sense of education?
  • What are the material effects of the language we use?
  • What would happen if we wrote about the classroom not through narrative, but as a collaboratively-authored poem?
  • How can space—on the page, on the screen—convey the complexities of learning? 

Collaborative reading

The Group, “Untitled” in The Voice of the Children, ed. June Jordan and Terri Bush (Holt, Rinehart), 1970. 

Collective annotation

Together, we read some poetic excerpts on teaching from these powerful feminist, antiracist activists and authors. We broke into groups of 3-4 and passed the quotes around the room for discussion. Each group was encouraged to annotate the excerpts with the following questions in mind.

  1. What stands out as unique, strange, unexpected, useful?
  2. What image of the student-teacher relation does your quote put forth?
  3. What image of the classroom does your quote suggest?
  4. How is power distributed?
  5. Who speaks? Who is silent?

After 5-10 minutes with each quote, they passed it (now marked up) on to the next group for the process to begin again. 

Writing teaching poems

Next, students were given some time to reflect and write their own poetic teaching fragments based on their interactions with these excerpts. Afterward, we went around the room and participants volunteered to share what they had written. Here is one example of a poem authored by Kush Patel:

Exquisite corpse

Finally, we used the exquisite corpse method often attributed to the surrealists in order to co-author a poem reflecting on our time together in this workshop.

This is a risky undertaking - but I love it
The status quo has many faces
Not all of them face front
Some face the wind, others the stars, others the fear
I am, because she is.
Reflecting moments and traces left behind
Ensuring we do not repeat our same mistakes
Our programming makes this difficult
That’s why we fight together
Every fight has one winner and one loser!
Whoa! My head might just explode
The pleasure of the top of my head flying off
The feeling of not knowing the right answer
Is that what they / I should be trying for?
I suppose not

Suggested further readings

Toni Cade Bambara, The Black Woman: An Anthology
Toni Cade Bambara, Tales and Stories for Black Folks
Toni Cade Bambara, Realizing the Dream of a Black University 
Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed
Alexis Pauline Gumbs, “Nobody Mean More: Black Feminist Pedagogy and Solidarity” in The Imperial University: Academic Repression and Scholarly Dissent
bell hooks, Teaching to Transgress
June Jordan, Life Studies 
June Jordan, Poetry for the People: A Revolutionary Blueprint 
June Jordan and Terri Bush, The Voice of the Children
June Jordan, Soulscript
bell hooks, Teaching to Transgress
Audre Lorde, I Teach Myself in Outline 
Audre Lorde, “Poet as Teacher-Teacher as Poet-Poet as Human” in I Am You Sister: Collected and Unpublished Writings of Audre Lorde
Adrienne Rich, “Teaching Language in Open Admissions” in On Lies, Secrets, and Silence
Adrienne Rich, What We Are Part of: Teaching at CUNY
Danica Savonick, “Insurgent Knowledge: The Poetics and Pedagogy of Toni Cade Bambara, June Jordan, Audre Lorde, and Adrienne Rich in the Era of Open Admissions”
Jesse Stommel et al., “Digital Pedagogy lab 2018 Collaborative Digital Poem”

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