My Classroom Ecology

As I prepare to teach language arts, it is important to give students reasons for learning the discipline and to inspire them to find a passion for writing and the humanities. The classroom ecology which I have planned begins with this question as the first step: Why study Language Arts?

The answer provides them with possibly their first conscious exposure to these concepts:

“‘The truth against the world!’ – Yes. Certainly. Fiction writers, at least in their braver moments, do desire the truth: to know it, speak it, serve it. But they go about it in a peculiar and devious way, which consists in inventing persons, places, and events which never did and never will exist or occur, and telling about these fictions in detail and at length and with a great deal of emotion, and then when they are done writing down this pack of lies, they say, There! That’s the truth!”
–Ursula K. LeGuin

“Foolish boy. Don’t you know anything about Fantasia? It’s the world of human fantasy. Every part, every creature of it, is a piece of the dreams and hopes of mankind. Therefore, it has no boundaries…I am the servant of the power behind the Nothing. It’s the emptiness that’s left. It’s like a despair, destroying this world. And I have been trying to help it…Because people who have no hopes are easy to control. And whoever has control has the power.”
The Neverending Story

“People say that what we’re all seeking is a meaning for life. I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking. I think what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive….so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive. That’s what it’s all finally about.
-Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth

In this class we will study English / Language Arts / Humanities / Writing in a way that answers the following questions:

How is Language also Art?
Words as a form of creative expression.

How can Language Arts shape my view of the world?
Words as a path to wisdom.

What is linguistics and the study of language?
Words as a distinct human characteristic.

What is the power of writing and rhetoric? and How can I become a better writer?
Words as a communication tool.

Why are stories a (REALLY) big deal?
Words as windows to the human experience.

How can I better appreciate the writing of others?
Words coming to life through critical analysis.

“The world is a comedy to those that think; a tragedy to those that feel.”
-Horatio Walpole

Of course, these specific quotes and visuals are somewhat arbitrary as there is no shortage of deeply moving art that can be used to inspire students. More important are the six “how and why” questions I seek to answer with my class, from “How is Language also Art?” to “How can I better appreciate the writing of others?” I see these as six foundational reasons for studying Humanities in general and specifically Language Arts and English, and without communicating them as the core vision of our class, I see no reason to attempt to teach the students anything at all.

After we have begun to digest the class vision, I will introduce an opportunity for the students to help create classroom norms and defining characteristics of our class culture. I will ask the students on the first day about their idea of what respectful classroom behavior looks like, both towards their peers and to their teacher. I’ll write down their responses on the board or a poster board. I’ll give them time to talk with their neighbors in small groups to discuss their ideas, then ask them to share what their groups came up with and for any other thoughts about how they should behave and how to respectfully communicate with classmates during discussions and work time.

Several of the Guiding Principles of the Woodring College of Education resonate with me as foundational to my own educational practice and to my philosophy of education. In the We Believe section, it states that “all beings are interdependent.” Knowing this truth is something I find to be essential for a free, creative life that education is intended to foster and produce – if there is anything I want my students to learn about community, it is this. I also wish to promote social justice in our society by teaching students to perform “critical self-reflection” on “the beliefs and positions we hold, our world view, and where those perspectives come from.” By creating classroom norms and also through the study of literature from a wide array of cultures and home languages, I hope to broaden students’ perspectives by exposing them to new ways of reading, writing and thinking.

A quality education is also an education that not only avoids oppression, but actively seeks to remove it from its greater sphere of influence. In his article “Toward a Theory of Anti-Oppressive Education,” Kevin Kumashiro outlines several different strategies for minimizing or eliminating the “forms of oppression [which] play out in schools,” (Kumashiro 25) and presents their strengths and weaknesses. I agree with Kumashiro that none of the methods he writes about provides one, completely perfect picture of anti-oppressive education and that educators should “look to the margins to find students who are being missed and needs that have yet to be articulated,” (Kumashiro 31). One starting point which I find provocative, however, is the idea of integrating “Otherness” into curriculum. It seems to me that Language Arts has nearly endless possibilities with this, as the study of literature is itself the study of the unique minds of individual writers. Nearly anything can be an informative mentor text for teaching students both how to critique and analyze writing, and gain knowledge from a writer’s unique perspective. Integrating the writings of groups which are commonly marginalized is, in my view, a good point from which to begin. From there, students can carry the torch with their writing and by expressing their own unique views. With a safe classroom culture where all viewpoints are accepted and acknowledged without judgment, I expect my students to use their writing as a way to express their own unique individual voices. By resisting the urge to oppress or marginalize with greater cultural stereotypes and misguided personal judgments, students may be able to develop an anti-oppressive mindset which will shape their paradigms and inform their greater decisions in life.

Works Cited:

Anderson, Rodino F. “W.E.B. Dubois and an Education for Democracy and Creativity.” Foundational Perspectives on the Aims of Education. Teacher’s College, 2007, pp. 46-61.

Dewey, John. My Pedagogic Creed. School Journal vol. 54 (January 1897), pp. 77-80.

Hansen, David T. “Paulo Freire’s Politics and Pedagogy.” Foundational Perspectives on the Aims of Education. Teacher’s College, 2007, pp. 21-35.

Kumashiro, Kevin K. “Toward a Theory of Anti-Oppressive Education.” Review of Educational Research. Vol. 70, No. 1 (Spring, 2000), pp. 25-53.

Max-Neef, M. 1991. Human Scale Development. New York: The Apex Press.


Maybe It Will Rain Today

The sky lit up in a flash. “One one-thousand, two one-thousand, three – ”
BOOM, crack! “Whoa! That was a close one!”Every second you count after the lightning strikes indicates some unit of measurement for how far away it is.

Tonight the smell of wet caliche had been hinting at a storm for hours. As I drove through the west Texas desert I tried to remember exactly what distance each second is supposed to represent. One mile? Ten miles? I looked in my mirrors again to check the tarp covering my truck bed filled with everything I own.

We counted slowly, with precision, eager to see a record broken. We were packed like sardines between the sheets, tucked tightly under the roof of the mighty Mighty Mo – me, my little sister, and my dad – all intoxicated by the same caliche scent characteristic of the longed-for Arizona rainstorm. Lightning moved like a wiggling tree branch at the speed of a wink from ground to sky. The danger of its closeness captivated all of us.

I drove on and on, regretting not getting new wiper blades before leaving. Remembering the smell.

Caliche has its own completely unique smell. There’s nothing you can compare it to. The closest I could come to trying would be to say that you could sprinkle a little sugar over everything right before the rain….then imagine the faint, sweet taste of the sugar in your mind and pretend that it’s actually a smell, mixing with the familiar rain scent, making it sweeter. Just a little sugar on your corn flake cereal… a faint afterthought of a hint of sugar in your tea.

Rain in the desert is a wonder of creation. The usual grey-brown green of the desert plants turns almost turquoise under the dark sky. The clouds brood ominously and announce their presence unexpectedly – there is no in between or partly-cloudy, maybe-it-will-rain-today state of precipitation in the desert. During the 2 yrs my family lived in Phoenix I think it rained more than the rest of my time there, from when I was 13 after my dad died, till I left after high school. The sky poured down on us for a brief time. I drank it desperately after that, like a true desert dweller.

Or maybe I’m just letting my imagination exaggerate the distance with the remembrance of the storm.

Two Terrible Pains

I remember when I was in sixth grade and I volunteered to help run my elementary school’s snack bar. I got to leave class an hour early to help organize our abundant overstock of every conceivable good loaded with plenty of fats and simple sugars and wrapped in that timeless metallic plastic, colorful brand name package – Snickers, Baby Ruth, Butterfingers, Sour Patch Straws…an oasis that would rack up parents’ dental premiums as fast as the dollar bills and quarters flowed from our hands in exchange.   We were open just once a week, at the end of the day on Fridays.


It was during this time that I felt one of the two most terrible pains of my life.


A fat boy came to the snack bar one day. He must not have been a repeat customer because I can’t recall having this experience and feeling this feeling more than once. There was nothing in the experience that the outside observer would have been able to identify as unique or even interesting. It was just a fat boy buying candy, just like everybody else.


He had brown hair, colorful eyes with long, black eyelashes, which were covered with round, mid-to-late nineties eyeglasses. He looked about my age or a year or two younger, maybe a fifth grader or even a fourth grader. He was bigger than most kids. Not taller, just fatter.


I said to myself in my head, “It figures that he wants to buy some candy.”


I don’t even remember if the boy was buying much or any more candy than every other kid that was greedily swarming the snack bar, reaching for their chocolate sugar rush with desperate little hands. The instant the thought hit my brain was the same instant I felt the pain. I wanted to take it back, like a silent insult I had lodged at him with my mind. 


It didn’t matter that I hadn’t said a word to the kid outside of what was necessary for the transaction. Though it was just a thought, I saw something in this boy’s eyes. Something that was probably already there, that may have always been there from the time he became a conscious being, or at least a self-conscious being. 


He knew he was fat. He knew he looked fat. He knew that buying candy made him look even fatter. And for a moment as our eyes briefly locked, my brain became a short-wave radio and he heard my words of judgment with satellite clarity. And there was no possible way of taking them back – no back button, no cancellations, no scaling back up the cliff.


I don’t feel that pain as often as I should. Not as often as the different, more subtle kind of discomfort and pain comes to me – the kind I feel when I eat candy and I think, “Does everybody here think I’m fat?”