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Lisa Levine is an MFA candidate in fiction at the University of Arizona, and writer-in-residence at Sam Hughes Elementary School.
In a Difference and Equality brown bag this fall, two writers brought up the issue of silence. One of the writers described an entire undergraduate class in which the students analyzed a novel (whose title I have forgotten, I'm sorry to admit) known for being, among other things, about the themes of race and identity. The students, she said, got through a full hour of discussion in which no one ever mentioned the subject. In an era where the classroom is a relatively safe place to study the murky waters of race and identity, why aren't students willing to drink?
My belief is that our core values of equality and equity have become an undiscussed assumption, rather than a articulated aspect of life. As a result, kids are growing up into a society where commercial institutions - media, in particular - expresses ethnic identity more clearly than do individuals. In the rush to master equality, Americans have lost touch with the language of lineage, heritage and ethnicity. Gianni Rodari's writing exercises can work on a foundational level to combat, in early childhood, our uncertainty about how to address inequality or simple difference. Rodari flips the script on storytelling with precise, almost mathematical prompts that lead kids through rewriting, re-envisioning, retelling the assumptive, intellectual stories and even language they employ.
Rodari's fairy tale prompts are an overt opportunity to teach kids how to slice their world into an honest statement of individualism, based a tradition as treasured as ones' own, private lineage. Rodari isn't dismissing tradition; instead, he dismantles the fairy tale and uses its components to offer a rewriting opportunity. His prompt "The Cards of Propp" is, to me, a tool with vast potential; how teaching artists and students use it will depend on the individual. I see the breakdown of steps and reformation of the fairy tale as a revolution, or the seeds of a revolution: teach kids the accepted norms of their society are constructed by people not unlike them, just from other eras, and you teach them to be able to construct their own norms. This is not to say that every micro-society is in need of revolution, or that every kid will think for him or herself after writing from a "Cards of Propp" style prompt. However, inculcating the possibility that students can learn the rules of their world with the intent of making and living by rules of their own is, I think, inherent in this and many of Rodari's classroom exercises.
Applying the break-into-component-parts process to a stereotype could be a powerful exercise for 8-12th grade writing students. For example, let's look at the stereotype of the "dumb blonde" from which so many jokes stem. Unlike fairy tales, stereotypes operate on simple reasoning, so the steps would be simple. The stereotype might be broken out into the following steps:
1. The stereotyped individual is identified by a single physical characteristic.
2. The physical characteristic is attached to a perjorative adjective.
3. The perjorative adjective plus physical characteristic are consolidated to connotate a single, unified meaning, operating as one idea.
In a classroom exercise designed to undermine stereotyping based on race, the steps could be used to describe a purple person, a man with three ears, or some other fantastical physical characteristic. The students would then agree upon an adjective to describe the person. Here, teachers might encounter a tricky moment; what if students produce a perjorative or simple adjective? I don't think such a gesture should be censored, rather; I think teachers should follow the thought to arrive at a specific, complex and defendable adjective. Often opening up the thought process behind a negative statement will lead to a deeper understanding. I do not advocate for teachers to tell students they have to produce a positive adjective - I think the nature of the game will lead to interesting results. The final step will be to discuss the meaning connotated by the "angry purple girl" or the "quiet, three-eared guy" - what does describing a person in this simple way connotate about them? Is it effective, ineffective; what does such a description add to the conversation about each other?
An extension of this activity to try with classes that are willing to think further is to write jokes about the made-up stereotypes; one idea is to create a class stereotype and make an agreed-upon joke about the character who ensues. However, not every class will be ready to think about stereotyping on a mature level, so the joke extension would have to be implemented with caution so as not to become the type of thinking it's designed to undermine.
This week, I participated in two classes where fiction with thematic content about Mexico, America and the relationship between the two countries was evident in the stories we read. Perhaps I'm over-critical of my colleagues, but my read of the class discussion was that only a person of Mexican heritage seemed at ease speaking about that part of the work. Representative voice is invaluable, and creative writing programs should be avid about ensuring a multiplicity of voices in the classroom, but I believe it a failure of the intellect for people who aren't of a race, ethnicity or nationality to keep their silence on meaningful thematic content that happens to deal with nationality, race, identity (or other potential hot-button topics). Among intellectuals, it's the silence that's killing our relevance, not the mistakes we make when we do speak. We need to re-learn the language of a conversation about equality that, in our time, has not lost its relevance to education.