The first level English course offered at Southeast Community College is Beginning Reading and Writing (ENGL960). The students come from different backgrounds. While everyone is different, they often have one thing in common and that’s a struggle with reading. There are no guarantees students will exit the course as lovers of reading, but I believe using texts students connect with increases the chance they may like reading more when the course wraps than when they started. Finding something students can relate to is part of what Richards et al. calls creating a “culturally responsive classroom” (2007) where students are seen for their similarities and differences. Upon review, I see how one of my text selections fosters such an environment while another compromises it and needs adjustment.
Starting in the fall of 2021, I’ve used Zachary R. Wood’s memoir, Uncensored, as the course’s primary text. It is about his life growing up poor and black and living with an abusive, schizophrenic mother while attending wealthy, mostly white private schools. As he shares his experiences, he emphasizes the power of reading and education, explains the educational inequities that exist from centuries of systemic racism, and shares the hope that can be found when one is brave enough to converse with opposing views.
I chose the text so my students of color might feel seen, my white students exposed to diversity, and all be encouraged to dialogue with different perspectives. Like Valerie Ooka Pang (1994), I understand the power literature provides when it comes to teaching multicultural perspectives. The exposure I had to diverse literature in college expanded my worldview, and I want the same for my students. Also, I thought Wood’s story of healing and hope in spite of trauma might validate students who are in similar situations. Storytelling is empowering in that it combats stereotypes and facilitates healing for the marginalized (Ladson-Billings, 1995), which is also something I want to provide my students.
Uncensored does something else that is vital for a culturally responsive classroom. It combats the Culture of Poverty myth. Wood describes his life growing up with little money and poor living conditions. He states, “The thing that most people who have never lived in poverty don’t understand is how expensive it is to be poor” (Wood, 2018). Wood teaches his reader about the misperceptions of poverty. He writes about his father who worked multiple jobs to pay for his education. By sharing this, Wood echoes what Paul Gorski (2018) says educators need to do to “be the best teachers they can be for all students;” they must combat the assumptions that people who live in poverty don’t work hard and don’t value education (Gorski, 2018). Another poverty myth is that “poor people are linguistically deficient” (Gorski, 2008), and Wood confronts that stereotype when he writes about “code-switching” which is knowing how to act and communicate in primarily white, wealthy spaces as well as how to act in primarily black, poor spaces (Wood, 2018). By using this book, I affirm poor students’ abilities and life journeys (Gorski, 2008). My students have written essays about how they relate to Wood’s experience growing up in an unsafe, poor environment and thriving in spite of it. My students aren’t lazy, and they aren’t ignorant. Their stories are a testament to that, and Wood’s story opens the door for theirs to be told.
While I use Uncensored for the bulk of our reading practice, we spend time with sample essays when tasked with major writing assignments. Over the years, I have built a decent library of student samples for every class I teach. Sometimes, I compose the essay to get a sense of what students may encounter during their writing process and then add those to each course’s collection. Unfortunately, when I inventory the samples for ENGL960, I see there are no student samples, only mine. There are two reasons for this. First, some of my essay assignments have changed, so student essays from previous semesters don’t always fulfill current guidelines. Second, even if I do have essays that fulfill guidelines, they’re not polished in what one might consider the traditional academic sense.
I’ve noticed this before and while me writing a sample essay is helpful, having only that sample and not one from a student is a bit egotistical of me. I see now it reveals a deficit perspective. I saw my student essays as falling short of the standard instead of them as examples of growth. As Gorski says, my motive is good, but I’ve succumb to what educators struggle with–“the temptation of the quick fix, the easily digestible framework that never requires us to consider how we comply with the culture of classism” (Gorski, 2008). Yes, my sample essay is helpful, but by being the only example, I set my educated, US-born whiteness as the standard. It says, “A teacher can do this, but evidently a student can’t.” Such negative self-talk is what Ladson-Billings (1995) explains creates “demoralization of marginalized groups,” so while my intentions are good and my modeling and subsequent sample helpful to a degree, that’s not enough. Students need to read their peers’ work, so they hear self-talk like, “Students before me did this, so I can, too.”
Student essays can be used as models regardless of specific guidelines or level of polish. Elements like description, structure, tone, voice, ideas, and style cross between many types of writing assignments. Many of my former students crafted work that would provide great examples of some, if not all, of those elements. There’s the doctor from China, the daughter from Sudan, the mother from Afghanistan, the refugee from Iraq, the serviceman from Nebraska, the nephew from Mexico, the daughter from Syria, and the soccer player from Iran, to name a few. Those students wrote their way along the same ENGL960 path my current students find themselves traversing, so why wouldn’t I have my students read their words? All I need to do is pause, resist the “temptation of the quick fix” (Gorski, 2008), ask if I can share their work, and then do just that. Share their work. (I’m pleased to report I asked four students since writing this, and they all enthusiastically agreed. They are people of color, three of them born outside the United States.)
In conclusion, by using Uncensored, students are not only improving their reading skills, they are affirmed, informed, and empowered. This experience is multiplied when students read their peers’ work, and this reflection reminds me of that. I need to pause, check my lens, consider all texts being used in my ENGL960 course, reflect on how they contribute to a culturally responsive classroom, and adjust as needed. That way, I’m not a teacher with a deficit mindset but rather a teacher with a teachable mindset.
Gorski, P. (2008). The Myth of the “Culture of Poverty.” Poverty and Learning, 65(7), 32–36.
Ladson-Billings, G. (1995). Toward a critical race theory of education. Teachers College Record, 97(1), 47–68.
Pang, V. O. (1994). Why Do We Need This Class? Multicultural Education for Teachers. The Phi Delta Kappan, 76(4), 289–292. http://www.jstor.org/stable/20405317
Richards, H. V., Brown, A. F., & Forde, T. B. (2007). Addressing diversity in schools: Culturally responsive pedagogy. TEACHING Exceptional Children, 39(3), 64–68. https://doi.org/10.1177/004005990703900310
Wood, Z. R. (2018). Uncensored: My life and uncomfortable conversations at the intersection of black and white America. Dutton.
Cheney Luttich teaches Developmental English at Southeast Community College. In her free time, you can find her spending time with her family or studying anything related to nineteenth century clothing.