Pedagogy on Fire!
Is Your Classroom Defeated, Defined, or Developed in This Era?
In the year 2053, on the other side of this national struggle, how will students remember the state of your classroom? Defined, defeated, or developed by the heat of this political moment?
In my work as a teacher educator there is one in-class writing prompt that I make sure to assign every semester. I call it, “Hello, from the Other Side,” mainly because it is based directly on Adele’s 2015 hit, Hello. For this assignment, I share with my classroom full of teachers that while on the surface Adele’s lyrics seem to be about love and heartbreak, she has shared that the song is about a variety of things and can be interpreted in many ways. I share that I was most impacted by her explanation that the song is “about a yearning for the other side of me.” With this lens, we listen to the song together and silently imagine one major struggle that we are each facing. Then we imagine what it would mean for the ‘self’ on the other side of our struggle to speak directly to our respective present realities. This is a prompt I view as extremely important for preparing teachers for the classroom. We take 10 minutes to write this letter — a letter to yourself from the other side of your struggle. In our unpacking, we make powerful connections to the classroom. At the core of the lesson is the importance of destigmatizing and normalizing struggle in the classroom while visualizing success. The lesson is to shape the social dimension of your classroom to be a critical, safe, and brave space where struggle is understood as an essential part of success and faced head on.
This exact lesson was on my heart in the days, weeks, and months following the 2016 election, so when I opened my email on an early January 2017 morning I was pleased to see a message from the folks over at TED inviting me to write and record a poem at their headquarters. The election results for the 45th president of the United States produced a muggy social climate. It felt sticky. Cloudy. Uncertain. Who could have forecasted this? The people who reached out to me from TED certainly did not. The tone of the email was, ‘we need…something…some word…some words…some hope…something to offer the nation in this deeply divisive moment.’ I gladly accepted the invitation. The resulting TED talk, “2053,” imagines how we will look back on this historical moment in the year 2053. In the face of such deep national struggle, I needed to find hope…from our selves on the other side of this history. I would hate to constrain how this poem and these concepts might be taken up in your classroom. My hope is that it can serve as an entry-point for any and every classroom with regard to the nuanced experiences of every teacher and student within this political moment. The final line of “2053” is:
“healing is not the absence of pain. It is the decision to act in the service of your development, rather than your defeat.”
My proposal is that the piece serves as a point of critical collective reflection between teachers and students about the state of their classroom. The process of engaging with such divisive issues is indeed painful, but will you act in the service of development or defeat on the classroom level as we all face this national struggle? How is this era shaping the politics of your pedagogy and a pedagogy of politics between you and your students? What would a State of Our Classroom Address delivered by your students reveal?
I am calling for you to set your pedagogy on fire! To lean into the heat of this moment and allow it forge another, more substantive level of engagement that is not afraid to acknowledge the sociopolitical elephants in your classroom. What does leaning into the fire look like as it plays out across the realms of personhood, politics, and pedagogy in your classroom? Glad you asked! I’ve conceptualized 3 possibilities:
1.The fire can Define you: When our struggles define us, we are governed by them. We look like our problems. We allow them to dictate our decisions and realities in problematic and maladaptive ways. If your classroom is defined by the fire of this political moment, it is singed with rampant (sometimes subtle) bigotry that is going unchecked. There are walls between the identities of your students and the goals of your units. If your classroom is defined by the heat of this moment, then the toxic social climate of America is sustained there.
2. The fire can Defeat you: When our struggles defeat us, they immobilize us. We are aware of the magnitude of the task or the moment, and the magnitude freezes us rather than forging us. If your classroom is being defeated by the fire of this political moment, then it has overpowered you and you are pretending that the political dynamics of this nation do not directly bear on your classroom space. You are immobilized into inaction by the fear of conflict within your classroom and/or institution. You are doing nothing.
3. The fire can Develop you: When our struggles develop us, we visualize success and face them despite the inevitability of process pain. If your classroom is being developed by the fire of our political moment, it is sharpening your pedagogy. Much like the purification process of metals, which shine brighter in the fire as impurities melt away, the heat of this moment is refining your classroom. Your students have had time and space to process and wrestle with issues that directly threaten the personhood of marginalized communities, in your classroom. If you have chosen to be developed by this moment, your pedagogy is infused with constant reflection and refinement to better uphold the aims of true equity for your students.
Jamila Lyiscott is currently a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Institute for Urban and Minority Education (IUME) of Teachers College, Columbia University, and a professor at Long Island University where her work focuses on the intersections of race, education, and social justice. The recently awarded Cultivating New Voices among Scholars of Color fellow also serves as a public speaker, community leader, and educational consultant locally and internationally. Her scholarship and activism work together to prepare educators to sustain diversity in the classroom, empower youth, and explore, assert, and defend the value of Black life. Jamila’s recently featured TED Talk, “3 Ways to Speak English,” was viewed over 3.5 million times. She has also been featured on NPR, Huffington Post, Upworthy, The Root, Radio New Zealand, Lexus Versus and Flow, and many other media outlets and her scholarly work has been published in several peer-reviewed journals. As a testament to her commitment to educational justice for students of color, Jamila is the founder and co-director of the Cyphers For Justice (CFJ) youth, research, and advocacy program, apprenticing inner-city youth and pre-service teachers as critical researchers through hip-hop, spoken word, and digital literacy.