Sometimes we leap, and the landing is beautiful. At other times, there are bumps along the way. This semester, I have experienced a bit of both. Teaching provides the creative and communal space that has always inspired me as a learner. Language, in all of its aspects, has been an integral part of my identity. As a student of sociolinguistics and English literature, I learned that our relationships with language are situated in particular temporal, spatial, and cultural contexts. Our language–or rather languaging practices–belong to us. Yet, when schools and high stakes assessments privilege some languaging practices over others, minoritized and stigmatized student voices are silenced. As a teacher in a linguistically and culturally diverse classroom, I am charged with creating a climate in which all students are heard, respected, and supported.
This semester, I am teaching Composition I for the first time, and I am testing out a new curriculum. Our class theme is “Apples, Peaches, and Mangoes: Critical Perspectives on African-Descended Identity in New York City.” We will examine texts that describe and interrogate the cultural and political expressions of African-descended communities in the city, with a focus on historicizing the relationships between Black/African-Americans and Caribbean Americans. To that end, we will explore the following essential questions: What have been the historical images of Blacks in the U.S., and where did they come from? What are the similarities and differences in the experiences of Black /African American youth and Caribbean American youth? In what ways do the texts serve as “windows,” “mirrors,” or “single stories” to our own experiences? While the texts and assignments will be new, my goal and activities for the first day of class have remained the same: Have fun with language, and celebrate identity.
When students can demonstrate their learning in multiple ways, it can lead to a more supportive and engaging learning environment.
The first day of class sets the tone for the semester, and I facilitate learning activities that explore all four modalities of language: speaking, listening, reading, and writing. Reading and writing are the top currencies in academia, and many composition courses are designed to have students pore through exorbitant amounts of text and churn out five to ten pages of writing in biweekly intervals. It can be overwhelming for both students and teachers. And what about students who struggle with reading comprehension or with organizing their thoughts? How do we support the range of learning styles and strengths in our classrooms? One place to start would be to use multimodal teaching strategies. We all process information differently. Design learning activities that allow for speaking and listening to content in conjunction with reading and writing about it. When students can demonstrate their learning in multiple ways, it can lead to a more supportive and engaging learning environment. In addition, written assessments can be less daunting once students have been allowed to think, sketch, note, and discuss their ideas beforehand. Below, I describe my first day of class activities that draw on multimodal and culturally sustaining pedagogy.
1.Write an Acrostic Poem. After briefly introducing myself, I explained that the first thing that we will do is to write poems about ourselves. I asked if anyone knew what an acrostic poem was. A student responded, and I explained that the words acrostic and acronym share the same root and have similar meanings. I shared that I am a writer and self-publisher and have written an acrostic poem about myself that we were going to analyze:
Kites soaring through
Air, the sticky-sweet taste of
Energy of my soul
Desiring freedom and
Respect in this land we call
I wrote my poem on the board and read it aloud. I then asked what they learned about me from reading it. I am always pleasantly surprised by their responses. Among other things, they noted that culture, freedom, and spirituality were important to me, and they could identify specific words that guided their inferences. After discussing this model, I gave them 8 minutes to start a draft of their poems and 6 minutes to share them in triads. Afterwards, I asked if anyone wanted to share with the whole class. We had four volunteers, and the depth of vulnerability and personal disclosure was awe-inspiring. And the poetry that emerged was stunning! It reaffirmed to me that our students are willing to take risks and demonstrate their skills if we provide safe, creative environments for them to do so. I will provide time during another class session for us to revisit the poems and work on them more. It is my hope that they will share them during oral presentations later in the semester and include final versions in their portfolios. After the whole class share, we used 6 minutes to write about how this activity related to language and literacy.
2. Drawing Reproduction. For this activity, I created a pattern of geometric shapes on a sheet of white paper. I asked for a volunteer. I then showed the volunteer the sheet of paper and had her sit in a desk in the front of the class facing her peers. I passed out a sheet of white paper to each student. Using only oral instructions, the volunteer needed to describe the images on her paper so that everyone else could reproduce them on their pages. She told them to draw circles at the bottom of the paper, on the side, and to draw triangles at the top, and to place a dot in the middle. Students were allowed to ask questions, but she could not show them the drawing at any time. When she finished giving instructions, I asked everyone to hold up their drawings. We all laughed. No one had reproduced what she had on her paper. Without commenting, I asked students to again write for 6 minutes about how this activity connected with language and literacy.
3. Video. The final activity that we did for the first class was to view the poem “3 Ways to Speak English” by Dr. Jamila Lysicott. In the poem, Dr. Lysicott explores the topics of translanguaging, voice, diction, culture, and the meaning of being articulate. After viewing the video, students completed a final 6 minute written reflection about how the video related to language and literacy.
We wrapped up with a whole class discussion on what it was like to engage in these activities. I explained that we would be examining many issues related to identity and language throughout the semester, and it would be important for them to bring their entire selves to each class. I told them that I value all aspects of their identity. Making connections is an important strategy for comprehending what we read, and in order to make those connections, we need to be fully present and reflective.
We expect to be respected, included, and valued.
In the last 20 minutes of class, we reviewed the syllabus and the course website that I had created on CUNY Commons. In addition, I asked students to complete index cards that included their name, preferred name, gender pronouns, languages spoken, cell phone, and anything else that they wanted me to know about them. In previous courses, when I had more time, I included additional activities like a game of Hangman and a Carousel, but the three activities described serve as the foundation for my first day activities. Making this commitment to inclusive, student-centered pedagogy from the first day sets the tone for the remainder of the semester. We expect to be respected, included, and valued. It serves as a promise to my students that I am committed to their learning, and I strive to fulfill this commitment in each class session. Some days, it seems that I miss the mark. Other days are more successful. And that’s okay. My commitment is not to being a perfect teacher. My commitment is to caring, trying, reflecting, and trying again the next day. To the extent that my sincerity and effort are apparent, I think that we’ll have a good semester.