Creating a space for critical talk, writing, and action in the elementary classroom.

Author:Baker, Stephanie
Position::Viewpoint essay
 
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I am a White woman from a working class family who grew up on a chicken farm in North Georgia. Dorothy Allison (1988) described feeling that her life was deemed contemptible by others and, like her, I felt the same. I wanted to be somebody else when I grew up. My entire life, I distanced myself from performing as redneck, white trash, trailer trash, or poor. These performances kept people out of the group that lived in nice houses, valued education, and went to college. So, in my mind, I thought if I act like those people who went to college and live in nice houses, then I will get what they have too. However, if I acted like the people around me then I would be in the same place as my parents and their parents, and above all else I was determined for that not to happen to me.

Just recently, with my enrollment in graduate school, I began to explore why I thought these things about myself, my family, and even other people like my own family. I was 28 when I told university colleagues that I grew up in a trailer. In the back of my mind I wondered, "Will they think less of me?" Over time, I came to see what I felt, and sometimes still feel, as dangerous: dangerous to think that the poor and working class have done something wrong and need to be corrected. A feminist scholar, Valerie Walkerdine (1991), described how she learned to question discourses, like these, through her academic studies; she still could not find a space to talk about growing up "a working class girl who became a teacher and then an academic" (157). Like these women and many others, I want a space to talk about growing up as a girl who was subdued by dangerous discourses because I did not know they even existed, into a teacher who created a classroom where these discourses could be critiqued by my students and me.

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"The next sections are snapshots of my classroom practices that tell of a classroom where a newly feminist teacher embraced critical pedagogy to open a space where students could question power and disrupt some of the normative discourses shaping them. In this article, discourse means more than spoken or written language; it is a term to describe how reading, writing, speech, action, and even silence construct people's beliefs and actions (Bove 1990). Additionally, I reveal my background and classroom practices not to create the notion that other teachers must be like me or do exactly as I do to engage students in critical pedagogy, but to show how discourses shaped me, and how I was able to question them. This notion of critically reflecting on who we are and how we came to be that way I hope will spark ideas for other teachers to use in the classroom to open spaces where their students can also engage in critical talk and action.

Teacher Researcher

In Trash, a collection of short stories, Dorothy Allison (2002) wrote, "If people are going to kick you, don't just lie there. Shout back at them" (41). When I was in elementary, middle, and high school, I never "shouted back." Teachers went so far as to complain that I was too quiet. I did everything they asked and did well in school. In kindergarten, I already knew how to act so that I would not be called trailer trash or put in the slow group. I knew what made teachers and kids make these judgments on people like my family and, as a girl and for a long time afterwards, all of my actions showed that I agreed with them. I tried not to sound country or be too loud when I spoke, so maybe that is why I was so quiet. Country and loud meant bad to me, and above all else I wanted to be a good girl. So I followed every rule. Usually, as a teacher, I would attribute these excellent school behaviors to the wonderful upbringing provided by parents, but when my Mama was growing up, she "shouted back" all the time, so why didn't l? I didn't "shout back" because I blamed my mother for her lack of success, and somehow I thought that "shouting back" had screwed up her life. I did not understand that she and I lived in a world divided through discourses. She attempted to question this divide, which upset those who were on the other side of it, but I never questioned oppressive beliefs. However, now I look back on a classroom where my students, who also came from marginalized positions, shouted against their oppression, and I wonder what made them shout back at such an early age?

Our Classroom and Our Community

During the 2009-2010 school year, I taught fifth grade in a public, Title I, elementary school in a small city in North Georgia, sixteen miles east of the trailer I grew up in. But my classroom looked different from the fifth grade classroom I attended. That year I had twenty-five students, nine girls and sixteen boys. Of the nine girls, four were Mexican American, one was Puerto Rican American, one was African American, two defined themselves as biracial (one parent was white and one parent was black), and one girl was Vietnamese American. Of the sixteen boys, ten were Mexican American, one was E1 Salvadoran American, one was White American, two were African American, two were biracial (one boy had a parent who was African-American and the other White American, while the other boy had two Lesbian, African-American mothers and a Mexican American father.) Their languages were diverse and complex, consisting of Mexican Spanish, Puerto Rican...

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