Using this to fuel my desire to approach this course with an open heart and fresh eyes, during the semester, I made the decision to utilize memoirs as the core implemented texts told only through BIPOC voices with the emphasize on trauma and immigration., I prefaced my students starting off the semester reviewing assignments where they are asked to unpack their own upbringing and begin to look at their life through a reflective lens that would continue to be amplified throughout the semester.
Using this as a baseline and tying directly into their coursework, my students were posed the following questions, each related to a specific YA text:
- Module 1: In the classroom, how can we cultivate spaces where students can perform excavations (in any format) on themselves as it relates to justice, bias, and stereotypes they hold about others, and ideas on various forms of self-love?
- Module 2: How can we, as educators, inspire thinking around historic traditions and values, their integration into American culture throughout history, and the optimism of diverse people as we continue to pave our path forward?
- Module 3: How can we make and hold this space for ourselves or others to get to a place where healing can begin, where we can nurture experiences and relationships that can shift our perspective forever?
- Module 4: Good allyship starts with listening. Build A Greater Sense Of Community, But Not Only When It’s Convenient. Stand In True Solidarity. What are some ways we can amplify this by sharing our respective narratives?
- Module 5: In what ways can we liberate our students through the implementation of diverse texts, poetry, and interactive experiences?
With these essential questions and selected texts from only BIPOC authors, I wanted my students to not only take a look within themselves, but also outside of themselves, amplifying the work of Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop. Out of all my students, Sofia Rosario was one of the most innovative and vulnerable with her replies and connection to her personal life, especially through utilizing the art of poetry as her way of storytelling.
Studying the work of Malaysian- Taiwanese American Poet and close friend of mine, Kyle Liang, and his debut chapbook How to Build a House, told through poems penned as intimate journal entries to his younger adolescent self, I encouraged my students to write a response to his poem House in the Sky, using both his initial response and mine as a guide.
Father do not worry
for I will burn a house
for you to have in the sky
before you pass
In it will be the
finest chairs and the
firmest beds where you can
rest your head
Father do not worry
for I will care for mom
She will never leave my sight
but when she must
I will place her ashes
next to yours
so she can meet you
in the house that I have burned
Father do not worry
I will burn as much money
as you need for no father of mine
will live like he is dead
because I will not forget
that you still live
in the house I burned
for you in the sky
In old Chinese tradition, families would burn houses filled with furniture because it was believed that it would then be waiting for them in the afterlife. Kyle wrote this poem and dedicated it to his father, his unconditional love for him, wanting him to have the best in his after life. For today’s poem, think of a person or object as the direct address and include what they or it needs most, which is what the speaker of the poem will burn for them. Another approach is for the speaker to be the person or object writing to you as the subject. What do you need? What is waiting for you?
Mother do not worry
I’ll burn you a house in the sky
One where you finally learn to love yourself
So you can love me the way that I’ve needed since the day his infidelity stole your soul
Each brick laid with intent,
I’ll make sure this time, he can’t come in.
I’ll make it one fit for a queen,
one where you’ll finally learn
how to spread your wings
One where our demons
won’t determine and deteriorate our bond
But instead we walk hand in hand,
just like we used to
No more false gods and failed prayers
No more wondering, if he’s really there.
One where I’ll return to being your little man
And not the man.
Only he knows how many tears I’ve cried
This house in the sky will set you free
Even if it takes every little piece that’s left of me.
Sofia, do not worry --
I will burn down the house
for you to have in the sky.
It’s a place for you to rest —
finally — rest.
In it will be
the tokens of your legacy:
photos of all the people
you’ve loved the most.
It’s a place for you to celebrate --
you deserve it — celebrate.
Sofia, do not worry --
we will survive down here without you.
You’ve paved the way, you’ve done enough,
it’s time for you to dream --
to expand — to explore --
Go — I know there’s more
out there — waiting for you --
the house I have burned.
As an avid reader and poetry lover myself, I have always dreamed of teaching poetry and using it in some way in my classes, especially with narratives and narrative writing. Using this particular poem was a last minute addition to the syllabus, one that in hindsight, I am grateful that I implemented. With the “House in the Sky” Prompt, I got a chance to see them at their most vulnerable and authentic, letting down their walls and letting me into their personal lives, their hearts, and welcoming me into their own sacred brave spaces. After concluding the poetry workshop with my students, and being blown away by their responses, specifically Sofia’s, I took the opportunity to reflect on my teaching as a poet, researcher, and practitioner.
With my teaching and creation of this course, I have discovered a deeper appreciation and advocacy for the use of various introspective, narrative writing techniques in combination with diverse YA literature, specifically written by people of color that share their personal narratives. Through the work done during Spring semester, I began to ponder the question: How might teachers elevate and amplify the voices in the YA literature they are teaching? How might they inspire students to respond to those voices? How might they empower students to use their own voices?
YA literature can often find itself in a unique position that allows it to connect with young students more efficiently than other genres. While classic or contemporary literature can be deep and introspective, some students might find themselves struggling to connect to it or understand certain aspects since it was written for another time and another audience. Meanwhile, YA literature is explicitly written for the youth of this particular era in human history and that specific age group, often representing many of the issues such students face in their daily lives. Teachers can take advantage of this and choose YA texts they believe their students will connect with; promoting these books as something relatable and uniquely designed to help students and see themselves in.
Demonstrating to young students how these successful books were written by people who were just like them can also inspire them to create their own writings, sharing their experiences so that in the future, other individuals can in turn be benefited by these new works. Helping students identify the challenges and trauma they face by presenting it in YA literature can also be an effective way to get them talking and working through it. Although many educators are not specially trained to deal with trauma, some studies have shown that simply being there for students, listening and offering empathy towards their experiences, can go a long way in helping them feel more comfortable . Overall, YA literature’s focus on young individuals and their experiences can help towards making students feel heard and empowering them to write about their own specific experiences and dreams.
This dialogue is absolutely necessary in the classroom but we recognize the emotional impacts it may have on educators who must re-examine their own trauma and the cultural spaces they navigate. By rooting ourselves in literature, we provide an entry point for educators to explore issues relevant to them without having to discuss the specific details of their experience. In this case, YA’s positive impact extends past the students and to the educator, creating a community in which both identities are honored. It’s this mutual respect that allows educators to practice vulnerability and share their lived experiences to not only heal themselves but allow other students with the same background to come out of the shadows. This restorative excavation is therefore shared between teacher and student.
Through the use of YA text (poetry chapbooks, memoirs, etc.) written by diverse authors such as Ocean Vuong, Michelle Zauner, Javier Zamora, and specifically poet of color, Kyle Liang, used in my course, I stand firmly behind the notion that through excavation we can reach emancipation and ultimately, discover empowerment lies within ourselves. An educator can be both a teacher and a writer in their classroom. The connecting puzzle piece is vulnerability. A true teacher, especially one teaching English/Language Arts, has to be ready and willing to open themselves up, not only to face issues about themselves and their writing but allowing their students to be witnesses to the process as well.
As I have grown as a teacher and a mentor, I have come to realize that no matter where you are on your journey with your pedagogy, we all must be reminded that the classroom is a direct reflection of ourselves. Regardless of the age, the children notice these changes and react accordingly to them. We want to create a haven where they are happy and free to be themselves. Even though the journey may be long and rough, our students should always remain at the forefront of all that we do. As educators, we must work to make them feel at ease, for our classroom could be the only place that they can call “home”, allowing their personal narratives to become testimonies that will one day inspire those similar to themselves in any way.