Tuesday, April 5, 2011

"Literature," Part II

Okay, now I remember where I was going with that. I was actually talking to my Praxis assessor today about the connotation of words and why that is an important concept for students to understand. Today, for my "exemplar" lesson that determines my if I get my license, I chose to teach about the "connotative power of words." I started the lesson with what could have turned into an awkward or controversial topic, placing three words on the board, and with the goal of eliciting some type of reaction.

The three words, to be placed under either positive, negative, or neutral -- black, African American, and Negro.

The reaction was great. We ended up having a discussion about how students decided to place these words and where those feelings come from. Even if they didn't realize what they were doing, the students responded to harassment they have faced in the past, prejudice or condescending use of one of these terms, and the culture surrounding each word. I had a student say that in A Raisin in the Sun, where the word Negro and the "n-word" are used continuously, she was able to determine the time frame of the book, what type of characters were in the play (without it being explicitly said), and where the said characters' lived (or at least in general). All of these things were true for me as well, without having seen the play or movie. So, I proded - Why were you able to do this? She explained that the use of negro and nig**** would only be acceptable if all the characters were black (which they were), they were in a poor community that didn't act properly, and did not have clear goals with steps to get there.

Whoooa... she just summarized the play and the themes that are present in the book - having only read an excerpt I provided the class. What an amazing recognition, right? A Raisin in the Sun deals with these issues completely. Walter wants to provide for his family, but doesn't educate himself and loses the money he is entrusted. Mama buys the "American dream" but lacks the planning skills to know how hard the family will have to work to maintain this lifestyle. Beneatha wants to return to her "roots" to truly experience life yet neglects to maintain an open mind to the different relationships and their value to her life. The struggle of African Americans to rise above their obstacles of poverty, lack of education, lack of stable jobs. All of this wrapped up by a student through the use of one word.

This is the "connotative power of words," a forever frustrating standard from the Arkansas Department of Education. This student, however, has conquered that one.

Anyway... this anecdote was NOT the point of the post (so sorry for the length!). My Praxis assessor recognized the success of this students and started a conversation with me about connotation and the value of literary context. We discussed how schools are trying to rewrite classics like Huckleberry Finn. What a stupid move by educators and whoever else is involved. We must educate our students on their history. We must give them context to words that are thrown around. We must give them an opportunity to learn from history's mistakes. We must allow author's intention to shine through. To take the n-word out of Huck Finn would take away from what Twain was doing. It was intentional. Obviously.

But beyond what Twain's intention was, isn't that what we want our children to see? Words change with time. Words elicit a response. Words are powerful. YOUR WORDS ARE POWERFUL. These are the true lessons we must know when we walk out into the real world. You can have an impact. You can cause people to react. Do it purposefully.

P.S. This is almost verbatim how our rant went during my post-assessment interview. Hopefully that is a good sign that she enjoyed my lesson!

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