American Council of Learned Societies
Occasional Paper No. 29
Poetry In and Out
of the Classroom:
Essays from the ACLS Elementary and
Secondary Schools Teacher Curriculum
Ghosts Among Us/Ancestral Voices:
Whats Past is Prologue
Terry Moreland Henderson
For my ACLS curricular project, I chose the unifying framework of storytelling to allow students to research their family past, because while working on another of my projects, an autobiographical novella, I realized that the liberation that I felt in writing some of my stories was and is something that I wanted to share with my students. My memory may be all that keeps my beloved Mt. Misery, the hill on the Ohio farm where I grew up, Deersville Ridge, and those Post-Depression years alive. I feel that I must tell my stories in order to preserve the culture of a dying people. Because I remember, it is my duty to preserve my mothers (and others) stories via written communication. (She is 86 years old and her link to a past which will never ever be again is something too valuable to allow to be lost.) This sense of importance is what I hope also to convey to my students so that they realize that they and their personal experience do indeed matter.
My project provides a way of bringing students academic studies into focus by giving the students a common task which has outcomes which are individually unique to each student. Through the stories which they write and share with each other, bridges of understanding may be built, even though each story showcases individual and cultural differences. Ideally, the project promotes healing within familial, cultural, and societal structures and leads to student pride, bonding with classmates, and student empowerment. This project reflects the students year-long studies by enabling them to synthesize material reflective of the many cultures that they have encountered throughout the year with a practical and fun inquiry into their own cultural and family background and personal experience. The unit is instructive in autobiography, personal narrative and oral interviewing skills. Students are asked to interview an older family member in order to ascertain information for a family tree as well as to glean family legends. Students further develop research skills with their search for an origin myth peculiar to their culture. The final project culminates with a videotape of student presentations, which blends myth, history, and personal history into a creative presentation. I introduce the project early in the second semester so that students can have the time to contact geographically distant relatives if they so choose. Work on the project is interspersed with other course work until the final month of the semester, when the work becomes more intense and involved. Assessment is based on their oral presentation, which is accompanied by a written summary as well as an artistic representation of their story. Such a unit aims at enhancing the individual students self-esteem by giving him a context within which to place his sense of both a personal and a cultural self.
I myself am of Appalachian descent, and, having attended Oberlin College as an Equal Opportunity student in the early seventies, relate quite strongly to the culture shock so eloquently described by Richard Rodriguez in his essay Scholarship Boy. I have always considered myself a member of a minority since, in fact, I am a cultural minority, but my students sometimes have a difficult time grasping the fact that white people can also be minorities. Part of my individual ACLS project, as mentioned before, was to immerse myself in Appalachian literature and sociology while I worked on my own novella. As I began to write my stories, I felt free as I began to find my own voice; in my own experience, there is a great deal of shame associated with my family stories of poverty; no running water; no heat; privation; privation, and more privation and on and on and on.
Now, as an adult, I have finally begun to realize that much of that experience has made me a strong and independent person, and, furthermore, makes for good reading. Then, I felt different and was ashamed of that difference; now, I feel special and I cherish my difference. It is this perspective that I hope to help my students achieve since they really have so many special needs. While watching the student presentations, I saw previously silent kids who became enamored with others stories and eager to share their own. One boy, in particular, Eric, had been practically mute all year long; given this opportunity to speak of his family history, it became almost impossible to silence him not that I would have wanted to. Almost every day of the project he would come to class with some new tidbit he had learned the night before; but as much as he told us, he still saved the story with the most impact for his presentation. He showed us a picture of not your ordinary old truck, but a two ton dump truck which ran over one of his grandmothers children. Miraculously, that child lived without a bruise, and as he held us mesmerized , he continued: And today I call that child Mama. His sense of timing was impeccable, his style eloquent; clearly, I had failed earlier to tap into this rich vein of material. At this point, my job is to tell Eric to translate his oral skills into writing skills. One might question what all of this has to do with English class. My premise is that if we begin with oral traditions, we can then learn to write some of those traditions down before they disappear. Furthermore, students become motivated to write in order to preserve their cultural and personal identity. I feel successful in that they are finding a common ground, a way to speak, while at the same time they are preserving their differences, those things which make them unique. Perhaps the most valuable lesson that I may teach my students is to respect each other and themselves; they dont have to necessarily like each other, but I do insist that they all get along.
The Genesis, Clarification and Working Definition
of the Term Panculturalism
While working on my project with the students, I coined the term panculturalism to describe what it was that our project attempted to capture. Our humanity provides our common link ideally, our humaneness (which is learned) allows us to listen to and respect, or, at the very least, tolerate, each other while we hold with pride our individual personal and cultural differences. Panculturalism is in no way a return to the melting pot theory: difference is celebrated, not extinguished. I have long been disturbed by the term multiculturalism as well as the study of multiculturalism in the way it is currently practiced. Inherent in the term itself is a prefix which allows for, and even invites, a splintering effect and de facto exclusiveness. While I realize that the original intent of multiculturalism was an expansion of the canon, and not necessarily an alternative or replacement canon, I feel ultimately that a canon which speaks of inclusion should not be so ironically exclusive. Further, the argument that since the canon was so one-sided for so long, it only makes sense historically that it swing the other way before finally transcending the political arena which thrives on assertions of difference and mocks all efforts at compromise, seems extremely shallow to me, My belief is that art transcends the political and that every artistic act is ultimately artistic, not political, as some argue, as we constantly create and reinvent our multiplicity of selves. It always surprises me that those scholars who admonish me with their notions of the pendulum swings of history are paradoxically the first to quote Santayanas oft-repeated rationale for the study of history; to paraphrase, we learn history so as not to be condemned to repeat the mistakes of the past. I further assert that we write history; we are history; we are active participants, not passive victims. Two wrongs will never make a right. As I watched buildings burn from my daughters bedroom two Aprils ago during the L.A. riots and heard the incessant wail of the fire trucks, I imagined what Francis Scott Key must have felt when he composed The Star Spangled Banner in the midst of the Revolutionary War. At that moment, I knew that I would do all that I could to help my students heal and recover so that that particular mistake of history would not recur. We need to teach cultural tolerance, but we must be sure to use templates of instruction which will encompass all cultures so as not to create frictions among cultures.
My project aimed at helping students break out of their defensive cocoons, to ultimately break the cycle of violence which surrounds us all. I proposed the term panculturalism for our endeavor with the hope that it would help us to begin to heal as a human culture. The prefix pan- is, according to Websters, a combining form which means all, of, comprising or uniting, every. Panculturalism is a term, then, which unifies and spans all cultures while maintaining individual cultural differences. It is inclusive, whereas multiculturalism has become exclusive and divisive in its political ramifications. The term panculturalism seeks to transcend the us vs. them mentality which is all too pervasive in todays world. The word pan has many other definitions; one particular definition has analogous qualities which work quite nicely with my definition. When the camera pans for an all-encompassing shot in a movie, it takes in the whole scene; it embraces all instead of selecting the so-called most important element of the scene. Think what a student who is not represented by one of the cultures included in a multicultural study must feel like. Panculturalism would let him/her know that he/she also belongs.
Panculturalism allows for the study of minority cultures such as Appalachian, gay, and elderly, to name just a few. In a true learning environment, we all learn from each other teacher learns from student, student from teacher and other students. I choose to hear my students voices more often and more clearly as a result of my year-long study, but never by sacrificing my own something which multicultural studies seemed to want to force me to give up or devalue. I dare not be so immodest as to consider myself a martyr. We are all important; we are all human, and if we continue to devalue and deny our own cultures in an attempt to balance the inequities of history, we are not evolving. We are only engaging in what amounts to academic revenge; no real learning can take place, I believe, in a hostile environment where ones politics are deemed more important than ones individuality and selfhood.
From Cultural Diversity To Pancultural Unity
I am asked the question: How do you get the kids to trust you, to open up? Im not exactly sure if there is a single answer to that question, but I know that by letting down some of my barriers, I encourage them to do the same. I believe that by sharing some of my family stories which not only highlight those items of which I am proud, but also, and even more importantly, those parts of my background by which I am ashamed I make it less threatening and frightening for my sudents to do the same. It is and was extremely difficult for me to share my personal background. Ive survived as a closet Appalachian for years while I allowed myself to be defined by my scholastic achievements and interests. Even though I often share my ancestry with my students, I lacked the courage to share this knowledge with my colleagues. Hence, my ACLS presentation at Rancho Mirage in June 1993 was truly a coming out for me and I felt great relief. In fact, I was amazed at the positive attention I received and the fact that so many of the people at the conference began to tell me similar stories. By giving students this opportunity to share a part of themselves and providing them with my own personal model, I feel that I helped open a door for them to purge, to exorcise, some of the ghosts which haunted them and rendered them powerless and voiceless. I adamantly believe that shame robs a person of his full power and potential, thus lowering self-esteem and increasing fear and defensiveness, qualities which can lead to volatile emotional situations. With liberation comes empowerment.
The first year I did this project, we made collages to illustrate our family stories and cultural myths. I have two very touching observations:
- These students wanted so much to share a part of themselves and their families that they trusted me with photos of which there was only one copy to take to the National Conference at Rancho Mirage. They wanted the people at the conference to hear their individual and joint voices. Some even wanted me to bring personal artifacts of great value, but I decided against such a risk.
- The video that we made conveys the enthusiasm with which the students tackled a very time-consuming project. Some students sent messages to distant rancheros in Mexico because their relatives had no telephones. This effort shows the seriousness with which they undertook the project. I was also captivated by what students chose to share and show, and by the respect that they gave their fellow students when those students were presenting. A pin could have been heard if dropped not the usual situation in my classroom. I was deeply impressed by their courage and their honesty for I know how difficult it can be to share oneself openly. I also know that honesty is what allows us all to heal.
Perhaps the most successful of all my dissemination efforts has been the work I modeled for my UCLA student teacher, Nancy Jeong, in the spring semester of 1994, one year after the original design of the project. Because student presentations from the previous year tended to be quite lengthy, we determined that for the third phase of the project, the personal response, the students should write and share a poem. Some of the poems appear below.
I am currently preparing to introduce the project to yet another group of eleventh grade American Literature students. Instruction trends seem to have changed in the last two years. Many of the issues that worried me regarding the narrow politically correct focus of a multicultural studies course, which eliminated many cultures, most noticeably the dead white guys, now seem to be non-issues as more and more teachers begin to advocate teaching comparatively. I am relieved that this change has occurred, is occurring even as I write, and feel strongly that such a teaching approach is the most effective. This approach is the one that I have always used somewhat, but almost exclusively since my ACLS fellowship year. When my eleventh graders study the Civil War era and before, their lessons are enriched by the materials I acquired on the African-American spiritual and slave narratives. My Assistant Principal, an African-American woman who is extremely well-versed in this subject area, comes to my classroom and speaks with the students about the spiritual, while sharing some of her own musical arrangements. When my students learn that I know about the legend of La Llorona and can identify La Malinche, my credibility stock rises a few points. I often overhear several say with amazement, She really does know. When I teach La Llorona in a comparative context with Medea, students become even more grounded and are pleasantly surprised that one of their cultural stories has similarities with that of another culture. This awareness of universality is what allows people to listen and learn from one another. Students begin to realize that the pieces of the puzzle do sometimes fit together when they see the interrelationships between cultures. The Ancestral Voices project explores these relationships.
Poems for the Ancestral Voices Project
The Old Woman at the Off-Ramp
Buy my oranges
Buy my flowers
I have been standing
For hours and hours.
My arms are weak
And I need a rest,
I have two fives
For change, at best.
Why do you not look
At me when you pass?
Do you want me to
Mow your grass?
Could it be you know
Not who I am,
But you know Im
Not a Nam veteran.
My arms grow tired
My legs do too,
How much I hunger
For a bit of food.
You roll down your window
To give me money,
But Im not taking
Im not the guy holding
The cardboard sign,
I dont spend my
Time at the county line.
Im just standing here
Selling mis cacaguates,
Las naranjas y flores
Me Myself and I
A man, a boy
Unsure of who he is
Yet strong in his heritage.
Upon looking in the mirror,
He sees a rich, vast,
Exciting culture flowing, surging,
Through his veins.
Yet, others who look at him,
Know not of who he is.
Label him with falsities,
Albino for one.
When he tells of his German heritage
Some garb him in a Nazi uniform
And a swastika on his arm.
With others, it goes in one ear
And out the other.
Then he tells them of his Swedish heritage
That shows so vividly in his face, his hair,
His eyes and his skin.
He is slightly saddened when
He tells of Norse legends and myth.
All the while the listener stares blankly
As if not comprehending.
His words fall upon deaf ears.
So he looks around, for someone
Unique as he, his search seeming endless
For he cannot find such a unique
Person in this diverse sea.
I Blossom from the Soil of my Roots
I am like a blossom
With petals of different shades
This gets very confusing
Like a rabbit who has laid eggs.
As I grow old and start to wilt
I begin to wonder which colors the strongest?
Which way will I tilt?
Will I be with the reds?
Or the purples and blues?
This blood is so far dead!
I think Ill start fresh and new!
I become a flower all of my own
I know where Ill land!
And Ill call America my new home!
Here is where my roots will sink
Here is where Ill no longer think
About who I am and where I belong
Because now theres America my very own song!
THERES NO WAY OUT
DO I WANT TO
SHOVE, SHOVE, SHOVE
On my paper, different colors are thought of as beautiful.
Diversity made it complete.
In my bowl, mixture is thought of as wonderful,
Something they couldnt wait to eat.
So how come in this world it seems like my difference is made out to be something wrong?
When difference is quickly accepted in clothes, art, views, even song?
There arent many things I do different from you, the difference is just what you see.
Whenever you view me with unbiased eyes will we live our lives equally.
Sitting down and thinking,
I see myself happily running
along the Caribbean Sea among
my family and friends.
Remembering the way it use to
be, the way I lived freely
in a friendly small town.
Now, striving to finish my education
I wait anxiously for the day
to come when Ill get to
run along the seashore once more.
I close my eyes realizing that
I learned to love and value my
country now that Im millions of miles away.
The streets are cold,
Neighborhoods can get lonely
People that I know wont recognize me
On the streets.
I have traveled long journeys to get where I am at.
In a whole new world, a different life,
But it is my own.
Poverty all around, loneliness
Walking in and out my door
Friends that I love wont see me anymore.
I walk the streets with no shame on myself.
I carry on my shoulders a load that will always be there.
My ancestors could have been kings,
Yours could have been governors,
But in this world the present and the future
Should be more important.
That is the reason we need to get along.
Terry Moreland Henderson is a teacher of English and Humanities at University High School in West Los Angeles, where she is Humanitas Coordinator. An advocate of Joseph Carrolls Copernican Plan for American Schools, Ms. Henderson is a leading activist in the movement to implement this curricular reform at her school. She was a 199293 ACLS teacher fellow.