Formation: Cultural Relevance in a Contemporary Classroom
In Lift Every Voice, a collection of essays by the 2016 Fishman Prize winners, four top teachers share the strategies they use to connect with and empower students. Here, we’re featuring an excerpt from Matthew Patterson’s essay on how bringing in contemporary, culturally relevant material to his A.P. Literature class helps him forge powerful relationships with his College Park, Georgia students—and gives those students access to challenging content that pushes and inspires them.
As she walked into class one morning, Oneicia took out her graphic organizer on authorial voice and choice. Then she saw the class agenda.
“Beyoncé? Lemonade? In AP Lit Class?” she said. “This discussion is going to be spicy.”
Beyoncé Knowles is a force of nature as a performer and musical artist; Lemonade is her new visual album, an hour-long film with accompanying music, released last spring to worldwide acclaim. Some teachers might disparage a two-day deconstruction of Beyoncé’s work as pandering to the students’ desire to talk about a pop star. I understand that perspective, but I think it is time to revise it. Highly deserving of critical analysis, Lemonade exists as a culturally relevant, complex text, rich with metaphor and symbolism.
To preview the lesson, our class investigated Lemonade by using cell phones to research Beyoncé’s political, economic, social, historical, and musical philosophies and influences. “I like doing this contemporary stuff right when it comes out,” said Mariah. “There aren’t a lot of people telling me what to think about it. I can make up my own mind.”
Groups of students immediately synthesized research findings and performed quick mini-presentations. After we deconstructed visual and musical excerpts from Lemonade, the class transitioned into our Socratic seminar, in which we answered the same essential questions we did when we read The Great Gatsby. “What are the cultural semiotics displayed in the text and how do they influence voice and purpose?”
We circle our desks in our seminars to demonstrate every voice is important; the seminars function as a free-flowing dialectic where I act as moderator and the students both ask the questions and answer them.
“Why did Beyoncé break the car windows?” L’lori asked.
“Her anger reminds me of the Furies in the Iliad.” Kelce observed, “It’s attacking the same themes we read in Gatsby and Their Eyes Were Watching God. Lemonade’s fury begins with love, disappointment, and duty to family. Beyoncé’s version just affects me more. I understand exactly where she is coming from and what she is talking about.”
Throughout the two-day lesson, students were not only engaged, but there was a sense of urgency to learn and understand hidden meanings. My students also felt empowered to speak up because we were studying a social critic and performer whose words, thoughts, and experiences mirrored their own. They found it intellectually liberating to see Beyoncé granted the critical respect and examined with the same analytical techniques as other important figures, like F. Scott Fitzgerald or Zora Neale Hurston.
Because as great as F. Scott Fitzgerald was, he does not look like my students.
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