Formation: Cultural Relevance in a Contemporary Classroom
Matthew Patterson comes from a completely different background than his students at Benjamin Banneker High School, but that doesn’t keep him from forging powerful relationships with them. On any given day in his class, students might discuss the Atlanta hip-hop duo Outkast and German philosopher Jurgen Habermas in the same lesson. In his essay, Matthew discusses how he uses culturally relevant material to help his students draw connections between literature and their own lives, while preparing for the rigorous academic expectations of college.
As she walked into class on Monday 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. Using clips and charts she found online as evidence, Sydney presented on Beyoncé’s economic footprint. She explained, “Beyoncé was listed by Forbes Magazine as the most powerful woman in entertainment last year. She has sold over 30 million albums, has the most loyal fans in the industry, and has leveraged her voice as economic capital to speak truth to power. That woman is fierce. ”
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 that 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. We use drums, maracas, tambourines, and kazoos to punctuate powerful literary analysis. If the class thinks that something truly spectacular has been said, we celebrate with joyful noise from the classroom instruments.
“Why did Beyoncé break the car windows?” L’lori asked. She really wanted to know the answer. “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.” Kelce’s ability to bring in several allusions in her response, as well as logically evaluate her own feelings and rationale, was greeted with pandemonium on the instruments.
Throughout the two-day lesson, students were not only engaged, but there was a sense of urgency to learn and understand hidden meanings. In the middle of the seminar, I was summoned out of the room briefly to take care of school business with our Assistant Principal, Mr. Hopping. After a minute outside, Diamond came politely to retrieve me. “Uh, excuse me, Mr. Hopping,” she said, “but we are doing something really important. This administration stuff can wait.”
My students 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.
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.
Our curriculum also encourages 12th graders to read Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, but for three years I tried to teach the 19th century Norwegian play about a mother abandoning her children, and it ended up as a colossal failure, with students refusing to discuss the play because they loathed both the protagonist and the diction. Instead, this year I chose to read Eclipsed, a play written in 2009 by Danai Gurira about four women enslaved in a camp in war-ravaged Liberia.
After doing some research, Dei revealed to the rest of the class, “This Eclipsed play is interesting. This is the first time in the history of Broadway that a play was completely written, directed, produced, and starring all women. And who knew Michonne from The Walking Dead was a writer?”
As we discussed the play, Mark reflected, “I think it is crazy that there are no men actors in this play at all. What does that choice signify? And what does it mean that all of the action takes place in one setting?”
Eclipsed is contemporary so my students had to struggle to find their own answers to these questions, instead of looking up answers on CliffsNotes. But conversely, it was easy for me to find relevant background information using the internet. The entire class shed tears the day we watched video clips from the film Beasts of No Nation as a corollary to Eclipsed, and my students were staggered after watching the VICE News piece “Cannibal Warlords of Liberia.”
After viewing the piece, Thierno observed, “It really hurts when I see people and countries exploit others for personal gain. And it hurts even worse when the people they are exploiting are children who don’t have the voice to say no.”
After our first day working with Eclipsed, Kadidiatou, a first generation West African émigré from Guinea and one of the play’s most vocal supporters throughout our reading, asked me, “Pat, can I get the rest of the play to take home to read this evening? I need to find out what happens next since this is about my people.”
I was stunned by her question, but I was floored when the entire class queued up behind Kadidiatou to receive our next three weeks of reading all at once. As he lined up, Michael ‘Bad News’ Green added, “Yeah, I never wanted to read ahead in The Great Gatsby, Pat.”
As great as F. Scott Fitzgerald was, he does not look like my students, and he’ll never be able to personally respond to the questions we have about Gatsby. By using modern, culturally relevant texts, we can leverage social media to share our work with the outside world and forge direct connections with writers who can add personalized commentary to their work. When Gabby posted a video analyzing Rembert Browne’s New York Magazine piece on Tyler Perry, Browne himself shared it on social media to his huge following. Gabby came to class so proud, proclaiming, “I’m famous for my big brain.”
When leading writers and critics interact with and publicize our class, it expands the view of what is possible for my students to achieve outside of our community, and accords our class immediate access to the highest level of scholarship. That engagement is contagious.
But working with materials like these isn’t just about access to contemporary authors and artists, since we also spend plenty of time on historical works. Regardless of the time period, I consider it my responsibility to use print and multi-media resources in my classroom that are relevant to my students and resonate with their experiences. I grew up surrounded by privilege, but many of my students exist in a life or death struggle. Several years ago, our valedictorian did not have electricity for several months. It inspired me to see that type of determination to succeed in a world where my students can get shot for no crime but the color of their skin. Teaching culturally relevant material makes it easier for us dive into social justice issues. It speaks to the students’ worlds and sticks in their long-term memories. My students are far more likely to make allusions to this type of engrossing literature when we are discussing other works, allowing us to scaffold analytical skills to texts in the traditional canon. Most importantly, this content becomes the answer to the question, “What did you do today?”
If my students didn’t care about the material we’re reading, I would question why I’m teaching it. And to my colleagues who haven’t yet upended their traditional curriculum to include culturally relevant pieces that speak to the heart of the 21st century student, then I would ask, “What are you waiting for?”
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