by Nyree Wright
Education should help one make sense of the world. At the same time it should help students make sense of themselves as ‘players’ in the world.
–Steinberg & Kincheloe, 1998
A Word on Critical Theory
The conception of this assignment was born of my desire to engage in critical theory as a means by which to better understand and resist our current climate in the field of education. Critical theory challenges our ease in conforming to the norms of society so that we might feel “comfortable in relations of either domination or subordination rather than equality and interdependence” (Steinberg & Kincheloe, 2010). As a black, female educator in America I am very aware that we will never be able experience true freedom from the status-quo. And to some extent, I accept that in order for there to be some governance in our society there must/will always exist some constraint on individual identity. Yet, I am committed to working to ensure my students have an understanding of how power operates and how they might work to maintain a sense of agency within the spaces they encounter/occupy.
Being fully aware of the hidden messages and agendas that exist within the curriculum taught in our schools to the students who sit in classrooms ruled/controlled by the value and labels assigned to them based on their race, class, gender, sexual orientation and geographical location I offer this assignment as a way to begin to rescind the message expressed so definitively to our students since the time they began formal school: that they are vessels to be filled with no voice and nothing of value to add to educational discourse. It is time that we teach our students to analyze rather than to adjust, and to question rather to blindly accept. When applied correctly, critical theory counters the mainstream and “de-centers the unchallenged interpretations” and it allows for transformative spaces which include the previously excluded.
Why Multimodal Memoirs
I became an ELA teacher because I wanted to create spaces for my students to engage with literature in the ways that I had been afforded via the dynamic English teachers I had been fortunate enough to have in my own experiences. These teachers taught and assigned unconventional texts which departed from the cannon. Because of these teachers I read Ralph Ellison’s The Invisible Man and came to understand how I can exist in a world and never truly be seen. I read Ntozake Shange’s For Colored Girls… and learned that I am as strong as the woman standing next to me and as brave and beautiful as I dared to be. I also learned that my love was a gift to be earned and treasured and my capacity to love was infinite.
I acknowledge that since I read these works at 12 and 15 they were ones I needed to revisit in my adult life to truly understand them and their messaging. However, just knowing that these pieces existed were a source of empowerment for me. I was reading the world as told by authors who looked like me. I offer now that these experiences could have been further enriched by offering the young me an opportunity to write an autobiographical account of my own struggle or experience which mirrored what the protagonist might have encountered. Doing so would have privileged my voice as a student and allowed for a more transactional and transformative experience while engaging with these complex texts (Hamann, Schultz, Smith, & White, 1991).
Beyond privileging the voices of our students and placing them at the center of our curriculum I am also interested in exploring alternative modes of assessment. Teaching in the field of early childhood for 6 years and working most recently as a special educator in a middle school alongside an ELA teacher I have developed and maintained a great respect for the theory of multiple intelligences. The allowance for students to both engage in the telling of their own stories with the added benefit of telling it in the manner they feel most comfortable will both make room for the opportunity for students to reflect upon their own experiences and do so in the way that feels most authentic to them.
A photo essay in this context would mirror the objective of a photovoice project. Photovoice is a type of participatory action research that “seeks to address a particular
issue by giving cameras to people who are directly affected by that issue” (North Bay Regional Health Center).
The photo essay should develop a personal narrative that paints a picture of your culture/ traditions, or memories that are relevant to the student. Students should select 6 – 10 photographs or images to include in their photo essays. These photos or images may be their own, or copied from internet sources.
Each image must have a caption not to exceed 15 words. Captions must be complementary, adding details not seen in the photo, i.e. a brief discussion of what occured before and after the photos were taken or a quote used to add emotion.
Note: If students use images from external sources they should be prepared to cite their sources appropriately.
This assignment can be used to have students capture their reactions to specific parts of the story. (Students can choose to create memes or add captions to their selfies/external images.)
Students will complete a personal interview in order to discover important information about family and their history.
Part 1: Question Creation
Have students make a list of people in their families they might be interested in interviewing about their family history or the student’s childhood. Have students prepare a list of 3-5 questions they will ask the person they decide to interview.
In class have students compare their lists of questions to identify questions they would like to use and which they should reconsider. Students should also consider whether or not it matters which order questions are asked in.
Part 2: Completing the Interview
Assign as homework to students an interview with their subjects. Make sure all questions on the list are answered. Inform students that they may add additional questions to the list or ask follow-up questions as necessary during their interviews.
Note: To help students prepare for their interviews, have them watch interview video clips. While they are watching, ask students to observe and reflect on good interview techniques such as listening carefully, asking follow-up questions, making eye contact, etc. (This should be done in class.)
This assignment might be used to allow for students to understand point of view or re-imagine a character they feel might have been underutilized in a scene of a story.
Moment of Change
“Legitimizing students’ stories and histories is particularly important given asymmetrical power relationships that reinforce deficit views about bilingual children”[or children in traditionally marginalized communities] (Fránquiz, Salazar, & DeNicolo, 2011; Valencia, 2010).
Students will be tasked with writing a five chapter account of an event that has significantly impacted the course of their life. Because it can often be difficult to begin in the beginning of it all, students will begin with chapter 3. Students will be guided in their writing “to use descriptive details to “explode” the moment” (Source). Helping students to generate detailed descriptions will enable students to generate detailed descriptions of the event, they would more easily be able to articulate how their moments of change were significant or life changing in their other chapters.
The subsequent chapters would be written around the third:
Chapter 1: Conversation with someone involved in the moment of change
Chapter 2: Life before the moment of change
Chapter 4: Life after the moment of change
Chapter 5: Letter to someone involved in the moment of change
Note: The conversation and letter (chapters 1 and 5 may be real or imagined
For this assignment can be adapted by having themselves write in the perspective of a character in the book/story you are reading.
(Handsfield & Valente, 2016)
Students will be asked to create a chronological account of 5 events they feels have greatly impacted their lives complete with dates. This assignment can be completed with or without images and be accompanied by 3 sentence reflections of the events they have chosen:
- Sentence 1: discuss the event, what happened
- Sentence 2: describe their experience of the event using sensory language
- Sentence 3: reflect on how this event has contributed to who they are today.
Teachers should encourage students to use personal events rather than group celebrations such as graduations or national holidays. Instead they can focus on things like moving from a childhood home, when they first became aware of how someone they didn’t know viewed them (regarding race, gender, social class etc), when they met someone influential, a fear they conquered…
Note: If students struggle with identifying 5 events which have greatly impacted their life suggest that they find 5 things that hold special meaning for them and think about why it is something of importance to them.
This assignment could also be adapted to have students work to identify key parts of text which worked to develop a particular theme or track the development of a character over the course of the text. In this instance they should include page and paragraph numbers.
Music and Dance
I am by no means an expert in creating or critiquing musical or choreographed dance pieces however, I recognize that many of my students are constantly engaged in these mediums especially via their extensive use of TicTok. Viewing literature through the eyes of students’ and their understanding of the world and life events can help reframe what we as teachers/educators understand the literary experience to be for students. For this reason, I offer what I believe this assignment might look like:
Creating a playlist ot composition of music
- Students would need to provide short statements “captions” about what the song means to them… or maybe do 6-10 word blobs for each song and then an a curator statement of 200-400 words
Choreographing a sequence of moves/dance to have the audience understand your metamorphosis/evolution
- Artist statement of 200-400 words
Part 1: “The Selfie”
Students will be asked to use photography or some other visual medium to make a statement about themselves. In order for this to could as a self-portrait students must both be depicted in it and need to take it. This image should be a newly taken/created image for the purpose of this assignment and of course should be entirely the student’s own work. In a word processing document students will be asked to write a brief artist’s statement of 150-250 words explaining how they created their self portrait and what they want their viewers to see/interpret from it.
Part 2: “The Unselfie”
Students will be asked to select or capture an image that is meaningful to them. The image should convey something about the student that you cannot tell by just looking at them. In their artist statements students must address what this image might look like to someone who doesn’t know its meaning. They should also seek to discuss what makes the image meaningful and whether its meaning changed over time.
Note: This assignment can be altered to have the students make a connection a specific issue by having the unselfie relay a message about the topic of your choosing. This project will lend well to a gallery walk and might even be displayed anonymously so that guests are left wondering whose work is on display.
(Waananen Jones, 2020)
Resources and References
Centre, N. B. R. H. (2019, March 19). photoVOICE. Retrieved from http://www.nbrhc.on.ca/programs-services/mental-health-programs-services/photovoice/
Gardner, H. (2011). Promoting Learner Engagement Using Multiple Intelligences and Choice-Based Instruction. Adult Basic Education and Literacy Journal, 5(2), 97-101.
Hamann, L., Schultz, L., Smith, M., & White, B. (1991). Making Connections: The Power of Autobiographical Writing before Reading. Journal of Reading, 35(1), 24-28.
Handsfield, L., & Valente, P. (2016). Momentos de cambio: Cultivating bilingual Students’ epistemic privilege through memoir and testimonio. International Journal of Multicultural Education, 18(3), 138-158.
Mcclaskey, J. (1995). Assessing Student Learning through Multiple Intelligences. The English Journal, 84(8), 56-59.
Park, S. Y., & Song, M. (2012). Applying Multiple Intelligence Theory on the Multiple Intelligence of Children. Journal of Digital Design, 12(4), 547–557. doi: 10.17280/jdd.2012.12.4.051
Pritchard, K. (2010). Let’s get this party started. School Library Journal, 56(3), 34-n/a. Retrieved from http://queens.ezproxy.cuny.edu:2048/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.queens.ezproxy.cuny.edu/docview/211850604?accountid=13379
Roseboro, Anna J. Small. (2012). Literacy is more than books and pens.(High School Matters). English Journal, 102(1), 16-17.
Smagorinsky, P. (1995). Multiple Intelligences in the English Class: An Overview. English Journal, 84(8), 19-26.
Steinberg, S. R., & Kincheloe, J. L. (2010). Power, Emancipation, and Complexity: Employing Critical Theory. Power and Education, 2(2), 140–151. doi: 10.2304/power.2010.2.2.140
Waananen Jones, L. (n.d.). Assignment 1: Self-Portrait & Personal Meaning. Retrieved from https://murrowcourses.com/com320/assignment-1-self-portrait-personal-meaning/
Wyngaard, S. (1998). The Memoir Writing Project: Responding to the Developmental Needs of Students. The English Journal, 87(3), 79. doi: 10.2307/822392