For the first few years as an English teacher, I thought I knew exactly what I was supposed to do on the first day of class – build community. Every teacher education textbook I’d ever read and every back to school teacher in-service day stressed the importance of building classroom community with students. So, that’s what I attempted to do.
I ditched my classroom expectations and procedures PowerPoint and strolled into class with stacks of unsharpened pencils and bags of plastic cups. It was perfectly planned. Students would be placed into groups of four and each team member would have one minute to bounce as many pencils as possible into the red solo cup. The team with the most pencils in the cup at the end of four minutes was declared the winner. A simple game with a powerful message. I had hoped students would be able to see that by working together in a collaborative group the entire group would be able to achieve more. Somewhere between a principal walk through visit and a dozen flying pencils that idea got lost.
As I searched for meaningful ways to build classroom community using content related skills, I realized I had somehow managed to forget the most important aspect of an authentic classroom community, and that is students’ voices. During a summer institute with the Central Arizona Writing Project, I created a learning opportunity I titled, “I am Not a Taco”. The activity is modeled after Santino Rivera’s poem, “I am Not a Taco” in which Rivera identifies himself as Xicano (Mexican-American). His poem is found the BSN Anthology of Chicano Literature, an important text that was born out of HB 2281 and the Mexican American studies ban is Tucson, Arizona.
During this lesson, students are invited to map out their various identities that make up who they are as a person. They then have an opportunity to speak against some of the negative stereotypes that are associated with the identity they are writing about. This lesson has proven to be a powerful way to not only create authentic community in an ELA classroom but also to empower students to speak their identities in a room full of strangers. I’ve used this activity during the first week of school for last 5 years, and this year was no different. My favorite lines from one of students this year is captured below:
“I am not dumb. I am not slow. I am not a bully. I am not a person with no future. I am not a nerd. I am not teacher’s pet. I am none of these things, I simply am a college bound freshmen”
Building authentic classroom community is risk, especially when you ask a group of high school teens to write about their own identity. It’s personal and vulnerable for students and teachers. However, in doing we are choosing to creating a learning environment that respects and honors all students.