February 6, 2006
The Power of Words
BY rachel robertson
Pearl Quick, a high school student from the Bronx, found power in the words above. She wrote them.
It’s a power that Maisha Fisher, assistant professor of educational studies, wants other young people to experience—and it motivates Fisher’s research on using spoken word poetry to improve literacy in urban high schools.
Her quest began when, as a high school teacher in the Sacramento City Unified school district, she realized that she needed to make writing relevant to her 10th grade English students, despite the inequity of resources provided to different students in the school. She had the unique experience of teaching at her alma mater in the same magnet program—Humanities and International Studies Program (HISP)—in which she herself had participated as a student.
“When I was teaching two classes in the magnet program and two classes outside [it], it struck me that students were being tracked,” Fisher said. “[HISP students] were being told, ‘You have access to all this literature,’ while [non-HISP students] did not. It was mind-boggling to me.”
She worked to overcome this by trying to infuse every student with a love of language. By bringing the energy and excitement of all kinds of writers—journalists, poets, lawyers—to them, Fisher gave her students role models who could demonstrate that writing was relevant outside the classroom.
At the end of the year, Fisher invited all the studied writers together for a conversation and asked if her students could participate, even if it meant missing one of their other classes. A turning point came in the form of an anonymous note from a fellow teacher. The note-writer wanted to exclude one of Fisher’s students from attending, reasoning that the student was not performing well enough academically.
“I had colleagues who didn’t really understand what it was I was trying to do, and I thought, if I could link this to some larger phenomenon, maybe I could make other educators understand why it was important,” Fisher said.
As the child of African American parents who started a community school in addition to their careers as a nurse and a history professor, Fisher grew up with a sense of entitlement and the sense that she was an active participant in her education.
“I had two parents who were at the school banging on the door when anything went wrong, checking in and seeing if my homework was rigorous enough, and asking lots of questions—however, my parents learned to do this by watching [other] middle-class parents,” she said, adding that both her mother and father were first-generation college students.
In the Bronx “Power Writing” class attended by Quick (whose poem opened this story), teacher Joseph Ubiles works with students—those whom “sadly, some educators throw away,” Fisher said—to give them that sense of entitlement. The challenge is their living environment, as described in Quick’s poem (continued from above):
This class and another in Brooklyn were the focus of Fisher’s postdoctoral research at Teacher College, Columbia University. Inspired by “participatory literacy communities” (the topic of her doctoral thesis at the University of California at Berkeley) such as spoken word poetry venues and black bookstores holding author events, it occurred to Fisher that there could be a way to transport that environment inside school walls. When she learned of teachers in Brooklyn and the Bronx who were doing just that, Fisher started a dialogue with them and was invited to visit their classrooms.
Her intensive data collection involved videotaping, ethnographic field notes and qualitative interviews, but also participating as a co-teacher in the classes and becoming part of the students’ lives.
“Literacy researchers refer to this as a sociocultural approach to literacy learning,” Fisher said. “We want to get all of the information—we want to know about the whole person—before we move forward.” Although her postdoc ended, her commitment to the class continues and she remains close with the teachers and students.
Similar to a coffeehouse poetry reading, Ubiles’ technique is a process he calls “read and feed” in which students share their work out loud, then three peers give feedback. He creates an environment Fisher terms “literocracy,” where “everybody learns he or she has something important to say and that their ideas deserve an attentive and respectful audience,” she said.
Critical to Ubiles’ method, Fisher believes, is that he is a practitioner of the craft he is teaching. As an artist-in-residence funded by the nonprofit Early Stages theater program, he and co-teachers Amy Sultan and Roland Legardi-Laura (executive director and artist-in-residence, respectively, at Early Stages) participate fully in the class.
“They are not just saying, ‘Here is your essay assignment—do it,’” Fisher said. “They’re also writing. They’re sharing their work out loud; they’re making themselves vulnerable in the same way we are asking the students to make themselves vulnerable. And the students are giving them feedback—imagine that!”
Likewise, Fisher did not hide behind her role as researcher; she also shared her own poetry in class. “When young people see teachers engaged in the process, then they believe in it, too,” she said.
On Saturdays the class traveled to the city, touring museums, watching films, visiting botanical gardens. “The purpose is to have the students understand that New York belongs to them,” Fisher said. Additionally, the trips brought them into contact with people outside their usual world.
“We want students to have access to what [education scholar] Lisa Delpit refers to as ‘the culture of power,’” Fisher said. “We want them to have access to ‘standard English,’ and I feel there is a way we can do that without isolating the world that they come from. That is also what this class is about.”
As a final step, the students sound their voices in the outside world. At the Aprilia Motorcycle Showroom in Manhattan, students gave a public reading of their poetry, published in the anthology from their class, Rebel Voices from the Heights. “It was fabulous,” Fisher said of the large crowd and their generosity in supporting the group by buying the book and giving donations.
The students of both classes Fisher studied have achieved improvements in their coursework outside of English and have received such accolades as the Posse Scholarship and the Gates Scholarship. And Fisher sounds her own voice, as well, speaking at conferences to teachers of English and sharing the methods that have transformed students’ lives, in the hopes that others will adopt these practices.
“It’s always good to have something extra beyond school, but I think it is young peoples’ right to have a space within the existing school structure where they’re able to feel as invested in learning as they do in these alternative spaces,” Fisher said. “And that is why I’m doing this research.”
(*note: 212 is a New York City area code).