Category Archives: Improving Writing Blogs Spring 2013

Green Pants…

My students see me.

Javaris A. Snell

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The time is 2:29pm. The date is August 26th, 2013. In walks a young woman, she appears to be in her late twenties or early thirties. As she walks by I can’t help but notice she’s wearing green pants. As I focused on the fact that this particular female is wearing green pants, I hear “GOOD AFTERNOON YOUNG SCHOLARS!” An awkward silence then falls over the room when suddenly “green pants” walks back out of the room, waits a minute, and walks back in the classroom with the same greeting but this time she evoked a response from every person in the class.

I am only in my first semester at Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University (FAMU) and in 6 weeks Dr.Kendra Bryant has made a lasting impact on my professional and personal life. I have learned important resumé writing skills that leads to having a strong resumé and I…

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I Itch When I’m Restless: A Response to Natalie Goldberg

The link below leads readers to a 10-minute freewrite that I composed with my Improving Writing class at Florida A&M University.  In  Old Friend from Far Away, Natalie Goldberg asks readers to discuss a time that they itched, and most days after teaching my freshman composition class wherein most students are usually disconnected from everything but their cellphones, I find myself itching to write poetry, or to read Alice Walker, or to paint images of revolutionaries.  I itch to nourish my creative muse–a muse which is often neglected as a result of my responsibilities to the classroom.

More often than not,  I feel like I am blowing my energy on careless human beings who simply attend the university because they don’t have anything else to do with themselves.  They exist for the sake of existing–which according to Buddhist philosophy is freedom and enlightenment.  But of course, student stand stills have little to nothing to do with peace, freedom, empathy, and loving-kindness.  And so what do you do in a 21st century space wherein worldstarhiphopAtlanta Housewives, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Tumblr disconnect students from reading full length novels, writing detailed research papers, engaging Martin Luther King’s rhetorical genius, following directions, listening to classroom instruction, completing required assignments, arriving to class on time (if at all), building classroom community, respecting the classroom space, and taking full responsibility for their behaviors?

I usually bitch and moan.  But I also write poetry.  I paint Che.  I read Alice Walker.  I listen to gospel music.  And I blog.  And with every tomorrow, I enter the classroom hoping for the best, always hoping for the best.

I Itch When I’m Restless 10-minute freewrite

 


On FAMU Students Sharing Their Poverty

I cried today.  And although I often cry, I have never cried in front of the students I teach.  But today I cried—for them.  For their experiences.  For their struggles.  For their triumphs.  Today I cried in honor of and respect for their personhood.

Today students silently read Jo Goodwin Parker’s 1971 essay “What Is Poverty?” They were required to engage in a 10-minute freewrite response after their reading, and then each were asked to orally share a synopsis of his and her responses.  I listened wholeheartedly to each of their experiences, and as I sat on top of the desk at the head of the classroom, I became absolutely overwhelmed with both gratitude and sadness.  Sitting there as the head (and at the head of) about 25 college students, I listened to them share their own experiences with poverty, and with each story told, I struggled to deter my tears.  My face flushed, my throat tightened, and my heart bashed against my chest walls.  “Don’t cry, Kendra,” I repeated to myself.  “Do not cry in front of these students.”  But with the passing of each students’ story, my emotions overpowered my cerebral demands.

*              *              *

“I didn’t grow up in poverty,” said one student, “but the author reminds me of myself and my children.  I went hungry many nights in order to ensure that my children could eat.  And like the author’s children, my kids often took cold baths with no soap, and I had to wash our clothes by hand because I couldn’t afford to go to the laundry mat.”

“I remember being left at my aunt’s house,” said another student. “I told her I was hungry, and so, she told me to go get some cereal.  When I opened the cereal box, a bunch of roaches came running out of it.”

Then another student said, “This story reminded me of my mother and made me appreciate her more. I remember wanting markers when I was a little girl.  Although markers are not that big of a deal, my mother had to struggle to buy them for me.  I was so happy to have those markers that I carried them everywhere I went.  I even slept with them.”

“I grew up in Nigeria, and the poverty I experienced there doesn’t compare to what I’ve seen,” said another.  “Dead people live in the street gutters and people just walk by them regularly like it’s normal. My grandmother’s bathroom has no walls, so the bathtub literally sits open on the outside.

*              *              *

While I am fully aware that 99% of FAMU students are on financial aid and that FAMU was founded particularly for the underprivileged and under-represented, I am always taken aback—far, far back—by  students’ stories of poverty and homelessness.  Their experiences sadden me. Disappoint me. They frustrate and sicken me.  How does anyone—myself included—lavishly live in the midst of those suffering in and with poverty?  Where is peace and freedom in a world that is fully aware of the poverty that embodies other human beings, but doesn’t do everything in its power to eliminate it?

According to actionagainsthunger.org, global hunger afflicts nearly a billion people worldwide, and every year nearly 3.5 million children die from malnutrition-related causes.  And according to trickleup.org, 1.4 billion people live in poverty.  In America alone, reports the U.S. Census Bureau, more than 16% of the population is living in poverty—a 2% increase from 2009.  And in 2013, child poverty reached record highs with 16.7 million children living in famished households.   Also, according to sunshinestatenews.com, Florida is the third poorest state in the nation, with 1 in every 5 Floridians living in poverty; about twenty-two percent of them in Leon County are living in poverty (indexmundi.com).  And in my Improving Writing classrooms at Florida A&M University, roughly 98% of students either lived in or experienced some kind of impoverished environment.

I don’t think I can (or even want to) teach another writing class that is not centered on social action.  While I have not experienced—ever in my life—hunger and homelessness—I entered into each of my students’ narratives and witnessed their pangs.  And it all hurt.  Through personal story telling, my students forced me to question my integrity and purpose as a classroom teacher, scholar, and human being.  Surely, teaching the research paper, the business proposal, resume, and personal statement—teaching the rules to MLA style and documentation—all have their places in academia and corporate America.  But, there’s grace, I think, and loving-kindness, and freedom, and humanity in approaching writing instruction via social action projects.

I wanna save the world.  And maybe my effort at doing so is giving students the skill and space to enter into the humanity of themselves and others.


Goldberg’s Test II: “I Remember”

In  Old Friend from Far Away: The Practice of Writing Memoir, Natalie Goldberg gives readers first response practice via mini tests sporadically placed throughout her text.  Test questions require three minutes of thoughtful first responses, for according to Goldberg, first responses are the most honest, and therefore, creative and engaging.  My response to her Test II are below.  

 

1. Mrs. Raffa, my third grade teacher at Miami Lakes Elementary (MLE), became angry with me and my classmate, Linda Bethel; we were the only two black students in her all-white classroom.  Linda and I were horseplaying after class, hitting one another with our bookbags.  As trivial as our behavior was, Mrs. Raffa thought it newsworthy enuf to play towncrier and run and tell my mother–who was one of the few African-American teachers there.  (My mother and some of her black middle school classmates integrated MLE in 1965.)  I think Mrs. Raffa, who didn’t seem as white to my 8 year old self as she does now, had been itching to find a reason to chastise my black classmate and me.

2. I first learned to read–or perhaps became cognizant of my inability to thoughtfully do so–about ten years ago when I first entered the high school classroom as a 10-12 grade English teacher.  Part of my job was to assist learners with their reading skills.  All too often teachers (and their students) assume that calling out words is sufficient reading practice.  However, reading transcends speed and word pronunciation.  Reading well includes the ability to comprehend and make meaning of direct and indirect messages.  It means wholeheartedly (mind, body, and soul) engaging an author as awell as her characters.

3. Natalie Goldberg says, “Teach me something.” My response: “I’ll teach you how to breathe.” I teach what I love and what I need more practice learning myself.  Breathing is vital, and it reminds people that they are alive in this very moment.  As a matter of fact, Thich Nhat Hanh says that the present moment is the only place wherein one can achieve freedom.  How AWEsome is that?  To be alive?  To be here, right now, with no expectations or obligations, except to simply breathe and be. So, Natalie, I’d teach you how to breathe.  For if one learns to focus on her breath, especially during difficult times, she will gradually detach from stressful feelings and behaviors and experience freedom.

4. I remember my bald-headed grandfather, Samuel.  He was a deacon at Antioch Misssionary Baptist Church, and besides my own father, he was the man of my life.  He called me “Slow Motion,” ’cause he claims I took my time learning how to walk.  “Slow Motion, come over here and sit on Granddaddy’s lap.” He was such a small man, but he insisted on our intimacy, and it was absolutely big and warm.  He died while I was in elementary school, and I have not known such comfort and ease in a man since.


Contemplating Dying: My Apologies to Natalie Goldberg, For I Found Myself Wanting Death

A Note to Readers: The blog entry below is a response to Natalie Goldberg’s writing prompt “Die” taken from Old Friend from Far Away:The Practice of Writing Memoir.  Improving Writing students were rquired to spend 10 minutes of non-stop writing in reponse to a prompt of their choice; I blogged with them. After class, students were required to re-read their freewrites–to thoughtfully examine their content–and then to rewrite (or type) their responses in a blog.  The link below provides readers my 10-minute in-class freewrite. The blog that follows became something much different.  

10-Minute Freewrite on Goldberg’s “Die” 030113

Lately, I have not been afraid to die.  As a matter of fact, last night I invited death into my bedroom–to take me while I was asleep.  I mighta even begged it to.  That way, I wouldn’t be in pain.  There’d be no mess.  No theatrics.  My dogs would be left alone, however.  Having to pee.  Wanting to go outside.  Wanting me to greet them with my usual kisses on their foreheads. How would they know that I would never come down the steps to relieve them? To greet them?  To give them kisses all over their faces? Would they miss me?  Would my body quickly decay in the 79 degrees of heat that warms my living space? Would my neighbors eventually smell me–or hear the dogs barking–as I suspect they eventually would.  Would the maintenance man enter my home and discover my dead body–sans pajama bottoms–in my bed?  Would he reach for my cell phone to call for help and find, it, too, is dead.  (Because the only two people in my life who call me on a daily basis has called me incessantly, thus killing the battery.) My mother wouldn’t even know I am dead.  She only calls every now and then, which doesn’t bother me–really.  But maybe my Ruzzle friends and my Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram friends would realize my failure to post–to reach out into cyberspace in search of a connected space–and realize I’ve been disconnected.  Maybe they will connect with each other in trying to reconnect with me and realize I am missing.  How long would I lay there, dead, before the world notices I have left it?

Last night I wanted to die cause I found myself reattached to memories that keep me in static places.  Tibetan Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön calls it “stuckness.”  She says our mind has the tendency to stay stuck in dis-ease that mindfulness practices, like loving meditation, can free our minds from.  But, last night I found myself stuck on a memory that cripples me, and I wanted to die–because death is a freedom that requires no practice.

I just wanted to be over it already.  To forget her.  To not feel her.  Miss her.  Want her.  To not be reminded of every single event that made me feel worthless, insecure, and empty.  How can one person have so much power over another’s selfworth?  How could I have given her so much of that power?  I wanted to die last night cause I wanted to stop remembering.  For, remembering sticks me up and keeps me in a stuckness; and I feel so uneasy.  I imagine that stuckness looks like Jocko Graves, who spent hours in cold winter air waiting for General George Washington, until he froze; he–stuck, upright, holding a got damn horse and a lantern.  His dying was his freedom–freed from slavery, oppression, and dehumanization.  And now, centuries later, Jocko’s more alive standing erect as a statue dorning white folks’ lawns then he was a black boy living in America.  Will she remember me like that when I die?  Will the paintings, poems, and postcards I gifted her be the memorabilia that makes me more alive to her when I am dead than I am right now as a living, breathing human being?