I have changed as a teacher. From the time I started teaching many years ago, I evolved from one who depended on curricula, scope and sequence, assessments, etc., to one who depends on the dialogue shared with my students and myself as a way to assess learning. I also have evolved from feeling that I am the master of knowledge to being a partner in this learning journey with my students. We have a reciprocal learning experience as well: I learn from my students and they learn from me. This wondering about my evolution as a teacher also makes me wonder what are the implications of what I have learned about myself. Can other teachers find themselves at this same space where they rely less on plan books, tests, text books, etc. and just read, discuss, and listen to each other? Can students actually learn this way? In order to test this wondering I started a school where this is mainly what the students and I do. It is two years old now and already one of my 11th graders is taking classes at the local community college, with the other college students. She came to me unable to focus and get much out of school just a year ago, and she already has become a very different being. By students being given the freedom to wonder, they learn more about themselves and the goals they want to reach. By taking away testing, they are free from the apprehension of scoring at a certain level. At the same time, when the above student decided to enter community college early, she had to take a proficiency test, since she was so young. She asked me to tutor her for the test and she passed. She still learned how to take a test, but more importantly, she developed her own educational goals. The students from this study all talk about how my giving them freedom to read and learn for themselves, gave them the intellectual tools necessary to just sort of figure life out for themselves, regardless if they are taking computer engineering, accounting or film-making. They felt equipped because they were cultivated to think.
Liberal education is the art of apprehending, understanding and knowing (Nelson, 2001). This is “free” education. Could we as teachers possibly develop those who could be the next Steve Jobs, Bill Gates or Barak Obama if students were given more freedom in their educational journey, simply because students are given time and freedom to explore wherever their minds take them? What if students were given more freedom to face challenges to their intellect as an equal learner with the teacher? Even if teachers are within a school compelled more by a planned curriculum (my school is a school that practices the Sudbury model), they can build in small spaces of time for students to practice free thinking. Here are some possible ways that this can take place, no matter what type of teaching/learning model the school a teacher finds themselves may practice: hold a book club during a lunch hour or recess, where students read and discuss shorter Great Books texts; have an after-school program where teachers and students engage in dialogue about rich literature; assign a Great Books text once a quarter or once a month, and invite students to present arts based/creative interpretations of the texts at various “free pockets” during the school year.
The most important “tool of engagement” for any of the above suggestions is dialogue. Giving students the freedom to interpret the text for themselves, without our interruptions, is the most imperative “tool of engagement.” I recall what Rosenblatt (1995) says (shared in an earlier chapter),
Meaning emerges as the reader carries on a give and take with the signs on the page…The two-way, reciprocal relation explains why the meaning is not ‘in’ the text or ‘in’ the reader. The poem or the novel or the play exists in the transaction that goes on between reader and text. (p. 27)
It is through their freedom to dialogue that the walls or masks begin to break away. When those walls dissipate, then students become open to exploring new and creative ways to express their understanding of the text. Rosenblatt (1983) said, “Fundamentally, the process of understanding a work implies a re-creation of it” (p.13). Students develop confidence in themselves and in their minds when they can freely express themselves in the dialogue, and then also be given that freedom to share their understanding in creative ways. A great example of this is when the slaves created the Negro Spirituals as a way to express their connection to the Bible. Much of art is developed because the reader could freely engage in an artistic re-creation of a text. How would this freedom affect the rest of students’ learning and school life? I wonder…
Upon deciding on the title for this study I wrestled with how to name the racial identity of my students. I understand that there are stirring reasons as to why we (my students, myself and others) should be called “Black.” I understand the struggle. It is hard to identify ourselves with a country that once enslaved us, counted us as no more important than cattle, and still struggles to find a “place” for us here. It is also hard to identify ourselves with a country that is hundreds of years removed from us and across the waters—Africa. Baldwin revealed this same struggle when he said, “At the same time I had no other heritage which I could possibly hope to use–I had certainly been unfitted for the jungle or the tribe” (Baldwin, 1955/1998, p. 7). Yet, it has been through reading this literature of Western culture that I was more compelled to name myself and my students by the space that most reflects some type of cultural root, as flimsy a root it may be.
As the great great grandchild of slaves, I felt drawn to Africa. When I reflect on my personal history and how I was raised, my first and middle name being Yoruba, and having been raised to embrace my West African roots as much as possible, it is very difficult for me to not name myself “African.” Also, the school where I taught these students even went so far as to have students wear uniforms made from African material. For this particular study, those of us who participated in it, share a connection with Africa. This is one of the reasons their parents chose this school as well. However, we were all born in America and live within the American culture. So, we approach these texts as a person of African descent and as an American. Regardless of how we got here and what that naming may mean with regards to our history, it is how we see ourselves.
Now that the study has ended, I realize that anyone can approach these books, regardless of how they name themselves. If they identify more with being Black, connecting mainly to the struggle and power associated with finding our space here in America, a person can see oneself in these texts. If people identify with being a Person of Color or Asian or Hispanic or Jewish—these books tell the human story, but it is up to individual persons to decipher how these books speak to them and the name they call themselves. This process of bringing our personal selves to the Great Conversation gives us the freedom to name ourselves and to insert that perspective into the Conversation. In doing that we also identify texts of other cultures and races that could be added to this list. As we find ourselves at the intersection of these books, we are invited to wonder as Socrates compelled us to do, and in wondering together we become unified as the human race, yet we retain our individual selves. What would happen if there were a school or a classroom or a class session or a workshop or some type of forum where students of all races and backgrounds could come together to share their personal identities with this literature of ancient times? What would happen if as we read the Great Books, we also read the Koran, the Torah, studied the Adinkra symbols, the writings of Khalil Gibran and so many more? What would we call them then, since they tell the HUMAN story? The Great Books of Human Civilizations? I wonder…
W.E.B. DuBois, in his speech, “Galileo Galilei” encourages the graduates of Fisk University to consider more intellectual/academic schooling as opposed to the vocational training encouraged by Booker T. Washington. He used Galileo as an example of what is possible for persons, black or white, to accomplish if they simply open their minds to wonder. He said:
But it is in such half-finished biography that men do mischief in the world and blind the eyes of young men and women like these graduates here. It sweeps dust in their eyes and discord in their ears, and to the eternal thunder of questioning, “How?” it returns only the answer to the answered question, “What?” Easy it is to tell what men have done in this world—Lincoln, and Hamilton made us a nation. But—How? Ask the men who will do. Stars there are; them we see and know, but—How do men reach them?—What of the Way, the Power, and the Opposition?
…From the time of Dante in the thirteenth up to the blossoming of Petrarch in the fifteenth century, Italy had been seeing life anew. Galileo was a child of this awakening. The impulse behind him was the Wonder of an open mind at the mechanism of the universe. (DuBois, 1908, p. 37)
DuBois implored the graduates to choose this path of wonder, and the possibilities of what they might discover and accomplish could be limitless, just like it was for Galileo. I read this and I imagine that DuBois is talking to me—he is talking to my students and my son! In an age where one could only look at the sky above to see a star, Galileo’s impulse to wonder gave him the wisdom to invent the telescope, discover the law of falling bodies, discover the moons of Jupiter, explain the reflected lights of the planets, set the laws of cohesion, apply the law of the pendulum to the creation of the clock, and most of all revealed that the sun was the center of the universe (Dubois, 1908). With wonder anything is possible. With freedom wonder becomes possible for anyone. Through the Great Books we are incited to wonder more about our shared humanity and to share that experience together. My journey into the Great Books has incited me to wonder about my identity as an African American woman, as a teacher and as a facilitator of engaging others in the Great Books.
People started calling me Dr. Anika Prather before I finished my defense, but I really had a hard time walking in that title until it was official. After I turned in the draft that caused my adviser to decide to set the date for my defense is when I started using it “a little.” Even then I felt uncomfortable with it. I wanted to make sure I had done EVERY part of the journey. So on Tuesday, April 4, and with several of my high school students watching (I took some with me who wanted to go), and wearing my Adinkra symbol dress in honor of the ancestors who bled and died so I could be here, I defended my dissertation. It went well and I felt good. My husband says I seemed so comfortable. I think I was so excited to finally tell the whole story of why I love the Great Books and why I feel they are relevant to the African American people. To everyone’s surprise, the defense was not just about these books that a group of white men deemed as the “fount of all knowledge” but I reveal how the reading of these books have assisted in the liberation of the African American people. The ancestors read them to gain the literacy needed to fight for our freedom! I also make the case for adding to this list so that all races, cultures and backgrounds can contribute to the Great Conversation. So it is official. I am Dr. Anika T. Prather or you can call me Dr. NIKA!
Now it is time for the next part of the journey and I look forward to inviting others to join me in the continued reading and discussion of these texts and the others that I hope to add to the list! Won’t you join me?
Well, on Tuesday, April 4, 2017 at 11 am this long 12 year journey will come to an end. My adviser and I spoke by phone on how the defense will go today. Then I opened my door and my graduation invitations had arrived. I started to cry. It’s hard to believe that I am actually done. Every single day of this journey seemed beyond impossible and yet with just moving forward each day, step by step, I finally made it to the finish line. To GOD be the glory.
Finding Anam Caras
From different worlds we came together
Around a table
Around the books
Of yesteryears and present day
From different generations we came together
Around a desire to learn
Around a desire to discover
Our common humanness and inner selves
From different backgrounds we came together
Around a space of dialogue
Around a curiosity to understand
How our souls are joined
How our minds, hearts and very essences are joined
How we are Anam Caras
With those of yesterday, today, tomorrow…
and each other