Tuesday, January 15, 2013

January 15, 2013: Back to School Hopes, Part Two

[Every new semester brings with it lots of promise and possibilities; since I was on sabbatical in the fall, this will be my first time back in the classroom and the department in seven months, making it that much more of a new start. So this week I’ll be highlighting some of those hopes and goals for my Spring 2013 semester. I’d love to hear some of yours for a crowd-sourced weekend post on our collective springs to come!]
On the inspirations I have received and hope to continue receiving from the student projects in my Ethnic American Literature course.
I wrote at length in this post, and at even greater length in this article for the online journal Teaching American Literature, about my creation of a new Ethnic American Literature syllabus, with a couple main innovations (at least in my own teaching): reading two works at the same time, to make cross-generational connections within similar ethnic or racial communities (between the autobiographies of Frederick Douglass and Richard Wright, for example); and having the students produce not essays or analyses of the readings, but multi-generational family timelines and analysis projects. My goal for the latter choice was to have the students treat their own identities, families, and heritages with the same analytical rigor we’d bring to our readings; and thus, at the same time, to help them connect themselves to the “others” about whom we’d be reading all semester.
I’ve taught this new Ethnic syllabus three times now (this spring’s section will be the fourth), and I would say the projects have definitely helped us achieve (or at least move closer to) those interconnected goals. But they’ve also had an unexpected and not at all unimportant side effect: they have provided all of us, and most definitely me, with complex, varied, and thoroughly inspiring American stories. Every project has included such inspiring details, and in many cases they have helped the students themselves connect much more fully with (or even learn about for the first time) their inspiring ancestors and family histories. But without question some particularly noteworthy individuals have stood out among that impressive cohort, including: the student’s grandmother who immigrated illegally from Mexico, worked in the worst conditions for many decades, and through that effort funded her daughter’s college education and now works instead at the company that daughter founded; the student’s mother who escaped an abusive marriage, received a nursing degree while working two jobs and raising her three children by herself, and inspired her twin daughters (two of my best students) to pursue nursing as well; the student who was raised in foster homes alongside her three younger siblings and who has become a role model for each of them, with all four (at that time) attending or about to begin college.
The students share some of their project’s stories and analyses in end-of-semester presentations, and I’m quite sure that these and many other inspiring individuals have impacted everyone who has heard about them. But again, I can’t overstate how much I personally have been impacted by them, and by realizing how much these students are the culmination (or rather continuation) of such histories. I’ve danced around it long enough in this space, so I’ll just come out and say it: I’m in the midst of getting divorced, and am, among many other emotions, so uncertain about the future, for myself, for my boys, for my family. So neither can I overstate how much I will depend on such inspiring stories, and on the reminders they provide of the importance of perseverence and strength, of responding to the toughest times and circumstances with the best of what we—we Americans, we humans—can be. My students have given me numerous inspiring examples already, and I hope and believe I’ll get many more in the semester to come.
Next spring hopes tomorrow,
PS. So what do you think? Thoughts on this course and these projects? Hopes of yours for the spring you’d share?

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