[I]t is not those differences between us that are separating us. It is rather our refusal to recognize those differences, and to examine the distortions that result from our misnaming them...
- Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider
Gabrielle Bienasz ’16, Bria Johnson ’14, Chloe Matthews ’14, and Julia Powell ’16
As a teacher and coach, I love the entire process of working with my poetry team on a group piece, from their first conversations to this final performance. With up to four poets collaborating to write, choreograph, and perform a poem together, these pieces offer a powerful challenge to a team. Each year, when my students begin the process of brainstorming, they quickly realize that they need to find a topic that matters to all of them, but that they each have something different to say about. As they decide on their topic and begin to map out on my whiteboard what each poet will contribute, they find that their different identities, perspectives, and experiences are a source of strength. Building on each other’s ideas, the poets work to find the common ground that will bring their piece together and the distinct individual voices that will make it their own, thinking carefully about how their stories will connect and how they will differ. For example, as this process unfolded for “Fences," co-author Chloe Matthews ’14 notes that despite her concerns about how poets’ differences might ultimately link together, "The singular fence was a metaphor we were able to use to firmly imply that, while our different perspectives mattered individually, none were any more or less significant in the grand scheme of it all.” Though I hope to support them with a well-timed question or a push to sharpen an image or explore an idea a bit further, but my role at this stage is mostly as a witness to their creation. And as a witness, appropriately, I find something poetic in the ways that they honor each others’ stories, the connections that they create across race, gender, religion, class, and sexuality that value their differences without minimizing or polarizing.
Because they are adolescents, all of the students I teach are in a critical stage of understanding how their identities are shaped by but exceed these identity markers. Because I teach English, the tools I have to support that endeavor are reading and writing, and they can be powerful tools. I work to pose questions and introduce my students to texts that help them to consider how their own stories intersect with and diverge from the stories of others, that ask them to explore how history and culture shape all of our stories, and that call for them to engage with information that often challenges their beliefs and understandings. We discuss Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s claim that “how [stories] are told, who tells them, when they are told, [and] how many stories are told, are really dependent on power,” and we consider stories’ power "to dispossess and to malign,” but also “to empower and to humanize” by reading and responding to literature that represents identity and difference in many different ways. The results of that work are highly individual: while some students take firm steps toward seeing identity in a critical historical and social context, others dismiss what they see as a political agenda, and many simply build their ability to consider others’ perspectives and extend the range of perspectives they have examined.
I know I share with all my colleagues a commitment to teaching for community, social justice, and respecting the dignity of every person. In my classroom and beyond it, that commitment means recognizing and honoring our differences and our many stories.
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Karin deGravelles is in her sixth year of teaching English in the Upper School at Episcopal. She earned her B.A. in English (literature) from Reed College, her M.A. in English (rhetoric and composition) and Ph.D. in education from Louisiana State University, concentrating in secondary English and curriculum theory. Before coming to Episcopal, she taught in the University Writing Program and managed the LA-STEM Research Scholars Program at LSU. She is passionate about supporting student writers, and she coaches the poetry slam team and sponsors Episcopal’s online literary magazine, Troubadour.