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Ladies and Gentlemen, The Bronx Is Blooming: Part 1

posted: 7.2.13 by Susan Naomi Bernstein

All too often, especially in educational decisions surrounding basic writing, people living with poverty remain absent from discussions of policy and curricula that impact access to higher education. Such policies and curricula may become intractable and calcified. Is it any wonder, under such conditions, that students’ bodies, hearts, and minds grow disengaged?

Last autumn, in my first weeks of teaching in the Bronx, students shared the following concern: “People from other places, including the other boroughs, are always surprised to hear that I come from the Bronx. It’s like they’re surprised that I’m alive or something. Why is that?” My students’ consciousness about the Bronx forced me interrogate my own stereotypes and fears, shaped by such cultural artifacts as The Bronx is Burning, “Fort Apache, The Bronx, even Jonathan Kozol’s Amazing Grace.

How does one begin to describe the Bronx, the poorest of New York City’s five boroughs, and the home of the poorest congressional district in the United States? Indeed, as an English teacher and a nice white lady, I brought a lifetime of unconscious and unexamined stereotypes with me into the classroom in those first days of school. In my experience among people that have never experienced severe economic distress, casual discussions of poverty hover around the extremes. Impoverished people and communities may be depicted in disparaging and dismissive terms. At the same time, such struggles may be unrealistically romanticized, glorifying bootstraps determination, while ignoring the daily toll such determination excises.

After this conversation with my students, I recalled Sandra Cisneros’ vignette in House on Mango Street, “Those Who Don’t,” which describes fears of people living isolated from each other in segregated communities.  When people do not know each other as neighbors or friends, differences in race, ethnicity, and socio-economic class exacerbate already existing fears, even as those fears may be denied or rendered invisible.

“Those who don’t” miss the sense of place that holds deep meaning for those “who do.” Those “who do” offer experiences that are profoundly intertwined with the collective life of the community.   In our own contexts as writing teachers, we “who don’t” live isolated from an understanding of the worlds and words that shape our students’ learning, and that subsequently enrich our teaching. While we debate which textbooks and novels to present in class and whether or not to teach grammar, none of our work would be relevant without our students’ commitment— and the writing that evolves from that commitment.

The point of access to community is crucial. Our students’ life experiences create contexts for coming to writing. If we hope to form communities of writers in our classrooms, we need to become aware of the contexts in which our students emerge as writers. When these contexts contrast visibly from our own lives, we need to interrogate our preconceived notions and values surrounding difference. This process of awareness fosters empathy for our students’ struggles as writers, and allows us to work with our students to begin to create more accessible classrooms and more sustainable progress in writing.

In my next post, I will write about an assignment that addresses these goals, and the students’ approaches to realize the outcomes for this assignment.

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