Imagine a really, really tough inner city school, where students are often out of control. Imagine a classroom of students of color, seemingly waiting to drop out. Then imagine them reading Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon.
That’s what happened in Bronwyn LaMay’s classroom, where she worked with a class for two long, arduous years. Resistant to writing and reading, and (rightfully) suspicious of school and what they saw as utterly meaningless assignments, these students were a hard sell. But Bronwyn is a master teacher—tough and street smart and full of conviction that her students are bright and ambitious. So she designed a curriculum aimed at maximum engagement. She designed five assignments around the theme of love—and then introduced the students to Morrison’s work. It wasn’t quick or easy, but the students slowly responded to the first assignment—a personal essay on “what is love”? While the students couldn’t define “love” precisely, they all felt its power in their lives, whether they embraced or rejected its principles. As one student writes, “the love’s there, it might be hard to find, but it’s one thing that can keep us together.” Others insisted love didn’t exist—or that it hurt too much. Or that it was always denied. Eventually they read Morrison’s magnificent work—page by page—and debated the kinds of love they saw at work in it.
Now LaMay has written a book about this group of remarkable students and their journey through and beyond Song of Solomon (or SOS, as the students called it, without apparent irony). Writing Love and Agency in the High School Classroom, is a richly theorized look at how students disaffected from school can become engaged. With love at its heart, this book introduces us to Hazel, Diego, Kylie and others who come to life in its pages. Throughout, LaMay shows that as the students begin to learn about narrative structure and other literary elements that animate SOS, and as they explore various meanings and forms of love, and as they begin to write—and write—about these issues, they begin to rethink their relationship to school. Eventually, they begin to rethink their life stories, again through writing and reading.
While personal narrative is key to this journey, it would be a mistake to read Writing Love and Agency as grounded only in the personal or concerned only with personal stories. Rather, LaMay shows how deeply intertwined personal stories and academic writing can be. We meet Kylie, for instance, a student diagnosed with a learning disability and a quiet, unobtrusive presence in the class who didn’t participate and who rarely did any of the work, especially writing. The “love narrative” got a response from her, however, and she wrote all the assignments, both personal and academic. And as she wrote, LaMay notes that her “personal and academic writing began to inform one another in ways that were representative of many students in the class.” The flexibility of the five core writing assignments, LaMay’s steady but non-directional guidance, her steadfastness, and her intense and careful listening all helped students to connect to this “school writing” on their own terms in ways that allowed them to grow and, potentially, to change. As their personal narratives and their academic explorations of a literary text intertwined, their sense of agency grew.
It may go without saying that choosing Morrison’s novel was a gamble. At first, many students resisted; they would not read. But as LaMay began to read the book aloud, they came closer, and then closer. The characters and their life stories emerged as real, living people, people whose stories and counterplots in some cases matched those of students in the class. And then they read. They read this book with what I call a “fine tooth eye,” exploring, questioning, investigating, pushing to dig deeper into the narrative and to find both meaning and truth. They argued passionately about “Milkman moments” and about whether the characters had agency or were simply acted upon. They returned to scenes over and over, searching for deeper understanding. And most of all, they connected this book and its stories to their own lives. Together, these students stand as a testament to the power of Morrison’s imagination and to her concept of “generous love.”
Writing Love and Agency is a book about what really matters in school. And what really matters is courage to know ourselves as teachers, with all our biases and flaws; love for ourselves as teacher/learners and love for our students as people as well as students; openness and listening and respect that open the doors for strong relationships; and time to commit to the effort.
LaMay’s book is in production now, being published by Teachers’ College Press. I believe teachers of writing everywhere will gain as much from it as I have. And, yes, love has everything to do with it.
[Image: Reading by Sam Greenhalgh on Flickr]