Sunday, October 16, 2011

Joy and Justice

Notes from Linda Christensen’s
Introduction to Teaching for Joy and Justice

What does Linda Christensen mean when she talks of teaching for joy and justice?
“My curriculum” writes Linda Christensen “uses students’ lives as critical texts we mine for stories, celebrate with poetry, and analyze through essays that affirm their right to a place in our society.” Christensen explains that teaching for joy and justice means locating the curriculum in students’ lives. For her, the language arts classroom is a place of personal empowerment where students can look at their lives, examine why things are unfair or unjust, and use their writing to respond.

The fact that a learner lacks skills does not mean he or she lacks intelligence. Teaching for joy and justice, says Christensen, begins with “the non-negotiable belief that all students are capable of brilliance.” The educator’s duty is to attempt to “coax the brilliance out of them.” Christensen advocates connecting skill acquisition through content that is personally and socially relevant to the learner. Within this process, she says there is joy in recognizing the learning and justice in recognizing the learner. Christensen speaks of a breakthrough essay from of a student named Michael and explains, “There’s joy because he finally nails this form of academic writing, but there is also justice in talking back to years of essays filled with red marks and scarred with low grades.”

What does Christensen mean when she says she longs “teach the writer not the paper?” 
Christensen states her belief that all students can write and have something important to say. She insists educators must “build writers by illuminating their gifts instead of burying them” in corrections and rules. This involves carefully measuring critique -- exploring one or two feedback items that the learner can truly grasp and incorporate into his or her work.

Students naturally resist a curriculum of correction and fault fixing. Christensen insists our students’ language is an inherited history to be discovered and celebrated. It is “a treasure of words and memories and the sounds of home, not a social fungus to be scraped from their mouths and papers.” When we start by thinking learners need to be "fixed," our curriculum seeks to erase students' home language. Such a curriculum fails to find the “strength and beauty in the experience and heritage” learners bring with them to school.

What is Christensen’s Reading Without Words assignment?
Linda Christensen speaks of recognizing and valuing the multiple literacies in learners’ daily lives. In her Reading Without Words lesson, she asked learners to interview family members about ways they “read” the world. She describes how students shared their findings: “Troy wrote about how his father, a long-haul truck driver, read his engine and the highway. Mario wrote about how his mother, a hairdresser, read hair and heads. Carl wrote about how his grandfather read rivers when he took him fishing.” Christensen is convinced that when learners write about their lives, “they have more incentive to revise the paper, and they care more about learning about mechanics.”

According to Christensen, educators need to construct curriculum around ideas that matter and that connect students to their community and world. Teachers should employ books, stories, poems, and essays that “help students critically examine the world.”

What are the benefits of using poetry in the classroom?
“Poetry levels the writing playing field,” Christensen writes. “Students who struggle in other areas of literacy education often succeed in poetry.” According to Christensen poetry is of benefit in the classroom in the following ways: unleashes verbal dexterity; helps build community; teaches literary analysis; is a means of sharing our hardships and joys; turns pain into art; teaches us how to be a human. 


Christensen, L. (2009). Teaching for joy and justice: Re-Imaging the language arts classroom.  Milwaukee, Wisconsin: Rethinking Schools Publications.


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