Call to Action Assignment

My brother is dead. His silver, special lead-lined casket cascaded through the water as the soft rains sent ripples in the ocean. My brother is dead.

About a week ago, I received some hate mail on Facebook messenger: my brother deserved to die. My brother deserved to die because he is white. That is what she wrote to me. I blocked the person; she was a former creative writing student of mine who, up until a year ago, would post historically accurate research of Irish discrimination in America.

I know the protests will die down. I also understand what George Floyd and Breonna Taylor’s family will spend the next several years fighting for; I know the nasty tricks that will be used to discredit them and keep the police officers out of jail. I know their wrongful death suits may possibly unravel. I know because I’ve been there.

I know what it is like to have panic attacks when I see a police officer or a police car; I shake, my breathing quickens, I am about to hyperventilate, my pulse skyrockets, I sweat, I fear. 

My brother is dead. I spent the next five years being pulled over by cops and harassed, spat at, pulled out of my car, frisked and worse, yelled at – being the worst kind of criminal on the planet. “What did I do, officer?” “I don’t need to tell you.” Of course not, because I didn’t break any laws. I also know if I were black, one of those times, I might have also died. Being white didn’t save me from being harassed and assaulted by police officers and denied the ability to take action against them during my family’s wrongful death civil case, but it did keep me from being murdered at the hands of law enforcement.

It didn’t stop my brother’s murder.

I believe systematic racism exists, and I could spend the next couple of pages listing all the examples through history, but that won’t bring my brother back to life, it won’t bring George Floyd back to life or Breonna Taylor’s.

Yet, according to my former student, it is because systematic racism exists; my brother deserved to die. I don’t think that is the message we want to send. We should show solidarity and not division.

Like Breonna, my brother never committed a crime; however, he was targeted because he was different: diagnosed with bi-polar disorder years earlier, he was in a manic phase, with a long red-beard; full mountain man look.

The police officers didn’t murder him, but they also did not follow proper protocol. Five hours after the woman who agreed over the phone to rent my brother an apartment called the cops and lied about his trespassing, they took him into custody by dragging him out of his place of employment – a church. Instead of taking him to the emergency room for a psych evaluation or to the police station for a proper booking, they drove him straight to jail.  

The guards accidentally murdered him while having their kicks – induced hypothermia via forced cold water from high powered fire hoses then physically beating him.

My brother is dead, and even though per capita more black people die at the hands of law enforcement, it doesn’t mean my brother deserved to die.

My former student, who now in her early thirties, still called me Momma T, still came to me for advice, still when feeling creative would ask for a writing assignment, called me racist this past week because of what my demands are:

  1. A four-year criminal justice degree for ALL police officers before being admitted into the police academy.
  2. Stop training police officers that citizens are the enemy, and it is an us vs. them world out there.
  3. Psychiatric evaluations for guards, wardens, and officers to stave off those who would abuse their position of authority.
  4. Overturn Qualified Immunity

These have been my demands since my brother’s murder. They will always be my demands; I will not waver; I do not believe they make me a racist; in fact, these changes could help curb some of the systematic racism.  

I am not protesting on the streets; I am protesting through words and letters to our congressmen and other government officials.

My brother is dead, and he didn’t deserve to die. Nor do all the other victims of color or other unique qualities that make someone different.

Based on my experience, I strongly feel that it is crucial to recognize privilege, but understand that recognizing it is different from pretending one has not suffered, has not experienced injustice.

What can we do, we can set forth a multi-layered call to action. As a teacher, the ways we can engage our students would be to discuss the following actions and then give them a “pick one” writing option post discussion. 

  1. Recognize that systematic racism exists and is hurtful to minorities.
    1. Write letters to politicians demanding changes that include one or more of the following and/or other elements you feel strongly about to help stop Systematic Racism.
      1. Create a national curriculum and board for police officers.
      2. Stop the current overzealous standardized test practices. 
      3. Stop the gerrymandering of district lines.
      4. Stop the redlining practices that are still in existence today.
  2. Recognize our privileges and our injustices
    1. Write a narrative that includes all or some of the following:
      1. What are your biases, and how do/why do you believe you have them?
      2. Describe your privileges.
        1. How are your privileges different from someone who
          1. is of the same race.
          2. is of a different race.
      3. Describe and give examples of injustice.
        1. What injustices do minorities suffer?
        2. What injustices do Caucasians (the majority) suffer?
        3. What are some of the similarities and differences?
      4. How/ why are those with disabilities – physical or mental considered minorities who suffer systematic racism?
      5. Explain with examples how pretending one has not suffered; one has not experienced injustice no matter the race be harmful to stopping Systematic Racism?

Cues from My Students: A Writing and Peer Review Assignment

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Several years ago, I witnessed three of my students, who, after reading Ruta Septeys’ book, Salt to the Sea, decided they wanted to emulate her writing. These girls, all in my eighth-grade ELA intervention course, started a book club to discuss how Septeys’ used language to convey meaning. Thanks to these girls’ enthusiasm, I revisited the concept of writing center groups in the classroom. After all, teachers strive for students questioning how authors convey meaning with words and sentence structures during peer review,

My class was finishing up a unit entitled The Long Journey Home. We read A Long Walk to Water, excerpts of Nelson Mandela’s speeches, a short story called “Diamond Land,” and watched a film entitled The Lost Boys of Sudan. 

I studied Flower’s paradigm of the madman, the architect, the carpenter, and the judge and also learned to rename rough drafts to downdrafts; therefore, I chose to employ some of these methods in the draft process. I told my students to think about everything we read in class and, for the entire ninety minutes, write their thoughts down, write the connections between the stories and film, and if they found any connections with our unit and their independent novel. I told my students we were in the madman phase.

Frances Christensen, in his book, Notes Toward a New Rhetoric stated, “In composition courses, we do not really teach our captive charges to write better – we merely expect them to.” (Christensen &; Christensen, 1967, p. 129) During the school year, teachers have little time to teach a type of writing before they take a high stakes test on the writing. There is no time to develop fluency or sentence writing skills. 

Collins, Lee, Fox, and Madigan from the State University of New York at Buffalo in 2017 completed a writing-intensive reading comprehension study. They observed that using interactive writing assignments with critical thinking questions about the reading as opposed to fact-finding questions would increase reading comprehension. 

I was praying my writing assignment, via the madman stage, asking students to ask questions and critically think back to our discussions and notes, would help their writing and comprehension. When the students completed their 90-minute madman downdraft, I collected the papers, read them, and wrote what I felt their thesis was and gave them a more targeted paper to write by connecting their thesis to a specific issue and audience.

 

A couple of days later, I set the students into groups of three for peer review. I gave them a peer review sheet I wanted them to answer as best they could, and I wanted them to CRISP their peer’s writing. I kept in mind that these were still grade eight students in a struggling reading course and needed guidance. Each group used a set of various colored highlighters for the crisping activity.

My three girls took this writing assignment and peer review to new heights as they poured over their sentences in their papers and compared them to Ruta Septeys’ sentence structure. Their final drafts indicated a new advanced level of writing they credited with reading and discussing Septeys’ book.

In the current trend of student-centered learning, the idea of students self-teaching may be a plus; however, “Despite the frequent use of self-teaching, it fails to capitalize on the potential benefits of the social environment on learning. Also, not using models may limit the level of skill acquisition.” (Schunk &; Zimmerman, 2006, p. 14). In Schunk and Zimmerman’s 2007 study on self-efficiency and self-regulation, they scrutinized various past studies. They completed studies determining teacher-directed lessons via modeling help to teach student efficacy and self-regulation strategies. One such review from 2002, summarized research on college writing editing skills. “Students were assigned to one of six conditions. Mastery modeling students watched a professor demonstrate the revision strategy flawlessly; the coping-model students observed a model who initially made and corrected errors; and the no-model students had no exposure to a teacher or writing example. Results showed studying the coping model led to greater increases in writing self-efficacy.” (Schunk &; Zimmerman, 2006, p. 20) The final results also showed students who did not have any model made no gains in their writing abilities or self-regulation. 

Another instructional context would be student-led peer revision groups. Circling back to my eighth-grade students, even though their model (and teacher in a way) was a flawless, published book, they learned from me using examples of rough drafts, revision notes, and final draft writing since the beginning of the year.

My students had the best of both worlds, modeling writing in all its frustrations and revisions with me, falling in love with a book and wanting to use it as a model for writing, and trust in one another during peer review.

Bibliography

Christensen, F., & Christensen, B. (1967). Notes Toward a New Rhetoric: 9 Essays forTeachers (3rd ed.). Bangor, ME: Booklocker.com.

Collins, J. L., Lee, J., Fox, J. D., & Madigan, T. P. (2017). Bringing Together Reading and Writing: An Experimental Study of Writing Intensive Reading Comprehension in Low-Performing Urban Elementary Schools. Reading Research Quarterly, 52(3), 311-332. doi:10.1002/rrq.175

Schunk, D. H., & Zimmerman, B. J. (2006). Influencing Childrens Self-Efficacy and Self-Regulation of Reading and Writing Through Modeling. Reading & Writing Quarterly, 23(1), 7-25. doi:10.1080/10573560600837578