Monday, May 26, 2014

Steal this lesson: Kelly Welsh's 'Using Nonfiction Texts to Teach Resistance in a Democratic Society'

So, many of us are in the last throes of the school year. If you are emerging, or if you are making your list of summer reading, put Kelly Welsh’s “Using Nonfiction Texts to Teach Resistance in a Democratic Society” (just out in the May issue of English Journal) at the top of the list. Her discussion of why she wanted to teach Melba Beals’s Warriors Don’t Cry is inspiring. The lesson itself is truly stealworthy: the highest praise my pre-service teachers can offer.

She writes about wanting her classroom to be a place where students learn that “change happens in a democratic society because of people who are willing to challenge the injustices and fight for change” (42). She writes of the ways in which schools “attempt to shape and control the behavior of students with the desire to develop people who willingly accept the status quo” (43). But she recognizes and wants to nurture all the ways in which “students represent a culture of opposition” (43).

From this place of fundamental respect for her students, Welsh describes the challenges of teaching a “mostly white, suburban” (42) class who knew little about the Civil Rights Movement. She builds motivation by starting with an activity in which students are asked to read Johnny Jenkins’s famous photograph of Elizabeth Eckford being tormented by pro-segregationist whites on her way to her first day at Central High School in Arkansas in 1957. She moves from this close reading to a discussion of the Anti-Defamation League’s Pyramid of Hate and the video Mighty Times, producedby Teaching Tolerance, about the 1963 march by children in Birmingham, AL. Finally, Welsh offers her students Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” By the end, her students are more than ready to take on Warriors Don’t Cry.

What we liked most about Welsh’s piece is her balanced ambitions. She recognizes that her students are not destined to be English teachers, English majors, or, for some, even college graduates.  Nonetheless, she insists that her classroom be a place where students “realize that they have a voice – that their views matter – simply because they are members of a democratic society where all views matter” (46). And of course, her well crafted lesson, means that, yes, she “can sneak in a little appreciation for some literature and get them to enjoy a book” (46). Even more, her respect for her students as people and her careful planning mean that her students will leave her classroom with the skills necessary to use their voices.

To all those teachers who bemoan the Common Core’s emphasis on informational text, we give you Kelly Welsh. Her lesson is a model for all of us and demonstrates how much can be accomplished by the careful use of a variety of informational texts (photo, ADL piece, letter, memoir). Welsh was building up to Beals, but her lesson could easily have been the prelude to a great unit on Mockingbird. Bravo!

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