Monday, September 7, 2015

Behind the Mask: Tupac's Rose, Introducing Rhetoric, and Surprising Revelations

I am constantly blown away by my students' vulnerability, perseverance, and courage. But I can only appreciate those qualities when I create the conditions for them to feel safe enough to share their stories with me. Often, that's tough to do given the pressure to meet our learning goals and objectives.

So it's on me to figure out how I can do "double-duty" in the class, i.e., find activities that meet a legitimate learning objective and that allows students to share something that helps me appreciate them for the three dimensional human beings they are.

Luckily, since our class is about strengthening rhetorical skills, I get to choose texts that serve the needs of textual analysis and that lend themselves for introspection and personal reflection. To demonstrate and practice the sort of rhetorical analysis we will do all semester, we analyzed s poem by Tupac Shakur, "The Rose that Grew From Concrete" from an anthology of the same name.

Using the poem was an effective "test case" for the type of work we're going to do all semester. No doubt Shakur's fame helped make the lesson relevant as did his message. Students easily identified Shakur's use of imagery that supports his big message: that we should celebrate the success of those who overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles ( the rose that grows from the concrete). They pointed out that "cracks" represent opportunities, albeit slim, "fresh air" stands for the resources needed to thrive, and "natural law" symbolizes the socially and culturally constructed discourses that often serves as a barrier to success. Students also noted Shakur's choice to open with a provocative question ("Did hear about the rose . . .? ") which has a gossipy, hush-hush quality that compels his audience to keep reading the poem.

The follow up assignment included a short reflection/response paper, a reading journal entry to discuss how Shakur's words reflected their experiences. Students' responses moved me deeply, reminding me of the stories behind the bright and shiny faces (and just as importantly, the closed, impassive ones) that showed up the first week of school.

A large number of students wrote about race, stereotyping, bulling, poverty, and urban decay. This probably has to do with the symbols of urbanity and the associations students make with the poet/singer. Obstacles adjacent to themes related to Shakur's music also included cultural difference (children of immigrants), language diversity (being one of few English speakers in a class of Spanish speakers), and identity ("I'm not American enough").

A few mentioned physical limitations and emotional barriers, especially depression. I had forgotten that the onset of depression is a big risk for teens and young adults (check out resources for depression here, here, and here).

What saddened me the most were the several mentions of lack of parental support, absent parental figures, and even parents who mocked their children's dreams. Students shared about parental figures who died, parents whose work took them away from home, and parents who aren't able to financially or emotionally support their children's path to college.

Finally, there were plenty of responses that, I believe, were less about external or imposed obstacles than the student's responses to the obstacles.. These included insecurity, lack of confidence, paralyzing self-consciousness, inability to stand up for one's self, and giving in to peer pressure.These answers appear to be outcomes of facing barriers. But these traits do not reflect in-born character flaws or innate personality defects. They are the result of the concrete, the natural laws, and the lack of fresh air that stifled those students' growth. I think of the confidence little kids have, their innate self-love, courage, and outspokenness. I wondered how some of the students lost that confidence they had when they were younger, what happened to their ability to speak up for themselves.

I feel honored to peek behind the personae students wear when they come to my class. What was meant to be a lesson in rhetorical analysis for them ended up being a bigger lesson for me about the fully realized people in the desks in front of me. Their responses are a call-to-action, urging me to attend to students hearts as I work with their minds. It's not that I should let up on the rigor I must provide; that's my charge. At the same time, the degree to which the people in my class feel validated potentially limits how far we can go toward meeting our shared goals.