Anna West Interview – July 23, 2015
Since this interview, President Obama visited McKinley High School in Baton Rouge. Two of Anna’s students, Kaiya Smith and Amber E’v Torrence wrote poems for the President, which were presented to him as framed prints. Listen to the story and read the poems here. Anna thanks Forward Arts for all of their contributions in working with the students.
What is English Amped?
English Amped started in the fall of 2014 as my dissertation research project. It was a year-long participatory ethnography in which I collaborated with various partners to create an alternative high school English program in the middle of a public high school. The idea was to tap into the transformative and critical possibilities of English education in an urban public high school by opening up English classrooms as sites for imagining and organizing, bringing folks from the school, university, and wider community into relationship with one another so that we could re-imagine and re-make the experience of an English class through critically engaged reading, writing, and research. Last year we met for two hours a day with one group of juniors, and this year that same group of students, who are now seniors, continue to work together in a double-block class, as well as a new group of juniors who started together this year. We’ve also developed a professional learning community as a space for teachers, college students, and professors working with the project to continuously build our knowledge as we study, reflect, and plan with one another. Our work is grounded in critical literacy, and we draw on approaches such as participatory action research and culturally sustaining pedagogies. We’re constantly exploring ways to infuse the humanities with civic engagement, and civic engagement with the humanities, recognizing both as ways of knowing and taking action in the world.
Right now we’re working with the school district and the university to expand the program in years to come, creating something that we plan to call the Civic Humanities Academy at McKinley High School. This will be a program that builds the capacity of high school students, and all of us, to think and act as citizens. We are reimagining how humanities coursework opens pathways to community engagement, using collaborative public art and research as a way to better understand and solve some of the most pressing issues in our society. We are building this as a partnership between Louisiana State University (LSU) and McKinley High School. McKinley is an important school in Baton Rouge, it was the first African-American high school in the South, and has been an important institution for Baton Rouge’s people for generations. The high school is less than a mile away from the LSU, which is a historically white university. Both of these institutions and their surrounding communities have been profoundly structured by these racialized histories. The question around this is: how do we take the resources that exist in both of these spaces and bring them together in new ways to see new possibilities for how people can learn together?
How do you bring resources at LSU to the local community?
Initially, I was teaching at the school as part of my dissertation research, which was unpaid, but by the middle of the first year, the college began supporting a position to work on the project. This year we secured a second graduate position, and hope to eventually develop a small concentration for graduate students interested in critical humanities pedagogy. Faculty members have been generous with their time, as have numerous community organizations and individuals. By being embedded at the high school, but constantly thinking in terms of how to open up the high school
to various other kinds of teaching and learning environments, my colleagues and I are positioned to invite people into mutual relationships that we might not have otherwise imagined.
The other thing we’re doing is working with undergraduates who are studying to be English teachers at LSU. We’ve created an LSU independent study track to do field experience in the McKinley classroom with a focus on critical teacher education; five undergraduates took part in that track last year, and there are four students participating this year.
I taught in the teacher education program at LSU as a graduate student and heard the complaints from undergraduates that the program was “all theory and no game.” There was a general attitude of disbelief that classrooms could be transformed to look more like the models of education that are theorized in the literature of critical pedagogy. It occurred to me at some point that students really need to see concrete models of possibility. I kept noticing that students were excited about alternative methodologies, but when they went into schools and confronted the reality of testing and a fear-driven environment of “this is how it’s always been done,” they thought these alternatives we studying in our college classes could never really happen. So, they needed to be part of concrete alternatives, which is the idea behind the undergraduate involvement in English Amped. They bring a lot to the high school classes as part of this larger network of people teaching and learning together, and they also get to experience another kind of high school English education, which they will take with them and apply in all kinds of ways.
How did the project start?
Most of my work before going to graduate school has been in community-based educational spaces, outside of school ways of learning that sometimes can take up residence inside of schools. I’ve always been curious: how porous are these school walls? English Amped was conceived with McKinley High School teacher, Destiny Cooper. We were both in graduate school at the same time and wondering how we would re-enter our professional lives without losing the space for reflection and imagining that graduate school offers. Normally, Destiny taught 150 students at a time, and in that environment you don’t get to slow down and be reflective about your practice. We realized that by working together we could create more space for practitioners to reflect, and more space for people in the academy to put knowledge into practice. Now there are two graduate students and three high school teachers involved in the project, and so that space to step up/step back and learn in a collaborative infrastructure is growing even more.
The project was also influenced by all of the scholarship that has been emerging in the last decade or so in the field of critical youth studies, where people are really exploring how to engage in critical participatory action research (CPAR). This is an approach to research that takes seriously the bind between research and action, and that also reframes assumptions about how knowledge is produced and where knowledge lies. I didn’t want to go into this project as a teacher-researcher without also tapping into the knowledge of students as collaborators, as researchers themselves, so we structured a lot of what we were doing around CPAR in a way that is infused with the arts. Last year we kicked everything off with Story Circles, a method that we borrowed came from Junebug Productions in New Orleans. Students told stories that we then adapted into Forum Theatre scenes using an approach developed by the theater pedagogue Augusto Boal. From there, we developed research questions, from which we then created research groups. The groups that formed last year were investigated questions that had to do with racism and white privilege, sexual violence, racial profiling, and educational justice. These areas of research were derived from students’ experiences, their questions and concerns, and they drove the curriculum for the rest of the year.
How did the students turn their theatre into research?
We first laid a groundwork for examining the stories we have been told, the “master narratives” that we carry around with us, and how these stories stand in some strange and contradictory ways to our lived experiences. Something as simple a reading a chapter from Howard Zinn’s “Peoples’ History” about Columbus was a huge revelation for many of our students. They began to crack open the ideas that there’s not a stable capital “Truth” out there, and this became an entry for asking a lot of critical questions about how knowledge is positioned. Using writing, oral storytelling, theater, and critical lenses, we began to crack open the ways that ideologies work in our daily lives. Reading critically is about being able to see those sub-texts, whether in books or online, or in our daily lives. Using theater to represent and analyze lived experience as a form of text certainly helped us to break open those relationships between textual knowledge and the knowledge you carry in your gut. So, there is a kind of ongoing dialectic between these ways of knowing.
Students then did research by going out into the world and asking people real questions, not only book research, but designing surveys and going out and interviewing people and then doing the analysis and writing to explore what they were learning. We also explored poetry and theatre as ways represent what they’d learned.
This is a critical literacy approach, grounded in traditions of critical pedagogues like Paulo Friere – “reading the word and the world,” reading them both, and reading them together, so that we can take action and transform ourselves and the world. We want to tap into the immediate questions, the questions with real consequences about how our livers are structured, like “Why is it like this? How could it be different?”
Say more about the collaborative research and story-telling process.
We wanted students to own their work as readers and writers, so three days a week we did something called Open Reading and Writing Studio. Students could read or write whatever they wanted to during that time, with the idea being that too often school is a space where people are just
rewarded by how they play the game, like “write this,” and they write this, which is more about obedience than making something that you care about. Where’s the room for what you want to do? Open Reading and Writing Studio threw open the doors for students to develop their own reading and writing goals, which was sometimes a total mad house because it was such a contrast to the command and control teaching that students have been exposed to for so long in urban schools. But we feel that it’s important for students to learn how to shape their own purposes, to see something out from idea to product. This is the skill set of the people who run the world, and why shouldn’t our students have those experiences, too? So, we’ve persisted, and we’ve seen students learn how to manage that autonomy, and we’ve also learned some ways to better support it. Every 6 weeks students turn in a portfolio to share their work along the way. They were expected to write multiple drafts and they worked together in peer conferences and editing. They were also required to publish something every 6 weeks, by which we mean get it out into the world in some real way that goes beyond “school work.” And so we work together to find ways to get writing out into the world through readings, letters, exchanges, all kinds of writing for public purposes.
It can be a powerful thing for high school students to enter into public conversations. Last fall, there was a summit on African-American male education at LSU and we took our students to it. It was interesting because it was mainly academic folks, but the students had this experience where they recognized themselves as the objects of the discourse. It was kind of a revelation as students began putting together things they were hearing in that space with things we were talking about in our class, they realized they had an opportunity – and a responsibility – to speak. It was really a kind of electric space because in the Q&A after the panels their hands were shooting up; they really got into the conversation and began to recognize how critical they are to keeping those conversations grounded.
What’s the long game in the youths’ critical social justice research?
The journey we went on last year was partly to figure out how to research in collaborative ways. Each group has a research mentor who
collaborated with them, and as teachers we were also collaborators at various junctures. That level of working through it together was a huge learning curve for students and everyone involved. It opened up our classroom to so many people. Sometimes 6 to 7 adults would be in the classroom working with our students, which was exciting because, at that point, it looked nothing like a traditional classroom. We’d be walking off campus to survey people outside of neighborhood corner stores about their experiences with racial profiling, and we’re walking along together with surveys in hand, kind of nervous but smiling like little kids at the thrill of learning in the streets like that. We were reading recently about W.E.B. DuBois’ extensive community survey in Philadelphia and one of our students exclaims, “that sounds like so much fun!”
Learning is more meaningful in that kind of community, and when it’s structured in ways that open school up, and so the long-game is to figure out how to continue making these partnerships and keeping the doors open to learning across multiple spaces. In part it is about resisting the reductive ways of thinking about education, movements towards hyper-standardization, greater surveillance and accountability as high stakes tests. We want to push back on this landscape where teachers are afraid of being creative. It is always going to be hard to fit something like this into school structures set up under the rubric of industrial education, but we want to just keep insisting that everyday contexts allow for messy, human, rhizomatic ways of doing things differently. So, we’re hoping to continuously amplify what research means and invite everyone into research as a mode of sustaining inquiries of various kinds and connecting that research to action. I suspect we’ll get a lot better at it in the years to come.
In the 2014-2015 school year, English Amped was this pilot class, we told the students like on the second week, “We have no idea how this is going to turn out!” Now we’re well on our way to building a small academy focused on the civic humanities. Our plan is to build it slowly and strategically – there is always a question of whether something small can go to scale and maintain its integrity. The question of scale is important but misleading in some ways, because the work is always about responding to the local conditions. So, instead of developing the “perfect model” per se, I’m thinking of this right now as a particular configuration of people asking “What are the opportunities here?” We are trying to define a space that is in-between our institutionally defined roles so that people in a university, a school system, and the community at large can continue to define a third space from which larger possibilities can emerge. Rather than come from 10,000 ft. above the ground and design a large solution, this work is intentionally ground up; let’s start here and grow.