Strength, Courage and Wisdom: The Makings of an Urban Teacher

In this article, Carla Cherry shares her personal and professional evolution, divulging how she helps students actualize their humanity and academic success.  It’s an intimate look into the makings of an English/Language Arts teacher, and the difference she is trying to make in students’ lives within the NYC educational system.

Fundamental to her familial fabric was first acquiring knowledge of self.  Her mother taught her to read at age 2 ½. Later obtaining his Bachelor’s degree in Black Studies, Carla’s father surrounded the family with resources centering on African and African American culture and history.  For Carla, school “didn’t really emphasize African American heritage,” becoming an impetus to read widely, serving as “a catalyst for me to get into education, to share what I learned.”

Carla as an infant.
Carla as an infant.

Several experiences ministered to Carla choosing teaching as a profession.  Attending a lecture with her father, Carla met Dr. Adelaide Sanford, Vice Chancellor Emeritus of the New York State Board of Regents.  A phone conversation with Dr. Sanford informed Carla’s ethos of giving back to the community.  “I always admired her activism in the field of education.” “If she could give the best of herself to our youth, why couldn’t I do the same?”  She tutored while a teenage member of Co-op City chapter’s of the National Council of Negro Women.   She attended the prestigious and selective Bronx High School of Science, but recalls constantly defending people of color in class discussions; such insularity she did not want her future students enduring.  Attending Spelman College further inspired her career choice. She credits two professors, Dr. Donna Akiba Harper and Dr. Judy Gebre-Hiwet, with her literary acculturation and instigating within her the passion to hone her writing, namely to be exact with her words and employ the formal writing process in designing well supported effective arguments.

Carla in high school.
Carla in high school.

In 1993, Carla graduated Spelman College, returning to NYC as a single mom working part time.  Enrolling at New York University in 1995, she completed her Masters of Arts in Public Education, and began teaching in 1996.  Serving 17 years within the NYC Department of Education, she taught in middle and high schools, currently teaching at Innovations Diploma Plus High School, a transfer high school model targeting over-aged and under-credited students with educational opportunities and social support.

Carla's graduation picture from Spelman College.
Carla’s graduation picture from Spelman College.

Pedagogically, Carla fosters and facilitates students in (1) interpreting texts, (2) using writing as a tool, and (3) participating within various audiences and media. Students are (1) generating group reactions to quotes excerpted from a text, (2) selecting quotes and interpreting them individually in double entry journals, (3) responding on a discussion blog about themes within a class text, (4) creating monologues in the persona of a character, (5) crafting a poetic character sketch modeled on William Carlos William’s “This is Just to Say,” (6) arranging in small groups fragmented excerpts from a novel into dada poems,  (7) discussing characters’ actions from different perspectives and (8) constructing and writing formal literary arguments.  Her methods prove successful; annually the majority of her students pass the NYS ELA Regents exam.  It’s important to note the particular population with whom Carla is experiencing success; the majority of her students have previously dropped out of other high schools, range in age from their late teens to early twenties, and have struggled with reading and writing.

Students read books “they would not otherwise be exposed to.” Included are African American titles A Piece of Cake, Sula, and My Daddy was a Numbers Runner, international works The Kite Runner and Persepolis, and books about tense family dynamics including When I Was Puerto Rican and Bastard out of Carolina.  Her classroom is a place to explore and contemplate the world from divergent points of view, some not always palatable or comfortable, sometimes winning students over, sometimes experiencing their opposition. “If I am preparing them for the real world, you can’t always run away from something you might think is boring or uncomfortable.  Sometimes you have to face it and open yourself up to other ideas and other people.”

Carla’s classroom brokers connections across social and technological contexts.   Recently she participated in a study group offered by the New York City Writing Project using the online forum “Youth Voices.”  Her students discussed class texts, recorded their writing processes and progress, and shared obstacles encountered in their research, culminating in posting their essays online “so that they can see the evidence of the work they have done in a public space.”

Also a poet, writing poetry is “a way for me to understand my life, the world and my place in it.”  Inspired by her cousin giving her a book of self-published poetry after her father’s death, Carla self-published her first book, Gnat Feathers and Butterfly Wings, and a compilation CD with her cousin, jazz musician Eric McPherson. Proceeds from her book and promotional goods were donated to charity.

Carla 3

As a single mom Carla balanced work with remaining active in her son’s school activities while cultivating his evolving writing interests.  He was a semi-finalist in the Knicks annual poetry slam, a student in a black male initiative supporting young men writing poetry resulting in a performance at the Nuyorican Café, and a participant in the Urban Word Summer Institute.  He is currently a sophomore at SUNY Purchase.

Carla learned from her family to use knowledge to emancipate self and others, which she is passing on onto her son and generations of students.  Hers is an unsung narrative.

Below are two poems from Carla’s publication Gnat Feathers & Butterfly Wings (© 2008, Wasteland Press).

To order Carla’s book and audio CD, please go to Amazon.com or BN.com.

Anike

As she models her

brand new brand name

dress

in the mirror,

I watch.

She gives her chocolate brown

kinky twists

a toss

so her hair can fly.

She spins

to feel the wisp of cool air

against her butterscotch skin.

She smiles

and calls herself

the cutest girl in the world.

Shielding my eyes

from her sparkling aura

I shake my head

and my index finger.

Stop that, I say

Thinking modesty is noble.

But then again,

As I look at my life

I am glad my niece believes.

Maybe she won’t end up 

with her self-esteem all black and blue. 

The Anteroom

Baby, I must tell you

I can’t be the type

to eat

a plum, or a 

peach,

or an apple

before it’s ripe.

Though you desire my dainty meats,

a pure heart and motive is what I seek.

Love is more than honeyed lickings,

strawberry cream,

and appetent sighs.

I do want you,

but caress my thoughts before my thighs.

Fondle my aspirations,

my breasts won’t disappear.

The small of back can wait,

knead my doubts and fears.

Explore my world,

Then, take me to heaven.

This article is also featured in the recent online edition of Bronze Magazine (except photos and poetry).   Please go to http://bronzemagonline.com/strength-courage-and-wisdom-the-makings-of-an-urban-teacher/

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Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman Redux: Are We a Nation Rhetorically at War with Itself?

What do we as a nation think of the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman case?   Here are recent posts from CNN’s website covering different aspects of the Trayvon Martin case.[1][2]

you know: what a good scapegoat for blacks to point at and cry racism.

P41: Caucasians are liars, murderers, thieves, rapists, sodomites, false witnesses, blasphemers, gluttons, idolaters, envious, lazy, swindlers, haters of GOD ALMIGHTY, and of the ORIGINAL BLACK MAN, BLACK WOMAN, AND CHILD.

Turbokorper: …there once was a community of thugs
…who were really good at pimpin’ and selling drugs
…we just move away,
…hopin’ they will stay,
…in the squalor, the crime and the bugs.

Lagergeld: Zimmerman is a brown Mestizo like the average Mexican yet CNN and the other networks keep pimping the lie that he is white to promote such BS agendas as this and to somehow twist words, journalistic accuracy, and reality itself to make some freak show tie-in to Emmett Till.  This is Communist News Network. As you were, Comrades.

Kimip: Far more Republicans (56%) than Democrats (25%) say there has been too much coverage of Martin’s death, Big surprise there. They would only care if it was someone from corporate America that was shot and killed. 

Michwill: If you’re not a part of the black community you need to keep your opinions to yourself. We don’t comment on the priests that molest the white altar boys or all the pedophiles in your communities or even when the white husband decides to kill himself and the whole family!!

Justice Has Occurred: I just read some of Trayvon’s published tweets. He was an inmate waiting to happen. Putting him down now may have saved some lives…black and white.

Recent responses to the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman dynamic have clearly plucked a raw nerve, suggesting that this case has repercussions and ripples extending beyond that fatal night.  In some respects, the case has us all examining our experience of race and ethnicity in this shared country, particularly around civil liberties, law enforcement, due process, interactions with other ethnic groups and the perceptions we believe others hold of us based on our own positionality.  This is a case that harnesses within both individuals and groups a pulsing plethora of emotions and positions: vulnerable, victimized, and vindicated.   It is hard to not take aspects of the case personally and be impacted by them.

But as suggested by the smattering of the comments above, there is an undercurrent that is surfacing.  That facts and aspects of the case are being chiseled into reactions that are then used as leverage to hurt and harm a stranger or unsuspecting group.  What particularly resonates with me are some of the personal attacks that people have hurled at one another.  It’s made for a charged atmosphere of hurt feelings and caustic retaliation, the flinging of accusations and assumed political agendas.

Yet I wonder about the impact of such flagrant and rampant personalization, how it is churning and festering within us as citizens of a shared nation, leading us into then maliciously attacking specific individuals and groups. To some degree, it is human nature to hurt when harmed (a scorned lover, a bullied child).  But to sharpen understandings of the case into weapons to inflict undue damage is making for unfortunate fallout.  A failing of compassion.  A missed opportunity to understand and be understood.

The inflation of the case whereby people are using it to insult, instigate, implicate, and inculcate fellow humans does nothing to further understanding the incident, the case, each other or us as a nation.  But what the hurling of such incendiary comments, abuse of facts from the case, and exploitation of stereotypes does is beg us to look into the mirror.  Why are we using this case to purposefully and deliberately disrobe, dismiss and denigrate?  Why are we fashioning the hurling of hurt? What benefit manifests from adding insult to injury?  What long-lasting good comes from using this case to leverage insults against fellow humans? What do any of us score, or even win?

Why are the branches attacking the body?

This is not to suggest anything against our right to free speech.  This does detract from the historical, social and cultural backdrop against which this case occurs.  But we can retain emotive clarity.  When I read such comments as those listed above, and see their growing proliferation like dandelion spawns in blistery winds, I wonder where else they will land.

And, like the nature of weeds, what potential for life they will begin to choke.


[1] Study: Republicans, whites more tired of Trayvon Martin coverage. CNN.com. April 5, 2012. http://www.cnn.com/2012/04/04/justice/florida-teen-shooting/index.html?hpt=ju_t4

[2] Trayvon’s Death: Echoes of Emmett Till? CNN.com. March 24th, 2012.  http://inamerica.blogs.cnn.com/2012/03/24/trayvons-death-echoes-of-emmett-till/comment-page-3/#comments

Movies as Mirrors: Reflecting on “For Colored Girls”

This blog describes the impact of Ntozake Shange’s groundbreaking choreopoem on my identity as a woman of color and a writer, compared to the impact of attending Tyler Perry’s movie adaptation with my husband. 

In the late eighties, one book changed my life.  Ms. Kupperman-Guinals, our drama teacher and teacher extraordinaire, pulled me to the side after class and gave me a copy of Ntozake Shange’s For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf to read.  Already a self-proclaimed poet, I was writing poems as mirrors of my days–the hardship of being a teenager, the beauty of nature, using big words to say small things, lamenting the crushes I had, and short stories about falling in love with Prince.  When I look back on the reading of that book, it has become a pivotal event in my life.  I know now was given a tool and mirror into so much deeper.

For Colored Girls was the first play I read written as both poem and play–a choreopoem.  In content and structure, it gave me inspiration as a fledging writer to see what can be done with a narrative about being a woman of color, with a unique frame within which to explore and share that phenomenon.  Told from multiple vantage points personified in colors, it bore witness of who we are (and I am) on paper.  Stories of trials, tribulations, triumphs, excavations and epiphanies all woven in a metaphoric tapestry of a rainbow.  A rainbow of womanhood.  Reading the play, I felt like I was seen.  Known.  Believed.   More than a statistic or stereotype.

For Colored Girls has become for me a tool and mentor text for using writing as confession, revelation, empowerment, sharing.  I thank Ms. Kupperman-Guinals for giving me this torch to see myself and the world I could create.  It later fueled for me the inspiration to write an undergraduate honors thesis on the works of Ntozake Shange (“The Negotiation of Silence in the Female Characters in Ntozake Shange’s Texts”), as well as an original play (titled “Episodes of Womanhood/Mahogany Women’s Movements/A Blackened Woman’s Voice from a Different World”).  Years later, in 1992, while writing my thesis, I would have the honor of meeting the original torchbearer herself at Crossroads Theatre who inscribed my copy of  The Love Space Demands with saying “Thank you for being who you are.”

Ms. Shange and Ms. Kupperman-Guinals gave gifts that keep on giving.

So when Tyler Perry’s “For Colored Girls” came out, I was excitedly reserved.  Would the movie he produced captivate me the same way as did the author?  Would I feel the same epiphany and inspiration in being a woman of color again, or would they be muted by the sacrilegious interjection of Madea in womanface?  For me, “For Colored Girls” is one of those works that “should” stay as a text.  Something different, even disappointing, can happen when the vivifying of a text is done onscreen.  Some things get lost in translation, which is what I felt with both “The Watchmen” and especially “Beloved.”  Beloved emerging out of the water and speaking in first person impact the reader in a way that the delivery of an image cannot fully capture.

Bad colds and conflicting dates kept me from seeing the movie with sister friends who wanted to make a dinner and a movie event from seeing the movie.  We knew we would have much to talk about.  Ironically, my husband, a movie buff, volunteered to go.  Fingers crossed . . . we attended.  Afterward, we spent an afternoon walking around the movie theatre parking lot debriefing.

Kerwin recounted that the movie upset him, leaving him to wonder if Tyler Perry hated men.  He felt objectified and shrunk to one dimension.  He disclosed that based upon the characterization of men of color in the movie, a man could only be  a selfish “down low” HIV-positive husband who intentionally infects his wife, a traumatized alcoholic war veteran who abuses his wife and throws his offspring out the window, a slick-tongued rapist, a two-timing non-committal gigolo, or a john.  Or absent.  The married good cop was just a flash in a pan.  To him, there were no layers, textures, complexity explored.  Just stereotypes delivered.  Again.  And when I told him there were no male characters in the original choreopoem, he was befuddled by why they were included by Perry in the movie.

I wished my husband experienced what I did in reading the play over two decades ago.  I genuinely wanted him to know what it felt like for me to see your complexion and complexity captured and given back to you as a gift, as I did with both my teacher and favorite author.  Instead, he saw himself shrunken, caricatured.  Again.  This time, by his own.

Since seeing the movie together, my husband’s sentiments leave in me a feeling of responsibility for using words and images so others can see themselves.  How can the poetry I write serve the goal of relaying my thoughts and ideas yet provide breathing room and a space for others to see and experience themselves?  Relative to the two of us, how do I serve as a mirror of his truthful reflections?  And, relative to us all, how can we live so that we serve as mentor text and mirror to our best and most possible selves?