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Helping Students Find Their Voice Through Writing by Pamela Fordham

If I had to provide a title for the first six months of 2020, I would borrow a few lines from Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” Like many people, I started 2020 ready to renew all the best parts of myself.

Even at work I felt energized as I prepared to teach my Race in America elective. I have taught the course for the past ten years, but the excitement I feel about creating opportunities for students to talk about race never gets old.

By March, the entire world had changed, and the phrase “new normal” was on everyone’s lips.

We settled into the pandemic, making lemonade out of the worst of times, but then things got even worse. By the time June arrived, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd had become worldwide household names.

Ironically, just a few weeks before the protests that followed the murder of George Floyd, I had participated in a school Zoom meeting during which my "Race in America" course was removed from the schedule for the upcoming school year.

My colleagues in the meeting might say I did not fight very hard to keep the course, and I guess I would agree.

Even now, it is hard to explain why I ultimately just ran out of words (or at least the energy to say the words). Maybe the draining of my righteous indignation was triggered by the awkwardness of the silence that filled the Zoom meeting juxtaposing the footage of Ahmaud Arbery’s mother on the TV explaining why his death was a hate crime.

Although the Zoom platform might have been part of the “new normal,” there was nothing new or normal about the inhumanity that caused the world to cry out, “AMERICA, WE NEED TO TALK.”

Of course, I wanted to keep facilitating those talks with students, but as the sole African American teacher in my building for most of the twenty-five years of my career, I couldn’t read another line from the “angry black woman’s” script. I was waiting for someone else in the meeting to be “fired up,” but everyone else was waiting for me.

What I have learned from teaching "Race in America" is that conversations about race are often uncomfortable in a way that makes us not want to participate. Discussions about race that only make people feel guilty or ashamed are rarely productive in the long term.

Yesterday I received an email from Jane, a student in my 10th grade English class. Her class had read The Help by Kathryn Stockett earlier this school year. Like most books that deal with race, there has been controversy about how the story is told, but overall, the challenging themes create opportunities to address race from many perspectives.

The story’s characters write a book that becomes a form of protest and a way to validate their experiences – most related to racial conflicts. As our class reads the characters’ stories, the students write their own, using various prompts that challenge them to write about things that many of them have learned not to talk about.

The students are almost always willing to explore ideas related to race on paper in a way they are rarely willing to in class discussions.

As historical fiction, the Help is a model for the students as writers to imagine what it might have been like to live in Mississippi during the 1960s. For one assignment, I ask them to write a poem describing a meaningful encounter they had with a historical figure from the civil rights era.

A student might write about what it was like to be on the bus with Rosa Parks, or to be a classmate of one of Medgar Evers’ children. Some students write about being on the road with Bob Dylan or another artist who took on racial issues.

Writing the poem requires them to consider the real person – beyond the history books, and the poem gives them an opportunity to explore what their own experience might have been in that space.

The students dip their toes into the pond of discussions about race, being thoughtful about words and characterization, but in a fictional context.

Jane’s email reminded me of those assignments. It included familiar “end of the year” sentiments, but she also expressed her righteous indignation about what was happening in America. The last line of her letter stated, “In the end, I just know I DO NOT want to be a Hilly Holbrook, but rather a Skeeter Phelan.”

Although teaching might be a superpower, creating effective lessons about race can be as fluid as Superman’s cape cutting through the wind, but the cape is also what helps the lessons take flight, and the lessons empower students to find their voices.

Just like Superman, teachers of all races must be committed to the fight for truth and justice. We may not always be able to immediately measure the impact of the lessons, but not teaching them will only hinder our access to the best of times.


Pamela Fordham is a high school English teacher in Western New York. She has never embraced the belief that “those who can’t do, teach,” so she stays engaged in the “doing” by writing poems, editorials, and essays and by writing every week with other teacher-writers in the Teach Write Time to Write Workshop. She embraces the “write life” by following wherever her ink pen leads. Read some of her stops along the journey at her Just Doing My Part blog site.

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