Harvard Educational Review
  1. Our Difficult Sunlight

    A Guide to Poetry, Literacy, and Social Justice in Classroom and Community by Georgia A. Popoff and Quraysh Ali Lansana

    Georgia A. Popoff and Quraysh Ali Lansana

    New York: Teachers and Writers Collaborative, 2011. 218 pp. $19.95.

    In Our Difficult Sunlight: A Guide to Poetry, Literacy, and Social Justice in Classroom and Community, Georgia A. Popoff and Quraysh Ali Lansana introduce readers to their experiences teaching poetry to young people through a text that is part methodology and part manifesto. Published by the Teachers and Writers Collaborative—an imprint known for its practical guides to creative writing instruction—the book takes its title from “The Good Man,” a deeply layered Gwendolyn Brooks poem that looks to the reader—or perhaps to poetry itself—to “tutor our difficult sunlight” and “rouse our rhyme.”

    In the time of detachment, in the time of cold, in this time
tutor our difficult sunlight.
Rouse our rhyme. (p. 15)

    Brooks uses “our difficult sunlight” to suggest that, despite its apparent warmth and energy, sunlight can be deceiving—giving one the illusion of warmth in otherwise cold and detached times. In contrast, “rouse our rhyme” is a call to action—rhyme being a key word, as it is a reference to poetry itself, a specific call to use verse to make sense of the cold and detached times Brooks is referencing. Interpreted as such, these two lines summarize Popoff and Lansana’s text, providing an acknowledgment of the challenges young people face in our imperfect school systems coupled with the claim that poetry may serve as a vehicle of empowerment for students in a variety of educational settings.

    Our Difficult Sunlight is divided into three sections. Each section begins with a collection of chapter-length reflection essays based on the authors’ experiences as teaching artists. Following these reflections, each section concludes with a pair of “Comprehensive Lesson Plans”—step-by-step instructional guides for teaching poetry that can be adapted to suit a wide range of learning environments.

    The first section, “Demystifying the Poem: Poems as Tools for Comprehension and Expression,” acknowledges that some teachers and learners are reluctant to engage with poetry, viewing the medium as an obscure, inaccessible, and overcomplicated form of personal expression. To overcome this barrier, Popoff and Lansana offer a variety of tools to help students and educators more easily access and enjoy reading and writing verse. The second section, “Poetry and Curriculum Connections: Inquiry and Reflections in the Core Subjects,” aims to mesh poetry with literacy and the delivery of core content material expected of many K–12 educators. In the final section, “Poetry and Diversity: Language, Emotion, and Shared Experience,” the authors discuss the many ways that poetry can be used to foster personal expression and promote cultural awareness and sensitivity in diverse, globalized, and technology-driven schools and communities.

    Throughout the text, Popoff and Lansana take on the multitude of challenges that complicate literary arts education. These challenges range from teachers shying away from poetry due to its reputation for complexity and abstraction to the lack of access to quality literary arts education for poor students and students of color. The authors suggest that increasing students’ vocabulary and literary prowess allows these young people to employ poetry as a political act. They challenge their students to consider, “What if you embraced your education as a form of civil disobedience?” (p. 42). They argue that a young person’s engagement with poetry could be the first step he or she takes toward building language skills, therefore defying an educational and social system that has low expectations for poor students and students of color.

    Though the words social justice appear within the title of the book, there is no specific section, chapter, or lesson plan dedicated to social justice per se. Instead, examples of the role poetry may play in pursuing social justice issues are peppered throughout the text. Within Our Difficult Sunlight Popoff and Lansana repeatedly identify tensions between different racial and class groups, increased school and community violence, and low expectations for our highest-potential communities as being among the social injustices youth face today. They see these tensions as being particularly divisive and invite the reader to consider how the poetic medium may be employed to lessen these tensions:

    Our platform declares that poetry is a vehicle by which we all can enthusiastically celebrate our differences as well as our commonalities as citizens and humans . . . The ultimate goal is that young people will strengthen their sense of oneness and community, rather than fearing differences, by giving voice to their truths, as well as honoring the voices of others through reading and writing. (p. 147)
     
    Indeed, rather than pontificating, the authors practice what they preach. The two poets are upfront and clear about their disparate identities: Popoff is a White woman who grew up during the Vietnam era as part of the baby boom generation, whereas Lansana is a Black man who “came of age on the cusp of Hip Hop” (p. 23). The differences between the authors’ racial, generational, gender, and cultural backgrounds can be heard in their voices, which are often presented separately throughout the text. The two, nonetheless, are aligned in their common purpose: to bridge difference through poetry and capitalize on the diverse perspectives they and their students bring to the creative writing classroom.

    In their postscript, Popoff and Lansana summarize how teaching poetry—particularly as teaching artists who rarely have the opportunity to work with the same students more than a handful of times—is fraught with challenges during these changing times. The payoff, however, is in expanding the potential of young people by providing them with an on-ramp to increased literacy and cultural awareness through their engagement in the poetic medium. The two poets conclude that if we take a deeper look into Our Difficult Sunlight, each of us—educators and students alike—can find a way to better give voice to our individual truths and the truths of others as we celebrate our differences . . . and “rouse our rhyme.”
    e.p.c.
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    Abstracts

    “A Few of the Brightest, Cleanest Mexican Children”
    School Segregation as a Form of Mundane Racism in Oxnard, California, 1900–1940
    David G. García, Tara J. Yosso, and Frank P. Barajas
    Changing Our Landscape of Inquiry for a New Science of Education
    Gary Thomas
    Institutional Racist Melancholia
    A Structural Understanding of Grief and Power in Schooling
    Sabina Vaught
    Symposium: By What Measure?
    Mapping and Expanding the Teacher Effectiveness Debate
    Contextual Influences on Inquiries into Effective Teaching and Their Implications for Improving Student Learning
    Anthony Bryk, Heather Harding, and Sharon Greenberg
    Having It Both Ways
    Building the Capacity of Individual Teachers and Their Schools
    Susan Moore Johnson
    Refocusing the Debate
    Assessing the Purposes and Tools of Teacher Evaluation
    John Papay
    A Collaborative Effort
    Peer Review and the History of Teacher Evaluations in Montgomery County, Maryland
    Jeremy P. Sullivan
    “We Are the Ones in the Classrooms—Ask Us!”
    Student Voice in Teacher Evaluations
    Boston Student Advisory Council

    Book Notes

    Our Difficult Sunlight
    Georgia A. Popoff and Quraysh Ali Lansana