The power and lessons of language
Young teacher connects with students by hearing their words.
After graduating from college, I packed my bags and returned to Philadelphia to teach 10th-grade English at Delaware Valley Charter High School. I came as a naive college graduate ready to give back to the world, only to become humbled in every way imaginable. I was an Asian American teacher standing before 25 African American students.
Growing up, I struggled as a Korean American to learn everything in English at school while keeping up with the maternal tongue that connected me to my parents at the dinner table. Though I sometimes questioned my dual identity, I was blessed with incredible English and foreign language teachers who nurtured my love for words and set me on the path to graduate with an English and French degree at the College of William and Mary. I discovered a love for teaching while volunteering at a summer day camp and serving as a French teaching assistant on campus. I saw a student finally "get it" and was hooked.
My first year teaching was tough, to say the least. What helped me most was language - connecting with students by learning their words. Picking up Philly slang was not only fascinating, but it also gave me access to their lives and an opportunity for me to connect with 15-year-olds who had so much to tell the world.
Through poetry, I've seen students way behind their grade levels accomplish things that made me wonder what was most important: teaching proper grammar, or being able to see through the perspective of another?
I saw one student struggle to write about his father, knowing that just a week before, a classmate had shared how she lost her father on her 4th birthday. He asked, "Ms. Kang, do you think it would bring up bad memories about her own father?" My students were learning to really think before they spoke. He wasn't just crafting his words. He was thinking about his audience - where his words would fall and the impact they would have.
Another student, a power-lifter known for breaking state records, used words to demonstrate the power of vulnerability. He revealed that being a victim of bullying was the painful motivation behind picking up dumbbells. It silenced the classroom and reminded me once again why we share our experiences with the world. He used poetry to encourage his peers to be brave.
A third student nervously avoided eye contact when he entered my classroom, yet exhibited a deep desire to learn and make friends. Even though he stayed after school to write a brief two-stanza poem, and rehearsed numerous times in front of me and an empty classroom, I was still taken by surprise when he quietly walked to the front of the room at our first poetry cafe. Hands shaking as he clenched his paper, he read his poem. The room was silent and then erupted in applause. When the bell rang to end the class, he stayed back to pack his bags. On his way out, he came up to me and smiled, "Ms. Kang, they didn't laugh at me." He had found his voice. He was no longer afraid.
I treasure the classroom conversations that shaped me to be confident in the classroom - as a student and, now, as a teacher. Though I spoke Korean at home, my teachers believed that I could be an English and French scholar. The words exchanged in their classrooms taught me to empathize with and to care for others, all while learning to struggle with who I was and how I saw the world.
That journey has not ended for me, and it is just beginning for my students leaving Room 209. My hope is that I, in turn, am affirming their identities, the values they are gaining in their struggles, and that they see me as a champion for their abilities and right to study and succeed in the field of their choosing.
The poem "I'm Still Here," by my student Chezborn Jessop, makes me think we're on the right track:
I am fourteen
with a couple of choices
Grow up now or worry later
Thoughts that never faded
I'm not even working
I'm not the one providing
Where would I be in a few years?
Who would I be around?
But right now
I shouldn't fear
Because one thing that I know
I'm still here
I should be thankful right?
Is that how you put it?
You don't know what I'm going through
You don't know what I'm facing
Keep it quiet
If you've never been through my problems
Because I had to learn myself
It was never an option
I had to put my mind in gear
Young black boy
Stained clothes and nappy hair
I grew up
I faced my fears
Because one thing that I know
I'm still here.
Cathy Kang is a 2012 Teach For America Greater Philadelphia corps member.