The idea of student engagement is one that has always challenged me. On one hand, I know exactly what it means because I’ve spent more time in my life as a student than as anything else, it seems. I’ve experienced the excitement of sitting in classrooms and arguing a topic to the bone with classmates and teachers, or the exhilaration of presenting cool and unique research to unaware but equally interested peers. I’ve also been fortunate enough to teach courses that have piqued students’ interest: courses that cover the AIDS crisis of the 1980s, the Great Depression, Black liberation movements and Hip Hop culture.

One would then imagine that I must have figured something crucial out, perhaps the answer to the question posed in my first postHow might we create space and opportunity for students to connect to the content on an authentically personal level? The truth of the matter is that this question taunts me at the onset of each new unit. Even after having planned two or three week’s worth of engaging lessons, I progress into the teaching of said lessons with great anxiety, wondering if students care and hoping that they at least leave the class with a word, phrase, idea or image that’ll push their thinking and expand their perspective.

I knew students would find the final mini unit of the semester, about Hip Hop culture, to be more engaging than a majority of what we’ve covered over the last 18 or so weeks, but had no idea they’d become so deeply engaged in our unit on Sex, Gender and the Feminist Movement. The unit focused on the intersections of sex, gender, sexuality and movements that have existed within these realms.

From day one, the young women students spoke confidently, from the heart, to the topics offered and questions posed. Many were eager to define “feminism” and “toxic masculinity,” and pushed me to broaden my lenses in the planning process. Some of the young men, however, struggled to express themselves, feeling as though the unit wasn’t for them. A few things happened, however, that altered the level of engagement and investment in the conversations we were having:

I decided, since a majority of my students are Latinx and Black, to teach the idea of “intersectionality” so that students might be able to connect themselves to the topic regardless of sex or gender. My thinking was that both the young men might be able to identify with the perspectives of James Baldwin and Audre Lorde in an iconic 1984 dialogue published in Essence Magazine. Lorde, a Caribbean-American, lesbian, womanist scholar, writer and activist, spoke to the harsh reality most other Black women and Black lesbian women faced in America at the time. What amazed students is that she seemed, throughout the dialogue, to be arguing her case to a man they were familiar because we had already studied him, a man who was also a queer Black scholar and writer, one who should have already understood her plight, James Baldwin.

Students were truly stunned by Baldwin’s insistence that the Black man had is worse in America than anyone else, and for the most part, supported Lorde’s position that Black women experienced the brunt of the nation’s discrimination. They particularly were moved by Lorde’s claim that if men are the American nightmare, women still have it worse because they’re not a part of the dream or nightmare: they are altogether invisible.

When reading this, hands flew up, eyebrows scrunched, feet tapped, students sucked their teeth, and students were about to engage in a full-on roast of the formerly beloved, Baldwin. It was at this very moment I realized students were engaging with the intellectual ideas presented in the text because there were personal connections being made to both Lorde’s and Baldwin’s claims.

I didn’t have to resort to having them make a rap song about Lorde’s position and Baldwin’s positions as a means of helping them to intellectually engaging with the text: a tactic if poorly planned or overused can be culturally insensitive. I realized that controversial viewpoints and statements alone are sometimes enough to authentically engage students. Who doesn’t like a good controversial statement coming from a so-named progressive? I realized, in doing this, that a course about social justice should offer ample opportunity for students to read controversial, contentious texts, break down the positions, and place themselves within them.

The learning and the output, then, become personal!

After spending two days reading the text, students selected quotes that resonated with them and analyzed them. They, then, created quote posters for a Gallery Walk, where they moved from poster to poster with Post-its, offering commentary and feedback about quotes and analysis their classmates displayed.

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