Closed Doors Open Spaces

Spring 2006

By Nitza Agam

It is Black History month. I want to go beyond the concept of heroes and holidays in celebrating diversity and acknowledge the richness of Black History. I invite a particularly dynamic African American parent to talk about Black History and share her own story with our students [to allow them some kind of experience]. We meet the fourth graders in the library, and our first "radical" act is to close the doors to the library to all students, parents, and faculty. Closing the door is significant. It is the first time we have allowed ourselves to use the library as a space for learning and closed it off to the rest of the school. It has now officially become a fourth grade domain.

We commit another "radical" act, and that is to move the furniture away and clear floor space for all forty- seven fourth grade students. Away with the sofa, the rocking chair, the tables and chairs. Just carpet and tables displayed with books on African American heroes and heroines. Students walk in , excited about having the library to themselves. They sit on the carpet. Most of the students here are Caucasian with English, Irish, Italian, German, and Scottish background. However, there are also Mexican American students, and Chinese American students, students with Armenian heritage, and a few African American students. When they describe themselves and where they're from, one student says, "I am all Mexican," or "I am half Chinese and half white," and one student shyly states that she is "mostly African American with some Native American background."

The lesson begins with the students' listening to a song titled, "Courage in Your Eyes," which was written by Michael Bolton after he listened to Rev. King's speeches. He wrote the song for Coretta Scott King as he found himself thinking about how vital her quiet strength, belief, and faith had been to the civil rights struggle. The song begins with an excerpt from Dr. King's speech in Lynchburg, Virginia, and then fades into some of Coretta Scott Kings's recollections of her husband. Both were used with her permission.

Students hear the rich, resonant voice of Dr. King and soon after the calm, deep voice of Coretta King. The song begins:

Nobody ever warned you
Nobody could have known
The road that lay before you
The journey that would lead you home
How steep was the mountain
How long was the fight
In the face of something so wrong
Somebody had to make it right.

The courage in your eyes
The wisdom in your smile
The strength within the your heart
To walk the endless mile
The years have only shined upon your face
And showered you with dignity and grace
Like the way you lived your life
And the light you've always shown
More than the world, more than the world,
Has ever known.

To listen to the entire song, click on .

We play just the beginning of the song and promise the students that they would hear the entire song at the end of the class.

Now it is the parent's turn to talk about not only Martin Luther King and Coretta Scott King, but about Rosa Parks and black slaves who suffered persecution. She speaks to them about what all these people had in common: they knew their heritage; they knew their history; and they had hope. Heritage, history, and hope. How could students define those words? What did they mean? Did they know their heritage? Did they know their life stories? Where did their families come from? Since this was also a religious school, the parent quoted a section of Genesis to the students which describe how "God made us all in his image" (Genesis. 1:26-27). We all come from different walks of life. We all have a history, or a her - story, or better yet, an our - story.

I watch the students listen to her story about slavery, persecution, hope. I watch them write and listen to music. One of the students who is normally shy and reticent sits transfixed by the parent's words. Another boy who has trouble sitting still and likes to squirm all over the place sat cross - legged on the carpet, listens to the song and writes his poem. A few students' expressions change when they hear Dr. Martin Luther King's voice, or Coretta Scott King's voice speak about her husband.

Students have an opportunity to share stories of their ancestry whether Indian, Armenian, Pakistani, Chinese, American, Irish, English, or Jamaican. Here is a chance to hear where they all originated and understand the idea of the commonality of our origins. One student is from Hawaii speaks about her Chinese American mother and her Caucasian father. Another student speaks about his Russian, Jewish, and Portuguese ancestry.

After listening to the music, hearing the dramatic story of this parent whose ancestors had been slaves and sharing some of their own stories, it is time for the students to write poems or prayers in tribute to their stories, their heroes, and heroines, their past and present. Students sprawled on the carpeted floor, huddled in corners, sat at tables and whispered ideas to one another as they wrote and listened to the song in its entirety.

Here is a sampling of some of those poems and prayers:

Hope is confident
Hope is when you think you can
Hope is when you keep trying
Hope is when you never give up
Hope is when you have courage
Hope is when you have dignity
Hope is when you have faith

Poem of Peace :
Respect is what we need to do from day to dusk.
Faith shows that you can do something if you try.
You never fail if you have not tried already.
That can make happiness arise in oneself.
Never be gloomy and sad.
No one is left out if God is with you.
God's image will appear in many people no matter where you came from.

It doesn't matter
What you are
Just be yourself and
That is all.

Peace is love
Peace is life
Peace is the world
Peace brings us together.

It Doesn't Matter ;
Black or white
Gold or silver
Fast or slow
Wealthy or poor
We are all one
Tall or short
Green or blue
Rough or smooth
Everyone's the same on the
Inside no matter how you are.

The power of writing collectively transforms the space and the student work. It is, indeed, a "sacred space" where imagination and inspiration flow. Students feel the importance of the message of hope, history, and heritage and the multicultural richness of those elements, inspired by the speaker and by Martin Luther King, Coretta King, Rosa Parks, Ruby Bridges, or any of our heroes and heroines who make us think about compassion, risk taking, intolerance and tolerance.

Closing the doors, opening the space, allowing students freedom to think and to write, and stepping back to allow them to do so made a difference that day for fourth grade. The library is no longer just a library, but a place to remember, to reflect, to pay tribute, to change, to write, to share, to dream.

"I liked being able to write poems," one student told me later. "I liked hearing the stories, and learning about African American history," said a student. "My favorite part was listening to the music," said another, and the overall favorite of many of the fourth grade students was "getting to write our own poems."

I attended a writer's conference where a fellow writer told me about a woman living in a car with her children. She had no "room of her own" to write, no lovely study or computer, office space, cubicle space, even a desk. She had her car and her children. She bought them each a notebook, and instructed them that this was their "writing home." As long as they owned those notebooks, they owned a part of themselves. I will always remember that story as I carry my writer's notebook, and think about all the spaces that can become "a writer's home." It can be under a tree, near a desk, in a library, in a corridor. Our classrooms are our homes for our students, but often we forget how to make it a learning space. We need to provide our students with that "writer's home," those "notebooks," those spaces.

Next time you think of writing with your students, think about closing that door, moving some furniture, or going somewhere new which allows them the space to be themselves: writers, thinkers, people with a sense of their his story, her story, their story, those stories we all need to tell and to share.

Close the door, open the space.

Nitza Agam

Nitza Agam has recently published her memoir, Scent of Jasmine, (Lulu Press, 2012) and a poem in Before There is Nowhere to Stand: Israel, Palestine, Poets respond to the Struggle. (Lost Horse Press, Sandpoint, Idaho, 2012)  She continues to teach in independent schools and enjoys her life as both an educator and a writer.