Sid, who tweets @ThatTeacherSid on Twitter, posted the following tweet a few days ago:
What are some of your favorite short stories, essays, poems (or poem collections), and speeches?— Sid (@ThatTeacherSid) November 21, 2020
I’m not asking for students or for curriculum or for lesson planning or for events.
Asking for myself because I just want to read them.
I need to do some work on my dissertation, so I’m hoping a reply here on my blog will limber me up for writing.
Is that possibly a form of procrastination?
Maybe, but here are my recommendations, and you might consider teaching them, or you might just enjoy them on your own.
One of my all-time favorite essays is Ta-Nehisi Coates‘s seminal work, “The Case for Reparations.” It’s well-researched and persuasive. I particularly appreciate that Coates doesn’t become bogged down by the “how,” which is what stops many people from considering reparations for slavery. Instead, he focuses on “why,” and once the “why” is compelling enough for the majority of Americans, I think we will find the “how.” I also highly recommend Coates’s essays “My President Was Black” and “The First White President.” “The Case for Reparations” and “My President Was Black” were both collected in his book, We Were Eight Years In Power, which I also highly recommend. In this collection, Coates discusses the writing and his process. His critical reflection on his own work is really fascinating.
A more recent essay I read in The Atlantic was “History Will Judge the Complicit” by Anne Applebaum. What I loved about this essay was the historical study of two figures in East Germany, Wolfgang Leonhard, who defected to the United States after growing disenchanted with the East German Communist Party, and Markus Wolf, who remained loyal to the party even after gaining an intimate knowledge of its worst violence. Applebaum compares the two men to Mitt Romney and Lindsey Graham. I found the essay to be a fascinating discussion of party versus principles, and the comparison is a master-class in persuasive writing.
I first read James Baldwin‘s essay “A Talk to Teachers” after seeing Clint Smith mention it in a tweet. Smith mentioned that he returned to it each year while he was teaching. I’m not sure if he still re-reads it each year, but I have now read it twice, and if anything, it becomes more relevant as time passes. It’s hard to believe Baldwin didn’t pen this essay just last week. Baldwin underscores the urgency of social justice and why teachers cannot wait to make critical changes in how they teach their students of color. Baldwin opens his essay:
Let’s begin by saying that we are living through a very dangerous time. Everyone in this room is in one way or another aware of that. We are in a revolutionary situation, no matter how unpopular that word has become in this country. The society in which we live is desperately menaced, not by Khrushchev, but from within. To any citizen of this country who figures himself as responsible—and particularly those of you who deal with the minds and hearts of young people—must be prepared to “go for broke.” Or to put it another way, you must understand that in the attempt to correct so many generations of bad faith and cruelty, when it is operating not only in the classroom but in society, you will meet the most fantastic, the most brutal, and the most determined resistance. There is no point in pretending that this won’t happen.
The essay was originally a speech that Baldwin delivered in 1963!
Poems and Poetry Collections
I have written previously that we’re in the midst of a poetry renaissance right now (subscription to English Journal required). I still believe that is true. This list has the potential to be extremely long, so I’m going to limit it to my current favorites.
Maggie Smith‘s “Good Bones” is a poem I turn to often. These days seem so bleak, and they feel like they only become bleaker. But Smith reminds us that this old planet does have “good bones,” and we can make something beautiful with it.
Jericho Brown invented the form “duplex,” a combination of a ghazal, a sonnet, and the blues. This poem, titled “Duplex,” is one of my favorite examples of the form. I particularly love the line, “A poem is a gesture toward home.” For a birthday gift to myself, I attended a poetry-writing masterclass taught by Brown through the Emily Dickinson Museum’s Poetry Festival programming (it was free, but the gift was giving myself the time to do it). What an amazing teacher! I loved it! His collection The Tradition won the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. I highly recommend it. Also, check out Brown’s pandemic poem, “Say Thank You Say I’m Sorry.“
Speaking of collections, a few of my favorites are Eve L. Ewing‘s 1919, Clint Smith‘s Counting Descent, and Fatimah Asghar‘s If They Come for Us are three of my favorite collections. Ewing’s book focuses on Chicago’s 1919 Race Riot, and she experiments with a variety of forms and ideas, using quotes from a report called The Negro in Chicago: A Study on Race Relations and a Race Riot. I’m telling you, really need to hear Ewing read aloud her poem “Jump / Rope,” which she reads in this interview with Terry Gross.
Clint Smith’s collection has too many favorites to count. Some poems that I particularly enjoy, however, are “Counting Descent,” “Counterfactual,” “When Maze & Frankie Beverly Come on in My House,” “Playground Elegy,” and “Ode to the Only Black Kid in Class.” I also really like Smith’s poem “History Reconsidered.”
His performance of “When They Tell You the Brontosaurus Never Existed” is another favorite.
Some favorites in Fatimah Asghar’s collection include “Microaggression Bingo” and “If They Come for Us.”
Some of my favorite speeches in recent years are actually speeches by young people. I found Emma González‘s speech at a press conference following the Parkland Shooting particularly moving.
I also enjoy any time Bryan Stevenson speaks, but this TED Talk is a place to start.
I also really like this older speech by Sir Ken Robinson, whom we lost this year.
And finally, this speech by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is my “why” for teaching English.