5 LESSONS TEACHERS CAN LEARN FROM THE LIFE OF FANNIE LOU HAMER: #5.The Writing Classroom is Uniquely Suited for Finding Undiscovered Gems

In part four of this series – “Our Classrooms Benefit from the Voices of our Most Marginalized Students” -- I discussed (partly) how valuable the "marginalized voices" are in our classrooms. But really, I was speaking to the notion that the “marginalized” is the majority. I encourage you to check it out, especially in the wake of the executive orders President Trump has recently signed, banning Muslim immigrants entrance to the U.S.

This week, for the final entry in this series, I'm speaking directly to my tribe – teachers who institute writing as the main form of assessment in their classroom. This not only includes English and literature, but also creative writing, history, sociology and many humanities classes, such as art appreciation.

I'm going to also include Speech, because students are required to write the text before they deliver it orally. It is with the insertion of speech, that we find the life of proto-feminist and civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer to be germane. Fannie Lou Hamer’s speech and song were broadcast to the world because young activists entered her community

1) expecting to find value, and

2) equipped to reveal “gems” previously obscured by the shrapnel of the pernicious Jim Crow system.

It was on a trip back from a failed first attempt to register to vote, that Mrs. Hamer opened her mouth and began to use her consensus building oratorical skills, mixed with heartening and encouraging spirituals and freedom songs. It was at that moment that glimmers of her potential brilliance became perceptible to the young activists.

In much the same way, in our writing classrooms, allowing students to write and speak in the ways they are most comfortable can uncover a wealth of indigenous knowledge. Young SNCC activists did not rush in to correct Mrs. Hamer, reminding her that "it be" is incorrect. They allowed her to produced text and sound using the skills she’d brought with her. Later, she was taken to trainings where she was given systems and language to use as a dedicated and paid organizer.

In our writing classrooms we can use the same pattern. It is not always time to engage in spirit crushing assessments of students’ use of their home or "comfortable" language, whether it is a dialect of English or another language entirely. We should look for ways to incorporate and use the cultural stories, poems, songs, and utterances they bring with them to the class, as well as teaching them to deploy Standard English.

Long before Mrs. Hamer came into contact with young activists from SNCC, she was known for her love of reading. In fact she was a child that would gather newspaper scraps in order to satisfy her intense craving for the written word.

 The majority of students in our classrooms are also interacting with texts they find engaging. If we expand our notion of “text” to include the narratives in video games, and the way snap chat stories are constructed, for instance, the myth of the “illiterate” student is brought into sharp focus. Teachers must find a way to take the love of story that most of us have, and use it as an entryway in classrooms where writing is required. Mrs. Hamer had to deliver reports as a part of her duties as an organizer. She was a woman who did not move past the 6th grade. Not only were schools segregated and inadequate, they were structured with a shortened school year so as to allow maximum participation in the harvest and cultivation seasons for area cotton crops.


  • Mrs. Hamer's brilliance was hidden behind a school system that did not serve her community.

  • Mrs. Hamer's shine was dampened behind a day dominated by physical labor.


However, using the tactics deployed then can help us in our writing classrooms now.


The young organizers entered Mrs. Hamer's community -- a community that was rural, poor and black -- expecting to be dazzled.  What if we entered our classrooms the same?


If anything I’ve written resonates with you, I’d love to hear about it. What ways do you uncover the “gems” in your writing classrooms? How might this extend outside of the classroom?

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