With an emphasis on identity and “othering,” a veteran language arts teacher, Tom Painting, and I developed a curriculum unit we titled Writing, Identity, and the Other for his ninth grade creative writing class. The class consisted of typical students and those with learning, emotional, and physical disabilities (ages 13 to 15). The unit aimed to promote an understanding of disability as part of the human experience, drawing from disability studies literature and first-person accounts of living with disability. Having had no prior awareness of disability studies, Tom hoped the content would cohere with his year-long theme for the class, writing for self-discovery. … Tom relied on me to propose a structure for the content, and I relied on him to develop the writing activities that would address the following goals for instruction and research.
- What can I understand about the identity of others who appear different from myself?
- What can I learn about my own identity through understanding the identities of others?
- Can disability ever represent anything other than a negative image?
Although there were many questions we might have focused on, these three represented our initial interests in reimagining disability in the context of a high school language arts class.
Tom is a veteran teacher who has taught for 17 years in the same district: a large, urban, upstate New York system. Throughout our teaming, his tenacity and intuitive sense of his students amazed and intrigued me. His teaching is difficult to script, as he seems never to miss a beat. Each morning, prior to the class, we met over coffee, and based on the previous day’s instruction, set a general target for our teaching. Classroom interactions were something akin to “trading fours,” as I played sideman to Tom and his students. I learned early to follow their lead and when necessary, to move completely out of the way. The students (ages 13 to 15), having declared creative writing their major at this arts magnet high school, were in their second year with Tom. This familiarity provided an easy atmosphere in the classroom, one that did not begin with roll call or end at the sound of the bell. …
Throughout our teaming, Tom remarked on his growing disability conscious informed by both personal history and his professional practice. He described his awkward encounters in the gym with a disabled man and his own uncertainty about engaging in conversation—a phenomenon that was quite uncommon for Tom. He also recalled experiences from his childhood and youth growing up with a twin brother who was physically disabled. …
Day 1. We began the unit … with a quick review of the previously explored writing genres (e.g., autobiographical writing, poetry, and science fiction). Tom revisited the general goals he had developed for the class and invited student responses as he wrote am the board.
Writing for Self-Discovery
To know about ourselves.
The use of language how it convinces us to see things a certain way.
To think about where we came from, like the Day of the Dead Stuff and the deaths we’ve experienced.
Paying attention to dialogue.
Writing new plots from our lives.
Experiences—imagined & real!
After summarizing what he wrote, Tom asked the students to hang onto these goals far their writing, as in our upcoming unit we would address these targets from a slightly different perspective. While still at the board, he marked nine points in a three-by-three array with directions to the students to connect the dots without touching any point more than once. This activity is often used in workshops to depict the value of thinking outside the box as a means to creativity. When the only solution to seemingly complex issues is thinking outside the box, Tom engaged the students with the challenge, bribing those who knew the solution to allow their classmates to solve the puzzle on their own. Following an I excited discussion of the task, Tom wrote “the Other” beside the image of the box. In the closing minutes of the class, Tom directed the students to “write a brief definition of the Other. What do we mean by the Other? Who is the Other?” The following are examples of student responses:
When I hear the word Other, I think of the bad. Not the norm. I don’t try to think inside of the box but its easier to sometimes. The Other to me is the parts of life and society that people don’t want to think about. Maybe because its harder. The other is unwantable.
Different, not the same, something else to choose or pick. Not including one.
To me the Other means all the stuff that I’ve never seen before or all the stuff that has a different opinion than me. The other is outside my arms length, outside my space and outside my habits. The other son, the other boy, the other tree outside of the “box,” the other room outside of the box.
Days 2 and 3. Building off their definitions of the Other, we led a whole-class discussion of the freewrite responses that extended over two class periods. Among the key comments raised were those of identity that reflected cultural trends such as body piercing and tattoos as well as issues related to sexuality. The exchange was difficult to predict, as topics cut across a range of issues and levels of awareness. Comments specific to homosexuality tended toward sensationalizing until one student offered, “I have an uncle who’s gay, but in my family, he’s not outside of us. I can honestly say that he’s one of the best uncles I have.” Another student, in response to the disdain expressed by some of his peers, raised the ante when he expressed concerns about human rights and social justice, insisting that “if being gay is who you are, no one should have the right to make you feel bad about it” Another student wondered, “Is self-knowing sometimes about not wanting to know?” Although there was no explicit reference to disability, the students demonstrated the capacity to probe complex meanings ascribed to the Other. The students’ writing began with personal definitions that later shifted to society and who has the ultimate authority to define and judge normalcy. The term normal was their original descriptor, but given its attendant medicalized notions of the normal-abnormal binary, I introduced the term normalcy … to underscore thinking about social justice. The students appreciated the distinction and were quick to grasp the hegemony of normalcy in a democracy. Our discussion of normalcy led easily into locating the influences on cultural awareness they had previously considered. We closed the day by summarizing where we get our ideas about normalcy. The students’ list included “those closest to me—my family, my friends, church, schools, TV—and what I tell myself.” Hegemony was thus easy to examine in the context of those judged to be outside normalcy, those we “other” in society.
… [It] is important to stress that it was not our intention to lead students to any particular position as much as it was to consider experiences that might support ways to reimagine disability. Working from specific disability studies materials and first-person accounts of disability, the students approached the task as writers might—through images, language, and expression. By the end of the first week, we were able to introduce the lived experience of disability through poetry, as is illustrated in the examples that follow.
Days 4 and 5.
I don’t want to live in bungalow land
On the outer edges of the urban sprawl
In the places designed for people-like-us
Kept safely separate, away from it all,
I want to live in the pulse-hot-thick-of it,
Where the nights jive, where the streets hum.
Amongst people and politics, struggles and upheaval,
I’m a dangerous woman and my time has come,
After providing a few minutes to read the poem in silence, Tom asked the class to read in rounds, with each student reading one half of a line aloud and overlapping into the voice of the next student in a round of voices that read as one. The class repeated this for several readings. Then, without discussion about the poem, Tom asked the students to “attend to the language of the poem” and write at the board the word or words that “really fix your attention—what captured your imagination as you listened to the poem?” …
Students discussed the poem in small groups as we fielded questions about the seemingly archaic language (e.g., upheaval, amongst, bungalow land, jive). The language of the poem and its juxtaposition to more contemporary language (e.g., urban sprawl, pulse-hot-thick-of-it, nights jive, dangerous woman) led many to speculate about the time period and its setting. Guessing whether the setting was England, Australia, or Ireland seemed for some to be the sole purpose of the exercise. However, others began to speculate about the speaker, and their curiosity slowly replaced the animated conjecture about the setting. “I think the woman wants to get back into a place she’s been pushed out of,” one student offered.
“I think she’s just getting freedom—like for the first time, or something,” said another
With an air of insistence, another explained, “She could still be struggling to get free— it’s not like she won’t go back to the other place.”
The students were perplexed by the poem and unable to make much sense of the actual lived context of the speaker until Tom posed a few questions.
“Let’s think about this for a minute—who lives in places for ‘people-like-us?’ “ Pausing, he continued, “In our society, who do we keep ‘safely separate?’ “
“Or maybe developmentally disabled people—people who can’t live on their own— they’re kept separate.”
Before we could bring the lesson to closure, the bell signaled the end of class—but many of the students lingered over the question, Who do we keep safely separate in our society? One student paused on his way out of class to redraw the box that Tom had drawn to enclose their responses. “Hey, Mr. Painting,” he teased as he erased the box that encased the words, “a dangerous woman and my time has come.” With a laugh, he said, “Don’t you think this woman is probably outside the box?” Tom paused by the board and, with a wide smile, raised both hands wide open to the air and with approval replied, “That’s it, isn’t it, Jose?”
When Tom and I met the next morning, he explained his hunch about where we might go after these first few days of introductory material. “Let’s not try to tie everything up too neatly for them. Let’s give them the space to enter where they feel comfortable.” According to his analysis, the students seemed anxious—perhaps unclear about the purpose of the work or anxious to begin the holiday break. Regardless, he did not want them to feel pressured. Tom then acknowledged his growing unease with the content, remarking, “I hope I know how to stay with them on this—it’s hard stuff.” His comments were quite unexpected. My sense was that the students were holding their own, and I thought Tom was too. I would later learn from Tom that the content provoked personal issues—some he thought he had dealt with and others he knew still needed his attention.
Later, in class, we did not return to the Napolitano poem but instead began with a focused freewrite. Tom asked the students to define disability, leading with the following prompt: “Disability is …” Everyone began writing at once, but when the designated time elapsed, several students asked for additional time. Before inviting the responses, Tom asked, “Did anyone feel frozen at first? I was surprised at how difficult it was to come up with the right words.” Many students agreed and commented about having written too many words or too few words. One student explained, “It’s weird because it’s something for know you know but just don’t really think about it.” Others offered the following definitions:
Disability is many things. It can be when you cannot work parts of your body or it can mean you cannot read well. To me, everyone can have a disability in some way even if you don’t see it.
Disability is a problem that some people have that prevents them from living a life like able-bodied people. They may need a wheelchair, a walker, a cane, a seeing-eye dog, a tutor, or captioning and interpreting for all spoken words, or artificial machine-assistance to help them carry on their body’s normal functions. A disability may weaken a person physically, but their thoughts and emotions are just like all peoples [sic].
Something that causes a person to become unable to function the same way other people do. They may still be able to function normally, but in different way [sic] than people without a disability do.
Overall, the students’ responses were a mix of objective and subjective descriptions that tied into the earlier conversations about normalcy and the range of visible and invisible disabilities. The exchange prompted Tom’s memory of a summer job in his college days as a home health care provider for a disabled adult—something he admitted he had not thought about in years. Tom recalled his reluctance to perform the job requirements and his inability to contend with personal feelings about dependency so starkly contrasted to his own youth and athletic accomplishments that framed his identity. All of these emotions so complicated the job that he resigned from the position in less than a week. The intersections of these very critical issues proved to be of great interest to the students, as the tables were turned and they probed their teacher’s emotions and attitudes. As a researcher, I observed Tom’s easy exchange with the students despite his prior concerns about the emotional demands of the content. It is interesting that when Tom and I initially planned the unit, he made no mention of his personal experiences with disability. However, because we both participated in the writing assignments along with the students, recounting our personal experiences was a given. On one hand, it was valuable that Tom located himself in this inquiry with the same desire to understand disability differently, as did his students. Conversely, in his role as the teacher, his vulnerability led to concerns about where our teaching would ultimately lead us. The challenge of teaching in the zone of the unknown was clearly becoming burdensome as we neared the Christmas break.
Earlier that day, we had wondered how much could be accomplished given that we were at the end of the last full week of instruction prior to the holiday break. Knowing the following week would be marred by interruptions with holiday programs, early dismissals, and the general frenzy in high schools prior to a holiday, Tom made a quick decision to assign weekend homework. Despite the students’ groans of protest, they were assigned an essay describing their first experience with disability. When the students returned Monday, they had written varied accounts of family members and classmates with a range of disabilities; many provided loving descriptions of grandparents whose aging disability, and others wrote about themselves. Karen, a student with physical disabilities, titled her essay “Telling About Disability, Telling About Me.” Her essay began with the following:
My first encounter with disability was when I was born with spina bifida that affected my spinal chord [sic]. I wear leg braces (you probably noticed this). When I was little I didn’t walk. “I was 3 years old. My parents are very protective of me.
Ware, Linda. 2009. “Writing, Identity and the Other: Dare We Do Disability Studies?” Pp. 397-416 in The Critical Pedagogy Reader, edited by A. Darder, M. P. Baltodano, and R. D. Torres. New York: Routledge, pp.405-410. || Amazon || WorldCat