by Heather M. F. Lyke
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As soon as Dessa’s voice hit the word slay in the third paragraph, I knew I had them. Even my most skeptical sophomore sat up a bit taller—took note. Clearly, this narrative exemplar was not what he and his classmates had been expecting.
We were just about to finish our Telling It Like It Is unit in American Literature and Composition, and the grand finale was to craft a nonfiction, mini-memoir overflowing with description and—ideally—cleverly framed. What exemplar could be better than the chapter “Household Magnets” from Dessa’s book My Own Devices? Oh. Wait. The audio version where Dessa herself reads her own words.
Honestly, most were leaning in, highlighters poised, right from the first sentence: “Mayo Clinic is a world famous hospital in Rochester, Minnesota.” After all, at the time I was teaching in Rochester, Minnesota, at a high school named after the famous clinic where many of my students’ parents were gainfully employed.
But, to hear the author herself use language like what students used in the hallways--slay, punk kid, s’pose—in an American Literature class was novel enough that even the cynical took note. Success!
My own students discovered what many educators know, and yet that many educators forget.
“The world is not organized like a university, with its sharply demarcated departments. There is one world, which we can (and should) approach from many perspectives. Dessa’s work is a great illustration of this principle.”
My students were expecting American Literature to be something that it is not. Stagnant. Isolated. Lacking soul.
The “transdisciplinarity of Dessa’s art and work make it well suited for rich conversation and analysis” that “allows educators to cross boundaries.”
In showing students how interlaced learning, content areas, and personal interests can be, it allowed them to break down their preconceived notions. This boundary-crossing approach is part of what makes learning “sticky” for students. According to John Hattie’s research, “Integrated Curricular Programming” has the effect of producing approximately a year and a quarter of growth, and “Creativity Programs” have an effect of producing over a year and a half of growth, when compared to an average school year. This is not how Hattie is meant to be read, but is our best approximation of simplifying his data.
“I teach English, but through that, my students learn Psychology, History, Cultural Context, and how everything ultimately connects together. The more connection between material we can make for our students, the more they will be able to see the full picture...It is not my job to tell them what to think, it’s my job to teach them how to think so they can make critical and informed decisions/ not be taken advantage of due to ignorance.”
In the same chapter I shared with my students, Dessa notes that for that day her “job was to talk about life as an indie musician, hopefully sparking some cross-disciplinary insights.” Yet, as the renaissance person that she is, Dessa manages to ‘spark cross-disciplinary insights’ even when she’s not necessarily trying to. As a rapper with a philosophy degree who once worked as a medical technical writer, it’s not surprising that her polymath skillset has her interweaving inspiration from across a wide spectrum into her vast portfolio of works.
Dessa’s work is beautiful, intellectual, witty - it speaks to me personally and is a great example to my Alternative Ed learners that you can weave your interests and your passions into your work. That the things we enjoy, like Rap, don’t have to be 180 degrees different from schoolwork, or your life’s work.
At the time I used “Household Magnets” with my students, I leaned on her references to local geography, to biological science, to kickdrums, as a way to ensure student interests. (You don’t like writing creatively, but you enjoy science? Well, maybe this will keep you listening! -- You don’t want to read a long piece by a dead white guy? Well here is a work of art created by a living, breathing, female rapper: so there!)
However, when I return to the classroom, I suspect I will do things differently. I missed a golden opportunity with this chapter. Rather than just hook the science-loving learners, what if I had collaborated with Mr. Devine on an analysis of the accuracy of Dessa’s biological descriptions in this section? Rather than simply connecting with the musicians in the classroom via the content covered, what if instead we had worked with Mr. Cole and Mr. Devine to do a side by side analysis of how a kick drum sounds in comparison to the beating of a heart?
Perhaps, this is one of the most inspirational ways in which Dessa can push us to be better educators. She is never locked into the confines of one content area, so why should we be?
Classroom Application Suggestions
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