by Heather M. F. Lyke
article 1 of 4
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
by Nick Truxal & Heather Lyke
article 2 of 4
Choosing the Challenge
“The marriage of intellectual rootedness with artistic creation alongside cultural production makes [Dessa’s] work particularly meaningful for many students who want to think about an array of issues as they affect the body, our social and political presence with others, and how we build and develop community… It allows educators to cross boundaries, intellectually, artistically, and in praxis, encouraging students to inform study as they encounter the world: not sewn into neat and singular pockets of isolated subjects but rather as woven and entangled webs of knowledge and embodied experience.”
We like to lean on research at Third Eye Education, as well as to give voice to researchers whose work has not yet become widespread—boosting their influence to a wider audience. Yet, for this particular article in our series, however, it does not seem as necessary. Having hard conversations is hard. It is a tautology—a truism in itself. We’ve all had to come up with our key strategies for approaching hard conversations.
Of course, the choice each of us makes is personal, and each decision has its own benefits. However, if instead of directly addressing a hard conversation, one would prefer to discuss something external and therefore likely easier to broach, Dessa’s work is an effective way to still get to the roots of what students and staff have a need to talk about.
It removes the barriers that being personal can have, while maintaining most of the benefits that being personal involves.
Why have the conversations at all?
Because the content and skills we seek to teach aren’t always easy: avoiding them simply isn’t a choice that we can make. But if hard things are hard, we can accept the help of others, seek out appropriate supports, and embrace opportunities that present themselves, such as can be found in the work of Dessa.
Classroom Application Suggestions
by Nick Truxal
article 3 of 4
“Social Emotional Learning,” “Trauma Informed Schools,” and “Mental Health Initiatives” are phrases we’ve heard a lot this year. Not surprising, considering the pandemic, the politics, and the persistence of this year have made these focus areas more important than ever.
Whenever I ask an expert on where to begin, the answer is always the same—authentic care and respect:
Pre-pandemic, I had the pleasure to attend a concert at my local arts center where Dessa was headlining. I have been to, and performed in, hundreds upon hundred of concerts. I have seen acts that lean into the fun, the disinterest, the mystery, the volume, the skill, the passion, and a great deal more. Yet, I had never seen a performer who leaned into being human—at least not in the ways that matter for social and emotional growth, mental health, or trauma informed education.
Dessa, however, did.
To be perfectly honest, long before Dessa even appeared on stage, it was clear that the community she has built thrives on mutual support, respect, and a genuine love for each other and for Dessa herself. However, once she took the stage, Dessa was acutely aware of her audience in a way that I had never seen before. Aware in the way that as a teacher, I strive to be—aware in the way that as a musician, I’ve avoided. Why adopt in one environment and reject in another? I honestly have no idea, and I’ve sought to change.
She came to the front of the audience at one point, speaking to a young man who was both crying and singing along: Dessa gave him a long and knowing embrace. She saw a young girl who was unable to fully engage due to her abbreviated height: Dessa motioned to the audience to part, walked through the center of their Red Sea, and pulled the young girl closer to the stage for a better view.
Humanity should be in all our lives—in everything we do. We should be seeing the needs of the youth in our classrooms and adjusting practices to make sure they have a clear view. We should be, if not hugging, extending empathy and compassion. Of course, as Dessa radiates this goodness, and as she has built a community that does as well, her work is particularly apt for bridging conversations and content that benefit our students.
Classroom Application Suggestions
by Heather M. F. Lyke
article 4 of 4
I have been using "The Bullpen" with students for years. The lyrics--rich with metaphor, idioms, allusions, and internal rhyme—are calling out for scansion and line-by-line analysis. Students dig in: sucked in by a celebrity name, feminist themes, and the explative in line 10. They often don’t even realize they are annotating poetry until I point it out—until I also toss in a poem by a dead, white, male in quick succession.
Most teachers realize that novelty increases student engagement, but it also improves memory retention of newly learned concepts. A 2020 study, published by Frontiers in Psychology, noted that when new learning is paired with a novel approach, the memory retention of that new concept is enhanced by up to 65%. For many students, rap in the classroom is a definite novelty, and with Dessa’s works interweaving a myriad of content areas—from the U.S. economy to psychology, from slaughtering a cow to falling out of love—her works can be used as a novelty across the board.
Jason Koets, a music teacher from Delano, Minnesota noted that, “It's inspiring to me as an educator to see students become interested in things they don't normally notice because they heard it in a song.”
In addition to novelty, real-world connections engage students. “It is important to draw connections to things outside of the curriculum and to make those connections relatable,” said Scott Lyke, a social studies teacher from Rochester, Minnesota. “That is one of the key ways song lyrics, poetry, and writing pull the consumer in--by presenting a situation in which [the consumer of the art] can see themselves.”
Of course, “music brings emotion, power, and audience to abstract, intellectual, and unapproachable topics. It's inviting and inspiring...” noted Heather Zierhut, a science professor at the University of Minnesota. And creating a tangible route to often intangible concepts is a welcome tool for any classroom teacher.
Why rely on the same old, same old? Perhaps Dessa captures it best in “The Bullpen” when she says, “I refuse to downplay my intelligence / in a room of thugs and rap veterans.” Why should educators downplay the intelligence found in contemporary examples? Surely, it’s not because we’d rather fill the room with only dead, white men.
Classroom Application Suggestions
by Third Eye Education, consolidated by Nick Truxal
Third Eye Education’s Core Collaborator’s February discussions have been rotating around “Human-Centered Design.” It’s been a blended conversation: covering the threads of voice, disparity, equity, practices of application, training, and onward. The following is our attempt at a concise representation of these discussions.
First, if you are new to the ideas of Human-Centered Design (HCD)…
To return to the dangling click bait of an introductory quote, we do have a chance to establish new normals as we emerge from the pandemic. For example, Rochester Public Schools in Rochester, Minnesota is exploring establishing a Design Team: a group with diverse viewpoints and skill sets designated to solve problems from the large to the small in innovative ways. In exploring this idea with the Third Eye Collaborative, John Alberts pointed out the obvious: “We were attempting to solve the problem of how this team might function with traditional tools, while the team itself would be functioning through the lens of HCD.” This idea can apply to this article, and to Third Eye Education, as well. Why discuss Human-Centered design when we can apply it?
The Rules of the Room
The Third Eye
| 1 |
My concept of storylining blends the phenomena-based storylining that science curriculums are moving towards (Illinois example), with the Montessori principles of a three-period lesson, the Visible Learning work of learning intentions and success criteria, and student inquiry-based, place-based, and experiential learning. I taught four sessions to interested teachers in our district this summer. Our teachers are using this as a tool for human-centered design in learning. All students have a voice in the storyline as they explore their interests and perspectives with success criteria.
Storylining Folder with Professional Development Links and Step-by-Step Guidance
In our meeting, I recommended not thinking about just having one design team, but setting up a system where educational stakeholders rotate in and out of the design lab. Then, by using storylining as a tool the different stakeholders map the Ideate, Iterate, and Implement steps of Human-Centered Design in a way that tells a story of growth, voice and equity. Here is an example of how we are starting to track our story and growth. This is the skeleton of what we are building:
Experience Mapping - Coaching and Transformational Documentation Tool
| 2 |
Identify a specific, actionable “teaching problem.” Use the above Ideation process, or others, to choose the problem.
Design a lesson around a hypothetical fix with your instructional coach or with your team.
One teacher in your group teaches the hypothetical lesson; others come to observe...
Come back together with the entire team to make tweaks and improvements.
Then, repeat steps 2-4 as needed. This is the true definition of iteration.
| 3 |
The TLDR Takeaway
The poem was legit the worst.
And bless Mr. Hoffman for pretending it was good. He was my AP Literature teacher in 1999, and the book was creatively called Mr. Hoffman’s AP Literature Class, Fall 1999. Everyone had a poem in this book—and we each had our very own copy of the book—our class collection of poetry.
I’d like to be humble, but I thought my poem was the best, and I’d convinced the whole class to get on board with this sentiment. Mr. Hoffman used to make transparencies of my essays (remember transparencies? in my first year of teaching, I melted a hot number of those in the photocopier) and projected them to the class with all the best sentences underlined. I don’t think anyone cared much, except for frenemy Sarah, who also sometimes had essays projected, so the dust settled at Jean’s the best writer in the class except for when Sarah is.
I loved every single thing about writing, and Mr. Hoffman played a substantial role in that. It was only to thirty small-town kids, but he published my work. High school years were a hot mess for me, and I am grateful he offered me overhead projector light.
My nickname in high school was “English Teacher,” and even though I tried to Jocasta myself out of this prophecy, it happened that twenty years later I, too, was smashing staples into the left margins of poetry my American Literature students had written as a contemporary response to Transcendentalism. Each student, just like in my 1999 version, had their very own poem on their very own page.
If my students knew what kind of garbage I wrote in 1999, there is no way they’d trust me to be their English teacher. I cannot explain how exponentially better my students are ahead of my personal curve. Those sophomore poems are pretty damn good. People need to see.
That is, this is not a story about surfboards and scat, but rather a reflection on what it means for kids to get their work out there.
Building Confidence: forming a foundation trust for students to share on
The creative writing workshop is the groundwork of confidence, and I’ve found this works best when the class observes the one-one-one I have with a student after their workshop. It allows me to model a “confidence/constructive” dialogue. Usually, I will tell them what I love, tell them what’s “muddy” and needs some work, and then throw out a “but what if you tried this! when you revise?” because it helps them understand the effort is worth it—their teacher is stoked about their work. On the really good days, after we wrap things up, I hear one kid say to another your poem was amazing after they’re in the hallway, and I do a villain laugh: ha ha, got you to care, suckers!
Not every workshop is perfect, I make a lot of mistakes, but this is a good first step. Students who truly embrace this first publication are the ones who meet with me about more formal opportunities.
I don’t require kids to publish as part of my curriculum (I think some kids might be a bit too fragile for rejection). However, I do show everyone how to do it. And I’m successful at healthily harassing kids to send out their work. When there’s a flier for a contest, I tape it to the dry erase board and draw 40 arrows pointing to it, when there’s a student who needs an extra nudge, I’ll photocopy the flier and drop it on her desk.
Each year, Rochester holds a Martin Luther King, Jr. poetry contest for K-12, and I have had a few students win or place in that prize. I put the flier on the board with the arrows and mild threats to submit, but one year I went to each student and told them which of their poems could win the whole thing. Only some submitted, and I think a few did just to shut me up. And when the “fine, just leave me alone Ms. Prokott'' kid won, it was truly a gift to say, well, Garrett, I flippin' told you. You have to give me half the prize money.
The best way I nudge students is with secondary dialogue on their drafts, such as you need to publish this immediately, let’s talk about how to get things out there! Or on my sophomores’ personal narratives and poetry: please, please sign up for creative writing next year!
Many teachers, all of my colleagues, do this. And again, this is not to be a trick—I genuinely want the students to do these things, and I take it a little personally when they don’t.
Submitting for Publication: steps for students to get their words in print
- Once students have an account, I take them through the “Discover” feature of Submittable, which allows them to navigate the plethora of contests and open calls. I show them how to search for “high school” contests specifically, since it lowers the stakes. It’s important they check all eligibility requirements.
- I then show them how to search for other open calls by genre, by deadline, and by cost. I advise them to avoid any submissions that require a fee.
- As we play around in Submittable, I show them my own account, particularly, my list of rejections, which I doom-scroll directly on the screen. I find this to be the most important step. I show them the list of acceptances too, the few of them, so as to not be too cynical or lose all ethos. It’s okay if they know I suck a little. Rejection isn’t so bad, I say. At least it’s not the “crayon” poem.
- Every month or so, I search Submittable for high school contests on my own and post the links to Google Classroom. Open calls cycle per year. A few pub opportunities for young writers worth noting are:
- Once students are ready to submit, I walk through the process one-on-one, and I help them with cover letters. Generally, I tell them to begin as such:
There are opportunities hiding in the community, too. Students have published Op-Eds in the local paper, students have organized or attended poetry slams. Two of my seniors were locally published because a parent emailed that she was looking for young, female, writers of color for Rochester Women Magazine. I knew a few students perfect for the break, so I gave them her information, and they published two beautiful pieces last spring. The day the magazine came out, they sprinted up the stairs, handed me a glossy copy, and told me exactly which page to turn to.
Providing a Sense of Place: being vulnerable and embracing vulnerability
I don’t know if they read these letters—it might truly be a TL;DR situation—but the ones that do, I hope, know that their teacher loves to write herself, which very much matters.
Here’s how I see my role:
- Start small, publishing can be in just my classroom—it’s what worked for weirdo high school Jean.
- Keep an eye out for those seemingly spam emails that are sometimes easy to delete (oof they’re annoying, and so many fonts).
- Put myself out there as a writer—and a vulnerable one. (If I get to recommend something, it is for all teachers to do this. Every teacher should have to write and submit a poem. Every teacher should have a rejection. Every teacher should at least write a personal letter to their class that includes one self-deprecating joke.)
- Give my students layers and layers of ink.
It’s remarkably cheesy, but Mr. Hoffman’s AP Literature Class, Fall 1999 is one of my most important publications. I’m a bit of a pessimist—adamantly critical of toxic (and sometimes regular) positivity—but it’s one of the stories people might post on Facebook during National Teacher Appreciation Week regarding the “teacher that changed them.” (I intend to send Mr. Hoffman a copy of my poetry chapbook, The Birthday Effect, once it comes out this month, no note or anything, just to show him what’s up—something I have looked forward to for a long time. Also, why do I feel vindictive about it? That’ll show that jerk to believe in me!)
Teachers know we don’t know the long-term impacts of the nudges and notes we leave on our students’ writing. My students don’t know a lot of my praise comes from the jealousy that they are such better writers than I ever could have been in high school. It’s just not that hard to get excited about their work. I throw a few tools at them, smash a stapler, and they take it from there.
Jean Prokott is an English teacher in the Rochester Public Schools. She is also the author of the book Almost Sunset at High Noon which won the Howling Bird Press Book Prize (available fall of 2021), author of the chapbook The Birthday Effect, a recipient of the AWP Intro Journals Award, and has both poetry and nonfiction published in numerous journals. Learn more about Prokott online or connect with the author via email.