Thursday, April 23, 2009

Reading the Writing on The Wall: Troubling Community and Identity in an Urban Magnet School


I’d like to begin with an excerpt from my teaching journal dated January 6, 2000

On a cold January morning, teachers, and students arrive at school to find the building covered in graffiti. On the back wall, by the door and visible to teachers coming from the parking lot or parents dropping students off from car pools are the words $ Kill Suckers, $ kill j(w/skill)! free your mind, free mumia, stop slavery now. As I approach the building, I see a uniformed police officer who says, “You should see what’s on the front of the building.” Upon entering, I walk through the hallway to the doors which opened into a large courtyard where the middle schoolers play before entering the building for advisory. Large red and black spray painted letters cover the lower perimeter of the building on every wall. The messages read: Say no to U.S. $ in Ecuador. U.S loan $mil to Russian murder Chechnya $100 million by world bank, star strangled freedom. learn for college win debt/forget the truth; history repeats itself until learned. Then along a small vertical wall near the entrance: War is Peace, Slavery is Freedom, Ignorance is Streghtn (sic) I watch the middle schoolers react, some staring at it and others yelling, “We’re all gonna die! They’re gonna blow up the school”


Last year, I taught at an urban magnet school located on the fringes of center city in Philadelphia. Approximately 1200 students attend the school: 800 in the middle school and 400 in the high school. All of the students are required to have excellent grades and superior standardized test scores; many are classified as mentally gifted and entitled to gifted support as required by the state of Pennsylvania. I teach English in the high school which is even more selective than the middle school. The student population is diverse; students come from virtually every neighborhood in the city. I transferred to this school a year and a half ago after spending nearly 20 years at a comprehensive neighborhood high school in the heart of North Philadelphia, an African American community.
On the morning that the graffiti appeared on the school’s outside walls, I had been teaching there for a year and a half and I still felt like an outsider. In order to understand the values and culture of this school, I had been spending a great deal of time listening to the students.
As I was walking through the hallways that January morning, and listening to students speak about this graffiti before class, and I was struck by the profoundly different “readings” I was hearing. Some admitted to being frightened by the sudden appearance of these scary looking words. “Violated,” I heard one say. Others laughed it off as meaningless, and still others took a sense of pride: I heard at least 5 times that morning that it was “smart graffiti for a smart school.” The fact that every senior in the past 5 years had been required to read Orwell’s 1984 as their summer reading fueled speculation that whoever did it had specifically targeted this school building. Few believed it to be random.
These students’ multiple readings of the text on the wall connected to questions which were emerging for me in my English classroom. The school has a diverse population, but students’ differences were seldom part of the school discourse. It was their similarities of high standardized test scores, innate intelligence and competitive spirits which were most often emphasized. When differences did arise in classroom conversation, they were often met with a type of unengaged relativism: “Well, everyone’s entitled to his or her opinion,” was a daily response to any possible disagreement.
I saw students’ different responses to this very public text written on the walls of the school building as an opportunity to explore and address the implications of difference within the school and classroom community. How do students read texts within and across their differences? What are the complex relationships among their knowledge of each other, themselves and the world?

Looking Closely

When the 9th graders arrived in my class that morning, I asked them to arrange their desks in a circle and to take out a sheet of paper. Following procedures adapted from one of Pat Carini’s documentary processes, the reflective conversation, I asked the students to think about the writing on the walls and to write down all of the different thoughts, ideas, feelings they had about the graffiti. After students spent ten minutes writing, we began the sharing, going around the circle with each student reading what he/she had written. This was Round 1. As they were listening, I asked them to jot down themes, patterns contradictions they heard their classmates say. These words they shared in Round 2.
Audre Lorde has written, “We teach others what we need to know ourselves.” I needed to know what my students were thinking about this text on our walls to offer me a better understanding of how they were making sense of all of the texts that we were reading in class together. Our collaborative reading of the writing on the wall was at once a pedagogical strategy – a teaching moment -- and a site of critical inquiry for me into the nature of knowledge, identity and community in my classroom..

There were many responses which addressed the meaning or purpose of the graffiti and others which were concerned with safety. But the most striking different responses were related to people’s individual locations, races and identities.
From a white student:
When I walked in, people said, “Are you Russian?” ( and I’m not Russian) But that made me think. Hey people are going to be accused of this.

From a Latino student:
At first, I didn’t notice the graffiti because it’s all over my neighborhood. But then Nate pointed it out to me. I’m not really taking this seriously.

And from two African American students:
Why is everyone worrying about it being this school anyway? My old school had graffiti and no one cared. My old school was in North Philly.

As I walked on my way to school this morning, I heard the shrill of anxious children screaming, “There’s graffiti on the wall! There’s graffiti at our school!” I shrugged and proceeded to read Chapter 6 in my Biology book. All I could hear were the little mumbles of “Did you see?” and I screamed inside. By the time I heard the principal’s announcement, I was highly disgusted. I thought to myself, This school is a building made of bricks, wood, etc. What makes people think this can’t happen to us? And why disturb my studies with such a dumb story?”

And from two white students:
I don’t know why. I was very disturbed because this is the first time it happened to my school. It made it seem dirty.

It does bother me that someone would do something like this, probably more so because I lead a relatively sheltered life. From 1st- to 6th grade, I attended a suburban private school. Coming from a relatively crime-free environment, and this background, I was probably more sensitive to these types of things than other people.

Students listened intently to one another, hearing perhaps for the very first time publicly, the wide range of perspectives on the meaning, purpose, and consequences of this text. In Round 2, students were asked to think about what they had heard, what patterns, contradictions they noticed and what they might mean for us as a community of learners in this school. Some samples:

I thought talking about it was a good exercise, because normally when something happens, we shrug it off.

It seemed different races had different feelings on the graffiti. Like L and M and I thought that it was just graffiti and get over it, but S who was raised in a totally different environment thought the graffiti was just appalling!

J, a white boy added a dimension which is seldom discussed in this school: social class.
One issue that related to me was what M. said. I also live in a lower class area in which graffiti is visible on every block. That might be another reason why this had no effect on me and why I didn’t give two hoots. I mean, I see more substantial messages on the sides of houses and school around my block.

The graffiti was removed from the building by the mayor’s Anti-Graffiti Network later that night. By the time students, parents and teachers arrived at school the following day, all that was left of the text on the walls were the traces where the paint had been sandblasted. However, the our reflective conversation and the perspectives it has opened remained in the minds of my students. As the year progressed, we came back to it as a point of reference as we shared our multiple readings of other texts together in the classroom.
My over arching pedagogical goal that year was to create an inquiry driven participatory learning community which was interactive, cooperative, dialogic, incomplete and uncertain. One of the major obstacles to the formation of such a learning community was that the students had seen no model for this kind of dialogue. In fact, the very nature of the school as a high performing highly competitive magnet school made the formation of such a community even more daunting. A school which valued high test scores promulgated a pedagogy which required uniform correct answers. A school which valued competition promoted debate and argument as the primary forms of classroom discourse.

Searching Broadly

For me the questions mounted. What are the implications of doing this kind of work at a school which is in a position of relative privilege? It is clear that the students who come to this school from working class, poor or minority communities have a clearer sense of the this school as a site of privilege and power. White, middle class students seem to expect the school to be a continuation of their home neighborhood environment. I am reminded here of Adrienne Rich’s (1986) “Notes Towards a Politics of Location” and James Joyce’s (1916) Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, where adolescents like the young Adrienne and the young Stephen Dedalus each draw themselves in the center of the universe.
In creating conversations in which students read not only the texts of the classroom, but each others’ multiple readings of the texts, how did they feel de-centered at a times in their in their lives when they might not want to be? When is it too destabilizing or threatening? Wendy Hesford (1999) in Framing Identities: Autobiography and the Politics of Pedagogy writes that “we must constantly work to comprehend our own and our students social and political locations and how institutional relations are shaped by historical understandings and personal and generational biographies.” ( p.17) What are the implications for teaching and learning when ALL students not just the minority students are made to look at themselves through others’ eyes, in Hesford’s words, turn the “othering gaze” on themselves. Can they too develop the kind of “double consciousness” described by W.E. B. DuBois?

Making Sense

Issues of community and identity were not resolved in this incident --- rather they were made visible and problematic – as teacher and students confronted the nature of difference in the classroom. This event troubles notions of community. Whose community? The classroom community? The school community? The many neighborhoods from which the students come? The school’s reputation and position within the larger Philadelphia community?
While this incident represents one isolated event – the reading of one particular text – some of the differences and the significance of these differences revealed through this event can offer important insights for what happens whenever students and teacher read any text together in the classroom.

Taking Action

As the year progressed, and students became more familiar with the pedagogical strategies enacted in a critical inquiry classroom, their willingness to engage in collaborative inquiry grew. Reflective conversations and Quaker style meetings replaced debates. Group journals in which students read and responded to each others’ reactions to books, stories and plays replaced individual literature journals. Collaborative dramatic re-enactments of texts replaced individual oral presentations. Students began to see that learning was more than mere knowledge consumption: it was a joint project of knowledge construction. And as they engaged in these interactive forms of discourse, they came to see that inquiry was more than a teaching strategy or a classroom activity: it represented a conception of knowledge which was individual AND social, one in which difference mattered and in which multiple perspectives could not be ignored.
My original questions generated new questions. Is it possible to reconfigure the classroom as a community based on multiple perspectives and democratic practices? What are the particular challenges of trying to do this work at a magnet school for academically talented and mentally gifted students from across the city? In a multicultural classroom, how do the students read the texts, read the school, read each others’ readings of the texts and the school, read each others' readings of each other? Is it possible to allow for individual growth within a diverse community which respects and honors (not just tolerates) difference?
I share the view of critical educators who believe that engaging a full range of perspectives is not an argument for a particular position or ideology, but rather it leads us to recognize that there are multiple audiences and demands a willingness to strive to understand and make ourselves understood in speaking and acting across our differences.

Coda: The Writing Re-appears
I hadn’t heard any conversation about the graffiti incident for several months when suddenly it resurfaced. In the spring issue of the school newspaper, an editorial appeared which criticized the principal for cleaning up the graffiti instead of tending to other building maintenance issues. They accused her of only worrying about how the school would appear to the outside community. On the spring issue of the school literary magazine, there was a drawing of the school building on the cover. And written on that drawing was the text of the graffiti as it appeared on the building in January – right below the words emblazoned on the cover --“The Results of Public Education.” The dialogue continues as the students read and re-read the writing on the wall.

Works Cited

DuBois, W.E.B. The Souls of Black Folk. Modern Library Edition. New York: Random House. 2003.
Hesford. W. Framing Identities: Autobiography and the Politics of Pedagogy. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. 1999.
Joyce, J. Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. London: Penguin Ltd. 1916.
Rich. A. “Notes Towards a Politics of Location” in Blood, Bread and Poetry. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1986

Where We're From: A Collaborative Poem, by students from the School District of Philadelphia

This is a disclaimer.

A What?

A disclaimer.

For What?

To let them know.



This is a disclaimer to let everyone here know they will not see a poem about Philly being the cradle of Liberty

And by the time this poem is done you won’t hear anyone say “ The Liberty Bell is wher I’m from.”

This is a disclaimer to warn everyone that we, the performers will not talk about our experiences at the Kimmel Center.

Because I was only in the lobby the one time I entered.

We will not talk about the constitution center or independence mall

Or William Penn who stands tall on City Hall

And though we have nice flow

None of us grew up in the house of Edgar Allen Poe

Or Besty Ross – Yo!

You want to know why we talk about any of those places???

Because nobody lives there.

I am from hopscotch and jailbreak.

The Good Humor man and Tastycake

I’m from penny candy from the corner store

And bike rides through the park

I’m from capture the flag

From puppet shows and porch sales

I am from summers at the Jersey shore

I am from fire sprinklers and block parties in the summer

I am from skateboarding in Love Park to
Running full court ball till after dark.

I’m from Phillies’ games and \
Sixers! and
E-A-G-L-E-S- Eagles!!!

I am from visa papers

I am from Hong Kong
Not the ‘New York” of China” Hong Kong
But Hong Kong fading off of the mountain’s feet.

I am from summer visits to see family in Martinique
From the blue oceans of the Caribbean clean and clear for miles.

I am from beautiful Soeul Korea

I am from Ethiopia,
from Afghanistan,

I am from Europe,
from Ireland,
and Poland
From Germany

From Sweden and the white cold north

I am from Celts and
and Slavs

I’m from Lithuania,
and the Ukraine

I am from the darkest bayous in the Deep South
to the biggest houses in the far northeast
And I am from everywhere in-between

I am from the departure from the West Indian soil
To the land of opportunity

I am from all over the world.
From South Carolina
to Jersey
and Honduras
And back to Puerto Rico.

I am from Columbia
and Guyana

I am from the hood
where the baws wear they jeans sagged low
and the girls they shirts tight

I am from the hood where you get used to gunshots
And often let them sing you to sleep.

I am from the Mummer’s Parade,
2 street, whiskey and steins of beer

I am from Aspen Farms Community Garden
From tall sunflowers and peach trees

I am from the weeds growing out of the sidewalk

I’m from playing hockey in the driveway till they noticed I was a girl.

I am from the “white trash” part of the city

I am from one way streets full of one way minds.

I am from U-city
West Philly
Grey’s Ferry
Mount Airy
Center City
West Oak Lane
North Side
South Philly

I am from good southern home soul food cooking

I am from Irish potatoes and gefilte fish

I am from ham and cabbage

Rice and beans

Curried goat and fried chiken

Humentashen and rye bread

Spagehetti and pizza

I am from tofu

I am from jerk chicken and curried goat

I am from empanadas and noki

from buryani and samosas to


I am from Led Zeppelin, Rolling Stones, AC/DC

I am from Lauryn Hill, India.Arie, Floetry

I am from pushto,
and disco
from salsa,
Hip hop
and R&B.

I am from rhythmic latin beats
And the sweet west Indian soul

I am from spirituals and gospel and

I am from a place where I have to dumb down my language

I am from New Life Baptist Church and Sunday dinners

I am from onsies and booties, pampers and pull ups

I am from Similac and back hand slaps

I am from Sunday morning pancakes,
flowered dresses and little cups of grape juice once a month

I am from hot combs in the kitchen

I am from a strong black man and an independent black woman

I am from Grandma Vidella

And her delicious cookies and her soft quilts

And her husband who was shot by that white man

And her son who blames himself.

I am from cereal and orange juice every morning

I am from Batman and Spiderman

Action figures and remote control cars

I am from T-ball practice and American Legion games

I am from a seder every year and
Getting up in the morning to Easter baskets
Judah Maccabee on a Christmas tree

I am from prayers and God and Catholic school

I am from South America and the Catholic culture and the Spanish language

I am from fancy cigars and failed businesses

I am from my grandfather, the man in the casket I never knew

I am from the Black woman who doesn’t braid hair
and can’t fry chicken to save her life
( But makes great candied sweet potatoes)

I am from new cars and Negro League calendars

I am from the first African American homecoming queen

to yet another high school drop out.

I am from a world where everything is smoke and mirrors
From broken glass
to broken fingers
From broken families
to broken promises
From broken dreams
to broken hearts

I am from daddy’s little girls

To mamma’s biggest problem.

I am from the dinner table

Where these stories and more


I am from “Reading opens up a while new world.”

I am from “turn the damned TV off and read a book.”

I am from the “ I can’t believe they would do that’s
To the “girl, guess what I just heard!.”

I’m from “don’t this” and “don’t do that”
And “go clean your room now.”

I am from “Speak your mind”

I am from “Act like a lady.”

I’m from “Boys don’t cry”.

I am from Good Night Moon and the Runaway Bunny.

I am from Wonderland and Middle Earth
Oz and Fantasia

I am from the world of Harry Potter
From Quidditch games to chocolate frogs.

I’m from Grimm’s fairy tales
A princess who can keep from being rescued

I am from Roald Dahl and Stephen King

I’m from Alice Walker and Toni Morrison

I am from the library that wouldn’t let my mom take out
The diary of Anne frank

Because she was TOO YOUNG!

We are
from a place where flowers grow from cracks in the ground

We are
from people who made a way for us

We are
from fitting in and wanting out

We are
from all the things we believe

We are
From all the things that have happened to us.

We are
from the people that we meet

We are
from the teachers who have taught us.

We are
from peace.

We are
from war.

We are
from the streets that were once run by children
To a city that mourns the deaths of 24
No – 25 school children
to violence

( whisper – silence!)

We are from “been there, done that.”

We are from looking forward to getting away.

We are from different parts of the world.

We are from different frames of mind

We are from “ you can take the kid out of Philly
but you can’t take the Philly out of the kid…

We are from here.

Creating the "In-Between" A Playwriting Exchange Between Students in Philadelphia and Ketchikan Alaska

In her article “Evaluation and Dignity,” Maxine Greene refers to Hannah Arendt and her concept of the “in-between.” The in-between, says Arendt is a place where people can achieve their full humanity with one another. It emerges through a web of relationships woven through authentic disclosures. This concept is helpful in thinking about and reconstructing the complex and complicated collaboration that has transpired over nearly three years, thousands of miles, two school districts and three classrooms. PorTrait created the context for teachers from different parts of the country to get to know one another as people as well as educators. During the initial conference, the workshops and activities were structured to encourage teachers with similar interests and concerns to find one another and begin to raise the questions we would pursue in our mutual inquiry. We were able to build on that relationship during the school year as we communicated via email and through the BreadNet network. When the time came for the actual visits to occur, we already knew each other fairly well. During the visits, we stayed in each other’s homes, experienced life with each other families, schools and communities. We got to know what life was like in towns and schools very different from our own in ways that would not have been possible without those visits. The time we spent literally sharing one another’s lives helped to create an openness and intimacy between and among us. We had come to know and trust each other enough to create the context for our students to get to know one another as well. The nature of the PorTrait cross visitations made it possible for there to be authentic human disclosures among the teachers and subsequently our students.
During the first year of this project, I was a teacher on special assignment serving as Executive Director of Philadelphia Young Playwrights, an arts in education organization that taps the potential of youth and develops critical literacy through playwriting. The program pairs professional theater artists with classrooms teachers for the purpose of teaching young people how to write, revise and perform their own original plays. For the previous fifteen years, I had been a teacher in the program and my students at two high schools in Philadelphia had achieved extraordinary success: three students won the national playwriting competition, seeing their plays performed professionally off-Broadway. Dozens of other students won the local playwriting competition, seeing their plays performed by local universities and professional companies. In addition, I had written extensively about the ways in which teaching playwriting had transformed my practice as an English teacher and I had helped plan and implement professional development programs for teachers wanting to study the impact of playwriting on their teaching.
During the first year, most of my questions were about the playwriting program. Specifically, I wanted to know the impact of the classroom visits of the professional playwrights and actors as well as other elements of the program. After the first year and partly in response to my involvement in Dina and Rosie’s classrooms, I opted to leave the job as executive director and return to the classroom.

In the second year of the collaboration, the web of relationships became more complex as Rosie and I carried out our exchange. I had been to Rosie’s school and talked with her students, but she had not been to mine (the year she visited Philadelphia, I was not teaching – though she did attend a playwriting workshop run by PYPF that I had developed.) While I had more experience in the teaching of playwriting and drama, Rosie had developed expertise about on-line exchanges through her involvement with BreadNet and the Rural Teachers Network. Also complex was the nature of our very different contexts: Kayhi is the only high school on the island of Ketchikan (except for one or two religious schools and an alternative high school for struggling students.) Rosie’s classes included students of all achievement and ability levels. Masterman is a magnet school for high performing students located on the fringe of the center city and students come from every neighborhood in the city.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

I found Ketchikan to be a unique combination of almost 1890’s frontier life and 21st century sophistication. While we were in Ketchikan, we saw a logging rodeo and a community theater production of Wit. We saw a performance by Japanese children visiting Ketchikan as part of an exchange program and a local talent show of sorts called the monthly grind. I have very vivid recollections of one of Rosie’s students, a Native young man who knew every single Beatle song ever recorded. Dina Rosie and I sat with him for over an hour one afternoon after school in the high school’s beautiful atrium – it was raining outside ( as it had been for almost our entire visit) but it was warm and bright inside as this young man played his guitar and we sang Beatle songs together. Not only was the school beautiful, clean and filled with extraordinary local art, the halls were neat and quiet ---Rosie’s classroom was also a lovely sight with carpets, new furniture, computers and colorful student work from floor to ceiling,. Even as I write this, I cringe when I try to imagine how my run down aging and crumbling classroom must look through Rosie’s eyes.
I had my own concerns about my students and my school. Masterman students score the highest in the state on all standardized tests. Virtually every graduate goes on to a four year college. This makes Masterman a very interesting place to teach. The students are bright, and very motivated to do well. And it can be a lot of fun. But this also has a down side. There is among some students and teachers an emphasis on grades and test scores. There is an air of competition that interferes with true learning and impedes the establishment of an authentic learning community. While it was difficult to avoid this kind of grade consciousness in my Honors English classes, I was able to try to establish a different atmosphere in my Drama and Inquiry Elective. In the course description I gave to the students in the beginning of the year, I wrote, “Over the years, I have come to appreciate the genre of drama as a powerful tool for investigating complex moral, ethical and cultural questions about human existence. In this course, I hope that we will become a true intellectual community filled with members who raise heartfelt and complex questions and explore answers together. We would do so by reading, writing and performing plays.
The central question driving my current inquiry has to do with the ways in which I was successful and unsuccessful in the establishment of that kind of learning community. I am particularly interested in the nature of response and responsibility in my Drama and Inquiry class and how the Alaskan exchange both brought into focus and called into question my practices concerning responding to student plays and the kind of moral, ethical and intellectual community I strive to establish in my classroom. As the community was extended beyond the walls of the classroom, how did seeing my students, my teaching practices and my school through Rosie’s eyes and the eyes of her students help me get a better understanding of what was happening in my classroom?
The exchange worked as follows. A week or two before Rosie began her playwriting unit, my students sent scenes from their plays to Rosie’s students. Along with the scenes, they sent short personal introductions, then brief descriptions of their scenes. Many of them also sent a list of questions they wanted their Alaskan reader to think about while reading the play and respond to in their email. We also sent a video that included introductions and some of the activities we did in drama class. Rosie’s students emailed back (to me who distributed the emails to the students… wrote back, including in their emails, personal introductions, and responses to the plays in progress. Shortly thereafter, Rosie’s students sent their scenes and a video to which my students sent their responses. The exchange ended abruptly at that point when Rosie ran into some flak from colleagues who questioned the efficacy of the project and complained to administrators in Rosie’s school.
There were many positive things I learned about my students from this exchange. I was encouraged and gratified by the number of students who responded to the Alaskan plays with thoughtful and respectful questions. This mirrored the kinds of responses I would give my students and the process by which I was teaching them to respond to each other. I was pleased to see reflected in these emails just how much my students had learned about the craft of playwriting – about the development of character and conflict, the use of the space on the stage and the importance of stage directions.
But there were some other things I saw in the email exchanges that raised questions for me about certain dissonances or conflicts in my own class of which I may not have been aware. One such incident related to do the different approaches students took to playwriting as seen in the following exchange. Bronwen, a student in my class sent her play to Andy in Alaska. Her play is about a teen age girl, her father and his lover who contracts AIDS.
Andy writes to Bronwen: “I thoroughly enjoyed your play. I am also writing a play about homosexuals. I view their rights or lack thereof as a big problem especially in small isolated Ketchikan.”

Bronwen replies:
It’s really cool that you are writing a play dealing with homosexuality too. It’s a really difficult subject matter especially when so many people are homophobic. When we workshopped my scene in class, I was really nervous and there was a lot of tension in the room. But something you said really sticks in my mind. I remember that you wrote something about my play being “about” homosexuality. It made me think that I don’t want my play to become like another after school special, you know? I don’t want it to be one of those educational plays that’s like, “now this is why we don’t discriminate against Harry the homosexual.” It’s like I have gay characters in my play but I don’t want that to be the ultimate focus.”

After the initial exchanges, we had a whole class discussion about our collective reactions to the plays we had received and the term “After School Special” took on a somewhat derogatory or condescending connotation when applied to a play. What is particularly interesting about this exchange and the conversation that followed in class is the way that it revealed dissension and fissures not with how my students were seeing the Alaskan plays, but how they were seeing each others. Indeed, many of their plays WERE about issues and many students were writing about actual events that happened in their lives. To hear their classmates deride some of the Alaskan students’ plays because of their supposed lack of sophistication made some of my students very uncomfortable to share their work in our class.

In an email sent to in the summer in response to the exchange project, my student Kathleen writes:

“Some in our class took on a “we’re better than them” attitude, when that was not the case at all. It was more of a we’re both different from different backgrounds. And I felt as though we as a drama class we should be trying to get to know and become familiar with something different. … because we had the professional playwright and more resources it made us have a better and more developed background into playwriting and more of a chance to lend what we have learned and give helpful suggestions because we were lucky to have access to such things. I learned more from my Alaskan pen pals than students in my class… and in fact I did use their suggestions because they made sense. I think the students in Alaska should have been hurt and angered by the comments that their plays were After School Specials and I said that in class. Who are we to tell them that? I felt very nervous from the students in Alaska who were on the receiving end of these emails. What may seem like an after school special to someone may be real life for someone else.”

It is clear to me that Kathleen was not only writing about the way some of my students responded to the Alaskan plays but how they responded to each other’s as well.

Another area of dissonance had to do with the difference in our contexts. There were two questions emerging simultaneously: How well had each playwright depicted his or her context and how well did each reader understand the nature of the playwright’s context. This became evident as students in both Alaska and Philadelphia made judgments about how “realistic” their partner’s play seemed.

Many of the emails from the Alaskan students to my students focused on the use of profanity and the “unrealistic” nature of the dialogue my students had written. Erin from Alaska wrote to Addie: I think that how the kids are talking and being so intensely sarcastic to the teacher is a little unrealistic.” Clearly, Erin didn’t understand the context of an urban magnet high school.
Two of my students were writing plays with overt Jewish themes – one set at a Passover seder and another in a sukkah at an Orthodox synagogue. They had some concerns about how their plays would be received and understood by their partners. While there were some Jews in Ketchikan (on my visit I had met the mayor, a singer in an aging rock band and the cooking teacher at Kayhi) there was no synagogue nor organized Jewish community on the island. It raised questions for them about whom they were writing for and how much responsibility they had to depict their particular Jewish context accurately.
While their counterparts didn’t respond to the Jewish themes, they did offer helpful feedback. The student responding to the Passover play said he could relate to way the children were bickering at the family holiday dinner and the student responding to the sukkah play asked for more dialogue and a longer conversation between the main character and the rabbi to flesh out the nature of their relationship.

One of the most wonderful moments in this entire exchange occurred when two of my students, Natalie and Ben, were acting out a play that had been sent to us from Alaska. They were having a difficult time with some of the vernacular and they were infusing their performance with undue melodrama. In the midst of the reading, Natalie stopped abruptly. She had apparently had a sudden vision of the students in Alaska acting out her play and getting it all wrong. The realization that the students in Alaska might not “get” the reality of the characters in the Philly plays, led Natalie to make a very important leap. She might not be getting the reality of their plays either. She would have to take a different stance in how she approached their plays, one in which she was the novice, the outsider, the learner.
The experience of receiving feedback from people so far away in a very different context and questioning the efficacy and usefulness of that feedback heightened the experience of reading and offering feedback to others. Many of my students shared Natalie’s epiphany. If their Alaskan penpal had misjudged or misunderstood the scene that he or she had written and sent because they were unfamiliar with the realities as well as subtleties of our context, it was then possible, even likely that they too misunderstood and misjudged the plays written by the Alaskan playwrights.
Drama allows people to imagine worlds and possibilities both inside and outside of themselves. It can provide a mirror in which we can see our own lives reflected or it can offer us a window into worlds and lives we never knew existed. But sometimes something magical happens and we get to see ourselves reflected in the unlikeliest of places… discover mirrors in the distant windows and re/discover new dimensions of ourselves. While this exchange was short-lived, it did open up many new possibilities for my students to raise new questions, to expand their notions of audience, to look at their plays and their lives through new and different eyes.