No More Apologies: Empowering Her Voice in Classroom Discussion
On a particularly nondescript day, a day like most others in the middle of the work week, I walked into our faculty’s communal office space made up of cubicles, carrying my large school bag loaded down with essays that I didn’t grade the night before, and on my desk I found a small square of cardstock with the following quote from a poem entitled “The Type” by the brilliant spoken-word poet Sarah Kay: “You are a woman. Skin and bones, vein and nerves, hair and sweat. You are not made of metaphors. Not apologies, not excuses.” I had no idea who left this little love note for me, but in that moment, I needed to read and believe those words deeply and not just because a male colleague had yet again failed to hold the door open--or even notice me walking up behind him--or that I would be meeting with my lawyer and a “witness expert” later that afternoon to help me be more “likeable” should I need to take the stand at a custody hearing for my son, but because I had built my life on apologies and excuses and here I was responsible for the education of young women, who, like me, at some point in their lives will need someone to leave them this little card, so I am determined to pay it forward much earlier in their lives.
In her Her Voice at the Table post “Their Right to Be Heard: Young Women’s Voices and Cultural Silencing,” my phenomenal colleague and dear friend, Dr. Megan Griffin, beautifully captured the sophomore level English course, aptly called “The Female Voice,” that we teach at an all-girls high school, which also happens to be the high school from which I graduated many moons ago. As Megan summarized, we focus on literature with a gendered lens, specifically that of women, and encourage the students’ explorations of their own voices in relation to their gendered experiences. It is truly a privilege and a pleasure to teach this course to young women, and I frequently find myself wishing I took a course like this one when I was fifteen or sixteen years old.
My own nostalgia and strong belief in the importance of this course led me to write a reflective essay I share with my students to guide their own end-of-year reflections that accompany their portfolio review. In it, I recall my own experience when I was in their shoes:
When I was a sophomore, we did not have an English class called “The Female Voice.” From what I remember, sophomore English was World Literature or something along those lines. I think we read Tales of King Arthur, A Tale of Two Cities, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, and some sort of Shakespeare…maybe. I really can’t be certain. However, even though I did not take a class called “The Female Voice,” two of the strongest female voices from my life as a student resonate from my sophomore year – my English teacher, Ms. Gower, and my photography teacher, Ms. Knight.
Ms. Gower was a young, first- or second-year teacher, an alum from a rival all-girls high school and fresh off a yearlong trek in various exotic countries after earning her undergrad. For me, Ms. Gower made literature real. It wasn’t some snooty, high-brow art form that only the elite can understand. With her, anyone could be a literary scholar because we were all human and literature was about being human. She had posters in her classroom of various female voices that inspired her, one of which was Lena Horne. One day in class, she gestured to the poster of Lena Horne, I think while making a connection to Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, and told us a story of how she was introduced to the African American entertainer and civil rights activist on an episode of Sesame Street as a young girl. She told us how she would practice singing the A-B-Cs in the same soulful, energetic way in front of her mirror, how she tried to pop her pulled-back shoulders with the same rhythm, while singing with a contagious, full-toothed grin a la Ms. Horne. She laughed because her voice was the opposite of melodic. When I think of Ms. Gower, I remember her incredibly upright posture with a strength that came from deeper than her core. I also remember Ms. Gower’s huge smile. She had this great Steven Tyler mouth and she smiled with all her teeth, top and bottom. I think a little part of my fate was realized when Ms. Gower harnessed Lena Horne’s power and imparted it to me in that classroom during my sophomore year.
Ms. Knight was an artist, and she was my photography teacher. She was New Mexican-chic before it was chic. She had coarse red hair that burned like her no-nonsense, direct personality. Back in those days, we shot and developed real film, none of this digital stuff. I never thought of myself as “artistic.” I couldn’t draw, paint or sculpt (still can’t), so I assumed I had no artistic talent. I was all nerves in Photo I, and I desperately wanted Ms. Knight’s approval, but she didn’t just give it to anyone. You earned it. When I approached her for feedback, she told me to try this or try that and I would say, “Oh ok, sorry I should have thought of that” or something equally apologetic. Every single time, Ms. Knight would stop me and say, “Why are you sorry?” or “You have nothing to be sorry about. Just fix it.” or “Stop apologizing!” At the time, I thought it was weird that she didn’t appreciate my humility or simple courtesy, and figured, “She hates me.” However, gradually after leaving Ursuline and going to college, getting my first job in Los Angeles, leaving LA to become a teacher in Dallas, getting married, having a child, getting divorced, and returning to my alma mater to teach, I’ve finally learned that I’m not sorry for being who I am, saying what I say and doing what I do. I’ve accepted that I might say something strange, do something wrong or just not be someone’s cup of tea, but I don’t have to be sorry for that. I have to own it or grow from it.
From my own reflection, I direct my students to one of my favorite chapters from Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones – “Make Statements and Answer Questions” – which encapsulates Ms. Knight’s lesson to stop stripping myself of my power with pointless apologies. In her poetic way, Goldberg addresses women’s use of language and our propensity to qualify what we say, to add vague, indefinite modifiers and to ask questions, rather than to make direct statements and provide answers to questions. I often refer to this as “posturing” when I address it with my students.
With Goldberg in my mind and Ms. Knight and Ms. Gower in my heart, I plan exercises and experiences within the class over the course of the year where students can work on breaking these embedded habits that are distinctly observed in women. One of the ways in which I encourage my students’ voices is through whole class discussions, modeled after Socratic Seminars, when we finish reading a text, like a novel or a play, as a class. Most of the time, I provide them with thematic questions that could potentially guide the discussion for which they prepare initial responses and note references to the text for their reasoning; they can use these notes within the discussion. The opportunity for written preparation prior to the discussion in class is key to building their confidence and allows them to “burn through the fog of [their] mind[s]” (Goldberg 112).
On the day of the discussion, we put the desks in a circle; the students open their prepared notes on their laptops, which they agree to do in “tablet-mode,” so the screen is flat on their desks, and everyone is open to the discussion, not hidden behind a screen. From here, we review the norms and the communication practices that I want them to be mindful of and practice during our discussion. I typically use a slide in a digital presentation such as this one:
I invite the students to add anything to our lists that I may have missed. In the past, students have added that discussion questions should emerge organically, not go in a particular order per the preparation guide; the speaker should reference what the person before her said and then share her response to demonstrate close-listening; and should the speaker begin to qualify or modify her response in a way that is hesitant or uncertain, don’t call it out, but let her finish and learn from your awareness by responding to the best of your ability. This last norm is one that emerged later in the school year with a group of students who felt very strongly about the community of trust and compassion that we built together through these discussions. They were particularly sensitive to the notion that, as women, we need to build each other up, not tear each other down, and wanted our classroom to be a place where they didn’t feel pressure to posture, but was an environment where they drew confidence and strength from one another. Since that special group, I consistently add this norm when we review the list of things to be mindful of. I always see the relief on the students’ faces when I assure them that if they falter (and they will), there are no repercussions to their grades or the quality of the discussion.
At the end of the year, when my students write an end-of-year reflection as part of their portfolio assessment, they consider their experience in the class with the texts and the development of their own voice in discussion and writing. It’s this piece of writing I look forward to reading each year, because it not only provides me immeasurable feedback beyond any survey, but it provides the students an opportunity to truly reflect. In the last three years, many of my students have cited our text-based discussions as the most impactful contributors to the development of their voices. I witness their learning of the lesson I still cling to from my own sophomore year:
“For me, having a teacher that not only teaches you about the subject, but also real-life lessons and how to be a strong, independent woman is one of the most important qualities I can ask for in a teacher…I have learned to be confident in myself and never let anyone belittle me because I have a voice that should be heard and not silenced.”
“[My peers] taught me to share my voice and to encourage others who may be afraid to share their thoughts with the class. Seeing different voices opened me up to new perspectives and that we can all help each other find our strengths and grow from our flaws united, together. I will admit, it was scary sharing my voice at first; however, Ms. Bailey always said before class discussion or Socratic Seminars that we, especially as women, are always wanting to say, ‘This might be wrong but,’ or “I am not sure if what I said makes sense but.’ When she said that to us it stood out to me and made me ponder why I constantly am saying those little phrases. Through each class discussion, I worked to get that miniscule phrase out of my mind and instead, ask additional questions and dive deeper into certain opinions we may be discussing about literature or modern-day issues.”
“I noticed how often I start or end my sentences with a question or an unsure statement like ‘I think…’ or ‘This is probably wrong but…’ which completely belittles the statement that follows. Recently, I have been trying to cut out any vague and indefinite words and phrases from conversation, starting the sentence with ‘My answer is…’ rather than ‘I worked it out and, you know, I’m not too sure about my answer because it’s probably wrong but….’ It makes me think of how, when I was younger, I was told to not be too loud and ‘obnoxious’ about my opinions and insights, to not argue even if I was in the right as to not get on someone’s bad side, and to consider quietness rather than standing up for myself because ‘Oh, it’s just better to move on and let them win this time.’ This trained me to be less confident about my thoughts and insights, valuing others’ opinions and how they might view me over my own thoughts...[However,] this year, my peers have taught me to be open to different views on a piece of literature and accept criticism graciously. The [class discussions] have been so impactful in my comprehension and appreciation of each piece we read as I always find myself leaving the class with a new outlook on the piece we discussed which has helped me to expand my thought process and read into passages in a more open-minded way.”
“My classmates have all inspired me to speak out more and, when people ask what my thoughts are, I don’t hold anything back and tell them truly how I feel. I always worry people will judge me or think of me differently, but I am slowly getting to the point where if I am being honest with myself then I don’t care what other people think about me. At the beginning of this year, I was closed off when it came to my opinions; I never wanted to offend or make someone mad or uncomfortable with my words. But now, a week from school ending, I have gotten to a point where if people do not agree or feel offended by what I say, then I do not need to apologize. Apologizing for being you is not something that God would want for us, plus we should never feel ashamed of being ourselves.”
“Although I am still learning to be a more confident and assertive speaker, I don’t need to be unnecessarily loud (like many men I know) to get my point across. Like my mom always says, being the loudest one in an argument doesn’t mean you’re the winner. I have learned that the most persuasive way to get my point across is to speak calmly, collectedly, and confidently. I believe these three C’s will get me far in life. I used to be scared to speak up in class because I thought people would judge me. But I quickly learned that most people are just happy they don’t have to answer instead. Not only that, but speaking up in class discussions have been a great way for me to practice my public speaking skills – even if it’s in a smaller setting. Being in this class has also highlighted how differently we all think. Listening to other people’s insights during class discussion has always been interesting to me because most of the time someone says at least one thing that I hadn’t thought of or considered previously. Even though providing personal insight during discussion is important, I have learned that you learn the most through listening to others. Most important of all, this class has taught me to be confident in my abilities as a speaker. While I previously viewed my voice and its uniqueness as its greatest weakness, I have now learned that my uniqueness is my greatest strength. I don’t need to fit into some mold of how anyone thinks I should sound. My only job is to be unapologetically me.”
“Sometimes we go into other topics just on one word in the prompt, and I feel like I do not have to worry about being judged for my interests in literature or in my topics. For example, when we were reading The Yellow Wallpaper, I just bluntly stated that I thought the gross smell might have been flesh; I realized how weird I sounded after saying that, but my partner went along with my interpretation to build off our analysis. So, my voice was never alone, and my peers’ voices do not always have to be the same OR opposite for us to work together and show something beautiful. Ultimately, Ms. Bailey’s voice spoke to me in a personal way where I could get behind a difficult text and relate it to myself; my peers added to that by helping our voices come together rather than being pinned against one another.”
With these reflections, I am reminded of the last lines of the chapter I covet in Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones where she leaves the reader with a hopeful charge: “Even if you are not sure of something, express it as though you know yourself. With this practice you eventually will.” In my students’ words, I see the evidence and results of their practice: an incredible amount of self-awareness, willingness to share their vulnerabilities and empowerment in their communication.
Just as my students point to their peers as inspiration for their growth, I must acknowledge that my own colleague’s Her Voice post inspired me to write this one as an extension of her thesis: “If my students do not have an understanding of these forces—and this long tradition of silencing—then I am not sure they are fully prepared to grapple with the inevitable obstacles in their own lives as young women or to even understand just how revolutionary it is for them to be the public leaders they are destined to become.”
As Megan points out, with this course it is so important for our students to overcome the initial hurdle of “That was then; this is now,” a general attitude about gender equality and/or women’s rights; many come to the class with very little context or background, tending to believe that everything was “fixed” with the 19th amendment. In conjunction with studying the “historical, cultural and political forces” that stifle the female voice and providing this powerful context for the discovery of their own voice as women, we also must provide them the safe space to experiment with and hone the necessary rhetorical skills that they will one day take into a college seminar, boardroom, courtroom...or maybe even a classroom of their own.
Goldberg, Natalie. Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within. Shambhala, 2005.
Jessica Bailey is Our Gothic Queen Bee Who Reigns Under the Yellow Banner of the Second Year, Sometimes Subject of Spontaneous Photography