Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Guest Columnist: Jean Gillis. A Valentine for Jimmy Santiago Baca.

Jean Gillis teaches English in a Continuation High School. This is her first guest column at La Bloga. She blogs about her teaching experiences at "Dating Yourself in Pasadena."

Jimmy Santiago Baca . A Place to Stand. The Making of a Poet. NY: Grove Press, 2002.
ISBN-13: 978-0-8021-3908-5

Those of you who know me are aware of my challenging and poignant job as a teacher at a continuation high school. My students are mostly boys, not keen on reading, more than disaffected by a whole lot of things in life. But god love them, they are usually fairly tolerant of my attempts to bring academic order to our school lives. (At our school the kids address me by the honorific MISS.) As one fella said, when I was trying to gain his attention, "Oh, go ahead, Miss, teach. Do your little thing."

A couple of years ago I was galvanized by reading a paperback called A PLACE TO STAND, by Jimmy Santiago Baca. This book was the answer to my prayer, because I needed something substantial to read with my kids that would speak to them on a genuine level. The book contains innumerable harsh life experiences, explicit language, and a verity laced with crime and punishment and survival. All this fits my students' milieu. Trouble is, if you are a learner reading at second to fifth grade level, but you are a young adult,even a great book like this might be beyond you. Still, I had to have this book. I wrote a little grant and purchased a class set the first year we tried it.

I have to say that in class I read the entire book out loud, but it is a guided reading. The students read along with me, and we build up our stamina so that we can concentrate on the story for up to 30 minutes a class period. My students may not have experienced that childhood luxury of being read to. In fact, one of them remarked to me, "You know what, Miss? I'm gonna get my diploma and then open an after-school homework center and hire you to read out loud!" I replied that I would dig it and that I might be in the market for some part-time work one of these days. But it is the potency of the narrative that hooks them. How many times have they told me that they have never read a whole book until this one? It's so important to me that they read, that they feel invited to that table of readers and not hang back in the shadows of the excluded. (And it doesn't hurt that A PLACE TO STAND is highly cinematic in spots.)

One of my old teaching chums used to say she reserved time in class for preaching, and I do that too. When I preach, I always tell the kids I am that other mother they never knew they had. This particular book is rife with redemption but never in either a saccharine or lachrymose tone. Instead, this book is about LITERACY--about how we all can release life's pent-up emotion through thinking and reading and writing. I couldn't have asked for better preaching material had I devised it myself.

One small problem is that these books vanish. Everyone asks to take them home and we don't have enough to go around. In fact, I had to order ten more from Amazon for this quarter's go round. But I don't feel like I'm paying fare to Charon to enter the Land of the Dead. Far from it. This is my investment in our vida together.

La Bloga welcomes and actively solicits guest columns like Jean Gillis' today. If you have a book or arts review, a literary experience, something from your writer's notebook that you want to share with La Bloga, click here to discuss your idea.


Olga Garcia Echeverria said...

Thanks for your article Jean. This past summer I taught an English class to 10th and 11th graders who were from various South Los Angeles high schools. I had carefully selected a series of texts that I thought would be accessible to their reading levels and that would also speak to them on issues of race and class. I soon discovered, though, that the students weren't reading at home. It was impossible for us to do our class activities (based on the reading), so I began to use class time to read. We all took turns reading aloud and although it meant tossing out my original syllabus, it gave me great insight into their actual reading strengths and weaknesses. The interesting thing was that the students (even the ones who repeatedly tripped over words and struggled) actually liked reading aloud. We learned vocabulary as we went and discussed specific scenes for comprehension. For so many of the students, our class time was the only reading time they had. And like you commented, it was evident that they did not have a "reading culture" at home, so we began to create a "reading culture" in our class. It wasn't what the class was originally supposed to be, but one creates as one goes and in the teacher's world the students' needs always rule. Best wishes on your teaching and gracias!

Viva Liz Vega! said...

You are an inspiration Jean. I hope to see more of your columns on La Bloga.

don quixote said...

Jimmy Santiago Baca is perfect Jean!
Open up those minds! You never know who might be hiding in there.