PBS in the Classroom

Powerful Words in the Classroom: Dr. Maya Angelou, an American Master

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Recently, students at UC Berkeley violently protested a news editor’s visit due to his verbally abusive activity on social media platforms over the summer. Language use, political correctness and diction have invited equal amounts of controversy, debate and intense discussion around the nation.  Several politicians have claimed that what we say, how we say it or who we say it to should not matter – that the freedom of speech is a much more important right to uphold than someone’s response to those words, the victim’s feelings or the belief that words have genuine power. While discussing the relationship between vulgar language, impact and context, one of my students recently argued, “My level of offense depends on who says it.” In an age where our students have access to each other – and the news – 24 hours a day, seven days a week; how do we teach our future leaders about the power of their words and the great responsibility of word choice in the digital age of information?

Dr. Maya Angelou once said, “If a thing is poison and it’s got the skull and bones on it, you can take that content and pour it into Bavarian Crystal. It’s still poison.” 

As a teacher at America’s largest high school in Fort Greene, New York, I can honestly tell you the power of language is electrifying. With a student body of over 5,840, we have held town hall meetings, parent teacher conferences and student debates to discuss the usage and impact of language choice in the classroom by students, administrators and teachers. In such a large community, we share our opinions and sometimes disagree about which (and whether) words are hurtful and may have a lasting impact and/or matter on a daily basis.

When should a teacher intercede? How can we intervene in a positive and helpful manner? How do we define bullying? What legal responsibilities do we have as a school community to intervene in electronic conversations happening outside of the classroom and/or outside of the school?   

On February 21, a new documentary will air on PBS’s American Masters’ Series, entitled Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise. I was invited to preview the film and connected resources after attending a PBS Digital Innovator workshop last fall. As a poet, writer and a high school English teacher with eleven years of diverse teaching experiences, I jumped at the opportunity. I have always been an admirer of Dr. Angelou. 

Appropriately, the film opens to the clear sound of African drumming. Dr. Angelou played Kunte Kinte’s grandmother in the 1977 original television series, Roots, during her rise to fame. Next, we hear Dr. Maya Angelou’s well-traveled and honeyed voice advising her listeners: “We may encounter many defeats, but we must not be defeated…that it may, in fact, be necessary to encounter defeats so we can know who the hell we are.  What can we overcome? What makes us stumble? And fall? And miraculously rise? And go on?” These are the essential questions that help to harmonize the varied and recognizable voices throughout the film; voices from history, politics, music, literature, drama, film and dance all humbled into one solid choir to palpably honor this great woman’s life and legacy. The film is inspiring, beautiful and also a comprehensive and pedagogically useful survey of the last 86 years of this nation’s history. [Please see a thematically organized list here.]

Dr. Maya Angelou was more than the creator of the fabulously popular works of literature, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” “Still I Rise” and “On the Pulse of Morning.” As Ms. Hillary Clinton emphasizes just before the documentary’s title flashes in beautiful calligraphy across the screen, “Phenomenal Woman is not just the title of something she wrote; it’s who she was.” Throughout the film, people speak lovingly as witnesses to the many roles that Dr. Angelou inhabited so naturally – and so candidly – during her lifetime. She was a Calypso singer, a stripper, a professional dancer, a prostitute, a film and stage actress, a director, a playwright, an essayist, a novelist and a memoirist. Her family and friends spoke about her as a sister, a wife, a mother, a daughter and a granddaughter. She lived comfortably on three continents, with three husbands. Her captivating voice provided her with unique opportunities to travel widely through the world as a delegate, a speaker, a performer and an activist.

In one interview, Dr. Angelou shares how she learned about the power of words very early in her life. Her young mother and father decided they could not handle two intelligent toddlers with amazing bouts of imagination and energy. As a result, they sent the three-year-old Maya and her older brother, Bailey, away from Los Angeles, California to live with their paternal grandmother in Stamps, Arkansas. The first thing Annie Henderson taught Maya was how to read.  At the ages of seven and eight, Maya and Bailey were returned to their mother, this time to St. Louis, Missouri.  Maya became the victim of a traumatic and brutal rape by her mother’s intoxicated boyfriend. Two days after she named the perpetrator to her brother, the police arrived to inform her that the man was dead. Believing that her words had killed the man, she refused to speak for five years. She was sent back to Stamps. During her silence, she read every book she could get her hands on – not an easy feat for a small black child in Arkansas in 1935. Racial segregation legally existed in both the educational and library systems. She treasured and memorized many of the classics she read. Dr. Angelou recalled, “I used to think of my whole body as an ear.” When she finally decided to speak aloud, it was because a mentor, Mrs. Flowers, argued, “You don’t like poetry until it comes over your lips.”

As an English teacher, I believe an educator’s word choice can be like thunder. Diction has significant and social reverberations. As a poet, I return to and honor Dr. Angelou’s word choice almost monthly. This documentary is a beautiful piece of art and I look forward to using small clips from it to initiate powerful conversations about language, culture and history in my classroom. Today’s students are partial to multimedia lessons and are thrilled when teachers even say the word ‘video.’ Often, I use three-to-five minute clips to initiate whole class discussions and to encourage student-to-student blog conversations about important, complex and literature-related issues outside of the classroom.

PBS Lesson Resources/Links

Collection: American Masters: Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise
Lesson ELA/History: The Law & Politics of Jim Crow
Lesson ELA/History: Analysis of Inaugural Poem & Historical Context

Find a list of themes from the film here.

Melissa Christine Goodrum teaches Gothic Literature and Freshman Composition at Brooklyn Technical High School. She first journeyed to Brooklyn to obtain a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing-Poetry from Brooklyn College. Almost thirteen years later, a collection of her poetry, definitions uprising, is available thanks to NY Quarterly Books. Most recently, Urbantgarde Press released a five-poet anthology interweaving her jazz-o-phile voice during the Spring of 2016.

Melissa Christine Goodrum

Melissa Christine Goodrum High School English Teacher

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