Rihanna In the Classroom

by Sakina Shakur

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After hearing the pain-tinged autobiography in Dr. Angelou’s own voice, I explained to students that not all of our reflections are happy, but our transformations are indeed beautiful.

Their writing seemed to open up after that class

My English Writing students were having a difficult time. First I inspired them to express themselves freely, and now when it came time for editing, they felt stifled!

But as their instructor, it was my job to find a solution.

Our first major assignment was the Personal Statement, and while some of my students will never use a Personal Statement to apply to a Western university for graduate study, the assignment seemed to satisfy a more immediate need for reflection and expression.

To introduce the unit we listened to the opening chapter of Dr. Maya Angelou’s I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings. After hearing the pain-tinged autobiography in Dr. Angelou’s own voice, I explained to students that not all of our reflections are happy, but our transformations are indeed beautiful. 

Some of the students seemed quite somber and others rather energized—I wish I could read their minds sometimes. Their writing seemed to open up after that class. The following week we watched videos of Joseph Campbell, and the students seemed enraptured by his mythical theories.

Afterwards, it seemed as though they felt that each of them can and must be heroic!

But now came the time for final drafts, and in the pouring out of souls, it became hard to follow the language used to describe their mishaps, triumphs, and dreams. It was time for editing, but the students seemed paralyzed at best, obstinate at worst.

And my idea to overcome this was to play musical chairs!

The students were deathly shy, and only a few volunteers risked embarrassment by humoring my game. While skeptical in the beginning, the students appeared much more at ease when Rihanna’s This is What You Came For began to play; dancing and pensively eyeing not only the chairs but their classmates positioning.

With only a few volunteers, the game lasted just 2 or 3 rounds. And by the end, the class was at once energized and inquisitive about what in the world this had to do with English Writing. I then explained that editing is kind of like musical chairs. While we love all of our classmates, if there is not a seat for them to sit, they can no longer play. Every word has a meaning and a place. And while we may love all the words we have chosen, some of them no longer belong.

I also see my teaching experience like a game of musical chairs. 

But the longer I teach, and play in this game called life, the more I see what needs to stay and what can go.

There are so many concepts and life lessons I want to impart on my students, but not all of them have a place. Like a tentative dance, I must be at once confident and also cautious. 

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As I figure it out I’ll keep dancing to the rhythm of Rihanna and the beat of my own drum.

 

 

Yale-China Association