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

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