Mobile Language and Culture: Unfreezing Teacher and Student Identity within the School Culture by Cassandra Waldon for EDU 6460 Curriculum, Culture, Language

Mobile Language and Culture: Unfreezing Teacher and Student Identity within the School Culture by Cassandra Waldon for EDU 6460 Curriculum, Culture, Language

Why do people say she is broken? Last time I checked it’s the bird with the broken wing in the cage, not out in the open like the free one. Lana looks unbroken to me. Unbroken by conformity. By society. By walls. She’s free to be herself, something most people don’t taste. Hopefully she can stay that way.

– YouTube commenter Saminal 1990


I am fucking crazy but I am free.

This is the last line of Lana del Rey’s song “Ride,” which is an homage to a nomadic lifestyle and the narrative of a girl who rejects societal norms through movement. To some, this line maybe a shocking sentence, to others perhaps it is crude, yet, more importantly, to a certain audience, it is undeniably relatable; a telltale dream for their own lived experience, spoken in eight words. Within the context of teaching, the line derives the questions: what does it truly mean to break free from conformity and what are its consequences? How does this relate to the identities of students and teachers alike within the school environment? I face similar questions in my own internal dialogue about culture, language and curriculum as a first year French language teacher within the OCDSB public school system. This paper is a negotiation of teacher and student identity – a looking for home–  within school culture. It provokes questions of “who am I?” as a result of “where do I fit in/where is here?” from a teacher who wishes to deconstruct labels and ideals attached to teacher identity. (Chambers, 1994; Chambers, 1999). This is why Lana del Rey’s song, “Ride” is relevant to this discussion, since it confers displacement, and deconstructs the notion of one “home”– meaning one signifier that different identities have to live up to– or one way of being. I hope to use concepts of displacement and “Ride” to invoke discussions that can deconstruct the hegemonic school culture, which dictates teachers’, and students’ lived curriculum and language.

I have chosen to engage in “Ride’s” fictional narrative as a means of Métissage to negotiate student/ teacher identity within the curriculum and school through juxtaposition of Lana’s narrative speech with my own text. Métissage is a research method in which autobiographical narratives are interconnected with other texts in order to explore topics in-depth and to reveal multiple perspectives and sources (Blood, N. & Chambers, C. & Donald, D. & Hasebe-Ludt, & Big Head, R., 2012). Literary Métissage is the interpretation of autobiographical texts “braided” together. It creates a contact zone for “understanding and questioning the social conditions in which those experiences are embedded, and the particular languages, memories, stories, and places in which these stories experiences are located and created.” (Leggo, Hasebe-Ludt &Chambers, 2009, p. 35). I use literary Métissage to explore how metaphorical mobility through teacher artistry can negotiate concepts of the learner/self within the school culture, language and curriculum.

Movement in Language, Movement in Culture

I fixedly went through the movements of my lesson. I was hyperaware of my hand pointing at the letters on paper, my eyes glancing over the shifts of movement on the carpet, and the words leaving my mouth. I tried to move my lips in the form of a language that wasn’t my own. I could feel the heat rise to my cheeks as I reminded, I asked, I pleaded with my eyes as my principal silently looked on, her presence influencing the thoughts in my head: en francais. Parle-moi en francais. Dit-le en francais. I outlined my students’ thoughts as I put words into their mouths and I spoke for them. Essayez encore, mais en francais. I denied them their voice as I modeled, pushed and prodded for that French sentence. Even if I was uncomfortable with the entire concept of expecting 5 year olds to speak exclusively in their second language, that sentence still had to be entirely in French. This was a French Immersion class after all. It was also my first teacher evaluation, and I was hoping, that in that moment, the students would mirror my words and conform.

“Cassandra encourages her students to speak French in class.” There was the line on the evaluation, typed out and ready to be thrown into a folder, unlikely to be examined again. Somehow I could feel a sting deep in my gut just from looking at it. When I teach, I deny my students the right to their first language; I place preferential treatment onto a language that is neither theirs nor mine, but is enforced, by program and policy. Since I teach Health and Phys. Ed to a Grade One French Immersion class, all classroom instruction and activities are to be done in French. Students are not expected to have any sort of movement between languages. The flow of language is abruptly frozen in the space of the classroom as students are expected to stutter out their words and meaning in French. This rigidity happens in order to conform to our school’s policy and culture.

I contemplate these constraints as my bus moves along the Ottawa suburban landscape. For moments like these a song that most fits my mood is “Ride” by Lana Del Rey. This song in narrative format is dedicated to mobility and freedom. I wonder how I can grant this sort of mobility and freedom to my students in French class, when I myself feel so pressed to follow the rules of language and culture within the school. Lana plays the role of a girl who is driven to a nomadic lifestyle in order to secure her feelings of freedom, even if it means being recognized as “crazy” by greater society. She begins the song with a narrative speech that appeals to my own feelings of entrapment as I negotiate my immobilized self and students within the culture of the school.

I was in the winter of my life and the men I met along the road were my only summer… my memories of them were my only real happy times… I was a singer, not a very popular one, I once had dreams of becoming a beautiful poet, but upon an unfortunate series of events I saw those dreams dashed and divided like a million stars in the night sky, that I wished on over and over again, sparkling and broken.

I once had dreams of becoming a beautiful teacher. I remember the words that inspired those dreams. “Your students are your curriculum.” They were spoken to us by Kathy Gould-Lundy during a pre-service teacher education course, School and Society, at OISE. The words were transformative in that they made the possibilities for teaching endless. I imagined all of the students I would have and the diverse experiences they would share. With students as my curriculum, nothing would be set in stone, everything would mould itself to fit my students’ needs. When I share the enthusiasm I had, my desire to change the world, some people laugh and shake their heads, “Oh, those young teachers.” I didn’t realize that this was a precedent for my experience as an actual teacher within the school culture.

I remember my instructor’s words as I walk into my first teaching assignment. I recall feeling confident and ready to share my new knowledge. Yet one thing I was in no way prepared for was the work culture of my school. If I wanted to be truly dramatic, I would describe it as cultural shock. At that moment, I truly felt that I was in the winter of my life. Did we not learn in teacher’s college the importance of fostering positive environments? Why didn’t this extend to the constructs of the work environment? I realized that I would have to assimilate my own identity into the melting pot of the school culture in order to survive. In fact, the culture clash was so strong that my previous career aspirations began to lose their luster. I began to envision myself as being freed from this constrictive school culture. I began to identify with the narrative Lana del Rey.

In her song, “Ride,” Lana del Rey dreams of being a beautiful poet. It is interesting that she differentiates her dreams of being a poet from being an unpopular singer. Poets are typically regarded in a romanticized view within society, more likely to be associated with artists than the pop phenomenons that infiltrate our radio stations. According to Gaztambide-Fernández (2008), artists in society are often viewed as border crossers, suggesting that “the role of artists is to literally cross both the symbolic and the concrete boundaries that divide and order society… Their task is to destabilize the hegemonic control of dominant ideologies towards a total reconstruction of society.” (p.245). Lana dreams of being a “beautiful poet,” or to be viewed as an artist, because it would grant her the possibility to move between hegemonic ideals within society and give her the ability to create discourse that would challenge those that oppose her way of living. This is comparable to my own wish to be a “beautiful teacher” (i.e. one whose curriculum is their students). A teacher whose students are their curriculum would be “beautiful” in the sense that teaching would be creative artistry and thus permissible to border crossing. As Gaskell (2003) states, border crossing is an essential curricular practice in that it invites different forms of knowledge and meaning to be credible, thus granting students mobility amongst different knowledge communities. A beautiful teacher could grant students symbolic mobility that could deconstruct the hegemonic school culture and curriculum by validating these different forms of knowledge. For example, my Grade Ones would be permitted to speak in their first language, and they would be able to develop language abilities that would be permissible for movement within and amongst language communities appropriate to themselves. In fact, a beautiful teacher wouldn’t be fixed by the text in a policy document, rather, would be open to the changes, shifts and diverse knowledge pertaining to the students in their classroom. Knowledge would be open to interpretation and thus would permit mobility within the culture of the school.

Some may argue that teaching is already a “mobile” profession and curriculum permits responsive teaching because it is subject to the teachers’ own interpretation. One can teach different grades, different subjects, in different schools, in different boards and even in different countries. The possibility for movement is endless. Yet, the culture of the school is deceivingly counter-productive to movement. Aoki (1983) and Kanu & Glor (2006) take up issues relating to teaching culture in their respective articles. Aoki (1983) mentions a teaching culture that one must assimilate into in order to be a “becoming” teacher. In this paper, I differentiate those from “beautiful” teachers, in that “becoming teachers” are representative of a ministry ideal, and possess the pedagogical skill that is deemed most worthy according to the latest ministry initiatives and trends. These “becoming” teachers withhold certain attributes and can conform to the evaluative measures they must surpass in order to become a teacher (Aoki, 1983). Kanu & Glor (2006) further call attention to the issues within the teaching profession, describing how standardized expectations, stifling creativity and the moral issues within the schooling system have been great cause for resignations and early retirements. Because of teacher evaluations and the general nature of the school culture, becoming a “beautiful teacher” is difficult, especially with power relations at play. Although it is important to maintain a standard of education for our students, at what point does the school culture and its methods for evaluation stifle teacher artistry and exploration of new methods of teaching? If teachers are evaluated based on what is trendy in a moment in time, they are denied movement within the curriculum that is needed to match the changing identities within their students. Teacher artistry is constrained by the fixedness of evaluations and school culture.

In the narrative, Lana rejects the constraints of a condescending society around her, as mobility becomes her freedom. Movement reflects her own changing identity and symbolically allows her to negotiate her “inner indecisiveness.” As a metaphor for curriculum, Lana’s movement reflects the needs of our students and teachers alike who rest on the margins of school culture. For those who are excluded, granting curricular mobility would allow them to move within and outside of our teaching culture and still grant them success. Conversely, as one strives to become a “becoming teacher” we enforce these values and attributes of “becoming” onto our students, since we are everyday role models. This becomes detrimental as we examine the school culture, and ministry based expectations as a perpetuation of post-colonialism and control (Kanu, 2003).

When the people I used to know found out what I had been doing, how I’d been living, they asked me why, but there’s no use in talking to people who have a home, they have no idea what it’s like to seek safety in other people, for home to be wherever you lie your head. I was always an unusual girl; my mother told me I had a chameleon soul, no moral compass pointing due north, no fixed personality. Just an inner indecisiveness that was as wide and wavering as the ocean… With a fire for every experience and an obsession for freedom that terrified me to the point that I couldn’t even talk about it; that pushed me to a nomadic point of madness that both dazzled and dizzied me.

I chose to teach French because I used to love the language. I loved language in general. When I switched out of Science in university to take English and French not very many people understood why. They didn’t understand what it was like to follow your passion, to live in a world open to culture, art and interpretation. I didn’t want to be a part of that world where things were either A, B, or C. Yet now, teaching French within the school culture, things are either A, B or C. Repetez après moi. Repeat after me. Everyday I form the words that come out of my students’ mouths. I transform them into ‘proper’ French speakers. The vocal repetition is a metaphor for how these students may also fall subject to—will repeat– the walls of conformity that I now bear. As I conform to these rigid language constraints and to the culture of the school, I see students who, at 5 years old, are afraid to make mistakes in their second language. Will this fear restrain them from being able to move within and amongst other French communities as they get older? At what cost are we making them ‘proper’ French speakers?

Movement is reflective of Chambers (1994;1999) ideologies concerning place and here. In her Topography for Canadian Curriculum Theory, she notes how closely landscape can shape who we are (1999). Yet in her Work in Progress,  Chambers (1994) considers herself a nomadic schizoid who is label-less: her identities are continually changing. Shifting identities are reflective of Lana’s obsession with freedom and nomadic point of madness, her lack of “fixed personality.” Yet how do these concepts apply to students? We could grant students language and cultural freedoms by ceasing to label and categorize them. To categorize someone is to put them in a box and cease their ability to shift and change. Yet, if we can help students to reject the labels cast upon them by school culture, then they can move within and outside of communities because they do not have to resist the fear of living up to their label. Perhaps the same applies to the “teacher” label. Leggo (2011) argues that if we can lean into our fears, then we can create a movement for structural transformation. If we can negotiate fear of labels, by not allowing their constraints to be cast upon our identities, then perhaps we can transform the structure or dominance by evading sameness (bell hooks in Leggo, 2011). By leaning into our fear of not living up to the school culture’s “becoming” teacher, (that is, be perfect, don’t be vulnerable) we can empower ourselves by creating a transformative discourse. Why shouldn’t teachers be vulnerable? I think in my own career, one of my breakthrough moments was when my associate teacher shared with me that her first year of teaching was her hardest year, or when a teacher with who I have established a mentoring relationship shared that she didn’t truly feel confident in her teaching until her fifth year. I am not entirely sure if these people are the definition of the ministry’s “becoming” teacher, yet to me they were the best teachers, because they were real. Thus in returning to Leggo’s (2011) ideology, by letting fear be the means in which we deconstruct the dominant discourse, by being vulnerable and open to our imperfections, we can deconstruct the ideology of the “becoming teacher.” Like Lana, some may consider us crazy, but at least we will have sense of freedom (or teacher artistry).

Every night I used to pray that I would find my people, and finally I did– out on the open road. We had nothing to lose, nothing to gain, nothing to desire anymore, except to make our lives into a work of art. I believe in the person I want to become, I believe in the freedom of the open road. Who are you? Are you in touch with your darkest fantasies? Have you created a life for yourself where you can achieve them?

I believe in the teacher I want to become. I don’t want to be a teacher that is fearful of realizing her voice and her language within the school culture. I want to be the teacher whose students are her curriculum. We often question as to why it is that teachers are so afraid to speak out within the workforce. I imagine it is because we go through the same repetitive patterns of my Grade One students, repeating a correct way of “voicing” our opinions, repetez après moi. Like my precious Grade Ones, we have yet to realize our vulnerability as we attempt to live up to a projected ideal. Lana states in the beginning of her narrative, she doesn’t really mind that she failed to become a “beautiful poet” because “it takes getting everything you ever wanted and then losing it to know what true freedom is.” In order to accept our fears, to lean into them, perhaps we need to realize our imperfections. It is the learning experience that comes from our own mistakes, trials and tribulations that allow us to understand the holes and problems within the dominant structure. School culture needs to change and shift to accept mistakes and eradicate ideals. Students and teachers alike need to be granted the mobility that will allow them to look for home; students need to be able to embrace their fears.

Works Cited

Aoki, T. (1983). Experiencing Ethnicity as a Japanese Canadian Teacher: Reflections on a personal curriculum Curriculum Inquiry, 13 (3), pp. 321-335.

Blood, N. & Chambers, C. & Donald, D. & Hasebe-Ludt, & Big Head, R. (2012).  Aoksisowaato’op: Place and Story as Organic. In Nicholas Ng-A-Fook & Jennifer Rottmann (Eds.), Reconsidering Canadian Curriculum Studies: Provoking Historical, Present, and Future Perspectives, pp. 47-82.

Chambers, C. (1999). A Topography for Canadian Curriculum Theory. Canadian Journal of Education, 24 (2), pp. 137-150.

Chambers, C. (1994). Looking for Home: Work in Progress. Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies, 15 (2), pp. 23-50.

Gaztambide-Fernández, R. A. (2008), The artist in society: Understandings, expectations, and  curriculum implications. Curriculum Inquiry, (38) 3, 233– 265.

Gaskell, J. (2003), Engaging science education within diverse cultures. Curriculum Inquiry, (33) 3, 235–249.

Kanu, Y. (2003). Curriculum as cultural practice: Postcolonial imagination. Journal of the Canadian Association for Curriculum Studies, (1) 1, 67-81.

Kanu, Y. & Glor, M. (2006). ‘Currere’ to the rescue? Teachers as ‘amateur intellectuals’ in a knowledge society. Journal of the Canadian Association for Curriculum Studies, 4 (2), pp.101-122.

LanaDelReyVEVO. (2012). Ride. Retrieved March 8, 2013, from

Leggo, C. (2011). Living love: Confessions of a fearful teacher. Journal of the Canadian Association for Curriculum Studies, (9) 1, 115-144.

Leggo, C. & Hasebe-Ludt, E. & Chambers, C. (2009). Literary Métissage as Transformative Practice. In Erika-Hasebe Ludt (Ed.), Life Writing and Literary Metissage as Ethos for our Time. pp. 34-38.