I don’t always scrap a semester’s worth of plans the week before school starts, but when I do, it’s probably because I watched a Hozier video.

I may very well have been one of the last people to watch Hozier’s “Take Me to Church” video. For whatever reason, it wasn’t even on my radar until the end of summer when a close friend of mine put an iPad in my hands and said, “Here watch this.” I watched it once, and then again, put my sunglasses on and stared out the window for a long time. It was maybe one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen and at the same time gave me the feeling that I’d been punched and might throw up at any moment. If you’ve seen it, maybe you know what I mean. If you haven’t, you should.

A week went by and the video stuck with me. (In case you still haven’t watched the video, it depicts the love story of two homosexual men and a brutal attack on one by a gang of men in masks.) I gave in and threw out the plans I’d worked on all summer for my developmental writing students, and began with one idea – that I would use Hozier’s “Take Me to Church” or die trying.

I teach at one of the largest community colleges in the state of Mississippi; however, it is at heart a rural school – born as an agricultural high school before the birth of junior colleges and many rural students were simply not afforded the opportunity to attend a four-year university. The population of my classrooms is diverse – from students on an athletic scholarship to those who were in special education in high school to international students to rural students to urban students. Finding common ground can be challenging to say the least. In an effort to seek this elusive common ground though, I always use a theme for my composition classes and usually, a little more subtly, with my developmental classes as well. As I began reworking my plans for this semester, I remembered the first thought I’d had while watching Hozier’s video – don’t look away, be brave.

This has become the basis for my developmental classes this semester. Don’t look away; be brave. As a graduate student, I was introduced to the manifesto of Wayne Booth, The Rhetoric of Rhetoric, and fell in love. Because he believes that “the quality of our citizenry depends on whether their education has concentrated on the productive forms of rhetorical engagement,” Booth argues essentially that composition teachers have an ethical responsibility to teach students to use rhetoric ethically. And although it sounds idealistic at best and likely unattainable, it makes sense when considered in the context that as composition teachers we are giving our students the most powerful weapons there are – carefully chosen words and a well-crafted argument. (If you don’t believe me, keep in mind that Hitler was voted into power largely because he was charismatic and a good speaker.) Combined with this wish to instill a sense of rhetorical responsibility in my students is the simple fact that community college students are a different breed. All college freshmen are trying to figure out life, but the community college student perhaps more so. My classroom is not, and cannot be, just a place that is limited to the act of putting words on a page. After all, you must be able to think well to write well. My students now are more insular than any I have seen before. If it exists outside their circle of friends and limited life experiences, well quite simply it doesn’t exist.

The goal for this semester is to examine issues that make us uncomfortable by focusing on marginalized groups. To start the semester, we began by looking at stereotypes and image. And because you can’t talk about the creation of “the Other” without first examining personal identity, that is where I began with my students – their own identities. The first week I used an icebreaker designed to force students to draw on their own preconceived notions based on stereotypes and then moved on to have students examine their own identities and how they broadcast this identity to society. Students brought in images that they felt portrayed how they see themselves and discussed how many of our choices regarding clothing, accessories, music, product brands, etc. are used in the creation of this identity.

Our district syllabus calls for three extended paragraphs (200 words) and two essays (350-400 words each) in Intermediate English, which I’ve spread over four units. In the first unit on identity, students will write a paragraph explaining three ways they have created their image (with clothes, music, etc.).

From here, we will build to question what makes us uncomfortable about other groups. This unit will feature Hozier’s video and the debate between #blacklivesmatter and #alllivesmatter. For the third unit, we will examine what we can gain from marginalized peoples, and ultimately the semester will end with what we can do individually to stand up for a marginalized group (one that the students do not identify with).

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