Entering the Firmament: Education and Social-Emotional Learning through the Lens of Toni Morrison’s Trilogy

At the beginning of the semester, I worked with a ninth-grade student during a practicum field visit in Rochester who frequently missed school due to chronic illness. We were neck-deep in their research unit, and at this point the kids were writing their final essays; but the one I was working with had fallen behind, and in the middle of March had pulled an all-nighter scrambling to find a topic, sources, take notes, and outline their paper. They were failing, hovering around 30% for the quarter, and the pressure to raise that grade was etched in their face: usually well-groomed hair flew in all directions; plum-colored bags bloomed under their eyes from the lack of sleep; their blood-orange hydro flask with Brooklyn Nine-Nine stickers smothering every free space was exchanged for a can of Monster, the black-etched logo glowering from the snow-white surface of the can. I read their work, and they were more than ready to begin the paper; but it was due tomorrow at midnight, and I imagined another restless night ahead of them, another day in school with blood-shot eyes and heavy eyelids, another day in school fighting to stay awake, fighting to claw ahead of the stacking assignments.

I spoke with the head teacher I was working with. We gave them another week; I met with the student to tell them we were going to extend the deadline for their paper, and what they had so far was great work and worthy of granting her a passing grade for the quarter out of good faith that they would turn in their essay after a week. Their tense shoulders relaxed; they breathed a little deeper and took off their glasses: “I can’t remember the last time someone said I’ve done a good thing.”

I felt upset at what they told me. How could anyone see a student trying this hard, digging themselves out of a hole they never wanted to be in in the first place, saw the effort and growth and resilience, and deny them the praise, the chance to rest, a little mercy. At the very least, a compliment. It is frustrating, as someone who wants to be a teacher, to see these flashes of exhaustion from students; but at the end of the course on “Toni Morrison’s Trilogy,” I can see more clearly why it is vital to grant our students these spaces for rest, these opportunities for both learning and safety. Morrison’s writing positions the perplexing and collaborative nature of the both/and as an act of engagement, an act of care; it is through this dynamic that we can experience learning, foster educational spaces of comfort and safety, and generate educational outcomes that go beyond content.

An underrated, or perhaps unspoken, facet of learning lies in the internal journey behind self-definition and self-love. Morrison infuses Beloved with this tension, for she reveals both the danger and tenderness of care, and it almost assaults us with the forcefulness of Sethe’s feelings; and yet, as a character, she feels deficient, and through this we can see the uncomfortable position learning can cause us to experience. Sethe’s excessive love for Beloved caused her to feel deficient, to feel the full weight of her trauma; but Paul D elicits, or guides her towards the self-realization that she is worthy of love. Sethe asserts that Beloved “was [her] best thing.” Paul D, however, in seeing how Beloved has leeched the life out of Sethe—and seeing Sethe open herself to this—both acknowledges their past trauma and motivates them to move forward; “You your best thing, Sethe. You are.” Sethe responds: “Me? Me?” (Beloved 347-348). Morrison forces us to look at the both/and of care, at both the violence of its excessiveness and the tenderness—the panacea—of the support and comfort another person can extend. She has withered away as a result of her love for Beloved, until Paul D gives her the space to realize that she can love herself, that she must love herself. At the heart of this dynamic lies a profound act of learning; Paul D works with her to make her see, to teach her, how to love herself.

For educators, this learning is essential for engaging our learners, for allowing learning to occur, for going beyond curriculum to motivate students on their terms. We teach more than curriculum; we teach how to care for the self, how to empower learners, how to support them and give them the space to find that energy within themselves. Penny Kittle and Kelly Gallagher elaborate on this point, writing that “We listen and learn from the students we are currently teaching and design instruction that will move them. We start with contagious enthusiasm for both reading and writing. Joy is an intentional stance” (Gallagher and Kittle 5). We do more than teach curriculum and social-emotional benchmarks as separate entities; they are an entangled perspective, an entangled pedagogy. Providing students with spaces to rest, spaces of comfort, spaces where they can exhale the tension from their shoulders, spaces where we can tell them they have done great work and mean it, drives instruction, drives learning. We meet students where they are, and motivate them toward what they can be.

The simple act of praise—something that, to me, was a throwaway form of encouragement and support from a struggling student—meant more than anything to the student I was working with, who saw within themselves both a chance to rest and a beacon of achievement, of pride, that they can latch on to. In that moment, they realized—even briefly—that they were “their best thing.” However, in order to uplift our students, we as educators cannot view our students as wholly other. Yes, we are the more knowledgeable figure in the room from a curricular standpoint, and yes, we are the authoritative and managerial presence in the classroom; but teachers and learners are deeply entangled in a collaborative act of empowerment.

Morrison’s Jazz positions us as the reader specifically within the context of a learner, as we participate in the novel’s progression as both reader and character, entangled with the text as deeply as Joe and Violet are at the book’s conclusion. The novel’s conclusion demands readers to consider the participatory entanglement between reader and text, to refuse the division between the person and object, allowing us to collaborate with the book as it teaches us, educates us, on the lives and loves of its characters. The narrator launches from Joe and Violet’s rekindled acts of care to acknowledge their own needs and desires, reaching out to the reader as a participant in this journey. Morrison—from the narrator’s perspective—writes, “I can’t tell anyone that I have been waiting for this all my life and that being chosen to wait is the reason I can. If I were able I’d say it. Say make me, remake me. You are free to do it and I am free to let you because look, look. Look where your hands are. Now” (Jazz 224-229). This confrontation shocked me when I read it for the first time; Morrison designed a text that speaks for itself, with a voice of its own—the book claims it desires, rather than relies on language to recreate those feelings. It demands to be seen, to be looked at, to be cared for. We look at the book, and it looks back, and because of our engagement with a text, we then free it through our touch, through our interpretation. Text and reader are no longer separate, but entangled agents as we learn from them and they—perhaps in their own way—learn from us as the language embodies new meaning through interpretation.

This practice of guidance, self-discovery, empowerment, and collaboration allows learners to work on their terms, while the teacher facilitates that learning, creates a space of care and engagement, to allow the student to flourish. We must both set high expectations and give them students space to learn, rather than demand the knowledge be immediately built into their schemas. Student choice, then, becomes an act of care and collaboration, where we work with the student to build their critical thinking and literacy by working through their own thinking. Doing so ensures that the work is “real, [is] passionate, [is] chosen…the questions remains whether or not we are harnessing this energy—these interests—in our classrooms (Roberts 123-124). Just as we are both looking at a text and being looked at, just as interpretation is fluid within the reader and within the language, student-centered pedagogy stems from the acknowledgement that students and teachers have distinct roles in the classroom, and yet, are entangled in the process of learning. I can acknowledge a student’s needs and a student’s choices and design my instruction that relinquishes some authority to drive that student’s learning; in return, the student—like the narrator in Jazz—is allowed to be free.

We are both collaborating, coexisting, learning. I meet my student where they are, giving them the space to breath and rest so that they may take back control of their learning, that they may work on their terms in a way that supports them. It is both my classroom and theirs; they are free to learn, and I am free to measure that learning, even if the measurement occurs a week later, for I know the outcome will be better with the student driving the experience. With this collaborative entanglement, we can see deeply the dangers exclusion poses in our classrooms, and the role the teacher has in their unique power to create safe spaces from which the student’s full potential can bloom.

In Paradise, Morrison entrenches us in the dangerous position of refusing to learn, refusing to collaborate; but the Convent as a single entity composed of individual characters—both singular and multiple—ushers us towards noticing the acts of care that go into uplifting and accepting the other and the learning that propagates from that comfort. In the novel, community is both harmful and healing, as Ruby commits acts of collaborative violence, and the Convent dedicates itself to rest and healing. At the center of the Convent’s evocation of paradise, however, lies Connie’s paradoxical stance of both power and submission; Morrison writes, “[w]ith the aristocratic gaze of the blind she sweeps the women’s faces and says, ‘I call myself Consolata Sosa. If you want to be here you do what I say. Eat how I say. Sleep when I say. And I will teach you what you are hungry for.’” As a result, with “Consolata in charge, like a new and revised Reverend Mother, feeding them bloodless food and water alone to quench their thirst, they altered. They had to be reminded of the moving bodies they wear” (Paradise 262-263). Connie embodies the role the teacher takes as an authoritative figure, a role model, by creating the space and conditions conducive to learning, the space that catalyzes self-discovery and self-definition. By being a facilitator of the women’s ability to find their desires and self-love—to find what they yearn and hunger for, find the power within their own moving bodies—Consolata shapes the Convent into Paradise as it blossoms into a safe space conducive to this discovery, a space defined by both the community and the singular individual as one.

In this sense, then, the learner and educator do not inhabit completely hierarchical positions; our goal is to use the authority we hold to elicit deep and careful acts of learning, to create environments where learning can be nurtured. A topical example of this lies in the festering damages to American education seen in book bans; Ashley Hope Perez writes that “when adults attack books that center people with LGBTQ+ or non-white or non-dominant identities, they broadcast the message that stories about “these people” are not fit for school” (Perez). This example displays both the harms of exclusion and the necessity of inclusion. Censorship drives students into shadowy margins, drives them to feel alone, to feel unvalued, to feel unsafe. As educators, we must—like Connie—uplift our students, that they may feel at home in an environment where they can flourish, where they can grow. We may have authority, but that power does not necessitate conformity or complacency; rather, we can mobilize our position to shape spaces of safety and comfort, spaces conducive to learning.

As a result, through Morrison’s trilogy, I have seen the ways in which educators can meet students where they are to offer responsive praise and empowerment, the ways in which the collaborative entanglement between the student and teacher creates learning, the ways in which the necessity of safe spaces that bloom from the authority educators hold, can change a classroom’s culture, redefine the education we design.

A student should not wither away in the performance of their work. A student should not feel so neglected that we forget to give them praise, forget to uplift them. A student should not feel so marginalized, so separated and excluded from their learning, that they feel unvalued. The student I was working with was at this point of collapse, this point where—like Sethe—they could either continue to bear the pressure of their learning or engage in some form of rest, some form of encouragement, some form of healing. In that moment, I wanted to give the student their space, show the student the self-worth within them, show the student that we are working together in their learning and that they can drive their education, that in my classroom they can find comfort in a space conducive to their learning. The alternative was to leave them behind, to let another sleepless night build and build until they snapped, until learning was no longer enriching and mindful, but instead violent and harmful. It is through the collaborative both/and lens of Morrison’s trilogy and the social-emotional designs of educative spaces that we can achieve this empowerment, and shape a pedagogy that uplifts and facilitates learning.

Works Cited

Gallagher, Kelly and Penny Kittle. 180 Days: Two Teachers and the Quest to Engage and Empower Adolescents. Heinemann, 2018.

Morrison, Toni. Beloved. Vintage, 1987.

—. Jazz. Vintage, 1992.

—. Paradise. Vintage, 1997.

Perez, Ashley Hope. “DEFEATING THE CENSOR WITHIN: How to Hold Your Stand for Youth Access to Literature in the Face of School Book Bans.” Knowledge Quest, vol. 50, no. 5, 2022, p. 34–.

Roberts, Nora. A Novel Approach: Whole Class Novels, Student Centered Learning, and Choice. Heinemann, 2018.

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