A Teacher Who Didn't Play Safe

by James Nicholson

American Theatre, March 97,

 

For 25 years, Cissy Lacks has been receiving awards for her work in the classroom, including citations as one of the 15 best teachers in America. But suddenly, in January of 1995, the St. Louis, Mo. educator was fired because, as Lacks puts it, "I decided drama was important in language classes." The fallout made her a "Person of the Week" on ABC's World News Tonight, the subject of a segment on Dateline NBC, an interviewee on CBS This Morning and the most carefully observed educator in the country.

 

Characters in conversation

Lacks's students at the predominantly African-American Berkeley High School tackled a drama assignment in the fall of 1994. "I asked them to develop a dialogue about things that are important to them," Lacks says, "showing how natural conversation is created from characters." The teacher and her students were anticipating the opportunity, thanks to a grant Lacks had secured from the School Partnership Program, to work with actors from neighboring St. Louis Black Repertory Company. Their scenes focused on such issues as teen pregnancy, gang violence and drugs, and were replete with the kind of language those subjects elicit. Following a classroom documentation policy suggested by the district, Lacks videotaped the students performing the scenes for in-class critique.

The scenes might have been alien to the majority of St. Louis's Ferguson-Florissant School District, but were all too real for the students at Berkeley. "I've been teaching for 25 years, and in all those years, I have not censored creative writing in the early stages," Lacks notes. "My students have been productive, they have understood voice and how to use it, and they were taking responsibility for writing."

Three months after the taping, without explanation or warning, Berkeley's principal Vernon Mitchell removed the videotapes from Lacks's locked classroom cabinet and proceeded to remove the teacher from the classroom. The tapes were distributed to local and national media without the students' permission and without explaining the assignment. News reports focused sensationally on the street language the characters were using in the scenes.

The district fired Lacks for violating a profanity code that applies to student classroom behavior, but not to the district's own creative writing policy, which states, "Don't tell writers what should be in their writing ... build on what writers know and have done."

At Lacks's hearing, assistant superintendent of curriculum Barbara Davis stated that any teacher allowing a student to read aloud any play, poem or novel that contained profanity could be subject to termination. The district then went on to censor a high school production of Oklahoma!, ordering that all "halls" and "damns" be removed.

Dubbed the "Profanity Queen" by St. Louis talk shows, Lacks set out to fight for her academic freedom and reputation, quickly gaining an impressive array of supporters: the National Education Association and the National Council of Teachers of English rapidly weighed in with their backing, and New York's Young Playwrights, whose work with school-age children served as a model for Lacks, also voiced its support. Last April, she received the PEN/Newman's Own First Amendment Award for "her courage in defending her young writers' right to self-expression at great risk to herself."

In November, Lacks sued the district in Federal Court, claiming that it had violated her First Amendment rights and that race was a motivating factor in her firing. Young Playwrights artistic director Sheri Goldhirsch--after an initial challenge that her presence in the courtroom was irrelevant, as she was "from New York"--testified that Lacks's teaching technique parallels a curriculum created by the company which has been in use throughout the country for the past 15 years. "Young playwrights need to be able to be free to say and write about what interests them if they are to continue to write," reasoned Goldhirsch.

 

Drama is the perfect tool

The widely-seen tapes, Goldhirsch explained, were not examples of the students cursing, but "acting out a role." For his part, however, principal Mitchell testified that he only saw "white folks video-taping black students acting the fool." School board president Leslie Hogshead concurred, contending that she saw nothing "racial" in distributing a press release that called the tapes "a violation of our black community."

Lacks's students felt differently. One of them, Reginald McNeary, who won a district-wide contest for a poem written in Lacks's class, said, "Ms. Lacks explained to us that writing was just what is inside you--what you feel and what's on your mind." However, a different view was voiced by psychologist Judith Tindale, a special witness for the district, who questioned a technique that allows students to explore their "dark side" and stated that such exploration should not be allowed. When asked specifically about McNeary's award-winning poem, Tindale indicated that it should never have been written.

The jury disagreed. On Nov. 18 it ruled that the school district had violated Lacks's First Amendment rights because she was not given fair warning and that the district has no right to prohibit classroom methods that have a legitimate academic purpose. The jury awarded the educator $500,000 for her claim of improper firing and $250,000 for her claim that she was discriminated against because of her race. A week after these decisions, Judge Catherine Perry ruled that Lacks should also receive back pay and benefits. (The Fergusson-Florissant Board of Education voted to appeal both rulings; at press time, Lacks's job status, awards and pension were still pending.)

Lacks was particularly pleased because "a jury of ordinary citizens understood how important it is for a teacher and students to have mutual trust and how the creative process differs from other learning processes.

"Theatre is one of the most under-used mediums in teaching," Lacks continues. "This is unfortunate, as it is the perfect tool for teaching language.

"Drama is important to education and it is sad that, precisely because of its effectiveness, teachers tend to pull back and play it safe."

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