Careers & Ed: The Roots of teaching

Pub date January 9, 2008


The last day of class before Christmas break presents a challenge for any educator, in any class, at any school. It’s usually considered completely devoid of teachable moments, a phenomenon that’s chalked up (pun intended) to prevacation excitement: PlayStation daydreams, visions of sugarplum romance, and the promise of two and a half weeks of sleeping in don’t exactly encourage industrious behavior.

So the popular course of action among teachers remains the party approach — some snacks, some games, a dose of holiday frivolity. Why swim against the prevailing yuletide, hopelessly and in vain, when you can just float home on a mess of soggy pizza boxes lashed to some two-liter pontoons?

When I visited Claire Keefer’s class Dec. 14, she seemed to be taking this approach. Sure enough, she’d brought a bag of her favorite Christmas candies, a little soda, and some healthier-looking crackers. And she informed her students they’d be playing a game for the better part of the period. But before giving in to the swell of a winter recess so near at hand, during the second-to-last period of the calendar year Kiefer gave her students an honest-to-goodness assignment. She asked them to pull out their journals and respond to a writing prompt she’d posted on the board. And they did, after a collective, semipolite grumble.

And before they knew it — before I knew it — Kiefer’s prompt became a complex sociopolitical discourse on the visual representation of traditional Christmas characters like your boys Jesus, Santa, those creepy little white-guy elves (hee-hee), et al.

Being the literate, postfeminist, righteously liberal San Franciscan that I am, it wasn’t difficult for me to see the purpose of Kiefer’s holiday exercise: to allow her students to problematize the whiteness that so often masquerades as normalcy by paying special attention to holiday symbols.

Looking back on my high school experience, I can say for certain that they, those nefarious they, never stretched my cultural IQ like that. Kiefer’s kids have access to these kinds of ideas. I listened as her students commented on race, power, religion, and misnormalized iconography with intelligence, all quite comfortable in the task. Dare I say, what an important challenge? (I’ll admit I didn’t know Jesus was brown skinned until well into my second year of college.) And what a show of teaching chops it was, to take the least teachable moment of the least teachable day of 2007 and pull some learning out of it.

Quite unlike the stereotype of the emergency-credentialed twentysomething pushover left to rattle all alone in an urban trial by fire, at 26, Kiefer cuts a most confident, no doubt pedagogic figure. Her intelligence, craft, and experience have made her transition from jail to prison to Balboa High School a seamless one.

Jail? Let me explain. Kiefer teaches Roots, a classroom-based initiative that serves children affected by incarceration, which falls under the umbrella of a California nonprofit called Community Works. To clarify: Kiefer works for Community Works at Balboa High School, where she teaches the Roots elective. At a glance, one might conjecture a circumstance of triangulated, bureaucratic-type tension, considering she basically has two bosses, Principal Patricia Gray at Balboa and Ruth Morgan of Community Works. Yet both not only hold Kiefer in the highest regard but also seem equally keen on giving her all the support she needs. And as to the question of distance between Kiefer and the rest of the faculty at Balboa, there is none, plain and simple. Everybody knows her, and everybody knows she puts her students first.

One of the great advantages of teaching Roots is that Kiefer gets to develop and implement the curriculum as she sees fit, in a manageable, supportive classroom environment. Small class size really helps, as does the freedom to design a program that encourages students to respond to their feelings by communicating creatively.

"We always go back to incarceration, sharing personal stories, learning empathy, meeting it head-on." Some of her kids have been incarcerated themselves; most attend her Roots class because their parents have recently been or are currently incarcerated. Control of her curriculum means Kiefer can account for the academic and emotional complexities of her classroom and adjust, midstream if necessary, to the needs of a group of 9th to 12th graders of varied ages, from diverse backgrounds, and with different personalities. Kiefer tailors her lessons to make room for all types of learners.

Curriculum design, creative writing, learning and teaching empathy — these happen to be Kiefer’s experiential strengths. "I’ve never not designed my own curriculum," she says. How many teachers, at 26, can claim such autonomy? How many teachers, at 26, have already worked for years inside correctional facilities? The public school system has placed Kiefer perfectly, in exactly the right circumstances, with kids who respond to her sense of responsibility, her gift of honesty, and her desire to challenge them.

In fact, there is something of a university feel to her classroom dynamic, and she is well aware that her MFA qualifies her to be a college-level instructor. However, neither tweedy aspirations nor hubris figure into Kiefer’s seeming raison d’être. Instead, it has everything to with finding those places where "the need is so transparent," she said. Kiefer’s life path seems so clearly marked as to appear predestined.

At the age of 20, during summer break from Tulane University and entirely of her own volition, Kiefer contacted the Cobb County Jail in Marietta, Ga., asking to be let inside to teach. When someone at the jail returned her call, offering her an administrative position at the facility, she politely insisted, "I already have a job. I just want to teach creative writing." She took the $8 per hour position then offered to her and started showing up about eight hours per week, as much as she could.

She spent her senior year of college editing the school’s literary magazine, the Tulane Review, while volunteering with adult literacy programs in New Orleans. She graduated with a double major in religious studies and English in 2003 and immediately afterward embarked on a yearlong Josephine Louise Newcomb Fellowship.

With the acceptance of her proposal, a plan involving a three-month stint teaching inside three institutions, Kiefer found herself first at San Quentin, then at Noriega, a federal institution in Miami, and finally at the Dale Women’s Facility in Vermont, implementing her curricula, sharing her love of the written word, and saddling her students with rigorously academic assignments. She always stresses the importance of word economy and limitation and is notorious for teaching entire sections around somewhat esoteric poetic forms — e.g., the villanelle and the sestina. "Society doesn’t expect much from [prisoners]. I sure as hell was going to," she said.

The same uncompromising, formal approach has helped Kiefer earn a reputation at Balboa for sticking to her guns, but her firmness comes with the deepest, most genuine regard for those around her. Thinking back on her first semester-long class at San Quentin, which she titled Art in Response to Gang Violence, Kiefer recalled, "A lot of these guys needed this creative outlet, or channel, and I needed to find a community."

Her attachment to the place was so profound that she returned to San Quentin in 2005, a year after her fellowship had ended, to teach one night per week while running down an MFA at San Francisco State University — all while holding a full-time position at Saint Vincent’s in Marin, where, she said, she learned how to handle emotional turbulence in young people after being threatened, groped, and cussed at, seeing desks and chairs fly, and watching a BBQ grill crash to the ground from a second-story window. Trying times at St. Vincent’s taught her how to be available at an authoritative distance.

Kiefer took the Roots job at Balboa High School just last year, the final one of her MFA program at SF State. Some attribute her teaching skill to her lifelong study of the written word, as students do make the best teachers. However, while acknowledging her diligence, she noted that fate, more than any other factor, has landed her right where she needs to be. Ask her if educating kids who’ve been affected by incarceration is something of a calling, and without hesitation she’ll tell you, "Totally."

"Prison education has been proven to prevent recidivism, and it injects humanity into the reality of being incarcerated…. Our society has it so wrong: we’re doing nothing to rehabilitate," Kiefer said with obvious sincerity. Her urgency is born of six years’ hands-on experience, and it still has her visiting prisoners and their families on her own time and acting as an advocate.

Notwithstanding her clarity of vision, though, she says she can be very wrong now and again. For example, I asked if she’d ever failed at anything. "I have a terrible sense of direction," she said. Well, Ms. Kiefer, I beg to differ. Your inner compass seems perfectly calibrated.