Careers & Ed: The Roots of teaching

Everything Claire Kiefer needs to know about education she learned in jail
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Photo by Lane Hartwell

culture@sfbg.com

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.

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