Sidebar: Linda Christensen, Finding Her Voice
April 28, 2009
Linda Christensen is a leader in the fight for social justice in education. The award-winning writing teacher and education advocate is the author of two books on teaching writing and coeditor of the journal Rethinking Schools. But, she says, it took years for her to find her own voice.
The mother of two and wife of Portland teacher and education advocate Bill Bigelow was born in the tiny coastal town of Bandon, Oregon, and raised in Eureka, California. She says her rural, lower-middle-class upbringing impacted both her self-esteem and her language, making her ashamed that she’d say “chimbly” instead of “chimney,” “warsh” instead of “wash,” “crik” instead of “creek.” She recalls being asked in ninth grade to stand and conjugate verbs and pronounce words as an example of how not to talk. “It was a scarring memory for me that pushed me into silence for a lot of years,” she says.
After college, Christensen landed in predominantly African American Jefferson High School in Portland. She calls it “a bit of a culture shock” as well as “a great gift” that was the beginning of the long journey to herself.
At first, Christensen taught the standard language arts curriculum. Her students read classics like Shakespeare and The Red Badge of Courage. Then, team-teaching with her now-husband Bill Bigelow challenged many of her assumptions and transformed her as an educator. “When Bill asked, ‘Why this book, The Red Badge of Courage?’ all I could come up with were BS answers,” she recalls. “It became clear that I didn’t know why I was teaching it in a school that was 80 percent African American. It opened me to a broader view of what language arts education could be and to what our students needed.”
Christensen began educating herself about her students and about the Jefferson community. She started talking to elders in the black community, listening to their stories and their history. She shopped in stores in the community and attended African American churches. She talked with parents and community activists. She got involved with organizations like the National Coalition of Education Activists and Rethinking Schools. She became friends with African American women, “who took me under their wings and helped me learn about their community and set me right when I did things that were wrong.”
She and other education activists began asking provocative questions. “How do we teach students academically rigorous skills and affirm their identity?” “How do we teach students about a broader group of people who have contributed to literature and history?”
Christensen and fellow education activists began to define what social justice education means and developed student-centered curriculum that is multicultural, antiracist, and projustice. She began writing articles about this type of hopeful, joyful, visionary curriculum in the Rethinking Schools journal and talking about it in the community and at conferences. In 2000, she wrote the book Reading, Writing and Rising Up: Teaching About Social Justice and the Power of the Written Word. This year, she wrote Teaching for Joy and Justice: Re-Imagining the Language Arts Classroom.
When President George W. Bush advocated for the test-oriented No Child Left Behind legislation, Christensen vehemently spoke up about how cultural prejudices negatively influence the test scores of minorities. In 2005, when then-superintendent of Portland Public Schools Vicki Phillips mandated that schools implement district-wide writing assessments called “anchor assignments,” Christensen refused and left her job as the district’s language arts curriculum specialist to pursue her work at Lewis & Clark.
Brenda Power, editor of Choice Literacy, calls Christensen “one of my literacy heroes,” saying she has “given voice to teachers, students, and policymakers who are activists for better schools.”
The young girl who was humiliated and silenced so many years ago would be proud. Linda Christensen has found her own unique and powerful voice.