Citizen Uncensored: The Power of Student-Centered Learning

M.K. Rainey | July 2019

Citizen Uncensored: The Power of Student-Centered Learning  By M.K. Rainey

It is a chilly February day, and outside a hoarfrost crisps the small patches of vegetation visible in the cracks of Jamaica’s sidewalks. But inside The Young Women’s Leadership School of Jamaica, Queens (TYWLS), it’s hot. Unbearably so. An invisible radiator pumps winter’s repellent into our windowless classroom, and there are only so many layers we can peel off. Thirty fifteen-year-olds and two teachers clasp books in their sweaty palms as the heat hems us in, presses down on our bodies, and makes light, salty pools at the small of our backs, and we shake our shirts to let some illusory relief drift into our armpits. But we’re hardly bothered by the heat. Instead, our focus is on Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, which we’ve just received copies of courtesy of Graywolf Press. The following is an account of our exploration of the book, the events surrounding, and what came out of it, told by four voices through a combination of essays, free writes, poetry, and short stories.

It would be easy for me to simply tell the tale of our time together, of what my students and I shared as we worked our way through Citizen. In writing this, I realize I already have. Not just through my lessons, teaching path, and personal journaling, but in a blog on the CWP website. So retelling it here not only would be superfluous but could never do justice to the experience. And I think that experience, here, is the most important thing. So rather than tell you what happened, I’ve asked three of my students to collaborate on this essay and show it as they experienced it: through their art. I’ll offer important turns in the story, and elaborate on the work we did, but the bulk of the work came from them. From their mouths, their experiences, their exploring new territories together, as a community.


The world is full of extraordinary puzzles, like how things are shown and aren’t really there and that they are there, but never really shown. The book Citizen is full of these puzzles in ways that make you think: “Where was I?” It’s full of those subtle microaggressions like “your hair looks better straight” and the “no, where are you really from”s and my favorite, “you are so well-spoken for a ______.”

We have been conditioned to look at standing up to injustice as crude and childish. Even when a well-educated, hardworking woman like Serena Williams addresses someone who is hindering her craft, it is seen as aggressive and childish—it is mocked. The slogan of New York is, “see something, say something,” yet in the face of injustice and racism we are expected to sew our mouths shut. We are prodded to swallow the demons and thorns that come with the truth, and smile. You look aggressive when you don’t smile.

—Kayla Dike

(Prompt: Write a response to the cover of Claudia Rankine’s Citizen. It can be a poem, story, or free write. How does it make you feel? What do you have to say to/about it?)


What does student-centered teaching mean?

In video editing, when an audience doesn’t notice the edited footage, when they only see story and are engaged with it, an editor knows they’ve done their job well. The less you notice it, the harder the editor has worked to make it so and the more effective the story. The same could be said for writing.

As both a writer and video editor, I’ve tried to bring this concept into the classroom, as it translates roughly into teaching practice. The less your students notice your teaching, the more effective their learning. Student-centered teaching captures this idea. It focuses on inquiry and reflection, drawing students to answer their own questions through exploration. So when writing this essay, it seemed only natural that it should be a student-centered one. Ultimately, this is about what they learned and how they learned. If I could’ve, I would have had both of my 9th grade classes cowrite this essay with me. Instead, we created two community poems, two class projects, and an anthology of student work largely focused on socially conscious and social justice-themed artwork. But more on that soon.

Most of our conversations went like the one that opened this essay: I asked questions. That’s how I structure my classes. I asked them about what they felt when reading Citizen, what they experienced, how they’ve internalized this—always putting their experience at the center of the work. Sometimes we played games to facilitate our conversations, like the day we played “human knot,” which led into a conversation about how tangled racism is in our worlds. Sometimes we wrote, and my classes are so talented, their writings ascended amazingly into the vaunted territory of stories, poems, and personal essays you’ve already glimpsed.

But mostly, we talked. In that talking, we learned about one another. Students shared their experiences of microaggressions and internalized racism, and how that translated into their day-to-day life, even amongst themselves.


Red fierce and bold, standing out
against other muted colors

of the world, the fire within her
her need to burn, burn what
u may ask;
burn the impurities
burn the memories of
injustice and wrongdoings from
all innocent minds. She leaves
a scorching trail, bravery and fierceness,
the color of red alight behind her.
A path for those who want to be
her, who want to parallel her
greatness, those who are inspired by

Black dominates, her mysterious
essence, cool manner. A direct
contradiction to her red, its vengeance.
Black, cold and unforgiving, like the
night sky with no stars, no moon,
lonely abyss, just space. All consuming.
Those who forgive but never
forget the pain inflicted, black carves
a road for them to follow
her footsteps, for those who are
awed by her resolve and distant
eyes. For those who stare
at her with
adoration and love for everything
she stands for.
Red Passion.
Black Distance.

—Kayla Dike

(Prompt: Write a response to an image in the gallery [Dr. M.T. Geoffrey Yeh Art Gallery at St. John’s University]. It can be a poem, story, or free write. How does it make you feel? What do you have to say to/about it?)


In March, after weeks of exploring Rankine’s work together, we set out on a crisp spring morning for St. John’s University. Upon entering, that electricity I’d felt when I discovered the place spread rapidly amongst the students. I watched as their faces lit up, their artists’ brains turned to eleven at the sight of Rankine’s work spawning new life in the minds of others by way of the exhibit Citizen

I had prompts and activities, but mostly they didn’t need them. The students were absorbed from the get. Kayla took inspiration from a portrait of a woman in red with a sword and created the above poem on the spot. Naysa and Sairis learned about The Clothesline Project, and were inspired to bring their writings to life on T-shirts that spoke out against both racism and domestic violence against women and non-male-identifying folks.

A student draws on a t-shirt

Students sit by a white wall with words, assembling their creations

The amount of work and joy, thoughtfulness and play, and expansion of emotional intelligence on display that day cannot be understated. We experienced works by Nona Faustine, Christine Neptune, Stephanie Syjuco, Marie De Los Angeles, and so many more. A detailed account of the day and unit can be found at the Community-Word Project.


Black. White. Garner. Black. White.
July 17, last day of freedom
Last day of the black life suffered.
Gasp. Cough. Gasp. Cough
I-Boom- Gasp
11 times he pleaded
But did Daniel Pantaleo plea for his life?
Plea to the suffrage of a family that now broken.

Lost a part of life
No Excuses. No Promises. No Life
Did it occur to Daniel that Eric deserved freedom too?
Just like you saving himself from the outcry of bondage!

Is that why you did it?
Choke him, you thought, he’ll die faster.

Speeding up the process of your rehearsed confession to the court.

Slavery, Servitude, Subjection
Yet here we are again, taking it back to 1619

Where the man was the yes man obeying his master in every service.

They had no voice to plea like Garner
Yet they fought back their rights.

Eric Garner lost his rights, the one thing he lost on July 17,
and the one thing that should gave him the

American Dream and protected him.
No need to resist. He’s not a citizen. No justice.
It’s always white over black. No gray. No Garner.

Eric Garner wasn’t a citizen, but a man whose definition of his skin defined his death.

—Naysa Harraway

(Prompt: What is a citizen? Write a response to this question. It can be a poem, story, or free write.)


What is a citizen?

This is the only question I asked my students in the weeks following our trip. We did our talking and exploring; they’d heard enough of others’ voices. Now was the time for their own art-making, for their voices to be heard. I used what is a citizen? as the prompt, and, in the weeks following, set up stations in the classroom where they could explore different mediums and different types of writing, experiment, play, try and try again.

Naysa shared the above poem for the first time in class while the rest of us were writing, drawing, and jamming to a Citizen playlist I’d created for them. Shakily at first, and then with a power I’d not yet seen in her, she wound her way through the poem, emphasizing each iteration of breathe until the room was silent.

Sairis created the image below, captioning it with: Marriage, they say, comes at a price. You gain a ball and chain. If freedom is the cost for love, what happens when you marry your country? I think the image speaks for itself.


A drawing of a woman in a dress made of many words

—Sairis Almonte

(Prompt: What is a citizen? Write a response to this question. It can be a poem, story, or free write.)


All that came out of this weeks-long endeavor of art-making and sharing is something I can barely begin to describe, but you can experience for yourself with our anthology.


Following our unit and the publication of the student anthology, Citizen Uncensored, TYWLS did what it does best—collaborated on an event for which my students would be the leaders and would facilitate.

A drawing featuring a Citizen Uncensored celebration cover

The 9th graders mentored their 7th grade counterparts in collaborative art-making and writing, and all shared their work in a culminating poetry slam. Additionally, on the following day, my three cowriters traveled to midtown Manhattan with me, where we gave a presentation on our time together at the National Book Foundation’s Why Reading Matters Conference called, “Connecting the Classroom: Using Citizen to Engage Youth Advocacy & Creativity.” In light of that, I wanted to hear some thoughts from these three on their experiences at both events. Here’s a taste of our conversation:

MKR: What is the most memorable moment from our Citizen Uncensored event for you?

KD: I have to say that my most memorable moment was leading my group—I had all of the “popular” kids or whatever, so they were really reluctant to do anything, but after they realized they could read their own poems and do stuff like that and do things by themselves, it wasn’t like I was their teacher or anything and giving them a grade for it, they became really open and hardworking. They were willing to do stuff.

NH: Probably the most memorable thing for me was watching [the other students] creatively write their poems. There was one girl who drew out a question mark and made her poem in the style of the picture, which was really nice to see. Particularly because, well, I’m a poet, but I never really take the time to think about my creative process, so seeing other people do it was eye-opening.

SA: The most memorable thing for me was the poster with the word on it, I think it was “uncensored,” and how all of the girls were coming in and giving a bunch of synonyms and a bunch of words that I didn’t think of, but that went along with the word.

MKR: Was there anything challenging about the day?

NH: A lot of the students had their phones out. So they were getting distracted by their phones and weren’t paying attention to the actual activity. But I feel like once they knew they were getting into, like their poetry writing, I feel like a lot of them became more interested and put effort into their poetry. Then, everyone started becoming alert to the task and actually started making radical work.

MKR: How did you get them interested in the art-making?

KD: I honestly don’t know how it happened. I just started talking about myself and my interests and they started paying attention.

MKR: Oh, so you started talking to them about personal things and they were interested in that?

KD: Yeah, definitely. I basically had to get myself interested.

MKR: Sounds like you did a lot of just talking with them?

NH: When you have people younger than you, you try to act big and bold, but with them that wasn’t working. So we had to do something to show them that we do the same things we’re asking them to do, and we had to give them guidelines and share our work, so that’s when they got interested in it.

MKR: Oh, so you guys made poetry cool?

KD: Ha ha, yeah, we did. We got to share our own too.

MKR: You did, you read your work aloud in the event too? How did that feel?

KD: You had to make it a safe space to model for the younger kids, so they know no one was going to laugh at them. Which is what we did at the event.

MKR: And, so what was the most difficult thing about Claudia Rankine’s book?

KD: That it was so true.

I ended up interviewing these students for 30 minutes. They had a lot to say about the event, poetry, and their experiences in the class. You can listen to the entire interview on YouTube.


I know I’ve spoken a lot about student-centered teaching: it’s the main focus of this essay, and I don’t want to take away from that. However, I feel it is necessary for me to pull back the curtain on this piece to do exactly the opposite, for just a moment, and draw attention to myself. I am a white teacher of women of color, which is incredibly important to acknowledge. Two years ago, teaching at this same school, I was privileged to have partnered with another woman to bring a film component into our classroom. (We’d taught together before but, unfortunately, due to funding restraints in her organization, could not continue this current year.) Out of respect for that teacher—and with her consent—I’ll refrain from using her name or the organization’s name, but I want to highlight a growth moment for myself that is relevant to this piece.

On the first day of our class together, which happened to be the day after the 2016 election, our students were understandably wired, confused, talkative…to put it nicely. Overall, they were bouncing off the walls and could hardly listen to us. We’d planned a wonderful first day the night before, when we were hoping the first woman president would be elected. Instead, we found ourselves faced with confused students who released their frustrations on us. My teaching partner, who is a woman of color, grew frustrated and became intensely quiet. When the students noticed, they grew quiet too, I assume in anticipation of a talking-down from yet another teacher. Instead, my teaching partner, barely above a whisper, began to tell them why she did this work—how, as a young woman, she’d never seen herself reflected in films, her gender in the bodies that made the movies, in the skin color that produced them. When she was finished, the room was silent. She whispered, “That’s why I’m here. And now, Katie is going to tell you why she’s here.”

Caught in the whirl of her voice, I’d forgotten my role, let alone the possibility that I’d soon have to talk again. I was perfectly fine to give the floor to my partner. But as the eyes in the room swiveled upon me, I felt her urging me on. My experience is not hers. My experience is that of a white woman raised in the South, one who grew up hearing the subtlety of racism in its modern form—a quieter, stealthier, more insidious form that took me years to even recognize, let alone understand how it had manifested in my own body.

And this is what I told my class.

To say I surprised myself is an understatement. I hadn’t planned on saying any of it and hardly knew that this knowledge was fully formed in my mind. But saying it aloud changed something. One student cried, others asked me questions, and my teaching partner cracked open in a way I hadn’t known her before. Immediately after class, she texted me about her experiences with white women in her life, in college, in teaching, how toxic they’d been and how that had made her apprehensive in all situations with them—especially so-called liberal ones, white women who say they’re doing the work, but inflict harm and hide behind their gender. Those texts snowballed into a longer conversation, and eventually a relationship I didn’t even know we could have.

I do not want to center my whiteness in class, and I feel uncomfortable giving it even this much attention in this essay. But, if we do not bring our whole selves into the work we do, then we aren’t being honest. And part of my honesty is that I am white and this is my background. The point of this is to say that I was prepared to talk with them about being a white woman teaching Citizen to students of color. I didn’t make it the focal point, I let the students take the class where they wanted. I learned quickly that my students weren’t interested in discussing how white supremacy plays out in their lives, at least not from a white perspective. But all the same, I was prepared to talk about it. If you are a white teacher and find yourself privileged to teach students of color, the very least you can do is center their voices, reflect on your whiteness, and realize how white supremacy is playing out in your classroom.

I make mistakes. We all do. But what I have to do as a white teacher is model responsibility for my mistakes, invite conversation when necessary, and create a culture in which harm is not being done to my students. That takes constant self-reflection and learning.


There’s only one way to end a piece on student-centered learning: with the students. I just have one more question for you all: what does it feel like when your voice is heard?

This is how they chose to respond:

“Peacock” by Sairis Almonte

"When my confident voice is heard I feel like a a peacock spreading its wings" followed by a drawing of a woman with peacock feathers


“African Queen” by Kayla Dike
I’m a real African Queen,

not one of those “connecting to their roots”
kind of queens, when the Afrobeats became the wave,
nor am I the girl who thinks
Dashikis are authentic and wears a corny 
African dress to prom.

And no I am not the girl
who pretends she’s a native
after watching Black Panther and chants
“Wakanda Forever”.

No, I’m a real African Queen.
Kayla Uzoma Dike,
Uzoma meaning on a successful road and
When people glance over the K.U.D of my name and ask,
remnants of them calling others “African Booty Scratchers” and
saying “Dyke” when I’ve told them “Dike”
one, two, a thousand times.

Now, I tell them “Unknown.”
I’d rather be shrouded in mystery, than my
name spoken like some slant rhyme off beat,
without melody.

But I’m a real African Queen,
once scorned for darker skin and a pudgy stomach.
For every scorn, every shed tear,
I used to hide, but in time I’ve changed,
because who are they to take away my greatness?
Now, I write great kingdoms into existence,
show my power with a pen.
I’ve grown into my royalty,
with eyes that dance like a light, airy tune and
skin like the soil that bright, vibrant daffodils arise from.
White teeth that wink from fiery red lips of my mother,
and my voice which speaks all of my peace,
all of my chaos, all of my waves,
mayhem, whispers.
All of me.
The voice of a real African Queen. 


The way people speak their minds is called
Freedom of Speech.
The way people express their minds is called

Their Voice.
The act of speaking your mind is called
The feeling making your thoughts heard in the world is called


We live in a world where we put restrictions on
how, when, what, and why we say things.

We discount ourselves without even realizing it.
And who are we hurting in the process?
Society or Me?

Voice stands for
Verbal Opinions In Complex Expressions
My Voice Stands for
a chance to break the silence,
to break social, political, economic, and cultural norms.
I have a feeling of empowerment, entitlement, fire, and freedom.
And this feeling won’t stop.
It will continue bursting forth as long as the
daring, outspoken, powerful beast
that I am
roars through our generation.

—Naysa Harraway aka “Bob”



I would like to acknowledge everyone who made this work possible. A big, huggy shout-out to Mrs. Dorothy Jones (best English teacher ever!); The Young Women’s Leadership School of Jamaica, Queens, especially Principal Mala Panday and Vice Principal Jennifer Pineda, who believed in what we were doing and let us run with this idea; the staff of Community-Word Project for all of its tireless efforts in making this happen; Graywolf Press for its generous donation and support of this work; Yulia Tikhonova, Lynn Stravino, Anna Zak, Judith Ryder, and the Dr. M.T. Geoffrey Yeh Art Gallery at St. John’s University for giving us the best field trip ever; and most importantly to the TYWLS 9th grade class, a group of the most talented, generous, thoughtful, and kind students a teacher could ever hope to serve.


Photographs by M.K. Rainey.


M.K. Rainey is a writer, teacher, and editor from Little Rock, Arkansas. She is the winner of the 2017 Bechtel Prize at Teachers & Writers Magazine, the 2017 Lazuli Literary Group Writing Contest, and the 2018 Montana Award for Fiction from Whitefish Review. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Collagist, 3:AM Magazine, Atticus Review, Fiction Southeast, and more. She cohosts the Dead Rabbits Reading Series and lives in Harlem with her dog. Sometimes she writes things the dog likes.


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