Critical Theory: Lenses for Constructing in "The Destruction Room"

Apr 28, 2013
Posted by: Lorraine

I work in the destruction room. It’s not a tough job, all that I do is make sure people don’t destroy themselves by jumping in. Other than that, I watch the world fall into that room, look at everything that falls through the door in the ceiling and make a 20-meter descent to the floor. People dropped all sorts of things. Bowls hit the floor and splattered into ceramic droplets. Furniture unbuilt itself, boards and screws busted apart, returned to individuality. Even babies and children were thrown into the room., cracking their heads open, consciousness and responsibility spilled onto the ground.  Fear crumbled in the air before it hit the ground in an array of geometric shapes. False hope fell down in a ball, bounced up and down until it finally busted into a cloud of black smoke. When somebody dropped reason, cubes with lost solidity stuck onto the walls and floor and couldn’t be scraped off or chiseled away.
 – “The Destruction Room” by Dylan Combs, 17

I teach high school students in an urban school district. I work in the destruction room and it is a tough job.

Still, I’ve made my job even tougher. I entered this profession with the resolve to create a construction room within the destruction room of urban education and to ask my students to construct alongside me. The images that pile up in Dylan Comb’s poem describe the heap found in schools and neighborhoods all over the city—the heap my students and I must sort and reconstruct together.

I teach critical literacy in ninth-grade English at The Arts Academy at Benjamin Rush, a special admission, arts integrated high school in the School District of Philadelphia where students from all across the city converge their diverse cultures and experiences.  My classes are comprised of students who represent a spectrum of races, genders and socioeconomic groups. Students who haven’t been thrown into the destruction room yet, students who haven’t thrown themselves in yet, and students who have already been thrown in, “cracking their heads open, consciousness and responsibility spilled onto the ground”.

Because of this, students’ recognitions of and empathies for their disparate perspectives become vital to our healing, building, and learning all year. This is why I introduce critical theory in ninth grade. My students and I learn to use the critical theories as critical lenses for world reading and self-reflection before even applying the lenses to interpret and critique works of literature (which they begin to do at the end of ninth grade and continue to do in their second through fourth years of English at our high school).  Critical Race Theory, Marxist Theory, Feminist Theory, Gender/Queer Theory, Jungian-Archetypal Theory, New Historicism, Freudian/Psychoanalytical Theory, and Reader Response Theory—these seven theories become our literal and figurative “lenses” for reading, writing, thinking, constructing and resolving the realities of cultural conflict and identity development in the destruction room.  (The classroom pictures that I’ve attached to this post show my students literally wearing the glasses I created for each critical lens.)

In my class, our initiation into critical theory is a two-part process—first, reading through the critical lenses, then writing through the critical lenses. This year, our critical theory unit began with a jig-saw project. I divided the class into groups and assigned each group one of the seven theories. Each group was responsible for teaching the class their critical theory and demonstrating an analysis of a few assigned advertisements using their critical theory.  After these presentations, the students began using these theories to recognize the perspectives in a selection of poetry readings. Yet, before moving on to more widely anthologized examples of contemporary poetry, my English students first analyzed poems from Best of Teen Writing.

Many of the selections in this year’s publication present an array of brave teen voices uncovering how their socio-cultural experiences have shaped their identities and the lives of their subjects.  In addition to “The Destruction Room,” I provided my class with copies of “Detroit” by Abraham Younes, “Annenberg” by Kelly Yeo, “Mixed Roots” by Caroline Kelly, “Chinatown Date Night” by Benjamin Sobel, “They are the Patriots” by Haley Lee, “Brave Little Soldier” by Christina Voss, and “Icarus in the Digital Age” by Amy Chen.  These Best of Teen writers accomplish in their poetry what I hoped my students would accomplish in their poetry at the end of our unit: critical world reading—the sort that would make Paolo Freire proud!

My students read in groups deciphering which lenses the Best of Teen poets had used, consciously or unconsciously, to read and write images from their worlds. They recognized a New Historicist purpose and emergent Freudian analysis in “The Destruction Room”. Marxist reflection in “Detroit” and more New Historicism in the visceral imagery of in “They Are the Patriots”. Feminist argument in “Annenberg”.  A Freudian labyrinth in “Brave Little Soldier”.  A Jungian-Archetypal meditation in “Icarus in the Digital Age”.  And in “Mixed Roots” and “Chinatown Date Night”, expressions of race and ethnicity.  

These pieces came to serve as mentor texts for my students as they transitioned from reading to writing, from the first phase to the final phase of our unit. Engaging in dialogue that included the critical perspectives of other teen writers from across the nation helped my student-writers realize the possibilities of their own perspectives in the poems they would soon pen. Seeing other teens had gone “diving into the wreck” and survived, salvaging shards of self, gave them the courage to don their critical lenses and commence construction in their own destruction rooms.

The following links will take you to artifacts of their excavations of self and world during which they took photographs through each of the seven critical lenses and subsequently constructed seven theory-driven ekphrastic poems for each image they had captured.  

Writing through…
Critical Race/Ethnic Theory:  

Marxist Theory

Feminist/Gender Theory

Reader Response Theory

Jungian-Archetypal Theory

Freudian Theory

New Historicism


Total get to be continued...

Submitted by Sam on Sun, 2013-04-28 13:22.

Lorraine thanks for sharing your work-in-progress. I love how you quoted  Dylan's work at the very begining of your blog. I invited me into his poem and well, as your blog.

I am more curious how your classroom and the previaling landscape in our school district represents the "Destruction Room" I want to know more about your classroom, i.e the physical layout, and cultural landscape.

Cant wait to read the next iteration of this piece as well do a closer reading of Dylan's poem.

Thanks again for sharing.