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Using Students' Own Language to Reach Them (The Council Chronicle, Nov. 04)

An Interview with Mari Evans

by Anna Flanagan

There are very few creative hats Mari Evans does not wear. She is an award-winning poet, author of I Am a Black Woman, Nightstar, and A Dark and Splendid Mass. She is a writer of children's and young adult literature, a political essayist, a playwright, a musician, a composer, a lyricist. Over the years, her work has earned prestigious recognition from the Indiana University Writers' Conference; the Black Academy of Arts and Letters, which awarded Evans its first poetry award; the National Endowment for the Arts; the Zora Neale Hurston Society; the National Council for Black Studies; and others. In July of this year, she was designated a "Living Legend" by the Indiana Historical Society.

Mari Evans is also an educator, teaching for more than 20 years at such institutions as Purdue, Northwestern, Spelman College, and Cornell University, where she was Distinguished Writer and Associate Professor in the Africana Studies and Research Center. When she is honored by the Black Caucus at the Annual Convention in November, she will stand among NCTE members as a revered literary figure whose work has undoubtedly fueled much passionate discussion in classrooms across the country, and as a colleague who shares Council members' interests in the effective teaching of reading and writing.

Recently, the National Endowment for the Arts grabbed headlines when it reported that the leisure-time reading of novels, short stories, poetry, and plays had since 1982 declined by 10 percent in the general population, and by nearly 30 percent among 18- to 24-year-olds. The statistics concern Evans, not only about the future of reading, but also about writing achievement in the United States. An incident that occurred when she was teaching an African American literature class in the late 1970s is still fresh in her mind and captures part of the problem that lies beneath the attention-getting statistics. An engineering student asked her why she expected him to undertake a complex semester paper she had assigned, saying, "After I graduate, my secretary will take care of this kind of thing for me."

"I could only reply, 'I would hope you'd want to be at least as smart as your secretary,'" Evans recalled, adding, "For those few students who create some vague notion of a future for themselves, I believe the prevalent conviction is that if there are any boring things the future requires that they don't want to do or are unable to do, someone or something abstract will take care of it." Unfortunately, many young people see reading and writing as boring, she believes.

She also believes, however, that young people can become engaged with reading if the materials presented to them reflect their interests as opposed to what adults feel they need to read.

"As a writer, I try to prepare material that addresses problems and issues young people are likely to have or to encounter, and I render that in a vernacular as similar to that which I hear around me as I can manage without any suggestion of exaggeration, ridicule, or criticism," Evans said. She has done this in Dear Corinne, Tell Somebody!, Love, Annie: A Book About Secrets, which is intended for children who are being sexually abused, and in another book on teen pregnancy called I'm Late.

She says her effort in writing books like Dear Corinne and I'm Late is to generate in non-reading young people the notion that books might just have some interesting "stuff" in them, and that if there's one that speaks to things that concern them, there might be another.

"Hopefully, committed teachers of English--or American Language, as I prefer--will not, out of hand, dismiss material prepared in the vernacular of the young, for the larger effort is to get them past the notion that books are uninteresting," Evans said.

It is also important to help young people see themselves as writers, or as Evans puts it, "as persons who understand the psychological value of nuance, and who can skillfully isolate words and make the language work to their advantage in their daily lives." She says that when students claim they can write because they can rap, they have opened the door to a wonderful teaching tool. She recommends dissecting the text of a rap, asking students questions about what they are trying to say, what data substantiates their assertions, and how many ways they can deliver their rap effectively to audiences that have different levels of comprehension and power. "It is critically important that they be led to understand that writing is a craft, a skill that has nuances that will be central to their success in whatever they choose to do in life," she said.

Beyond that, Evans believes it is imperative that students be encouraged to levels of excellence past anything they are usually required to deliver, urged toward accepting some responsibility for the quality of life in their communities as well as globally, and helped to understand the importance of knowing something about a lot of things. "That," she said, "is something that will come only from reading everything they can get their hands on."

Anna Flanagan is a freelance writer for The Council Chronicle.

Mari Evans will be honored during NCTE's Annual Convention at a cultural program of the Black Caucus and Latino Caucus that will begin at 5:30 p.m. on Saturday, November 20.

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