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Gonzaga University, Spokane High Schools Team Up Ahead Of Claudia Rankine Event

When Gonzaga University professor Tod Marshall began helping to plan the university's 4th Annual Race and Racism Lecture, he decided to do something different. The former state poet laureate wanted to include as many people as possible after a summer of racial justice protests and a contentious election. So he reached out to local teachers to engage high school students in advance of Wednesday's lecture.

The guest for this year’s Race and Racism Lecture at Gonzaga is poet and Yale University professor Claudia Rankine. Tod Marshall says the choice to invite Claudia Rankine to speak had a lot to do with her 2014 book, Citizen: An American Lyric, which among other honors, won the National Book Critics Circle Award and was a finalist for the National Book Award.

“It’s a book that pushes at the boundaries of what we think poetry is," says Marshall. "It’s probably one of the most poignant and visceral explorations of microaggressions. It’s unforgettable in its ability to open our eyes to the ways that racism is so pervasive.”

That quality of bringing attention to everyday expressions of racism has made Citizen a favored text in many university classrooms. But after discussions with a few high school English teachers in Spokane, Marshall found that they were also interested in discussing the book with their students, especially if those lessons could culminate in Rankine’s talk. With help from organizations across campus and funding from the university president’s office, Gonzaga ultimately purchased 750 copies of Citizen. It donated 450 to Spokane high schools for use in their classrooms and reserved another 300 copies for on-campus events.

Erik Powell, a teacher at Ferris High School, says the book was a natural fit for his AP English classes.

“One of the big ideas that we explore is complexity, and the complexity of literature," Powell says. "So I’m always on the lookout for great books that help my students do that. You know, you’re reading along and a question pops up or something doesn’t quite align or you feel a little curious about something. There’s an opportunity to explore that and lead to the layeredness, the contradictions, the difficulties in human experience.”

But beyond its utility as a teaching tool, Powell says the book has really resonated with some of his students.

“In fact, I’ve heard from several students who’ve said, ‘I can’t put this down. I’m reading it. I’m re-reading it.’ And I love to hear that because obviously I want to know that students are reading, period. But to hear them, they come alive when they talk about this book. And they say, there are things in here, Mr. Powell. She says things that I’ve always felt but have never been able to say.”

Kendra Egly teaches African American Literature and Freshman English at Roger’s High School. She helped plan a virtual discussion with students from Rogers, Ferris, and Gonzaga University.

“It led to a really open and emotional conversation for everyone," Egly says. "I had one student who came back to my advisory this morning. She said that in her group, everybody was able to share their perspective and share how they’ve felt microaggressions but also see how each person felt them and experienced them in a different way.”

And in a pandemic school year when most classes are happening virtually, Egly says, that kind of engagement is not always easy to come by.

“There’s this feeling in virtual lessons like, ‘Am I even important in this space? Does my teacher even know I’m here?’ So i think having this kind of space, where it was a choice to attend, that changes the dynamic. The student who mentioned that it was a big deal to her that everyone turned on their cameras. That means a lot to show your face and know that other people are looking at your face as you’re speaking about something so vulnerable.”

Both teachers say they’re encouraging their students to attend Claudia Rankine’s virtual talk with Gonzaga University, which will be open to the public, live streamed on Wednesday, February 10th at 6:00 p.m. You can find details about the event at


Chris Maccini previously worked at SPR as Morning Edition host and producing arts and special programming such as The Bookshelf, Poetry Moment, Northwest Arts Review, special features and more.
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