Michael Copperman


mcopperm@uoregon.edu | 541-346-0063

Courses: Center for Multicultural Academic Excellence's WR 121 and WR 122; CRWR Intermediate Creative Nonfiction

In my classes you will:

  • Make connections to lived experiences and real-world challenges.
  • Practice foundational, transferrable skills.

I was invited into the Teaching Academy because:

  • I was a Fellow in the Teaching Difference, Inequality, Agency CAIT Group.

In what ways are you working to make your teaching inclusive?

I work with students of diverse background, helping them to build the critical thinking and communication skills they require to succeed at the University by considering issues that relate directly to their own lives, experiences, education and future.  My goal is to help them find their voices in a space that welcomes them as they are, where their difference can be affirmed as essential and even necessary to their own understanding and growth.

What do you do in terms of professional engagement with the teaching and learning culture on campus or nationally?

I was a member of the Difference, Inequality, Agency CAIT learning community, which worked to establish and document best teaching practices.  I do extensive peer review and work within the Composition program with my professional colleagues.  I am also the author of Teacher (UPM 2016), which concerns my work as an educator in the rural black public schools of the Mississippi Delta and at the UO, which has been widely adopted to consider issues of diversity and equity in education.

In what ways was your teaching in this course research-led—informed by research on how students learn and inflected by UO's research mission?

My classes are student-centered and student-driven: students work in small groups, where the questions I ask begin, and I move between small and whole group discussion with the group to realize my goals for student learning.  I also make the time to conference one on one with every student on their first paper of the quarter, so as to offer them individualized feedback and help create a personal relationship with them-- that is, to help them feel seen and heard.

Who or what made you choose to be a teacher?

Driving the unbroken swath of highway parting fields of sorghum and soybeans, raised rows stretching on and on that were stubbled with cotton last I came through the Delta.  The signs for a college, a great billboard with a smiling young woman, hair braided to tight rows, touting the college’s promise of higher education, and I feel butterflies in my stomach, glance at my phone.

Come to the big hall, right when you come in‚ I will come to you.  An imperative, the orders now from student to teacher.  Reversals, upheavals, miracles.  My hands shake a little bearing down on the steering wheel.  

I turn through wide gates, see the tall pillared pavilion, and beyond, blocks of lawn bound by landscaped walkways, high buildings of glass and stone, new, speaking of classrooms, of college.  Young black men and women mill about, eyes on their phones or in clusters exchanging stories about their summers and their hopes for this new year, dressed in typical college summer attire, shorts and tanks and t-shirts, flip-flops—some four-year college somewhere, right here in rural Mississippi.

I pull around the front hall, park.  Here!, I text.  I lower the rearview mirror, pat my hair into place over the worry lines grown deep on my brow with work and worry and doubt, these last twelve years since I’ve seen Serenity Warner.  I tug my collar straight, and enter the cloying August heat, make for the pavilion’s double doors scanning faces, wondering, is it her, or her there, or her?

Inside, the clean tiled floors shine and shimmer with new wax, and the air conditioning cools the sweat beaded to my forehead so that suddenly I’m chilled.  Students bustle past, colorful clothes and new shoes and all the bustle of new beginnings, their voices echoing loud and then receding, young adults, but unmistakable in the lilt and cadence of dialect, and for a moment I am in a dimmer, tighter hall, with dull tiled floors that never could get quite white, and the clamor of voices is louder, and I am opening a door, the door to my classroom, and there’s Serenity, three beanbags deep in a corner barricade, only the ribboned top of her head and the thick edge of a Harry Potter Book visible.  Reading herself into a different reality, where children had the magic to make everything right, and evil could be faced and overcome.  Books were her sanctuary.  And so I let her taste their safety, all day when each lesson was done, at recess and during lunch, after school until five and six in the evening.  I let her read herself into a life free from the unassailable challenges of home, where the windows were boarded, the garbage piled in the bare dirt of the yard, the water and electricity was always turned off so that there were no showers or clean clothes or light to read by at night, and her mother was no villain, but simply overwhelmed, absent, or caught in the consequences of having sought dead-end adult escapes.

And then I’m not seeing Serenity’s house, but what remained of it on my last return some seven years ago—the burned-out rubble and beams I came on, panicked wondering if Serenity survived the fire.  She had‚Äîhad even been on a path to graduate high school with honors, despite all the obstacles and odds-- but I’d lost touch with her until the unexpected contact of last night, on this return to Mississippi to visit the kids I’d taught grown now to adults, and read to other folks about the struggle and promise of their lives growing up in the segregated South.  One young man, himself a recent college graduate, had told me how to reach her, where she is now‚at this local four year college.  Allegedly doing fine. 

“Mr. Copperman?”

I turn, and there’s that smile, one side of her mouth turning up a little more than the other, a beautiful a-symmetry.  Skin still a stunning dark shade‚”ugly black girl,” cruel kids would say to her, as though they were better for a fraction of a shade.  Taller now, and stylishly well-dressed, dark, tapering jeans tucked into half-boots with solid brass clasps, a fitting top in complimentary burgundy.  All new and crisp as if fresh off the rack.  “Serenity?”

And then she and I are embracing, and I can believe it—that she’s alright, and here, about to finish college.  “I can’t believe—” I start, stop.

And she grins again, and shakes her head, and says, “Neither can I.  But here I am.  My last semester.”

“Tell me—everything,” I say.  And we go to find a place in this great hall, where she tells me she’s applying to grad school in social work, to help people who are like she was—to tell kids who have troubles they can, because she knows what it’s like to be the girl most folks said would not make it through the next week, let alone through high school or college or life beyond.

“I’m different, now,” she says.

I don’t tell her she’s wrong; affirming the strength of her judgment is what matters now.  But as we talk, and she laughs and puts her hand on my arm talking about some foolish thing I did or said, when she tells me later that she forgave me every error I made trying to teach that class all these years ago, because I tried my best, I see she’s the same brilliant, kind, tough young woman who willed herself into another life.  And I think about what strength that took and takes, and know that what faith requires is not magic, but grace.