Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Crying in Class

Every day is different. It’s what I love about teaching. Even though I’ve taught the same tenth grade World Literatures course for the last four years, it’s different each semester. It’s different each class period. It keeps me on my toes, always thinking about the content, the curriculum, anticipating student questions and concerns.

It was a conversation that started last year in one of my classes that prompted me to make some changes in my curriculum. When a student emphatically declared in class that one person can never really make a difference, one person cannot change the world, I knew I had to rethink my curriculum. How could someone so young feel so disempowered? So this fall instead of immediately jumping into didactic grammar lessons, I decided to begin on the very first day with an essay. I began a few short weeks ago by having students brainstorm and later draft essays on the theme of belief, taking inspiration from the weekly National Public Radio’s broadcasts of “This I Believe,” a program where listeners write and share short, personal narratives about a core belief. I knew adding in another essay would mean rethinking how I structured my course, but what I never anticipated was how much my students’ writing would change me.

I didn’t anticipate tearing up in class as my students began to brainstorm ideas together on the board. I believe in taking inspiration from those around you. I believe in the power of a pet. I believe that what you put into the world comes back to you. I believe loss teaches you to live. I never anticipated choking up at Back to School Night as I explained to parents their students’ progress on the essays. Having read initial drafts, watched students peer revise, and commented on good drafts of essays, I saw how students took a vague prompt – what do you believe? – and crafted responses that were meaningful, but I did not anticipate wiping away tears as students presented their essays to the class last week. I believe in the power of kindness. I believe in learning to love myself. I believe in everyday heroes. I was awe-struck by how much students were willing to share of themselves so early in the class. I have been carrying their essays around with me for the last week, their words echoing in my head.

I am impressed by the student who could stand up and so eloquently share her fears about being the only black face in a sea of white peers. What will they think? I am touched by the student who shared how she takes inspiration from her mother who chose not to let a medical condition tell her what she couldn’t do. I am humbled by the essay from a student who rediscovered the gift of happiness while sharing a meal with her mother in the food court at the mall.

During the first few days of class, I asked a group of 15 and 16 year olds to let down their guard and share their inner-most beliefs with their peers and with their teacher. I never anticipated that they would earnestly take up this request. I should have. I am ashamed of myself for expecting less. And I am saddened that I do not think most adults could have completed this same assignment with the heart, integrity, and honesty that my students did. I believe age does not equal wisdom, and for that reason, I believe students must be heard. When they are, they change the world, one person at a time. As their teacher, I am proof.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

I know this entry was written two years ago, but I stumbled upon it today. It is beautiful. Those are the only words that come to mind when I read about it. I wouldn't care usually, but after reading it, I had to say something. In today's society, people view teenagers as brash and unsympathetic. Looking at my own days in high school, yes we are. But the intellectual change your students went through interested me. For instance, I saw myself in that student who said that no one could change the world alone. I can tell I'm not the only one who thinks cynically, but maybe there's something deeper behind that jerky veneer some teenagers try to maintain. I thought things like what happened to you and your class happened in only movies (one could hope), but I was wrong. I would like to thank you for sharing this with the world. It is a wonderful story.

Ms. Ward said...

Thank you so much. Your comment has also given me a chance to revisit this post.

I am still having students complete "This I Believe" essays. In fact, my students are in the midst of them right now. Each year, it is one of the moments that students look back on and remember as both the most difficult and most rewarding assignments in class. And, I'm happy to report that three of my students have been published on the This I Believe website.

Over the last few years, I have really taken to heart what I've learned by including this assignment in my curriculum: when you ask students to do something worthwhile, to share of themselves, when you ask them to do something real - they will rise to the occasion and often times surprise you. They make me not just a better teacher but a better person each time I hear their stories, each time I learn about what they love and what they fear.

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