Friday, October 3, 2014

Opening Up

I am jovial. I wear my heart on my sleeve, as the idiom goes. Teachers and students playfully tease me that I cackle. Yup, like a witch. Big and loud. When I laugh, which is quite a bit, it echoes down the hallway. And early on in our new school year, I cackled a lot.  See, we start our semester in tenth grade English writing "This I Believe" essays, personal essays that focus on a core belief.  Not only have I found these essays to be a great way as a teacher to get to know my new students, but it is also a wonderful tool to help begin building our classroom community. We get to know one another, we have opportunities to contemplate rhetoric and style, we search out mentor texts, and we spend a great deal of time reading and responding to one another's short essays. Students share their beliefs about love, about life, about pets, about loss, about magic. I have been working on an essay about my cackle.

A few weeks ago, as we were in the midst of our drafting process, a student shot me a quick text message after school via our daily homework text service.  I use Celly, an awesome tool for sending students quick reminders and a way for students to quickly contact me without us having to share cell numbers.
I responded, letting the student know that she was welcome to write about her experiences and reflect on how they helped to shape her belief.  I have had students share a great deal through our process of writing "This I Believe" essays over the years. Students have shared their experiences about losing parents, about family members who suffer with addiction, about loved ones who have ended up in jail, about struggling to overcome their own difficulties with illness.  Through our writing, we reflect on how these experiences as well as others have helped us grow in our beliefs and come to understand what it is that we hold to be true. We share ourselves, and we also have valuable conversations about the subtitles of writing a personal narrative versus crafting a well-written personal essay. So this was not the first time that I have been asked this question.

But about twenty minutes following our text exchange, my phone rang. My dad was on the other end of the line, many miles away, three states between us, telling me that his biopsy had come back earlier that day showing cancer cells growing in his stomach. Cancer. My dad has cancer.

The next morning in class, as we are working on drafting our "This I Believe" essays, the student approached me to share where she was in her drafting. It was late in the class, the bell about to ring. She began her essay sharing her experience of coming to terms with what she learned from her father's death as a result of cancer. I couldn't read the whole essay. I started to cry. Trying to pull myself together, I quickly explained to the student that shortly after our text exchange, I learned that my father has cancer. I will never forget the compassion, the empathy, and the maturity of her response. She turned to me and said, "I'm not going to pretend that our experiences are the same. Everyone deals with cancer differently. But I do know that this is a difficult and scary time. I'm sorry."      

At the close of our class the following morning, she handed me an envelope.  "I know that I should have been working on my draft last night, Ms. Ward, but I wrote this instead."  She walked out of the room with some friends on her way to her next class. Inside the envelope was a five-page letter, typed, single-spaced. She shared with me her experiences, her struggles, her beliefs - her story. Later that night, when parents were filing into my classroom for our Back to School Night, the student's mother came over to introduce herself. The student's mother shared that her daughter had showed her the letter shortly after printing it out the previous evening. She was able to share things through this letter that she hasn't ever said, her mother told me. The experience that the three of us shared - student, parent, and teacher - help to reinforce the power of personal writing and the need to open up space for empathy in the classroom.

Personal writing is not tested by our Common Core State Standards (CCSS). We have state rubrics for expository/informational writing and another for argumentative/persuasive writing. We do not value stories. Just under a decade ago, every one of the other English teachers I worked with had their tenth grade students complete "This I Believe" essays. This year, I am the only teacher. And, I have had to fight to keep it in my curriculum, arguing the value of personal writing. It is an addition to our core curriculum. It is something extra that I have my students complete. I have been told that the assignment does not have value.

My student writers draft, craft, and revise their personal belief essays, post them to our class blog site, revise based on feedback, meet with me in writing conferences, again revise based on feedback, adapt their written essays to video presentations, and then post their written and video creations to our online writing portfolios. As we write we find mentor texts, discuss written and digital rhetoric, and perhaps most importantly, empathize.  We share our stories, hear one another. We build a community of thinkers and writers. We value reflection. We value revision. We value empathy. But these are not skills that can easily be bubbled in on scantron tests.

I understand the need for accountability in the classroom, the desire to demonstrate progress. However, with so much emphasis being placed on high-stakes state testing as the measure of that growth, we inevitably under value those skills that are difficult to measure - resiliency, grit, empathy, creativity, reflection, and revision.  And as so many have already argued, these are the skills that students will need as they move into an unpredictable job market. Testing a student on whether or not he or she can identify the mood of a short passage of literature does not measure how successful the student will be upon high school graduation. Focusing exclusively on how well students know, or even on how well they can apply, a particular set of literary terms to a text does little to prepare them for the world outside the doors of school. Instead, we need to open up our thinking about what we value. What value is an education that excludes the individual's experience? What value is learning that does not incorporate complex critical and creative thinking skills that take time to develop? What value is school when it does not open up opportunities to learn from mistakes, to revise thinking, to reflect? What value is a class that does not encourage learners to empathize?

I opened up to my student. She opened up to me. Together we wrote, we reflected, we revised, we collaborated. We learned together. There is value in that. There is so much value in opening up.

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