Friday, November 4, 2011

What Students Can Teach Me About Kindness

Today I loved being a teacher. I haven't been able to say that much this fall. Between administration, the state department and basic trust issues with my kids, we are now sort of at the point where we can move forward. I've now got some buy-in with my students, some street cred, as it were. It occurs to me that I know so little of the true lives of my students that it would be a mistake to make assumptions about what they do or do not know. So I ask them to write their lives, their experiences and their opinions. We all have notebooks to write in and they have the option every day to either do my writing prompt or their own.  I love it when they choose to share with the group.

Ninety-five percent of my kids are Hispanic and most of those are Mexican. The remaining 5% are African-American and White, in that order.  Many are Christian and Catholic; a few are Jewish. It may surprise you to think that I see the races, religions and ethnicities of my students. There are those who follow a philosophy of color-blindness when it comes to children and teaching.  They report that a student's background is has no bearing on the classroom environment.  That since Standard American English is pretty much the status quo and since English teachers teach SAE in the curriculum, it is best to ignore any other issue besides the curriculum. I think this is done out of love and a desire to give students the best chance they can.  But it's not effective.  To refuse to see the world in color, to not see children for who they are and to not acknowledge or honor the lives they live is not only a mistake, but it is irresponsible of educators to do so.

As a teacher, as a woman and as a White person, I have a background in my subject that some of- ok, many of- my students are not privileged to have. The pathways of their lives and mine only intersect in a few ways.  Instead of laying my curriculum, my pathway, over the top of my student's heads, I find it a much better fit, and a more productive one from a learning standpoint, to find some of their pathways and offer them augmentation in English. The students and I come to agreements about how the class will run, what sorts of privileges they can earn and what sort of work they will do.  And they do work. They sometimes work their guts out. In return, I attempt to serve them, not from the tippy-top of a mountain pouring down a dominant ideology, but instead from a little creek that bubbles alongside their own experiences. And sometimes they surprise me, because what they learn and practice has little to do with the stated curriculum, but instead speaks to the hidden agendas I purposefully demonstrate.

The kids work in groups of four, where I have seated them. In one class, I have a table of four with Donna, Billy, Mary and Alaina.  These are not their real names. Donna is shorter than 4'11" tall.  She and Alaina are both Black. Mary and Billy are both Mexican.  Donna has a temper on her and I have seen her do a power punch that lifted her off of her feet in order to sock an older, much larger boy in the face.  But in my class she is a joyful kid and regular contributor to our discussions. Billy is a gentle giant kind of kid, quiet and studious. He loves to read to the point that I have had to ask him to put away his book to do a writing assignment- an assignment that involved another book we were reading. But Billy does not seem to have much family structure.  He never completes homework. His handwriting is atrocious and his personal hygiene is often questionable. He's usually got dirt on his arms and face.  The other kids pick on him.  He is a sweet kid too- always finds me in the hallway and says "Hi Miss Dieu!!!" One day he was crying in class. I pulled him into the hallway to ask him why. He had not done his homework and thought I'd be mad at him.  Oh no! No, no, just do it for tomorrow! I spent some time reassuring him and sent him to the bathroom to splash water on his face. I was taken rather aback that he thought enough of me to cry at the thought that I'd become angry with him.  Truth be told, that made a big impact on me.  I had a talk with his tablemates while he was away. I asked that they be kind to him and include them more than they had; that junior high is hard enough and it costs nothing to be gentle. At first, they just stopped being snarky.  Then, with my own reminders, Mary and Donna have said nice things to him.  Alaina is not convinced; she continues to make little digs.

Yesterday, Donna came in madder than a wet hen.  She picked up her notebook and wrote furiously for 10 minutes straight and read what she had written to the class.  She was angry; a boy she said she liked called her ugly and she had to resist the urge to punch him out.  She read the class the riot act about being nice to people and how she has feelings too.  She said she thought the teachers just didn't care (not you, Miss Dieu, I love you!) and that things were going to go badly. We all thanked her for sharing, which is what we do when someone shares their writing out loud. Criticism is saved for peer review. "Thank you for sharing" is reserved for those brave enough to read what they have read.

After class, I asked Donna to talk to me.  She admitted that there was more to the story.  Another boy, Todd (also a pseudonym) keeps threatening her.  He said that if she told anyone, he would have someone beat her up. I have Todd in another class.  He is a year older and is very smart.  It's just his modus operandi to get others to do his dirty work.  I took Donna to the counselor.  He art teacher came to ask me about her.  Donna had been confrontational and angry in class the previous two days and she was wondering if I knew anything that would help.  I relayed what Donna had said.  The art teacher said she would take a few minutes to let our student know that we do notice and that we do indeed care.

We had a team meeting with Todd.  That's when all of his teachers get together with a student to help them, to ask them to change their behavior and to hear what they have to say about their own education.  We also let Todd know that if anything- anything at all- were to happen to Donna, he would have to answer to us, the school and the police officer assigned to the school.  I don't think it scared him much, but I don't think he'll pick on Donna anymore.

Today in class, everything went as normal.  We were writing expository essays with the understanding that a 5 paragraph essay is not the be all and end all of good writing.  The students chose their own topics from the daily writing prompts we have done for the last few weeks.  But Billy still hadn't gotten started.  He couldn't think of what to write.  I offered some ideas and asked his tablemates to help him like they were helping each other.  Each of them had picked a season and were writing about it. Billy looked like he was going to cry.  I told him to take a few deep breaths and try again. That's when the girls jumped in. "You're a good storyteller!", said Donna. "Yeah, you always tell the best stories" "You remember the one you told us in math class about the vampire and his beard...?" And on and on.  They gave him ideas on what to write based on his own interests.  And I almost started to cry myself, but I smiled and busied myself with other kids who needed help.

Today I loved being a teacher. I loved being a human and I loved being a part of this community and playing my appropriate part in it.  I had to leave during 4th hour to go to OU and meet with my adviser. As I was dashing out the door (found a great substitute teacher, by the way!) I waved and said "Bye kids! I love you, have a great weekend!"  They yelled "Bye! We love you too!", and I smiled all the way to Norman.

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