Thursday, June 19, 2014

Contemplating Change and the Student I Couldn't Reach

It’s hard to accept that there are some things in the world that you can not change. Or some things in the world that are not worth trying to change. I used to try to control everything around me, to craft a perfect world that fit exactly what I wanted it to be. Over the course of years though I have come to understand that I can not change everything, and that I should not bother to even try to change everything. Yes, there are things worth fighting for, things worth trying to change, but not everything is a battle to be won. Some moments are about acceptance. 

It is often important to see a person or situation for what it actually is and accept it for what it is, rather than pushing against it to try to change it. One of my friend’s fathers once gave her some sage advice. He told her that when you feel yourself struggling to swim upstream that is the time to consider whether it’s worth continuing in that direction. I think that there is a lot of merit to this idea, especially around the way that I used to approach change. I used to think that moments of resistance were ones to fight through, that the harder the struggle was the more worthwhile the endeavor. But I have learned that oftentimes the result is not worth the effort put into trying to make change.

This afternoon the student who I have been unable to make any progress with this year came into my study hall fifteen minutes late, without a pass, and demanding to go to another classroom. I told him that I would not let him leave the room since he came late and without a pass. He gave me a poorly crafted story to explain where he had been, but I reminded him that I would not let him leave again until I could confirm his flimsy alibi. 

He shouted at me, trying his best to swim upstream against me, protesting that he was “behind” in the class he was in, and that he needed to go there or he would fail. I did my best to remain calm, to be cool water to his struggle against the current. I suggested that since he is in the same situation in my class that he might want to get started on some of the English work that he was missing in the meantime. I suggested that if he needed to he could always and use his lunch time to go to the other class. He turned to me, looked me straight on and told me that it was “pointless” to do any English. Muttering that he was "too far behind to bother".

I recognized that he was challenging me. That he wanted to see what kind of resistance I would put up against him. The old me would have taken on this challenge. The old me would have fired back. The old me would have escalated the situation, even though I know well enough that the end result would have been the same no matter what I did. Nothing would have been accomplished by pushing him, except I would erode my own well being and push us each a little further away from one another and into the corners we have both established for ourselves. 

Instead, the calmer, wiser me, the one who has accepted that I can only change myself and encourage others to change themselves, took hold. Rather than raise my hackles, I instead dug into the calm part of myself. I responded quietly that he “might be right, but that he won’t be able to know without trying”. I then reminded him that he had a choice of how to use his time, but that I still would not be writing him a pass without confirmation of his whereabouts. He stood with his back to me, staring out the window for a while, but eventually he took a chair and a computer. He produced nothing of substance, but he did not fight either- a small victory, but one that I will gladly take in a school year that has gone on too long and is still a week away from ending.

Sometimes, change is about acceptance. It is about seeing a student in the last few days of the year, one who has failed to thrive all year long, and accepting that you can not change them. They are who they are. You are who you are. Your disparate agendas will never mesh, and the best you can do is to do no more harm.      

Writers are Made by Writing

“Teaching the writing process does not make writers. Experiencing the writing process makes writers."

For the past few days, my seventh graders have been working on their final exam for English class. Each day they are given a new key word that hints at a thematic idea. They then engage in 25 minutes of free writing, an expressive exercise to see where their writing leads them. So far they have contemplated the terms "wonder", "risk", "change" and today, "self". Tomorrow, they will revisit this writing, whittle it down and revise it into a celebration piece to show off their best writing. While there will be a product for this assignment, this activity is far more process driven than a typical final exam. 

Writing expressively, in this open ended way is a change and a challenge for my students. Most of them are extremely skilled at writing when they are told what to write, when they are given a question to answer, a transaction to complete. We have trained them to do this early on in school. But once we open things up, once we refuse to involve ourselves in the transaction that is where there is discomfort. All week I have watched my 8th period class struggle with this change. I have watched them flounder around for confirmation that they are doing it (by “it” I mean simply writing) “right”.

I have watched them struggle to be affirmed. I have watched them struggle for approval and an indication that they are approaching the assignment correctly. I have had to put on my best ignoring face, pretending that I am so absorbed in my own writing that I can not see a struggling student, so that I am not tempted to come to the rescue of a student who believes themselves to be impossibly stuck. I have had to refuse to read writing, sending frustraed students away from my desk. I have had to answer a student asking me if their writing was “good” by quickly glancing at the computer screen and telling him that it was “perfect because there are words on a page”. I know that not dropping everything to affirm a student and stroke their writing ego is the right thing to do, but sometimes I feel like I am not being compassionate in these moments. Even though I am uncomfortable, I know that in many cases I am doing what needs to be done to push kids towards independence.

The reason I will not read Martin’s writing in the middle of writing time, or answer Meredith’s question about the direction she is going in, or address Jason’s waving hand is simply because even though they don’t trust it, they do not need me. I know that they have everything that they need to be successful with this task inside of them, they just don’t realize it. They haven’t learned to trust their own voices yet. For some of them this is about inexperience- they simply have not spent enough time struggling through the act of writing to learn that the only way to write well is to write a lot and see what happens.

For others they have done all of the practice, they have put in the time, but they are stuck in the point of needing control. They need to hold tight to their words. These are the students who  over think the process, searching for writing that will earn them a good grade. These students will make successful high schoolers, and even more successful college students, but will they ever really learn to discover a new idea? Will they learn to break the rules? Will they learn to tap into their own brains in a way that can break something new out?

Even though many of them indicate a desire for affirmation from me, I know that adding my own voice does not instil the trust in oneself that a true “writer” needs to write well. It does little to help them access their own thoughts, it only serves to help them try to unlock the puzzle of what they think I want to hear. I worry about students like this, those who are more concerned with pleasing a teacher’s voice than with listening to their own.

This is why students like Korina are able to fill two to three pages in 25 minutes, or why Rafe always has some wandering prose that both amuses and mystifies. They have learned to trust their own voices. They know themselves as writers, and they trust that something will come out. Sure, sometimes that something is off the wall, or far away from what others would come up with, but that is the point. Even as they wander around in their thinking and writing they are doing it right, in that they are losing control and letting the writing happen to them rather than forcing the writing in a direction it does not want to go.                 

This self trust is the hardest thing to teach in that it is not a thing that can be taught. The best I can do is create the conditions that force students to figure out how to develop this on their own. I guess it’s a step in the right direction that in the absence of teachers affirming them, they seek out affirmation from one another. I almost like that I keep seeing kids pass computers back and forth, that they are checking in with one another and sharing their writing with one another, though there is still a distrust there, and underlying belief that “even if I think my writing is good, I can’t trust that it is good until someone else tells me it is, until someone else confirms what I am too insecure and self-conscious to confirm myself.” It’s the same writers who wanted me to read their writing instead of just trusting themselves and going for it.

If I can only share one more thing with my students in these last days before we leave for summer it is this: there is no room for fear and self-consciousness in writing, those insecurities will lead you nowhere productive. They will lead you only to stilted, inauthentic writing. Instead, to be a real writer, one must simply write and trust themselves in their writing.