empowerment

Words, language, have become a means of survival.

Air, water, food, shelter, words. Sincerely, their necessity has reached this level.

The easy answer here in uncovering the meaning behind this dramatic assertion is that books have saved me…allowed me an escape…or that writing has…but it isn’t that simple or that obvious, because for a long time, when I was sick and dizzy, reading and writing were not the friendliest options. However, there are realizations in life that shine a light to burn off the fog that has settled in around you…the fog that hinders your vision…not allowing you to see anything else until you recognize first the truth of what has blinded you. Sometimes you get lost and can’t see up from down or details of the world around you.  Then the moment arrives when understanding clarifies the rest and the fog becomes mist which becomes transparency.

So, I have come to learn that when my language portrays victimization (whether resulting from life long struggles with anxiety or my more recent struggles with inner ear disability), that I sink swiftly into a self induced chasm of resignation. When my language falters under the weight of whatever ordeal I am suffering, I surrender any power or control I have in the situation and I become nothing more than a sacrifice to my circumstances. However, when I shift the syntax…when I choose words that reflect the strength of a survivor…suddenly, I repossess my strength, my courage, my vibrance. When I look at a situation through the lens of accomplishment rather than through the fog of defeat, it may not change my circumstances, but it certainly alters my perception of them. This isn’t simple stuff. The words, this “survivor speak” may feel hollow at first…futile, for they are just words after all. Eventually, with diligence, the moment arrives when they aren’t just words any more because what once felt empty has not only  become your reality, but transformed your experience of it.

In the same way that words can be employed to tear down and demean or to reconstruct and elevate others in our lives, they can be engaged the same way in our own.

transformative

High school students enter my school everyday with their own individual sets of “stuff.” It would be naive to demand or command that they adhere to some delusional set of unreal expectations that implies that perfection is the only allowable outcome–constant, never wavering hard work, attentiveness, dedication, positivity, even-keel temperament, and a zeal for the subject matter. These kids, though, are teenagers and their most important job in the moment really doesn’t have anything to do with getting into college or taking on leadership roles in clubs or pleasing me. Their most important job has everything to do with figuring out who they’re going to be in this world, what kind of person they will become. If I narrow-mindedly assume that my class should always be their first priority, I have lost sight of the fact that these students are living complete and complex lives. If I can’t extend a little grace toward them, with the understanding that they will have good days and bad because in fact they are human beings, then I’ve missed the point.

In her poem “Kindness,” Naomi Shihab Nye writes these words:

“Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness,

you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho

lies dead by the side of the road.

You must see how this could be you,

how he too was someone

who journeyed through the night with plans

and the simple breath that kept him alive.”

She is writing about empathy’s integral role in kindness. She is writing about the sort of transformative moment that empathy creates as it brings  sincerity and  weight to common niceties. Nye seems to imply that in order for kindness to live into its potential, for it to truly be meaningful, we must see ourselves in the situations of others. We must recognize the common ground of humanity in everyone we encounter. We must see our sameness in order to be able to nurture each other through our differences. We must understand that someone else’s misfortune could be our own.

In that awareness, we not only become truly kind, but we also transform ourselves into better human beings. We are able to creep out of our shell of selfishness in search of ways to help those in need around us…even the people we don’t necessarily know because we have paused to imagine life through their eyes. We are able to shift out of our own biases to see the truth of the people around us rather than our assumptions about them…assumptions that imprison and inhibit our true kindness potential.

This is what I attempt to achieve in my classroom. I work really hard to see beyond the moment and to understand what is causing the moment. Is the student tired, overwhelmed, going through a hard time…what is the reason for the behavior? In doing this, I’m working to pause before rushing to judgement. I am working to give them the benefit of the doubt.

I was recently reminded by my friend Sara Ahmed of the benefit of the “soft start” in classrooms. This is a brief period of time at the start of a class where students are actively engaged in an activity that interests them but isn’t necessarily course work.  So, this week, I have placed magazines, adult coloring books, books of poetry, QR codes for a Padlet full of links to interesting articles, writing prompts and more on the tables of my classroom. The kids come in, sit down anywhere they are comfortable and work on whichever activity they feel best suits them that day. Part of why I offered this, outside of the fact that it is just good practice, I was sort of struck by the realization that our kids go from class to class with sometimes stark contrast in subject matter and we expect them to immediately switch gears without much pause. The soft start allows kids to decompress a bit and to transition so that when it comes time to work on coursework, they are better prepared and mentally ready to focus. My students this week have said that at first they thought the “soft start” was silly and a little fluffy. After a couple of days though they realized that it was really helping them–they felt like they were thinking better in class because they had that moment to quiet themselves and find their focus. I loved this!! However, if I stood harshly by the idea of working bell to bell, if I ignored the needs of my students, we would have missed out on this transformative.

It was a kindness. I saw myself in the way we ask them to “do school” and understood that there could be a better way. I recognize that there are people out there who think that because of my level of empathy, I am too soft on my kids. There are people who feel like I am not preparing them for the real world. On the contrary, I feel like I am preparing them to become leaders in the world I want to live in. A world filled with sincere kindnesses. An empathic world.

(Day 18)

#readinggoals

Since we returned from winter break, my AP Lit seniors have been working to set individual reading goals and then to select a book that will challenge them as they work toward achieving the goals they have set. Some are tackling longer books than they have read before in order to build stamina (and maybe to prove something to themselves); others are selecting texts that reside in a genre they wouldn’t normally visit, an attempt to extend their reach as readers; and still others are hoping to slow themselves down and really think their way through their reading rather than simply speeding through a story for the fun of it. There are no restrictions on the books selected as long as the student can justify how their choice helps them meet their goals in a meaningful way. They do write reflections weekly, but these aren’t your typical readers response. In these reflections, students do respond and react to the text they’re reading, but they also respond and react to how they are growing and changing as readers as they are working to meet their goals. In this way, they aren’t just unwittingly becoming better readers. They are fully aware of what the challenges are and how they are actively working to meet them.

Because my kids are setting their own challenges, their enthusiasm for their selected books and for their growth as readers has become contagious. One student in particular selected And the Band Played On by Randy Shilts because at over 600 pages, finishing the book felt like an insurmountable task–and she wanted the push to do it. However, she also picked it because it is nonfiction and she is not typically drawn to nonfiction. Today in class, she was beaming as she explained that not only was she around 200 pages into the text, but she was thoroughly enjoying it. She didn’t realize she would be able to read a book like this so fast. She didn’t realize she would enjoy it as much as she has been. She didn’t realize that this challenge could offer so much to her as an individual.

I feel strongly that without choice in this situation, engagement would almost certainly drop out, if it existed at all…and without engagement, true growth of the reader is stunted. If I assumed a singular challenge for the class as a whole and then assigned the same book to each kid to be studied in the same way with the same questions and the same assignments, I really don’t believe their investment would have become so rich and so rewarding. Sure, every now and then in this class we work with a shared text and the kids learn and they grow in intentional and measured ways as readers, but opportunities like this challenge book assignment are more present than they used to be in my space because after witnessing the impact I would be negligent to act in any other way.

The energy charging this student’s voice as she shared her excitement about the challenge and about the book was palpable and entirely beyond the simple satisfaction of having completed an assignment. She had chosen goals that she felt were impossible or at the very least, improbable, to meet, she pushed herself to meet them in a way and with a text that she determined best and as a result, every achievement over the course of this assignment is hers and hers alone.

As a teacher, it just doesn’t get better than that!

(Day 11…done…this one had the potential to be much longer but this has been a rather chaotic night and organizing it would have been too much. The challenge book work will go on for some time in my classroom, so I will simply write on this again another time.)