Thursday, September 16, 2010

Defining the 'ah-ha' moment...

3:15.  I watch and wait for one student to make the move.  3:16.  No one bothers to check the cell phone that hangs halfway out of their pocket, or check the outdated clock that hangs on the wall.  3:17.  As the first sounds to mark the end of another school day fill the hallway outside of my classroom, my students stay seated.  Writing.  Working.  Thinking.  3:18.  No movement.  3:19.  3:20.  Finally, I tell them.  It's five minutes past the end of the school day.  They look at each other a little surprised, every single one of them, we laugh together, and they file out, almost acting disappointed to be leaving Room 222.

This has never happened.  At the end of the day, I teach 10th graders.  10th graders who are much more concerned with the latest text message fight, break-up story, or after school event than the curriculum I've spent hours upon hours planning, perfecting, and revising.  7th hour, the last period of the day, is the worst.  Although school does not dismiss until 3:15, I'm lucky to keep their attention past the hour most days.  The bags start to rustle, the fidgeting begins, and I know I've lost them.  They're 16, they're distracted, and most days, I really can't blame them.  I'm usually feeling pretty restless (and lately, swollen) by then too. 

Today, however, I realized something a bit more about these kids that I've learned to love the past two years of having them in my language arts classroom.  They are kids in need.  They are kids who want to talk, who yearn to have someone reach out to them, show an interest in them, and care about them.  They are students who are struggling to find their place in high school, their place with friends on the weekends, their place within their families, and their place in the future.

For the past several weeks, my students and I have been studying the impact of stereotypes on a given culture.  We've spent time uncovering the stereotypes that have marginalized and trivialized the Native American culture for years.  We've studied how those typical John Wayne, 'cowboys vs. Indians,' face painted, braided, feather adorned images we've all grown up with have shaped our limited understanding, and left a strong impact on writers of our time.  We've looked at these stereotypes in our own backyards, watching 'The Breakfast Club,' seeking to answer the essential question, 'How can we overcome stereotypes in order to be ourselves?'  Students have wrestled with the complex nature of the term, 'identity,' exploring how stereotypes, images in the media, and the social game of school impact our concept of 'self.' 

Yesterday, the students were asked to analyze two identity conflicts they face in their lives.  This required them to reflect; to look deeply at areas of their life that they struggle with.  Perhaps a particular student struggles acting a certain way at school, and then a different way at church.  Or maybe a student is caught in two worlds: the way their parents push them to be and the way they want to be.  I wanted all students to see that no matter how comfortable we may feel in our own skin, we all find times when we struggle to walk and find our place in two different worlds. 

At first, I was getting nothing but surface stuff.  One student analyzed their 'cabin' self vs. their 'school' self; another wrote about their 'athletic' side vs. their 'school' side.  Yes, they were understanding the assignment; no, they weren't getting to the depths that I wanted.

So, I gave them a pep talk.  I talked about my high school experience, the challenges I faced, and what I learned as I look back at those often rough years now.  I looked them in the eyes and challenged them with questions.  How many of you are involved in something at school only because it's what your friends do, or what's popular, or accepted?  How many of you feel like you can't be your true self?  How many of you struggle even knowing what that means?  How many of you struggle with conflicts between what you know is right, and what you know is popular?  When do they clash?  When do they synchronize? 

I love those rare moments as teachers when you can actually see students thinking.  You can see the wheels turning, the thoughts racing, the mind exploding with new ideas.  After our 'pep talk,' the students started talking.   

One girl wrote a poem to the new 9th grade girls, pleading with them to not make the same mistakes she made during her 9th grade year. 

One girl wrote a letter to herself, an inner pep talk about staying strong amidst the pressures to drink and party with the upper classmen on the weekends.

One boy wrote about living two lives with divorced parents. 

Another boy wrote about his struggle to achieve the high standards he cares about, yet still fit in with his less motivated friends.

Another wrote about the many masks he wears throughout the day, and that lately, it's hard to remember what his true 'face' even looks like.  As the 'new kid' for three years in a row, he wrote about his struggle to overcome the label and find a place at NU High.  They say the third time is the charm...was written at the top of his paper. 

I have always said that a language arts teacher carries a different load than other secondary disciplined teachers.  Writing has such a power about it...with the right assignment, students will pour themselves into their work, revealing the inner most workings of their minds, their souls, and their identities.  It's scary and exciting at the same time. 

Today, I learned more from the students than they could ever learn from me. 

“Writing is a form of personal freedom. It frees us from the mass identity we see in the making all around us. In the end, writers will write not to be outlaw heroes of some underculture but mainly to save themselves, to survive as individuals.”

-Don Delillo

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