Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Why my students call me HollyAnne

Recently I visited another school's campus. This is a very wealthy private school, with incredible facilities.
Although this was not the purpose of our visit, it was a nice reminder to see how other schools work, to observe the formal relationships between the students and the teachers, to see the kids in uniform, to see how traditional private schools are structured. It was sort of a breath of fresh air that put my life on campus in perspective. 

Frankly, it made me more thankful than ever to be at my relaxed, tightly-knit school for low-income students. In fact, I might go so far as to say that I like our system better. (Well, the informal aspect of our system.) Here's why.

My students here call me HollyAnne because that is my name. My friends call me HollyAnne, my family calls me HollyAnne, my coworkers and employers call me HollyAnne. The students know me the same way that everyone else does, because I am the same person in all of these settings. I do not change my personality around the students. That would be a. a lot of work for me and b. unrealistic for them. They do not have to guess how I act during the weekends, or how I would react if I were to get extremely mad. They know the real me; there is no formal facade for them to try to break. (Not only is this less effort for me, but it also means that the students ask me fewer rude questions and spend less time trying to push my buttons.) 

My students come over to my house (I live on campus) because I live there. My friends, my family, and, on rare occasions, my employers come to my house. The students come to my house the same way everyone else does; I invite them over like I would anyone else. They have cooked in my kitchen, worn my sweatshirts on cold days, and cried into my couch cushions. Not only does this help my students understand me better, but it also shows them ways of life or traditions that are different than the ones that they experience in their own homes. In the same way that study abroad and the resulting interaction with cultures is a positive opportunity for growth, so is seeing the everyday lives of other people in their own community. 

My students are treated the same way as my family, friends, coworkers, and employers. I do not classify them according to age in the same way that I do not classify my friends by race or economic status. In my opinion, treating individuals with equal cognitive ability as lesser because of their age qualifies as age discrimination. I do not think that any sort of discrimination is appropriate in a teacher-student relationship (or any relationship, for that matter). Furthermore, by treating the students as equals, I am asserting their inherent value.

We do our students a disservice when we are distant and "adult-ish" because that promotes the idea that adults are somehow different. I've spent my entire life thinking that adults are somehow superior to younger folks, only to realize (at the age of 24 -- since apparently now I'm an adult too) that adults are just as petty, hurtful and self-centered as children are, if not more so. Why do we perpetuate this idea that adults are a different class of being? What is purpose? Have we found there to be positive results in this formalized system that exceed those of informality?

Some might argue that this informal approach doesn't give our students the chance to learn how to interact with respect and deference with their elders. Quite the contrary, I think that our students act with more respect towards their elders because they deeply understand what it is like to be an adult...because of their relationships with their teachers. Adults for them are not far-off, untouchable idols, but real human beings with emotions and needs. 

Fundamentally, our informal system supports my decision to treat students as valued, albeit less experienced, equals: it gives me the freedom to behave as myself (thus affirming my own value as an individual) and it shows the students the type of respect that I hope they will emulate in the world beyond our campus.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Changing the world through writing

This year, I was assigned to teach 9th grade Language Arts. Exciting, indeed, but completely unknown territory for me. This summer, I decided that the entire course would have one goal: to change the world through writing.

So we started by writing about our personal passions, those things that excite us, that put that feeling in our stomachs or in our minds.
Frankly, I was expecting to hear a lot more about MMA street fighting or shopping, but as always, the students helped the old adage about assumptions come true (except that I was the only donkey).

Our next step was to think about how those passions could help other people. Most of their interests had to do with other people anyway, and so in most cases, the connection wasn't much of a jump. Jose, who came alive after a summer camping experience, immediately decided to create an outdoor education trip of his own. Christian, who is obsessed with all things fashion, began creating his own clothing line that would be modeled after Toms' One for One business approach. Yadi wants to become a missionary surgeon; German is determined to make pacifist decision making an option for everyday Americans; Diego wants to help "normalize" mentally impaired people...for some the connections to other's needs was immediate.
Then there were others, like Elizabeth. Elizabeth loves to perform. She is naturally dramatic. But how does theater help others? I decided to like Elizabeth figure that out for herself, and she came up with some decidedly relevant propositions. First, she said, performance is a cultural activity that brings people together, helps express emotion, and retain and promote socio-cultural identity. Therefore, performance should be accessible for all, not just those who can afford to go to professional performances or who have theater programs at school. I was impressed: that is a very clear link between her interest and the well-being of other people.

We needed more information, so we spent about a week online, researching their topics and finding an "e-mentor" (someone or some organization that writes about their field of interest). We spent a day learning about commenting and they all made comments on their various blogs.
Lo and behold, some of the e-mentor answered. Christian received a reply from Toms. "They think I'm a real adult!" he said, quite triumphantly, but not without an honest dose of surprise.
Diego received a detailed email from his e-mentor, who told him that she was impressed by his ideas.
German received answers back from professionals all over the United States, including university professors, priests and social workers.

At this point I got a bit nervous. Is this ok? Am I crazy to think they can do this? Looking for some outside input and in a bit of a leap of faith, I asked the students to write essays for our school's Board of Trustees. These essays explained why they are passionate about these topics, what they are planning to do and how the Board can help them in their process. I shipped off four sets of essays and one of our school's largest donors wrote back. She said:
"I was most impressed with your thoughtfulness and ideas for improving our community.... While I have spent a great deal of time as an adult trying to make the world a better place, I know that when I was your age this had never entered my mind. I am greatly inspired by you."
Now that was a jubilant day in class.

This is all very exciting, don't get me wrong. But this is also not yet any sort of real change. So I set them free. They could do whatever they wanted as long as it involved writing or reading, it was related to their topic, and it was school appropriate.
Magic happened. Christian started designing dresses and calling fabric stores for donations. Diego invited the entire school to participate in a charity walk for disabled students. Elizabeth made phone calls to local hospitals with children's wards, asking if she can come teach the kids the basics of performance. Jose wrote business letters to the local chapter of Leave No Trace and No Child Left Inside.

Are they getting better about comma splices and sentence fragments? Marginally. Can then parse a sentence? Probably not. But here's what they are getting:
-They know that writing is useful in real life and not just something they'll use in school.
-They know that writing is not boring.
-They know that their dreams are not merely fantasies but instead valuable and actionable plans.