“The educator has the duty of not being neutral.”
― Paulo Freire,
My second semester student teaching placement was at a school in an underserved community in the San Francisco Bay Area. Whatever your preconceived notions of an “urban” school is (urban being the latest buzz word for impoverished communities), this school was anything but. Yes, it suffered from a lack of resources and limited funding. The building was old – straight out of a movie from the 1950s. But it was clean, surrounded by freshly cut fields and manicured greenery all around.
Walking on the campus the buzz of teen emotion – joy, fear, anxiety, and excitement – is palpable. Administrators, counselors, and teachers are always nearby interacting with students. Hugs and high-fives often mean more than tests and grades. Working here brought me great satisfaction, sprinkled with moments of pain and tears for both my students and me.
In their book 180 Days Penny Kittle and Kelly Gallagher talk about how “The storyteller is deep inside every one of us.” (p. 137) I knew walking onto the campus of this school, my students had stories to tell. It made sense that my first summative assessment would be a personal narrative.
Of all the lessons in this unit, I loved this one the most. I had students playing with words, challenging them to find more vivid ways to say “nice, ugly, pretty, and dirty.” Under the doc camera, I wrote the beginning of my own narrative, asking for student input on phrasing and imagery.
When the time came for them to put pen to the page, the collective groans began. “What do I write?” “I don’t know what to write about.” (As an English teacher, I often feel like a therapist assuring my students that they can overcome blank page phobia.)
One student – I’ll call him BW – was one of my biggest whiners. “I can’t write, Mrs. Santoyo. I don’t know what to write!” He was one of those kids who missed at least one day of school a week for unknown reasons. When he started complaining, I was sure I was going to lose him for the rest of the week and I’d have to give him a zero, dissuading him from coming back to make up all that work.
I sat down next to him and we looked at a Google Earth picture of his home. We talked through what we saw. Flowers dotting the walkway, trees towering above the rooftop, a white door greeting him at the entrance. I made him write the details down, which he did, begrudgingly. Then he told me he was done. He didn’t want any more help. So I figured BW wouldn’t be at school tomorrow.
The next day he was in class. Afterwards, he stayed back to talk. When everyone was gone, he asked if it would be OK if he talked about being homeless with his family this past summer. I took a deep breath and assured him I would be the only person to read his piece. “If you are comfortable sharing it with me, I think it would be a powerful personal narrative.” He thanked me and left.
The next day, he asked me to read his first paragraph. Given how resistant he was to writing, it was a good start. I helped him change some language to make the piece more vivid. He seemed to get the hang of what I was looking for. I even saw a small smile when I praised him for one of the sentences he wrote on his own.
Here’s his final draft. Names and addresses have been removed for privacy.
I wasn’t grading writing conventions for this assignment, just the ability to paint a picture with words. He earned full points for his piece. I was so impressed by what this resistant writer produced. I printed it out with a note to share it with his parents.
The next day, I showed him his grade. He was brimming with pride. Then he told me “today is my last day.” It was only 6 weeks into the school year. “Where are you going?” I asked. “My Mom is going back to jail. I’m going to live with my aunt and uncle so I have to change schools.”
I hugged BW and told him to keep writing. He smiled and thanked me. Then he left. It was my first teaching win and loss, all in one day.