The most powerful classroom events can be kind of like the Northern Lights: Rare, fleeting, and only under perfect conditions. As I plan for next year with third graders I vow that my students will have time to share in workshop. It's the most important activity for creating these conditions I'm talking about. The best example I might ever have comes from Josh and his classmates from three years ago:
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As the year went on, Josh began to act out and had almost no friends. With his quirkiness and slight build, he was an easy target for Joe, the class bully. Joe was by turns charming and toxic, an instigator and a ringleader. I did my best to focus on the positive and provide a safe place for sharing in our classroom, but I didn't know if it was working. In general, many of the students in this class really hated school and it all felt like a steep uphill battle every day. I went home exhausted. I cried and thought perhaps I'd made the wrong choice of careers. Why did I take a 6th grade job? I thought. I'm so much better with little kids.
Then one day during sharing, Josh decided to read one of his entries. Our practice is to sit in a circle on the floor and listen to one another intently. Actively. No clapping allowed, but two snaps of the fingers when someone finishes reading, to thank them for their courage. I never censor what the kids can write about, but I ask them to consider appropriateness when sharing with peers. Now here's Josh:
He takes a deep breath, "Whooo!" Then, a pause. Eyes roll and I give sharp looks, but also think, Oh boy, here we go. I review my mental script for appropriate content in our sharing circle.
Meanwhile, Josh begins, his eyes tracking across the page in his notebook, "I found out last night that my parents are getting a divorce. It's tearing me up right now and I cry all night thinking about it. Things are already bad at my house. My little brother just went in the hospital again because he has cancer and we don't know if he's going to live. When I think about life without him it makes me wonder if I want to keep going at all if he doesn't make it. My parents are worried all the time. They fight a lot, and no one has time for my problems. I know I'm not dying, but sometimes it feels like it, and no one cares. No one has time. My heart feels messed up. . . ."
Tears roll down his freckled cheeks. He rubs them away and sighs deeply.
Our circle has gone silent, and there is an almost visible energy in the center. The hairs on my neck stand in reverence as I recognize this rare event. Josh can't read anything without constant stopping to carefully decode. He has just read with the fluent expressiveness and charisma of a radio announcer. As my throat burns my teacher hat is still on, assessing and noting some fascination with this context for a student like Josh. You never know what you'll learn in the sharing circle.
Josh's head drops to his chest and he cries softly for a few seconds, then lifts his face a little and wipes his nose on his sleeve. He doesn't look at anybody, and we all look in our laps. What can I do with a crying middle school student in front of his peers? I make eye contact with Josh and put a hand on my heart. You can hear a pin drop. My eyes move over to meet Joe's, and the bully instinctively puts his hand on his heart, too. Like it's natural. Because right now the conditions are perfect, the curtains of light have appeared. Anything is possible. Right now.
We've all just stepped into uncharted territory and expectations have left the building. Hell, maybe we've all left the building because this certainly isn't school. Next to him another hand goes to a heart, and another and another around this circle, like the wave at a Tiger's game but like church it's so sacred. Josh's eyes follow this until it comes back to him. He puts his own hand on his chest, taps his fingers, smiles, nods. The light is beautiful here.
I lean over to look at Josh's notebook. "You read so well!" I whisper to him.
He beams, and I look closer.
It is completely illegible. Full of backwards letters and spellings that sometimes approach phonetic. No matter. Josh is a writer because he is living like one, just like he said he'd do. And when you live like a writer you think differently about your world, you think differently about people.
Josh's difficult behaviors didn't completely go away, he still sometimes had trouble with bullies. But he was changed in some small authentic way. Our classroom became a place where the conditions were set for frequent light storms. It was a place where you could put your hand on your heart and no one would call you a pansy. We knew better because we had shared our stories with one another. A community grew. With each year I teach I'm more convinced sharing is what makes these conditions where light thrives and learning is rich across the curriculum. It's a rare and powerful thing but if we share often, if we provide the conditions, the light will come, and come.