Yesterday started off the wrong way. My 9am Saturday class is my biggest class, and also my most difficult. Because of a number of things—the earliness of the hour, the large size of the class, the personalities present in it, the fact that half the students don’t show up till the class is half over—the students rarely want to participate, and getting them on their feet and moving feels like pulling teeth. Our class is called “Creative Expressions,” but it’s often far from being either creative or expressive.
Mostly, this just makes me sad. The students in the class are all excellent listeners, highly intelligent, and eloquent writers. We’ve been exploring social issues of their choice, and last week, when I assigned them each to write a monologue and a poem expressing their views on their topics, they turned out incredibly thoughtful pieces on difficult topics such as police brutality, domestic violence, bullying, and homelessness. But when it comes to sharing their writing or standing in front of each other, it’s a flat no.
I asked them why, this week. One girl looked at me and said, “I don’t like people’s eyes on me. It feels creepy.”
“But life is all about being in front of others,” I said. “And in here, you’re all on the same plane. You’re all sharing your work, so you’re all equal.”
But it didn’t make much difference. They’ll share because I tell them to, but they won’t like it.
I suspect that in different circumstances, many of them would want to share. I can read the tells, as several of them give dirty looks to their classmates when they talk through their performances, or take just a little longer than a nanosecond on their still images. I opened it up for discussion at the end of our class yesterday, asking the students what could improve the class next semester.
“Less people laughing at the people performing,” one of the girls said.
I can’t force participation or trust, which is perhaps the most frustrating thing for a teacher to face. In contrast to my difficult 9am class, my 11am class is totally on board with performing their work. One of the most important differences is that the class has only 4 students, and even though they started the semester in the same place as my 9am-ers, we’ve built trust.
Yesterday we ended our work on their chosen social issues by presenting short performances that used the words they’ve been writing over the course of the semester and ended with a call to action. Several of the students improv-ed an entire scene on the spot, and two of them shared very personal stories about racial profiling and domestic abuse out loud, standing in front of the class—not hiding behind their pens. When the class ended, one of the girls turned to me.
“We didn’t write any of that down, Miss,” she said, speaking about the improv scene. “We just created that off the tops of our heads, right on the spot.”
I praised their work, and then I mourned for my 9am class. People often don’t know how badly they want to be seen—seen in a positive way, and not the negative way we’re so used to—until they’ve experienced it. It’s certainly a risk to open yourself up to being seen, and it's one that my 9am class hasn’t tried yet. But my 11am class has, and once you get a taste of it, you never forget it. My goal, for the spring semester, is to find a way for my 9am-ers to build that same trust.
~ He Held Radical Light, Christian Wiman
~ An American Childhood, Annie Dillard