This semester, in my Grade 11 English class, I decided to try something new. I decided to incorporate a new non-fiction writing assignment in my course, in place of a traditional "reading journal". This non fiction writing was optional but I was very pleased when I logged into my Teacher Dashboard in Hapara to see that over 90% of the students to chose to do the personal writing assignment.
I was inspired by a few posts I had seen on the Humans of New York instagram page - in particular, ones of students talking about struggles in their lives. I started to wonder how much I know about my students. I also started to reflect on what I would share if I was stopped by a "HONY" type of project.
I knew that in order to get my students to buy in, I would have to open myself up also. I would have to model not only what I was looking for, but also some vulnerability in what I was sharing if I wanted them to share true feelings and emotions with me.
So last week I walked into class ready to present my brand new lesson.
I polled the class to see who had heard of HONY. Not many. But many had heard of something similar, our school's own "Humans Of" page. I used that as my kick off to introduce their task.
"When people find out that I'm a teacher, they always want to know what it is like to be on the “other” side of the classroom… people always want to know what the hardest part about teaching is. It's not all the prep or the marking... although those are the most time consuming. And, most days, it's not even the behaviour issues or the disrespect, as frustrating as those are. Usually it's the battle to make a difference. To reach every kid. When kids are little, they are usually so excited about school and so open about their feelings and their struggles. They want to share their goals and dreams with you and they will tell you about their defeats and disappointments. By the time they get to me, in high school, that has often changed. They all have their own unique past life and school experiences which influence them, who they are and ultimately, how they are in my class. I have 75 minutes a day for 18 weeks to try to make an impact on them. To teach them not only curriculum - fundamentals of English or History or Civics, but to hopefully make a positive difference in their lives… one that they will carry with them further than their memory of metaphors and conscription and electoral reform. And it's not easy to reach them all. There are so many other factors at play - stress, depression, anxiety, poverty, hunger, gender and sexuality issues, self esteem, negative school experiences, bullying… to name a few - that shape who they are and what they are feeling. But I only know what I observe or what they choose to share with me. Usually there is so much more beneath the surface. And sometimes those stories are the saddest of all. The stories that I’ll never know. So that's the hardest part of teaching: the helplessness you feel and the tears you shed when you so desperately want to reach every single student but know that sometimes you just can't because it's not always about you... it's about them... and you need to respect that too."
That was a big share. A big vulnerability for me to lay that one out to them.
I then shared their assignment:
Imagine you were stopped by a “Humans Of” photographer. You can choose anything to share with him/her. It should be something that you think ‘defines’ you as a person - a life experience (positive or negative), a passion/goal, a memorable moment. It should be about 450-500 words. Use the Humans of New York social media pages (http://www.humansofnewyork.com) (and my example) as a guide.
Next, answer the question: Who am I? The first part should be background information about you (who you are, where you are from, where you have lived, your family, your hobbies, etc). Choose any quote that “speaks” to you. It can be from song lyrics or a poem or a famous “saying”. The second well developed paragraph of this assignment should about how this quote represents you or your life (or what you want to be or want from life).
And I waited patiently for the week to pass until they submitted the assignments to me.
I had no idea whether this was going to be a huge success or a huge failure.
The night that the assignments were due, I sat at my computer and watched the clock click to 7:30pm then I went into their folders and started reading. I stayed up until well after 1:00am reading all of these amazing reflections. Some were hilarious, some were so sad that they made me cry, and some inspired me.
But most importantly, they gave me insight into the students I was teaching. I got to know something about each and every one of them that I might not have known otherwise. I can't control how much they choose to share - perhaps some of the students who shared the funny ones have some deep pain that they chose not to share with me.... and that is okay. What is important that I gave my students the opportunity to share with me whatever they felt comfortable sharing and in turn, it offered me a chance to understand them better.
I am also glad that I chose to wait until a few months into the semester; while I understand that there is merit to knowing information about your students "right out of the gate", I think that my choice to wait a few months gave my students a chance to get to know me and hopefully feel comfortable sharing some things that they might not have otherwise shared, back in early September.
"No significant learning occurs without a significant relationship."
Who am I?
Hi! I'm Megan. 21st century learner and teacher. I am passionate about DI, assessment, student success and #edtech. My blog is where I share what is happening in my classes, my professional learning and sometimes things that are on the outer circle of education. Comments always welcome!