That summer, 1991, I had finally gotten my resumé in the mail to numerous possible employers. After getting married, moving from Florida to New Jersey, becoming a new mom, and taking a break from my first “baby”—teaching—I was feeling the pull of the classroom. I had taken the NJ Teachers Exam, been substituting at every opportunity, and returned to school, because this is what I do: I learn. And I love school to guide me. At its best, it affords its participants a place to explore ideas with others similarly interested while someone who knows more, or at the very least is galvanized to discover, leads the way.
That summer, my almost-three-year old son, went to his babysitter while I set out early each weekday morning, headed to Rutgers University in New Brunswick to participate in a National Writing Project Summer Workshop. Our group of 12, a dozen people who became my Brothers in Arms, with pens and paper at the ends of limbs, were led by Deena Linett, a professor from Montclair State University. Nothing fuels intimate connection quite like a three-week, five-days-six-hours-or-more-each day, sharing-writing experience. I was fortunate to have the commute; I needed, at the very least, the hour-plus it granted me to regroup, both arriving and returning. That immersive and intense experience changed me as a teacher, a writer, and a person.
On the morning that Deena failed to arrive on time, her characteristic, wide-open smile absent as we trickled into the meeting room from the outside world, we took it in our stride, at this point conversing easily, particularly with our writing trios, waiting. When she walked in, however, her expression, her posture, the way she settled her things and herself into her usual seat, suggested that this morning was different. In a few moments she spoke,”Why is it that people think if you’re nice, you’re stupid? I am kind; I treat people with respect. It is such a deep disappointment that some confuse that with stupidity.” I’ll be honest, these words may not be exact; it’s been over 20 years after all, but her sadness and her question, the disillusionment I will never forget.
She went on to briefly recount her encounter with a mechanic before class, how his treatment of her signaled his lack of understanding about how she operates in the world: trust exists among good people; most of us are good people. But she had been taken advantage of, and vulnerability equates with stupidity. I am sure that it hadn’t been the first time she’d experienced this; what remains is that she shared it with us. Implicit in my understanding of it now, is the truth that, despite any previously similar occasions, she had not altered the way she walks in the world.
Deena’s disillusionment, devoid of artifice, remains with me as I engage with Angela Stockman and Ellen Feig Gray’s book, Hacking School Culture: Designing Compassionate Classrooms, and their online discussion. Last week’s conversation focused on shaming and its toxic effect on inviting and building trust. One reflection asked:
“How might you have been vulnerable with your students in the past? How do you think this approach might have helped you build trust and connection?”
Almost immediately I remembered Deena and that arguably tiny moment in the weeks of wonderful and uniquely edifying ones that the Workshop provided. She was sincere. Vulnerable. Human. And she linked compassion and kindness as a default operating system with one of its inherent risks: others may label it stupid, naive, just plain duh-mb. She shared that with us, her students, not part of a scripted lesson plan, but indelible all the same.
Writers are risk-takers, but that is true for all of us making our way in this fraught world. We do not know how our kindness will be received, whether it will be reciprocated, if we will be deemed “stupid.” We do know that it is a choice, not without its consequences.
Here I am, once again, sending out my resumé, preparing to reenter the classroom, and realizing that Deena’s greatest lesson is one that sprung organically from her choice of coming at the world with an open heart, understanding that in being misread, the loss is the reader’s, not the text’s. We write our story day-by-day; vulnerability is a worthy theme.
Today Jenn Gonzalez posted a guest blog written by Sherri Spelic—Sherri also acknowledges the role that the Slice of Life blogging community fostered and shepherded by Two Writing Teachers plays, important to developing as a writer within any community—entitled “Noticing the Good Stuff.” The writing is clear and specific and provides terrific ideas for honoring the positive in any classroom and school culture. Having been retired for almost a full year now, I can say without qualification, that what Sherri advises is 100% true!
It also strikes me that very few educators will actually heed her advice or incorporate her ideas into classroom practice because, well, we are not a very kind-to-ourselves population. The opening chapter of Hacking School Culture: Designing Compassionate Classrooms by Angela Stockman and Ellen Feig Gray starts with self-compassion as well. Now that I have an excess of time, I work on this idea, but I know that when I was in the classroom, I did too little of it, as if the practice of noticing joy in the everyday was self-indulgent.
I hope anyone reading this, will read Sherri’s post, and think about how many of her suggestions are grounded in sound pedagogy. If real learning is about relationships, as much research supports, then the “silver bullet” has been fired. For example:
- “When a student gives you a compliment, listen carefully. Which compliments do you hear from students most often? What do your students love about you?”
The idea of assessing patterns and analyzing metadata may be as simple as this. If a teacher values and invites meta-cognitive practice, self-reflection among students, then looking for what works with students by their admission is a terrific place to start. Their criticisms are also worth noticing, particularly in the aggregate, but compliments are where the gold is buried.
- “When you examine student work, notice evidence of growth. List all the things, large and small, that you accomplished, helped along, kept in check, turned around, made happen in the process….”
To feel that you have created something improved is sometimes all it takes to keep going. No matter what remains to be conquered, writing is always evolving, as are most skills, so celebrate the growth. This suggestion honors both the writer and the writing mentor. (Man, I wish I had done more of this! It is only the best young writers who can slog ahead when all they receive is deficit feedback. I think about how many times I tried to “fix” writing rather than reveling in the attempt of a writer to challenge herself.) Writing more for myself now, I thoroughly realize the truth of this. Someone commenting specifically on a turn of phrase or observation in a blog post makes my day, inspires me to work toward that effect again. And my appreciation is contagious, I’m thinking, building confidence and engagement in my audience. Kathleen Bomer, author of Hidden Gems, led a passionate session at the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) heralding the same. I didn’t listen hard enough then, but I wish I had.
When I return to the classroom, this is the one practice I will cultivate. Perhaps our trying to do too much is at the heart of teaching; there is always so much to do. But honoring the growth, the good we all are doing as learners together, seems like the foundation of it all.
**I’m adding this today, Tuesday, the actual day for SOL, because I have just completed HACK #4 in Stockman and Gray’s most thought-provoking book . Bill Ferriter, author of the blog The Tempered Radical, is quoted in this chapter focusing on equity, our “response ability.” “‘When I start the day deliberately naming the strengths of my students, their weaknesses don’t leave me frustrated….I’m far more tolerant when the wheels fall off the bus during the course of the day'” (64).