shards: a backpack full of toast

I understand when I no longer understand.

      Quinn once asked me how I motivate students and I told him that I try and think back to my own experience as a kid and figure out what would have motivated me.
     “Didn't you feel, at the time, like people didn't understand you?”
     “Yeah, I guess I did.”
     “So, what if you were right? What if people didn't understand you, because they never knew your story? What if your teachers were trying to motivate you through their own narrative? And what if they were trying to push their narrative onto you and the conflict was not that you weren't on the same page, but that you weren't even in the same book?”
     Quinn's right.  As a teacher, I tend to forget that what interested me as a child is not necessarily what interests my students.
*     *     *
     Imagine walking into a movie theater ninety minutes into a movie. Now take that movie and chop it into pieces, framing together each story with duct tape. The actors are amateurs and some of them don't want to recite their lines, so you grapple as best as you can with the periods of silence. Sometimes the films get really boring like those artsy French films and you're stuck reading through long subtitles hoping for an explosion every once in awhile.
     Now take that movie theater and add another thirty screens all playing a different film. Just to cope with this reality, you begin to develop a science for movie watching. You predict the plots, find similarities in the narrative structure and the accuracy of your predictions make you a bit of a prophet-movie-critic. You start to think you know the characters even when they are playing pretend. Other times, you're developing an impressive highlight reel to try and justify your existence. All the while, the movies stream and you try your best to make sense out of the whole theater experience.

*     *     *
     I'm sitting in the dingy cafeteria, trying to avoid the smell of bleach and sweat and spoiled milk. I notice a student in my Summer School class gathering travel-sized boxes of sugar cereal (can't we just call it what it is, which is candy?) and stuffing them discreetly into her backpack.
     When I see her in class, I'm not sure where to go with this. I've walked in on an incomplete scene. I know nothing of the context or character and only a fragment of the plot.
     “You're doing really well in here. I'm surprised that you ended up in summer school.”
     She responds on with “thanks.”
     The next day, she gathers toast. She takes the dry pieces of burnt white bread and stacks them neatly, wraps them with industrial paper towels and stuffs them into the backpack again.
     I'm scared to ask, feeling that I might compound the shame. So I ask her more carefully, “Why are you here?”
     She misinterprets it as an existential quandary and responds, “I guess we're all trying to figure that out. Why are we here? Some say religion has the answer. I'm not so sure.”
     “I'm not talking about that. See, I know that you're smart. Your answer tells me that. I'm trying to figure out why you are in Summer School right now instead of having fun with your friends.”
     “I didn't do my work,” she says.
     “Can you tell me what's going on? You and I both know that you shouldn't be in summer school,” I repeat.
     She pulls out her backpack and says, “It was my turn. My mom cleans houses, but they raised the rent and she has to decide if she wants air conditioning or food for us. So, we have to take turns going to summer school so that we can have lunch. The school will give free breakfast, but if one of us is in summer school, they can also get extra breakfast stuff to take home.  The food banks start getting empty this time of year.”
     “Why didn't you talk to a teacher?” I ask.
     “They just thought I was being lazy. They called me in for a meeting and told my mom how to make me do my work. They handed me printout sheets of what I was missing. They were being good teachers.”
     She's right.  One could judge a teacher for missing her story and creating a Shame-and-Blame meeting without ever asking the questions. However, I can empathize. It's easy to believe that since I know a child's writing style, I know her voice. I'm sure I've missed backpacks full of toast because I saw myself as an expert on children and I never took the time to ask.
*     *     *
     I try and meet one-on-one with students during cooperative learning time (read: fancy educational jargon for group work). As students work on projects, I engage in a dialog about writing.
     “Some of your homonyms are getting in the way,” I explain.
     “What's that?”
     “Those are the words that sound alike. See, to you chips and ships sound the same. So, really, it would be hard to ride a chip, right?” I laugh and he gets quiet.
     “Don't worry, it's a common mistake with people who are from Mexico . . .”
     “My family is from Argentina,” he responds. “It's a whole different continent.” Thanks for the geography lesson, kid.
     We go through the editing process carefully and he gets fidgety when I tell him that it's impossible to get cancer from smocking. “Smoking does. But smocks, not so much. They don't usually give a person cancer.” I don't even get into "just barley" and the notion of grains participating in social justice.
     Finally, he says, “Why don't you write the paper for me? It's all beginning to sound like you anyway.”
     I don't know him. I don't know his story, his family or his culture. I am not yet trusted with the story that the night before his dad had been deported and in my desire to fix his writing, I fail to know him on a personal level.   I am not wrong in doing a conference, but I slip into the expert role too easily. I bulldoze his voice, asked no questions. It will take a few more months to regain his trust.
     Other times, it works better. These are the moments when I feel less like a dictionary and more like a listener who guides a student through the learning process.
*     *     *
     “Thanks for being honest about tagging in your article. It's not easy to share that with teachers. What can you tell me about this work?”
     “I worked hard on that article,” he adds. We talk for awhile about word choice and mechanics, ideas and insights. Eventually, I ask for the story.
     “Do you mind me asking this: Why do you tag?”
     “You wouldn't understand,” he answers.
     “You're right. I don't understand, but I'd like to.”
     “I want to be known. I want to have my name painted in big letters somewhere in the city. I want people to notice what I've done.”
     “But nobody knows that it's you.”
    “I guess I want to be known without having to be known.”
    When I tell Quinn this story, he says simply, “Don't we all?” We want anonymous stories, a painting of heroic tales. We want the ultimate trailer for a movie that might be a little too bland, but sounds just a little more interesting with a passionate voice narrating the key points, begging people to stop talking for a few hours and listen. We want to be known, but not completely.
     At one time, I would have taken the “you don't understand,” as a challenge. I would have written him off as a vandal and a thug, because it fit my initial prototype of student stories. When I started, I had this list of “student types.” There was the jock, the skater, the gangster, the nerd. It was pretty much Freaks and Geeks meets Saved by the Bell. Pretty sad, really, that I allowed television to shape my very conception of students.
     What happened, though, is that as I abandoned the expert role, things changed. I quit trying to become the critic-prophet in the crowded theater and students began to share. I quit trying to pry stories out of students and instead simply admitted that I don't have it all figured out. Don't get me wrong, I continued to engage in stereotyping and labeling and arrogant claims of relevancy. However, on good days, kids began to feel safe enough to share their stories.
     So, the expert tagger begins to share his story.  He's vague on the details and a little scared that I'll rat him out.  When I listen to his story, he listens a little closer to my advice on his writing. He uses my "transition list" to help him go beyond always using "also" and he busts out my Editing Checklist after he writes a draft.  He's open to improving his writing, because he believes his voice matters and he believes his voice matters, in part, because he believes someone will listen.
     It's when I admit that I don't know my students that I get a chance to know them and it's when I begin to know them that they trust me to teach them the basic skills they need.  True, the process is mysterious and sometimes I still screw it up.  However, when I check out a documentary or a mural or our Social Voice Blog, I'm reminded that taking the time to know a story will lead to deeper learning in the long run.

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