If You Only Had Three Minutes To Tell Your Life Story, What Would You Say?

On the 22nd of every month, Larisa’s family gathers in a park under the tree where her brother was shot and killed.  There, a bow tied around the cedar’s trunk commemorates his death, along with flowers in vases, some of them battery-operated.  For Larisa, this place feels more like home than anywhere else in the world.  It’s the place she goes “to renew strength,” the place where her family once again feels whole.

Dennis’ class at Venice High reads Larisa’s story silently, then a second time with students volunteering to read passages out loud.  Other than the readers, the only sound in the room is the rain pattering against the windows.  Afterwards, students raise hands to offer up details that stood out for them and explain why these elements are so powerful.

As always, the class is packed; out of 50 kids, 44 are here today and with the windows closed because of the rain, the room is stuffy.  No one seems to mind.  Everyone is spellbound by the story, written by one of Dennis’ students last year.

They’re reading it for their next writing assignment: what Dennis calls their “Core Story,” a narrative that is at the heart of who you are.  Though Dennis links it to the college essays they’ll be writing, he also tells them that the ability to tell your core story is an essential life skill, something you’ll use in getting a job, asking for a promotion or, let’s face it, trying to persuade someone to fall in love with you.

When he asks them to brainstorm, the room fills with the sound of 44 pens scratching on paper.  With only a minute left in the class, he asks for volunteers with topics.  Hands go up all over the room, but there’s only time for one: an African-American girl in hoop earrings and a camouflage jacket says simply: being abandoned by my dad.

As before, I’m struck by the sense of trust in this classroom and the way it’s grown even since the last time I visited.  Though the content is focused on personal narrative—a type of writing I’ve frequently heard Common Core advocates dismiss as frivolous—when he asks the students to identify important details in Larisa’s story and explain their relevance, in fact he’s working on literary analysis and the use of textual evidence.

In an earlier post, I talked about hesitant or resistant students who come into class below the “trust line,” whose experiences in school, with authority figures or with adults have not been positive.  Here, in Dennis’ class, I can see that building the roots of that trust begin with a personal connection to meaning and to the work of the class.  This connection is intellectual, in terms of an analysis of technique and an explanation of the usefulness of storytelling, but also emotional and personal.  The work these students do here matters to them genuinely.

I see trust and intrinsic motivation play out in a completely different, though equally powerful way in Cynthia Castillo’s class of 42 (down from an initial 44) at Augustus Hawkins High School in South Los Angeles.   It’s a particularly challenging group; she’s told me that this year’s students have the come in with the lowest skills and maturity levels of any she’s taught so far.  Today, several of the boys have difficulty sitting still; Brian, a lively kid with serious behavior issues gets up and changes seats three times during class.  Jerry, an extremely gregarious kid who always greets me by name with a handshake and a warm hello, has great difficulty focusing and chats frequently with his neighbor.

Recently, because of continual behavior issues, Cynthia had a class discussion so that the students could re-set class norms.  As a result of their agreement, a contract they have all signed, the class begins with every student filling the blanks of the sentence I have a choice today and I choose to be _____________ because ________________.  For the first blank, students have a choice of “respectful,” “dignified,” “resilient,” “intelligent” or “empowered.”  “What’s dignified, Miss?” yells Jerry.  Another boy whispers the definition of “respectful” to his neighbor.

Cynthia’s curriculum is more traditional than Dennis’; she hits the kids with a lesson on the difference between adjectives and adverbs, then some work on finding the setting in reading passages. “In a minute and a half, I’m gonna call on Brian and Omar,” she warns them as Brian gets up to wander around the back of the class.  “Be ready, Jerry,” she says as he begins chatting with his friend.  The tactic seems to work; when she calls on them, they have the answers.

Throughout, Cynthia is calm and patient, redirecting kids when they lose focus, reminding them of the instructions, which are on the board and projected on a screen.  Her classroom management is different from the strict, top-down methods that are popular at many charters these days, methods that in their most extreme form can produce eerie compliance, with kids sitting up straight and moving their heads and even their eyes simultaneously (seriously, watch some of the Teach Like a Champion videos.  The level of compliance in a couple of them reminds me of one of the dystopian planets in A Wrinkle In Time, where identical kids outside identical houses  bounce identical balls.)  By contrast, Cynthia is never authoritarian, reminding the kids instead of the contract they themselves have made.  Some teachers would crack down harder on Brian and Jerry, using a “discipline matrix” of escalating consequences.  But by allowing Brian to wander occasionally and Jerry to chat from time to time, Cynthia gives them the space they seem to need to be productive—and possibly to remember the pledge they made at the beginning of class.

“Give as much of yourself as you can,” she encourages the kids later in the class when they start to work on writing a poem.  “Set your standard as your best and shoot for that.”  The poem’s topic is “Who are you when you feel most alive?”  After some brainstorming, the kids write silently for several minutes, then share out voluntarily.  Again, as in Dennis’ class, I’m really impressed by the level of support the kids have for each other.  “Damn!” one girl calls out appreciatively when another girl rattles through a list of interests.  Every reader is greeted with applause, including Jerry, who writes about his passion for soccer.   At the end of the class, they all assess their own involvement.  Did they live up to the standard they set at the beginning of class?  Why or why not?

What strikes me about both of these classes is the authenticity of the students’ participation.  In completely different ways, working with resistant and hesitant students who come in with low skill levels, Dennis and Cynthia establish trust not only between class members but in the value of the work itself.  In both classes, work is tied to the students’ own search for meaning; in Cynthia’s, even class behavior is tied to a student’s own sense of how he or she wants to participate in a community.  Again and again, I think of Valerie Braimah’s observation that as a teacher, you’re part of an ecosystem, something alive that continues to evolve.  I don’t know how you could measure what Dennis and Cynthia are doing.  But I’m fascinated to watch their classes grow.

For earlier posts on Dennis and his class at Venice High, click here and here.  For earlier posts on Cynthia and her class at Augustus Hawkins, click here and here.

All names of students have been changed.

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