Friday, August 29, 2014

Community Through Story

"I never knew Mrs. A. was a legendary prankster--she always seemed so quiet to me!"
"I'm gonna ask Mr. F for a story, I bet he has some good ones!"
"Did you know that one time Ms. L drove her motorcycle down the elementary hallway of the last school she taught at?"
Did you know Mrs. E. had a summer job where she had to cut up chicken parts?!"
"Oh my goodness... Mrs. F's proposal story..."

These were snippets of conversations that I heard in my classroom over the past few days.

With the overarching theme for 11th grade Humanities and English being "Becoming People of Justice", our first unit focuses in on what it means to live in community (more specifically, what it means to live as a genuine "City on a Hill").  Our first discussions brought us into confrontation with labels and assumptions--not only the labels used by others to define us, or the assumptions which others make about us based on our appearance, culture, family or interests, but also the biases we harbor, often unbeknownst to even ourselves.

We agreed that to push beyond our own biases, our own human tendency to categorize and label even the people around us, we absolutely need to get to know our neighbors and allow them to get to know us.

With this goal in mind, I turned the students loose on a pair of assignments related to story:
The first requires the students to prepare to tell their classmates how they came to be in the class of 2016 at CAJ.
The second requires the students to collect 6 stories from people in their lives--two from CAJ staff, two from classmates, two from family members--and write a brief summary of each.

I gave my students Post-it Notes which would serve as Story Collecting Hall Passes, and sent them out on a different kind of scavenger hunt.

I strolled the halls and was pleased to see groups of students listening raptly to not only their teachers, but also librarians, administration and office staff as these staff members shared significant stories from their own lives.

The excitement in the air was palpable and it was clear that each student emerged with a deeper understanding of the staff member they talked to, confirming that there is, indeed, more to people than meets the eye.

The students agreed during our class discussion that chipping away at bias and rising above labels and assumptions would require making an effort to get to know others.  Then they did just that, and found that what had only been an idea from an in-class discussion had become a reality.

My takeaways from the success of this assignment are two-fold:
First, this assignment would not have had the weight that it did without backward design.  Without being rooted in our unit goal of building community and our course goal of pursuing justice, this may have come across as a fluff-piece.  Because the assignment came after identifying and discussing our bigger goals, and after wrestling with the problems presented by bias and stereotypes, the action had a more profound meaning for the students.

Second, there's so much power in giving students the opportunity to apply what they learn.  Even more-so when it happens on a community level.  If our learning had ended with the discussion, I might have been satisfied.  After all, it was a good discussion.  However, as the weeks roll on, I wonder what kind of staying power the ideas from a discussion on the second day of class would have had.  I doubt the students will forget the stories they heard any time soon.  The stories they collect will be a link to the understanding they uncovered in our discussion; a means to ensure that they remember this small piece of what it means to build community; what it means to be people of justice.  Why?  Because the assignment called for them to actively build community.

I am excited to apply this realization to upcoming units, to make sure that each learning experience rings with the authenticity needed to cement the understandings arrived at in class.

All in all, it was a good first week!

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