Last week, I had students read a short story by Sherman Alexie titled "Indian Education." I did it in part because Alexie is visiting our school in a few weeks, but I also liked the way he used diverse experiences and vignettes to communicate a very clear tone and mood. The style of the piece and the short grade level sections makes it really easy to explore some more nuanced conversations. You should read it. And teach it. I did remove one section about eating disorders because I didn't want to make that a lesson in itself.
Anyway, I had my students mimic his methods to write their own short piece exploring some of the stories that provide a tone for their educational experiences. Of course, these are not limited to school.
This is what they said.
3rd Grade- Tre
"We dared my friend Isaac to drink the "coffee" out of the teacher's cup. As soon as he tried it, his face started to wrinkle and he spit it out with shear disgust. I remember him yelling that it felt like he "swallowed fire."
Turns out, it was whiskey. He went to the nurse and she said it smelled like he had alcohol on his breath. The next day, Angry Ms. Smith, as we called her, was abruptly replaced by a substitute."
3rd Grade- Lana
" Third grade... The first time I got into a "fight." Well, I was only in third grade so I guess it is not really a fight. I was always the kid that stayed to myself so I was an easy target for bullies. Different bullies on different days. But this one kid Andrew, he would never leave me alone. I made a habit of ignoring him.
Then one day I had a terrible morning at my house and I wasn't in the mood to deal with Andrew's taunts of "4 eyes," "fatty," and whatever else he said.
I got tired of it and bunched him directly in his face. He fell to the ground.
It was a good day after that. Until I got called to the office.
3rd Grade- Jazz
"After walking through the hallway for the first time, I knew I hated that place. Hoodies and jackets became a staple in my wardrobe to shield myself from the cold stares of what felt like every kid in the school.
"She's probably poor since she dresses like that every day," one girl told the class after ripping my papers and throwing them on the floor.
Who knew kids could be so cruel?
6th Grade- Jazz (Same girl as above)
"A new school. Again. I was ready to start my routine of retreating into my shell when I walked through the doors. But this time, something was different.
"I like your shirt," a girl said to me almost immediately.
For no reason.
She talked to me.
She didn't insult me or rip up my papers. She was nice to me.
Middle school ended up being the best years of my school life and that girl became one of my best friends.
Change can be a good thing. Sometimes.
4th Grade- Rena
"This was the year I was diagnosed with one of the worst possible cases of appendicitis. My mother took me to Children's hospital just in time for them to tell me that I would have died if I waited another day. My little heart was pounding as I could see that my mom was about to scream at the poor nurse about her baby.
After the surgery, while I was still in the hospital, everyone in my class made me a card and sent it to me. I even got a card from this one boy who I had a huge crush on... I'll call him Mr. Handsome.
When I opened the purple card that was at least trying to look like a heart, I saw the words inside.
"I miss you sweathart"
with pain running through me and lines plugged all over me, I managed a proud smile. Who cares if Mr. Handsome couldn't spell "sweetheart."
Then, my mom looked at it.
5th Grade- Asia
"I remember the day of my first kiss perfectly. It was the last day of school and every kid in the neighborhood was staying out past the time when the street lights flickered on. This boy and I, I actually forget his name, were sitting on my back porch talking when he asked me to come to the side of the house. I did. Without saying anything, he leaned over and gave me a kiss on the lips. After that I went inside, shaking with fear. I though for sure I was pregnant.
Looking back, this story is so funny."
6th Grade- Lara
"It was my worst year. Literally, the worst year that none of us ever expected. My older sister was everything to me and I lost her out of the blue. I left for school and she was there, and I came home early and she was gone. I never knew when I walked through those doors that my family would be destroyed. Never be the same again. I lost my sister, and my niece lost her mom.
It was horrible at school after that. I gave up. I didn't care about anything."
9th Grade- Sher
"I made friends with a bunch of skater boys and slowly developed a crush on all of them. I got it in my mind that I would D.I.Y a new personality made up of the traits I liked most about them and see what happened next. Well, 9th graders and personality changes seem to be the perfect space for identity crises, and my friends kind of decided that I was more trouble than I was worth. By the end of the year, my health was kind of in shambles and my already tenuous grip on my mental health was pushed to its limits."
I read these vignettes all weekend. At moments I was almost crying as I pored over the experiences that kids had that they felt had been there education. Then, just as often, I smiled or laughed as the funny stories of childhood. I graded them on the rubric I had created and the things we had discussed in class. I drew smiley faces and "wows" all over their papers. And secretly, I hoped that I would learn something deep and game-changing about how students learn.
I didn't though. I just learned that school matters. Your job, teachers, is probably more important than I thought before. Or, more important than any of us thought. Whether we know it or not, kids have an amazing memory and they are learning all the time and in most every situation.
I hope reading these encourages you in a similar way. Be great tomorrow.