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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

It was Monday of the last week before winter break. I arrived at school early, surprised to find Jenny, a shy sixth grader, sitting on the steps outside our room. "Are you looking forward to the break?" I asked as we walked in.

"Not really," she said.

"Why not?" I asked.

"Do you ever drive down ____ street?" she asked.

"Yes," I said.

"Have you ever noticed the man who stands at the corner of _____ and _____?" She looked down at her hands.

"Yes," I said. Of course I'd noticed him. He was always there -- morning, afternoon, evening, every season of the year. He was a thin, middle-aged Asian man, always clad in a heavy wool jacket, who alternated between staring at a stoplight and arguing loudly in a foreign language with an invisible entity. Sometimes I'd noticed him sobbing.

"I live on that corner," Jenny said. "That's my dad." She looked up to see my reaction.

"That must be so hard," I said, not sure what to say. So many questions I wanted to ask.

"He's arguing with the men who ran the camp, the one in Cambodia. He was 14 when the Khmer Rouge took over and he went to prison camp. His whole family was killed, more than 60 people. He never tells us what happened to him there, but we hear everything when he's out in the street shouting. I can't get it out of my mind sometimes."

What do you say when an eleven-year-old child tells you this? Jenny went on.

"He won't take medicine. My mom says she thinks that it makes him feel better to be able to argue with the camp men -- he feels like he's standing up for his family, defending them, doing and saying what he couldn't do when he was a kid. She doesn't think he'd feel any better if he took medicine."

"I'm so sorry, Jenny," I tell her. "Has he always been this way?"

"My whole life. That's my dad. I used to be embarrassed that the crazy guy on _____ and _____ street was my dad, but now I'm just so sad. I missed out on having a dad and telling him about my day and stuff. I just wish I could talk to him, but he can't hear me. Doesn't even really know who I am or that we're here in Oakland. His mind never left Cambodia."

I choked back tears. Rested my hands on hers. Took a few deep breaths. Then I had an idea.

"Jenny, what if you wrote him a letter? A letter that you could give him or not give him, but one where you could tell him whatever you want to, what you wish he could hear?"

Jenny was a struggling writer, but she seemed to enjoy making cards and writing missives to her friends.

"I guess maybe that would be kind of cool," she said. "Just to get my feelings out, you mean?"

I nodded. "What if we all do that today, our whole class? I think there are lots of students who have things they'd like to say to people and they can't say them. How about if we do that?"

Jenny agreed. I filed away the plans I'd prepared. I proposed this to my class of emerging writers, who were nearly all English language learners years below grade level in writing. They wrote. They wrote pages and pages to fathers who had abandoned them, to parents who were in jail, to grandparents in rural villages in foreign countries, to relatives who had died, to older brothers trapped in gangs, to parents who worked long hours or drank too much or just couldn't understand their emerging teenager.

When I read them that night at home, I cried. I was overwhelmed by what my students carried with them to school, what they had experienced in their short lives, and what they needed to say.

This kind of writing -- personal, to an audience who might never receive their words -- became a favorite in my class and a staple in our program. "I feel like I'm getting to have a dad by writing these," Jenny told me. "Sometimes I sit outside and I read him a letter and my mom says he listens in his way. Even if he doesn't hear me, I still feel closer to him."

And as students shared their letters with each other they found commonalities across their languages and backgrounds that they hadn't known existed. Communities were forged through their stories.

Ten years have passed. Every time I pass the corner of _____ and _____, I still see Jenny's dad sobbing and arguing with the ghosts of the Khmer Rouge.

An email recently came from Jenny. She's in her third year of college and said, "I thought you'd like to know what I'm up to. Read the attached letter to my dad to find out! By the way, I still write at least one letter a week. I now have over 500 letters to him." Her letter, beautifully written, made me cry: "I changed my major," she wrote, "I'm now majoring in South East Asian studies and psychology, and I'm thinking maybe I'll get a PhD. I want to help you more than anything, but I don't think that's possible. So I want to help kids, kids who are like me."

Comments (8)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Jennifer's picture

Wow. What a profound example of a student finding a purpose for writing. I, too, teach English Language Learners, and find it hard for some of them to "let go" when they are writing. Many of my students also have family members in prison, siblings in gangs, and do carry a lot to school with them. I am going to try this activity with my students. I think sometimes, we as teachers, forget the burdens these students have that we didn't have at their age. You obviously touched this students life.

Miguel T's picture

Your article blew me away. I wasn't expecting it, the emotions that you evoked. It was also a powerful reminder of how many of our students experience the Christmas vacation. They don't enjoy it, it's a time of hunger, sadness, lack of structure and routine, they miss their friends. Thank you for that reminder. And finally, for the reminder of what writing can do in a classroom - for community, for individual students, for the teacher too. I am in need of some re-energizing, I feel I've lost my true way as a teacher and become someone who teaches standards, standards, standards and prepares kids for tests. Time to file some of those plans and get back to truth, to basics, to the kids. Thanks.

Ashmahalah Martin's picture
Ashmahalah Martin
4th grade teacher from Brooklyn, N.Y.

You are amazing for thinking outside of the box and for showing empathy toward your students. You are the kind of teacher that they will remember for the rest of their life. I truly enjoyed the outcome of this message.

DarshnaKatwala's picture
DarshnaKatwala
Assistant Professor of Reading & Basic Ed. Nassau Community College, NY

Thanks for sharing this wonderful story, it speaks volumes about the type of classroom communtiy you try to cultivate. Our relationships with our students can be a window into how and what we teach. A terrific way to teach the power of voice and sorting out life's complications.

John Norton's picture
John Norton
Education writer, Founder & co-editor of MiddleWeb.com

Elena, thank you for an inspiring and motivational story about the power of the writing process. I'm wondering about the emotions that writing and reading these letters in class might bring to the surface. Did this happen in your case? How might teachers anticipate and prepare for this? Is there a concern that some students might feel pressured to share in class and actually make themselves more vulnerable?

Elena Aguilar's picture
Elena Aguilar
Transformational Leadership Coach from Oakland, California
Blogger 2014

[quote]Elena, thank you for an inspiring and motivational story about the power of the writing process. I'm wondering about the emotions that writing and reading these letters in class might bring to the surface. Did this happen in your case? How might teachers anticipate and prepare for this? Is there a concern that some students might feel pressured to share in class and actually make themselves more vulnerable?[/quote]

Thank you, John, for raising these critical questions!

What I didn't share in this story was that this incident took place after our class had been together for over a year--I was fortunate to be able to loop with my class. My students were very close to each other and we had developed an intellectual and emotional community that was able to support this kind of writing and sharing. Had this not been the case, I doubt that students would have shared their stories as willingly as they did.

In spite of this, there were students who did not share--sharing was completely voluntary; some wrote very personal letters but did not share them with the class. Others chose to write letters that allowed them to keep an emotional distance (letters to a classmate who had moved, for example). When I first proposed the assignment, I made the parameters of whom they could write to clear--I suggested audiences who I knew would be lower on the scale of emotional intensity (classmates, political figures, characters in books). Most students wrote to the people they really missed in their lives (and not these safer audiences) but that might have been because of the emotional safety they felt in our community.

I wonder about the surfacing of emotions--it's a good question. The school I worked in had counselors that students could talk to, we had other support systems set up, students had many close relationships with adults. I think I unconsciously was aware of this when I opened those writing doors. I was tuned in to the emotions that were expressed, and I checked in with kids who seemed particularly upset, but the cathartic affects of writing seemed to address the emotional turmoil. However, I think if I was to do this in a school where support systems did not exist, I might be more concerned--I might not open these doors.

I suppose what I realize is that certain conditions should be in place in order for this to be a positive experience for students--how can the classroom, teacher, and site support what might come up for kids? What's the readiness state of those areas for emotional support?

These are really good questions. I don't think there are clear answers. A teacher may need to decide on a class by class situation what the impact of an assignment like this might be--it may need to be scaffolded, may need to start with other kinds of prompts that allow students to take themselves through those doors if they want. While we don't want to take risks with the emotional states of vulnerable children (even more so if they've experienced trauma) I know that I often saw the greatest impact when I took risks as a teacher -- such as proposing this assignment. Again, I think that I am taking for granted (or not making explicit) the trust that my students had in me. I know that this is not always the case - I taught other groups of students who did not trust me to the same extent.

Great questions...hope these contemplations add something. I'd love to hear from other teachers!

Graziella Reynaldos's picture

I read your blog on fighting fatigue; but I had to return to this one to find out about the student's negative reaction to the school break. The way you deliver this is . . . the progression of steps . . . I'm still crying , mostly tears of joy for the girl's direction in life; some sad tears situations that can t be changed. But a sense of satisfaction for you for what you have done for your students; I'm rambling cliche's: 1 person can make a difference, synergistically; and you reap what you sow, so plant a good seed, and your harvest will be a 100fold; and maybe I may start writing for myself, too. I'm new at this blog business; I chose you because I noticed your name last summer on mediaspaces or center (?) & now I m a definite fan of yours. And I do feel re newed such a successful story. Muchas gracias.

Elena Aguilar's picture
Elena Aguilar
Transformational Leadership Coach from Oakland, California
Blogger 2014

Oh, thank you!! What a wonderful way to start my day. And yes - write! Write for yourself to start with, but you never know where your words will go or what they will do for others.

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