One of the most valuable lessons I learned while working in East Harlem was that finding and listening to individual stories makes a difference. I began teaching a third and fourth grade self-contained special education class after 6 weeks of intensive training. I grew up surrounded by educators but had no experience running my own classroom. After weeks of small victories followed by huge disasters, I knew I had to change my approach.
As most of you know, I entered an alternate certification program after college. Part of why I chose the alt cert route was to make an impact and help others. I did not operate under the assumption that I was going to “fix” or “save” anyone. I have met a lot of people, both within my cohort and from other alternate certification programs, who had this mindset. My students in East Harlem did not need to be fixed, they needed to be seen, heard and understood. To truly make an impact I had to understand my students, they had to understand me, and we had to work together with a common vision.
In order for us to learn and grow together we had to start with our own stories. This is no easy task - most of us have to find our story first. We have to think about what is important to us, what we wonder, what makes us interesting, what we care about. Then we have to figure out a way to tell that story through our words and, more importantly, our actions.
This began a year-long journey in my classroom - we began to look for stories in our curriculum and stories we could contribute to in our classroom and the community. We tried to celebrate our backgrounds through reading, writing and social studies content. I often invited parents in and asked them partner with their child and bring some piece of their family story, a recipe or artifact or song, that helped us understand different backgrounds. When writing feature articles we chose topics that we were passionate about which allowed us to tell our stories in a different way. All this time we were writing our own story together. A story filled with experiences, challenges and problems solved. Throughout this exploration we continued to develop our own individual stories - we set goals, explored new things and read a lot of books. We became a dynamically different and interesting community of learners, explorers and thinkers.
This process is what I love most about teaching; helping students find their stories and tell them. I have realized that without a classroom, I no longer have a reliable venue to keep writing my own story and I have certainly stopped telling it.
I’ve felt the effects of this shift in my life outside school as well. It is hard to get to know adults (this is one of my all-time favorite NY Times articles) and I hope that I have started to tell my own story here, on The Formative Feedback Project. Throughout the year, once a month, I hope to feature someone who has an interesting story and tells it well. Some of my own, some of those I respect and learn from (both education and non-education folks) sometimes a collection of well-written stories of others. I hope that we can continue to write our stories together.