Blogstitute 2016: How Well Do You Know Your Students?

June 30th, 2016

In this touching and thoughtful post Jake Wizner shares why it’s important to know our students beyond the surface relationship of student-teaching and how writing memoir can help students know themselves. Jake is the author of the recent book Worth Writing About. Check out his book on our website and then be sure to leave a comment or tweet about this post using #blogstitute16.

How Well Do You Know Your Students?
By Jake Wizner

I was twenty-five and living in New Orleans the night one of my tenth-grade students saw me wandering around the French Quarter in my boxer shorts. It was Halloween 1995, and my roommate had convinced me that we should dress up as that dream where you go to work and realize too late that you have forgotten to put on pants. So there we were with briefcases in hand, wearing dress shoes and socks, button-down shirts, suit jackets and ties, boxer shorts, and nothing else.

Suddenly I heard a female voice screech, “Oh my God, that’s my English teacher!”

I spun around and saw her gaping at me. She was with some older girls I did not know, and she was holding a large cup of beer in her hand. Our eyes locked. We stood there in silence, regarding each other. Time froze, and the earth stood still. Then, in the same instant, we both turned away and moved off in opposite directions.

It was clear to me that in the moment we turned away from each other, we had come to a tacit agreement. Neither of us would say anything. I was just a temporary teacher at her school anyway, a long-term sub filling in for two months while her regular teacher had back surgery. Whatever relationship I had with her would remain defined only by what happened between us in the classroom. I would continue to do my best to uphold my responsibilities as a teacher, and she would continue to do her best to uphold her responsibilities as a student, and what had transpired outside the classroom would have absolutely no bearing on anything.

What happens in the French Quarter stays in the French Quarter.

***

My response made sense to me at the time. As a child, I had always thought it was weird and unnatural to see my teachers outside of school (even fully dressed). I remember once running into my fifth-grade Hebrew teacher buying groceries at Stop and Shop and becoming so flustered that I could barely speak. And now, as a new teacher myself, I had no desire for my personal and professional lives to intersect. School was school, and everything else was something separate. I wasn’t interested in knowing what my students did outside the classroom, and they had no business knowing what I did either.

It’s remarkable to me now that I felt this way about my New Orleans encounter, because so much of my life as a teacher after this, over the past twenty years, has been about forging deep human connections with my students that go beyond seeing each other in such specific roles. For me, this begins just before summer vacation when I visit the seventh-grade classes I will be inheriting the following year, introducing myself and talking about how great eighth grade will be, even though I know they are nervous about applying to high schools. I hand out a summer assignment—maybe not the best way to make a good first impression, but it mostly involves making time to read, something most of our students would choose to do on their own. The single piece of writing that I request is a letter in which they tell me about themselves. I’m interested to know who they are as readers and writers, but I’m just as interested to know about their hobbies and passions, about their family lives, and about any little details that will help me know and understand them on a more personal level. I devour these letters, and then make it a priority to go around that first week back and connect with each student about something he or she has written—a shared love of basketball, a place we have both traveled, a familiar dynamic with a younger sibling.

As the year moves forward, almost everything I do is about deepening and strengthening the bonds I have with my students, and the bonds they have with each other. It helps to work at a school that believes in the importance of relationships—a school where teachers go by first names, where tables are arranged in each class to encourage talk and collaboration, where students hang out in our rooms during lunch, and where the principal’s door is always open for kids to pop in and borrow a book, or just to chat.

It is in the context of this community that I launch my unit on memoir writing during the final semester of our students’ middle school years.

There are many reasons why I believe so passionately in teaching memoir, but one important reason is this: writing memoir allows us to know ourselves and each other in deeper and more profound ways. With all the work we do collecting data—administering baseline assessments, conducting reading and writing conferences, analyzing standardized test results—let’s not forget that some of the most important insights and understandings we can gain about our students involve knowing who they are as people.

***

It is early May 2016, and my students have just submitted the final drafts of their memoirs. I have seen bits and pieces throughout the writing process, but reading these drafts is still a revelation. I pick up the memoir of a student who rarely completes assigned work on time but who has been uncharacteristically diligent and absorbed during this unit. His piece is called “SMH (Sharing My Horror).”

At almost the exact same time, the art teacher comes to ask my advice about this student. He has fallen so far behind in her class, has spun so many stories about why he is not doing his work, and has devised so many ways of avoiding the situation that she is at a loss. She can’t call his parents because they do not speak any English, only Chinese. Do I think she should e-mail his older sister, a tenth-grade graduate of our school, who had always been an extremely hardworking and responsible student?

This seems like a good idea, except that I know this student and his sister in ways that go beyond their classroom personas. Two years earlier, his sister had revealed herself in her memoir as a fierce and angry young woman, deeply resentful of her weak father and her unfaithful mother. Now, in this student’s memoir, he has written about the ways in which his sister emotionally abuses him, taking every opportunity to put him down and make his life miserable. In another vignette, he delves into his struggles at school, revealing his deep fear of facing teachers when he has not done his work, and how he is trying to learn to face his problems rather than run away from them.

“I don’t think e-mailing his sister is the way to go,” I tell the art teacher, and I confidentially share a bit of what I have read in the student’s memoir. “Let me talk to him.”

So we talk, not so much at first about what work he is missing, but about his memoir and about how lucky it is that I read it just before the art teacher was preparing to e-mail his sister. We talk about fear and about the ways that avoiding a situation usually makes the situation even worse. When we finish talking, we walk together to the art teacher’s room, and the three of us sit together and talk some more. The art teacher suggests that he submit just the first piece of the project. He says that he can do more. They both seem gratified by the encounter, and the art teacher informs me several days later that he has been coming to her room to work each day at lunch.

***

Sometimes I think back to that night in New Orleans when my student and I stood frozen in time regarding each other.

What would I do now if I could replay that moment?

“Happy Halloween,” I say. “It looks like we both found our own ways to celebrate.”

She laughs nervously.

“I’m sure that beer’s nonalcoholic.”

“Oh, definitely.”

“I’m glad,” I say, “because trying to write an in-class literary essay with a hangover is pretty rough.”

“Good to know.” She smiles and seems to relax. “For the future, I mean.”

Maybe.

Or maybe I would turn tail and run away just as I did more than twenty years ago.

Neither of us breathed a word about what had happened, but our encounter did change things between us. Not on the surface. We fell back into our school identities, and life continued as normal. But I know we knew each other a little better than we had known each other before. I’d like to think that when she had an assignment for me, she lingered over it a little bit longer before turning it in. I’d like to think that I, in turn, gave that assignment a second read and took just a bit more time phrasing my comments. One thing I know for certain is that when I look back across more than twenty years, she is the only student I truly remember from that tenth-grade class.

Entry Filed under: Blogstitute

7 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Tracy Mailloux  |  July 1st, 2016 at 6:23 am

    Building relationships is such an important piece of teaching; especially when you work with adolescents. I can’t imagine not knowing even a tiny bit about my students’ lives outside of the classroom. I am inspired by the idea of having my students write a letter to me about themselves. Having taught elementary school for 20+ years, I have done similar getting to know you activities. I moved to middle school this past year and the thought of some of these assignments for 106 students instead of 25 scared me off. Not next year though, thanks!

  • 2. Julie O'Neill  |  July 1st, 2016 at 1:11 pm

    Hi Jake! Things aren’t always as they seem and unless we teachers make time to share some of ourselves, connect with students, and build a classroom community, we may make mistakes and unfair judgements of the kids we work with. I love how you find genuine purpose for student memoir writing – writing to know one another.

  • 3. Teresa F  |  July 1st, 2016 at 5:13 pm

    How lucky your students are to have a teacher that truly wants to know them. I have tried surveys and bio poems during the first few days of school in order to get to know my students better, but I like your idea of having them write a letter. As mentioned in the post, this will provide a writing example so I can assess their writing skills. A survey doesn’t really do that. Most importantly, however, I can gain some insights into who they are beyond the gray walls of my classroom which should help build a positive relationship.

  • 4. Elisa Waingort  |  July 2nd, 2016 at 4:24 pm

    Aha! Caught with your pants down, figuratively and literally! But, that is what we want to happen with our students, isn’t it? Figuratively, I mean. That initial letter that you ask your students to write sets the tone for the rest of the year. As long as it doesn’t become just another assignment that we shelve and mark down, then it will be meaningful. I am thinking I could have my new class of 5th graders write a similar letter. I would write a letter of introduction, as well. Just trying to figure out whether to write my letter and share it first, or write at the same time as my students and share my letter later with them? Either way, I love this idea. I usually do interest surveys and the like, but I may opt for a letter instead.

  • 5. Erika Victor  |  July 6th, 2016 at 9:28 am

    I definitely think relationships are key to learning. In international schools there is often more built in opportunities for relationship building. So lucky for that young man that you knew him well enough to find another way to have his teacher work with him.

  • 6. Ann Ingham  |  July 8th, 2016 at 10:14 am

    Writing personal narratives are powerful experiences. As educators, we must first build an environment where our students are comfortable to take risks and feel empowered to share their memories, thoughts, and emotions. Easier said than done – it is where the art of teaching must be masterfully interwoven with the science of teaching. Well done, Jake. Thanks for sharing your story.

  • 7. Diane Anderson  |  July 11th, 2016 at 8:38 pm

    I think it is a privilege when students share in writing something that lets me get to know them more. I have gotten to see different side of my students through their writing, and often got to know their families, too.

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