Sunday, November 22, 2015

Community should be a verb.

This past week, I resorted to an oldie but goodie elementary school technique -- "The Class Meeting."  Yes, I teach high school now, and yes, I did completely abandon the intended lesson and the be-all-end-all ESSENTIAL QUESTION posted on the board, because, quite frankly, the EQ in my world instantly became,

"How can you go to school with someone DAY AFTER DAY, YEAR AFTER YEAR, and have NO CLUE what that person's NAME is? 

Being your basic neurotic teacher, who is completely convinced that somehow you forgot to teach the most simple building-block skills, one can imagine the sense of shock, surprise, and - yes - GUILT, that I had somehow failed this class of freshmen.  And I wasn't even IN the room when it happened.

We're well into the second marking period, and we've started the "BIG" research paper assignment.  For freshmen, the thought of writing a FIVE PAGE research paper is beyond paralyzing, so we model, we teach, we reteach, we graphically organize, and we bring in guest speakers to assist in the overall success of what appears to be the "first big paper of high school."  On this particular day, my librarian friend was teaching a lesson on In-text Citations, MLA Formatting, and Works Cited Pages.  Riveting, right?

I had stepped into the hallway to talk to the five upper-level kids who are working in a less structured environment, to make sure that their thesis statements were sound.  I was out there less than 90 seconds, when Sara came to the door, reporting that one student had referred to another student with a racially inappropriate name.  We were both pretty dumbfounded at this behavior.

And then it happened.  Somehow, I FELT RESPONSIBLE for letting this class down.  Despite my first day of school anti-curriculum strategy,  these kids haven't bothered to get to know each other.  I thought I had given THEM  a chance to build a sense of community that day -- along with allowing me to get to know them -- but it hadn't happened. I assumed they knew each other, but the truth is that  they enter my classroom every day in small cliques of friends,avoiding other groups in the room.

I get that this class had been through a weird year so far, given that I have been out of school more than I've been there, given my concussion recovery.  Perhaps this is why the guilt I felt caused me to initiate the class meeting. (Or, more likely, the idea of trying to "write up" the entire incident in an electronic reporting system that is less than friendly, leaving the ultimate admonishment to parents and/or an administrator, caused me to go the more time-efficient path.) Regardless of the reason, we got out the green chairs  and got out from behind the desks.  

We sat in a circle, and people were uncomfortably forced encouraged to ask specific questions about each other.  "Where were you born?" "How did you get that scar?" etc.  And then there was a quiet, yet disgusted, voice.

"YOU don't really know her.  And you don't care. She's amazing.  She makes jewelry out of liquid metal.  She draws anime better than anyone in the world."  It was the voice of a supportive classmate that pushed the conversation to a new level.

I owned it.  I told them I had let them down, by not creating the sense of community they needed in my room to be successful.  It wasn't a line -- it was something I truly felt.  

In that one class, we learned that we have a rising singing star and a metalsmith.  We have athletes, and compassionate listeners.  We have people who trust, and people who doubt.

The conversation continued, and went to discussions about fear of ISIS attacks.  One kid asked whether I thought they'd try to attack the US.  Sadly, I said, yes.  Because CVS is sold out of green chairs, and nobody is working to foster a sense of community in the world.

As they waited for the bell at the end of the period, new friends admired the hand-forged ring, and listened to the process used to create it, and a voice said "this was the best class we ever had."  The response?

"The world needs to be more COMMUNITY."

Grammatically perfect, I'd say.  Imagine -- just imagine -- if COMMUNITY could become a verb.