The Power of 1 + 1 + 1 + 1

(This story occurred at Lafayette High School in Fayette County, Kentucky.  All other names and places have been changed to maintain confidentiality of the persons involved. )

On Wednesday of last week, I noticed two of my students, Nicki and Victor, discussing something back and forth.  They appeared to be arguing over a piece of paper Nicki had in her hand.  She’s probably found a note from another girl in his book bag, I thought.

It was the last period of the day about three minutes before the bell.  I was tired and wanted to go home too, but I wandered over.

“Is there a problem here?” I said.

“I’m going to give this to Mrs. Prather,” Nicki said to Victor, who rolled his eyes.  Nicki stuck out her hand with the note. “Here. Victor found this in the hall, and he thinks it’s nothing, but it might be something.”

I took the paper and unfolded it.

“Dear Dad,” it began.  It was a letter of heartbreak, chronicling a life of neglect, a father in jail and an absent mother.  No signature, written lightly in pencil.  The thing that caught my eye, as it had caught Victor and Nicki’s, was the writer’s intent to end his life this weekend.

I have nothing to live for. No one wants me.

“I thought you could do something,” Nicki said.

“No name on it.  It could be anybody’s.”

“That’s what Victor said.”

“There are 2000 kids in this school. Did you just find it in the hall?”

Victor nodded.

I re-read it.  “It might even be an assignment for English.”

“I know,” Nicki said.  “But it might not.”

Just then the bell rang. My students filed out.

I re-read it again and noticed something.  In the middle of the letter, the writer mentioned how the only person who cared for him was “Mr. Kraft.”

On the way to my car, I stopped off at the counseling office.  One counselor was still in her office.  Kendra was busy, a stack of files on her desk.

“This is a long shot and I don’t even know if this is serious,” I said. I gave her the note, and she read it.

“Wow. Who is this Mr. Kraft?”

“I don’t know.”

“He could be anybody. A teacher, a boss, someone at church.”

“Yeah, I know.”  I looked at the clock.  I was anxious to get home. “I just thought I’d pass it along to you.”

“Thanks.” Kendra eyeballed her stack of work. “I’ll see what I can do. Maybe this Mr. Kraft is a teacher in our district.”

With that, I left school.  If the note was authentic, his life – the details that the writer had mentioned— was more than any child should have to endure.  Because I teach writing, I read a lot of student stories, and they all carry the burden of some kind of pain – poverty, divorce, addiction, depression, alienation, bullying.  Some are real. A lot are merely venting exercises.

Driving home, I hoped this kid was just writing to get the pain off his chest. I hoped he wasn’t serious about ending his life.   I asked God to keep him safe, whoever and wherever he was.

The next morning, there was an email in my inbox from Kendra. She and another counselor, Stephanie, had found him.

“I just wanted you to know. I did some investigating and I found a Mr. Kraft at Wilson Downing Middle School. He’s a seventh grade Social Studies teacher,” she’d written.  “I emailed him, and he knew who the student was. The counselor at Wilson Downing had actually contacted Stephanie last week.  The student is being taken care of.”

 

During my first year in Fayette County, the district brought Manny Scott to speak in Rupp Arena to its 6000 employees.  Mr. Scott was one of the original Freedom Writers, a group of kids who had been labeled “unteachable” until teacher Erin Gruwell used writing journals to transform their lives and chronicled their journey in the bestselling book, The Freedom Writer’s Diary.

Manny Scott is now a sought-after motivational speaker, and the day he came to our district, his message was titled “The Power of One.”  His message to the teachers, the bus drivers, the administrators, the adults was simple: You have the power as an individual to change someone’s life. (Read more here: http://www.kentucky.com/2013/11/17/2937224_rise-from-poverty-inspires-motivational.html?rh=1#storylink=cpy)

The story of this note proves Mr. Scott’s maxim.  Last Wednesday, the power of one, or a series of ones, saved a child from his own despair.

Every single person who passed that note down the chain was needed.  From Victor picking up the note, to Nicki to giving it to me, to me handing it off to Kendra, to Kendra tracking down Mr. Kraft, to Mr. Kraft having created a relationship with a child that went beyond Social Studies, to Stephanie who contacted the child’s counselor, to the counselor connecting with the child and executing services on his behalf.

The power of one plus one plus one equals all of us.

Sitting in my chair, I looked around at the 40 desks in my classroom.  Every single desk represented a precious life, a unique story, a life full of joy and hope and promise.  Every One was important. Every single one.

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Family Isn’t Always Blood: A Visualization Exercise for Personal Writing About Friends

Most high school students identify more deeply with their peer group than with their family.  They value those people who are in their life by choice, not by blood, but students are often self-conscious about writing about how much they cherish someone in their peer group.  This activity is designed to place them in a hypothetical situation that is both safe and secure where they interact with one of their friends.  The writing that is produced in this sequence rarely becomes a draft of an essay, but often students discover something about themselves or about the other person that leads to an thoughtful and meditative piece of descriptive writing.

To start this activity, I ask students to answer the following 20 questions that will generate a list of people.

 

  1. Who are you most likely to confide in?
  2. Who are you most likely to get fashion advice from?
  3. Who is your teacher?
  4. Who knows where all the bodies are buried?
  5. Who makes you feel alone when you are with them?
  6. Who has betrayed you?
  7. Have you been Friendzone? And if so, by who?
  8. Who was your best friend in elementary school?
  9. Who was your best friend in middle school?
  10. Who is your best friend now?
  11. Which one of your friends will not make it to thirty?
  12. Who is the clown in your circle of friends?
  13. Who is your Frenemy?
  14. Who is the rule maker in your circle of friends?
  15. Who’s the most irritating person in your friend circle?
  16. Who’s the last person you shared a secret with?
  17. Who makes you laugh the most?
  18. Who truly gets you?
  19. Who would not be happy for you if you won $43 million in the lottery tonight?
  20. Who would you gladly die for?

 

After students answer all 20 questions, I ask them to add five more friends’ names and imagine it is a guest list for a party in their honor.At this point in the lesson, I ask them to sit up straight, place their hands neutrally on their desk or in their laps, close their eyes, take a few deep breathes to clear their minds and listen to my voice as they imagine this scene. My script:

“Okay, let’s get started.  Close your eyes and imagine it’s a beautiful day outside. You’re walking up a long drive way to a very large house.  You can hear lots of people inside, and you hear music.  As you walk onto the porch, the door swings open and someone beckons you inside.  You are led to a giant dining hall where an enormous table is laden with bread, meats, fruit, cheese, and drinks of all kinds. Seated around the table are all your friends who are happy you have arrived. This party is in your honor. You are seated at the head of the table.  Everyone is eating and laughing and having a good time.   You feel completely happy, safe and whole.  Look around the table again.  Take a few minutes to look around the table, and now let your gaze naturally fall on someone.  Focus on this one person and look at them closely. How do they talk? How do they laugh? How do they chew, eat their food, hold their fork?  What are they wearing?  Really observe them, listen to them.  Now open your eyes and describe this person.”

 

Students then write for about five minutes, describing this person.

 

“Okay, close your eyes and return to this scene.  As you observe this person, he or she gets up from the table and comes to stand next to you.  “Is there something you want to say?” he or she says, and you say, ‘Yes, there is something I want to say to you, but it’s too noisy in here.’  And this person says, ‘Follow me.’  He or she walks out of the room, motioning for you to follow.  You walk out of the dining hall into a long hall. At the very end of the hall, you see a plain wooden bench under a big window.  The person motions for the two of you to sit on the bench. You do.  You are very close to this person. Your knees are almost touching. ‘Now,’ this person says to you. ‘What is it that you want to say to me?’  Open your eyes, and write down what you would like to say to this person.”

 

Students then write for about five minutes, describing in first person what they would like to say.

 

“Okay, close your eyes again and return to this scene.  This person has listened thoughtfully to everything you’ve said to them.  He or she says, ‘There’s something I’d like to tell you also, but let’s go outside. It’s such a beautiful day.’  The person motions that you should follow, and you both walk out of the house and down the driveway and into a beautiful field full of tall grass and wildflowers.  Then you and this person face each other. The wind is blowing gently. You can feel the sun on your arms, and this person says, ‘There’s something I want to tell you also.’ Slowly open your eyes, tune into what this person wants to tell and write.”

 

Students then write for five minutes, describing what they believe this person would say to them.  This is often the hardest part of the writing. Sometimes the information they hear is buoyant; sometimes it is damning.

 

After this activity, I have students put away the writing they generated and write a brief vignette or personal essay about the person they focused on. The writing is always deeper, more complex and rich after the visualization because they’ve spent time with this person in the unguarded, mutually beneficial and communicative environment of their own brain on the page.

No Grades: A Twelve Week Commitment to Ourselves

Alfie Kohn, in The Schools Our Children Deserve: Moving Beyond Traditional Classrooms, says “students who are lucky enough to be in schools (or classrooms) where they don’t get letter or number grades are more likely to want to continue exploring whatever they’re learning, more likely to want to challenge themselves, and more likely to think deeply.”

Recently, I decided to embark upon a test of this theory. As I have mentioned before in this blog, I am no fan of grades. I am disinclined to grade my students’ creative efforts as their writing is always plodding somewhere along Wallis’ Model of Creativity between preparation to incubation to illumination to verification. Some students move through these stages at lightning speed and start other projects; some nurse their projects along for months, deliberating and considering every step in one stage before bursting forth into another.

However, teachers in our district are required to update our online grade books weekly, so I’m required to record something.  After a particularly ugly round of reading quizzes dropped my A-addicted students into the B category, the natives were restless. I proposed to my students a radical system:  what if I gave you an A, so you could stop obsessing about your GPA and concentrate on writing instead?

“Is this some kind of mind game?” said Blair, a whip-smart cynic in the front row.

“Not at all,” I said.  “I’m going to give you an A, so we can get on with the greater business of Art.”

Grades, unfortunately, are often used as goads to motivate the academically inert.  But unlike the majority of classes I’ve taught in a general education population, I don’t have to convince these kids that writing, reading, or learning are worthwhile endeavors. My students have chosen to be in this program. They auditioned and were selected from dozens of applicants seeking a spot in the Literary Arts program, and they have the drive, talent and zeal to write that goes beyond a mere grade.

That being said, I’m still a little leery about embarking on so radical a stance since my students are products of nearly a decade of being told that grades were somehow representative of their mastery of a subject.

 

I have put this theory to the test before.  Eighteen years ago, I was teaching AP Lit in a rural public school in eastern Kentucky. My students felt the pressure to keep their grades up was interfering with their ability to enjoy, engage and commune with, and ultimately understand the literature we were reading.

I drew up a contract granting them a 98% for one six weeks period; I would continue to teach, issue tests, assign essays, and give students real and meaningful feedback on their mastery of the subject, but no test they took or essay they wrote would be given a numerical score.  They already had an A.  With the grade question effectively settled, we could embrace quality learning, driven only by curiosity and intellectual engagement.

The first two weeks after the contract was signed, I thought I had hit upon the elusive educational magic bullet; my students were on fire.  We read Crime and Punishment. We had brave discussions. We scribbled out lusty essays on themes and motifs and symbol.  But, as we continue through the unit, I noticed a decided flagging of enthusiasm.

By the middle of the unit, only two kids read Sons and Lovers, and by the time we got to Jude the Obscure, I carried the discussion, all of them looking forlornly at the floor, ashamed at their lack of motivation.  They reported later that their other classes that were still demanding grades took their attention. They stated honestly they didn’t have the maturity to learn without grades.  Ultimately, they needed something external to motivate them to stay on track.

At the time, I concluded learning must be somehow linked to a measurable product, and I parlayed this experience into a nice article (Mandrell, Liz. “Zen and the Art of Grade Motivation.” English Journal 86.1 (1996): 28-31). I resumed my regularly scheduled programming the following six weeks, but I never forgot about the nascent experiment that had lost its brilliance in the waning days of my students’ senior year.

 

I was 29 then; I’m 47 years old now, and I hope this experiment will be different for a variety of reasons.  Different classroom culture, different season of my teaching career, and a different grade level.  My current guinea pigs are freshman and sophomores, not seniors who check out by March anyway.

This time, I let the students vote on this experiment.  In a class of 21, eight students wanted grades, and thirteen students did not.   The students who did not want grades, however, were convinced by the effective arguments of the thirteen, and all 21 students signed contracts that granted them a 98% for the progress period.

This time, I also let students set their own group norms, so that the group—

instead of the individual student working up singular motivation to stay on track without grades—could encourage, support, and ultimately, police each other.  Their norms are:

  • Participate in workshop and feedback
  • Best effort always
  • Respect the community with support – Golden Rule
  • Productivity
  • Hold each other accountable
  • We are All Leaders
  • Prove Ms. Prather wrong!
  • Be mature human beings.
  • Keep on keeping on.
  • Set personal goals to keep individuals motivated.

 

And so it begins… I will be blogging throughout the next twelve weeks on their progress. I am as excited as they are about the possibilities of this brave new classroom!