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The Power of Honesty in Teaching

Listening to NPR book podcast this weekend, I heard a powerful quote from the author of this book: control your memory or it will control you. This quote shook me because a very good friend recently told me that they were HIV positive. I was immediately upset, not just for my friend, but that there is such stigma associated with it. I know that within my own community, there is zero conversation or awareness of HIV, even though we know that our kids are often engaging in very risky behavior. So little has changed in the years since the epidemic first took place in many rural and suburban southern communities that they have become the new epicenter of the HIV/AIDS crisis in America.

So, I was faced with a quandary to chew over as I drove to a planning meeting for Arkansas Delta Writing Project- how would I 'control' this event in my life into something productive and less ugly? During our meeting to plan the upcoming reunion ADWP session, it hit me- like most questions I have in my classroom, writing would be the answer. One of my new ADWP teacher-buddies even shared how she got her 5th graders writing in order to deal with a classmate's very tragic death. I borrowed strength from this teacher-friend and decided to launch a conversation in my classroom. Ready or not, inaction was not an option.

This was one of the scariest teaching moments I have ever approached in a classroom. I quickly took my journal scribblings and created a hot-mess of a short story. It was heavy on the flashbacks and dripping with raw emotion-a lot like a lot of my student's writing. I gave it to my students with no author attribution, and truthfully, I didn't know whether to tell them it was me. I gave a basic mini-lesson about peer conferencing, taken directly from ADWP,  told them I would model how to conduct a peer conference using my piece. I read it, then let kids give a praise and a suggestion or question.

I did decide to reveal that I was the author in all of my classes, but in the process we had some really intense and fruitful conversations in my classes about giving feedback to writers and building a strong community. Some of my students who had just viciously torn apart my writing were deeply apologetic and contrite when I revealed I had written a personal story. In most of my classes, we also had good conversations about viruses, immunizations, ebola, bullying, and having tough conversations.

To finish out our conversation, tomorrow students will set up their blogs and begin creating their writing portfolios. I encouraged students to spend the rest of the class working on a previous journal prompt, their own personal narratives, or their article of the week response. While walking around conferencing with students, a few students whispered to me "can I tell my story, too?" A few students for the first time pushed their notebooks to me and asked "is this good?" A few students stuck around after class to tell me about their novels, raps, or how they always write when they feel depressed.

Perhaps this is the seedling of a positive classroom culture, and perhaps I have what it takes to nurture it into more of an oak tree. There is this whole underground creative vibe to my class that just needs to be coaxed out through my own honesty-it's scary, but so very worth it.


Meta Fore said…
Jessica,'ve gone into the "zone," that precious yet risky territory that builds great writers--that teaches your young writers that writing is about studying life. What you've shared her is powerful, and I'm so proud you shared it and that ADWP friends helped you with that courage. Bravo!

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