Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Choosing the Response

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I sat on the couch this morning and watched the sun rise at 9:30am. The condo was quiet, with Curtis's visiting parents already out for the morning to appointments needing to be taken care of in "the city". I sent them off with fresh coffee and homemade cinnamon rolls and settled in, wrapped in a quilt, to evaluate papers about courage.

It's interesting to read what fourteen year olds perceive to be courage. We had many conversations about the topic in class, with my redirection often needed to remind them that egging your neighbor's car when no one else will is not courage. Neither is going off an idiotic jump with your snow machine. Or sneaking out at night for a midnight run for ice cream. "Well if those don't count," my students recounted, "then I have never been courageous."

I tended to disagree.

Thanks to the last set of papers I had a starting place for conversations with these students about areas in their lives where they'd been courageous. "What about when your dad died?" I would ask one student. "What about when you moved in with your grandparents?" I would suggest to another. We had discussed as a class what defined courage before we started this project: overcoming obstacles, persevering in tough situations, withstanding fear. Despite these discussions, my students didn't see their challenging life circumstances as requiring courage.

They just see them as what life has handed them.

When I was originally handed this writing prompt to assign to my students (by the "higher ups" that determine district-wide which writing assignments will be best), I was not that excited about it. I thought it felt a bit forced and a bit idealistic. What about the students that haven't been courageous? What about those that don't stand up for themselves and what is right? In some ways I feel I was right: some students don't have a good personal example of being courageous. In more ways, I was wrong. These students needed to be reminded that they face situations that require them to choose to persevere, to push forward, and to work for the best in everyday life--sometimes when adults in their lives are working against them.

As I push through this set of papers, trying to remain fresh in my perspective after reading over one hundred responses, I am reminded that at times my students are completely unaware of the baggage they carry around with them. It weighs them down, affects their perspective, shapes their character--without them ever realizing it.

And while I hope they walk away from this assignment with a greater understanding of sentence structure and comma splices, I also hope they walk away feeling empowered. I want them to be able to see that even though they cannot control their circumstances, their response to events outside of their control will shape the path their life takes.

We are not often able to direct our lives (or our essay questions) in the way that we would choose, but recognizing the power of perspective and choice has been, perhaps, a valuable reminder that I needed just as much as them.

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