As teachers, we have a unique opportunity, and I would say responsibility, to see our students not only as the beautiful (challenging, curious, and occasionally perplexing) people they are, but also as the adults we want them to be: consumers of information, thoughtful citizens, empathetic neighbors, considerate collaborators, creative problem solvers, and kindhearted souls.
Specifically as English teachers and workshop practitioners, we lay a foundation for these futures with classrooms rooted in a sincere passion for reading, writing, speaking, and listening. We advocate for our students through literacy, because their futures depend on a capacity to actively engage with the human condition.
P. David Pearson, founding editor of the Handbook of Reading Research and professor of Language and Literacy and Human Development at the Graduate School of Education at the University of California, Berkeley, said that “a teacher’s job is always to bridge from the known to the new.” We work each day with students whose experiences, beliefs, passions, and preferences vary as widely as our own, but together we take what is fixed and challenge it to stretch, bend, and grow.
In the process, we end up with countless stories of students falling back in love with reading, challenging their opinions through talk with fellow classmates, digging into their writing to push past self imposed limits of where words and expression can take them. I shared a quote from Barbara Kingsolver with my students the other day, specifically for diction analysis, but probably more importantly for talk:
“Art is the antidote that can call us back from the edge of numbness, restoring the ability to feel for another.”
We discussed the far reaching definition of “art” (including literature and composition) and the suggestion in this line, art not only speaks to us, but heals us and build empathy within us. Several students throughout the day noted the need for this type of beauty in our current politically turbulent times.
“Congress should have a book club,” one student suggested.
“The whole country needs a book club,” another chimed in.
“Yeah, make them talk about feelings and stuff like Mrs. Dennis does.”
“Well,” I smiled slowly, “if they used our small group discussion rubrics for assessment, they would have to provide text evidence for their opinions, politely disagree with other members of the group and support their contrasting ideas with more evidence when necessary, and work to show leadership skills by actively engaging all members of the group. Sounds like a good place to start for all of us.”
See, even high school students know that art can be the mirror we need to lift up in order to carefully consider our actions and how those actions impact others and the community at large.
It is with this in mind that I share a few brief stories to further inspire your commitment to and passion for the work we do. Students that internalize the power of words, communication, and concentrated energy for making the world a better place become living mentor texts that we desperately need in order to motivate current students to keep pushing, keep questioning, and keep believing in their own capacity to make a difference.
Sam Kraemer was my student twice, and was the type of kid you’d like to fill your whole classroom with: thoughtful, inquisitive, charming, hard-working, funny, and smart. Having made the decision to be a newscaster in the sixth grade, Sam now finds himself as the weekend anchor for the 5:30 and 10:00 o’clock news at NewsCenter 1 in Rapid City, South Dakota, a position he was promoted to after less than a year on the job as a reporter.
Sam recently came back to school to visit and, of course I could believe the confident young man standing before me, but what struck me was the depth of understanding he already had about the role he is playing in this world. Having asked him where this passion for reporting came from, he said firmly, “the storytelling.”
He knows that his reporting efforts can show “the American people what is actually going on” and that “the world is a better place when facts are clearly established and people have the right to think for themselves. I guess I just enjoy my role in presenting info & stories for people to use in that thinking process.”
How often do we all preach about the importance of clear and careful thought? And here is a young man, in an age when journalists have become a group too often mistrusted and maligned, whose believe in the power of educating the opinions of others, makes my heart swell.
Sam goes on: “A lot of people don’t have time to follow government closely, pay attention to how things happening nationally or internationally affect them, or even know about crime/incidents just down the street for them. Through ample & clear communication, I can be that trustworthy source of information. I can present the facts — not with opinion, but with context — for the viewer to consume and formulate an opinion on.”
What more could we want from our kids than for them to realize that their role in the future matters? That writing and storytelling and communication that ensues matters.
As Sam concludes, “I know I can share relevant information that either gets people thinking or even spurs action. And that right there is how I try to make the world a better place.” (Shared with me like all of the convictions that truly make a difference in the world, via Facebook message at 3:15 a.m. Classic).
Here is one of Sam’s recent broadcasts. A piece, where as he says, that presenting both sides of an issue with national implications, “let [his viewers] decide whose argument had more merit.” Fair and balanced news reporting? Sign me up.
Sarah Matuszak graduated from Franklin in 2012 and to say she was passionate doesn’t do her soaring spirit justice. A deep thinker with a kind heart, Sarah finds herself as a paramedic in North Dakota and recently took her “constant obsessive preoccupation with the world’s bleeding” to Standing Rock. Having worked with the United States Army, firefighting, and in law enforcement, Sarah says that “being a paramedic comes close to what sets my soul on fire, but I’ve found that activism is where I belong. I use all the skills I’ve learned from those aforementioned fields, and apply them to activism.”
Now, just as we’ve all encouraged our students to do, Sarah has taken her passion to print with an article for The Huffington Post detailing her position on and work at Standing Rock.
When she published her piece, “December 5th Is Not the End Of Standing Rock,” Sarah posted it to Facebook and tagged me. Years ago, right before she took the AP Language test, I gave Sarah a note of encouragement, telling her that I not only knew she had no reason to be nervous for the test, I also knew I would see her writing in the New Yorker someday. Little did I know, she would keep the note all these years and dedicate her first published piece to me.
To say that Sarah is invested in the betterment of our planet, would be to shortchange the depth of her character and the depth of her commitment to humanity. Sarah was destined to take her educated opinions and make the world think about them long before she ever walked into my classroom, but the encouragement she received along the way, meant something. And just as she says, “firsthand experience makes it real,” seeing the potential of our students makes their dreams that much more real too.
Austin Bohn spent some time with me in the classroom last year. He inspired several of my students to challenge themselves, specifically Bennett Dirksmeyer. I wrote about it in a post about students inspiring students. Both young men credit our shared class experiences, and the books and essays they’ve read as a result, with teaching them how to think. Bennett, I’ll be writing about again in a few years when he becomes the first President of the United States to listen more than he talks, but Austin is already putting his passions to good use through writing.
His two published pieces appear on Medium, an app designed for “readers on the go.” Both selections, “New popularity for unpopular opinions…and new a responsibility for the unpopular” and “Dissonance of the Day: Is Twitterspeak Orwell’s Newspeak?” use Austin’s charismatic voice and probing curiosity to challenge readers’ thinking. In fact, I just went back and reread his piece about Twitterspeak and his insights from last January on Orwell’s 1984 are feeling eerily familiar as the novel is once again a bestseller in our age of alternative facts and fake news.
Our students listen.
Our students internalize our enthusiasm.
Our students have big dreams, and we can give them mirrors in the form of books, time to write, and safe places to develop and share their ideas, that allow them to see themselves more clearly.
If we’re lucky, they turn those mirrors around and hold them up to the world, so we can see each other more clearly too.
How do you encourage your students to be changemakers? Share some stories in the comments below of students and former students who are out there making a difference!
Lisa Dennis spends her school days teaching AP Language and Honors/Pre-AP Sophomores, while also leading the fearless English department at Franklin High School, just outside Milwaukee, Wisconsin where she lives with her husband Nick, daughter Ellie, and beagle Scout. She is a firm believer that a youthful spirit, a kind heart, a big smile, and a good book can ease most of life’s more troublesome quarrels. Follow Lisa on Twitter @LDennibaum.