Student Voice “Undermining”?

RespectHe towered over me, easily twice my size, shaking with anger. How dare I undermine him, making him look like a fool! Having a very large, angry man only inches away from me triggered me into a calm state that he probably interpreted as uncaring.

He had a habit of misinterpretations and making assumptions.

It was my first year teaching in public school full-time, at an “alternative school” for kids labeled at-risk. He was a fellow teacher who had just come out of a large group teacher-parent conference with the student and administration also present. The student was intelligent, hard-working, and mature beyond her years, and also one of my best students. The counselor expressed concern over her not doing well in my colleague’s class, and he then took a turn talking about all the things the student was doing wrong and why.

When it came to my turn to speak, I turned to the student – who was gripping her mom’s hand – and asked her what she thought or felt, and then held space for her to speak.

This is what my fellow teacher was enraged about. I “allowed” the student to speak. And she spoke calmly, intelligently, and gave important information that brought everything into clear focus, and this focus resulted in him feeling foolish for having made false assumptions.

When a kid is acting out or not performing, there’s usually a reason. There’s a backstory to learn. Sometimes it’s mundane yet still important. Sometimes it’s something horrible, and nine out of ten times that story won’t make you angry; it will break your heart.

In this case, the information changed the tone and focus of the rest of the meeting to one of respect and proactive solutions.

Student voice is essential. Sometimes they are eager to speak, and sometimes they need a coach to mentor and advocate for them to find and use their voice. While our school’s philosophy is all about empowering the student, and we have a learning model that focuses on that, I wonder what more we could do to give students opportunity to practice using their voice. Do you have any ideas?

 

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Revisiting Past Trauma: Let the Voices Speak

quotes_silence_writing_1440x900_17474When I try to talk for the first time about a traumatic event from the past, especially childhood, I find it difficult to get any words to come forth. I will open and close my mouth several times, like a fish gasping for air. When I do manage to speak, the word choices are those that I would have used when that age. I am not talking about “baby talk” because I had a ridiculously expansive vocabulary at a young age. I mean that the words reflect my perspective of the time, such as a lack of understanding or what to call something. I can then switch to my current self’s perspective and analyze what was, but I have to leave the mode of describing the actual event itself.
 
When trying to write about events as part of my focus this month, I shouldn’t have been surprised that this same struggle happened. It wasn’t until I allowed for this dual voice to “take turns” that I started to get any flow to the writing coming forth. There are some events that I still haven’t tried to describe yet, and there’s a fear there that causes me to hesitate. I think it’s because I have to, at least once, “go back” to that time and place for at least the first telling; after that, I can retell from more of a distance. There are some places that are very difficult to revisit and I wonder if there is such thing as being strong enough.
 
Why do this? I have found that the events I have been able to describe no longer hold power over me, plus I gain a source of wisdom or power from facing them. If you think of it as a game, this is a way to level up. I have helped hundreds of others, and this is a way of helping myself (which, in turn, enables me to help others even more).
 
Meanwhile, I have to live current day life, so I have to pull myself back together after writing – sometimes easier said than done – to do other things, even go places and see people. There’s been some tough days, but so far I’m making it. Luckily there is a finite number of these stories to transcribe, and this won’t take me forever to do. And then what will I do with them? Stash them away, throw them in the Beltane fires, or share them? Not something I have to decide today. 

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She Let Go by Reverend Safire Rose

Let GoShe let go. Without a thought or a word, she let go.

She let go of the fear.

She let go of the judgments.

She let go of the confluence of opinions swarming around her head.

She let go of the committee of indecision within her.

She let go of all the ‘right’ reasons.

Wholly and completely, without hesitation or worry, she just let go.

 

She didn’t ask anyone for advice.

She didn’t read a book on how to let go.

She didn’t search the scriptures.

She just let go.

 

She let go of all of the memories that held her back.

She let go of all of the anxiety that kept her from moving forward.

She let go of the planning and all of the calculations about how to do it just right.

 

She didn’t promise to let go.

She didn’t journal about it.

She didn’t write the projected date in her Day-Timer.

She made no public announcement and put no ad in the paper.

She didn’t check the weather report or read her daily horoscope.

She just let go.

 

She didn’t analyze whether she should let go.

She didn’t call her friends to discuss the matter.

She didn’t do a five-step Spiritual Mind Treatment.

She didn’t call the prayer line.

She didn’t utter one word.

She just let go.

 

No one was around when it happened.

There was no applause or congratulations.

No one thanked her or praised her.

No one noticed a thing.

Like a leaf falling from a tree, she just let go.

There was no effort.

There was no struggle.

 

It wasn’t good and it wasn’t bad.

It was what it was, and it is just that.

In the space of letting go, she let it all be.

A small smile came over her face.

A light breeze blew through her. And the sun and the moon shone forevermore…

My Own Education Journey

“And how might this event impact the hero on his journey? Tammy?” I immediately stopped writing so I could answer the question, and with ease that surprised my middle school language arts teacher who thought she was catching me not paying attention. We were a week into a novel that I finished the first day, and I was more than paying attention; I was writing my own story, applying stylistic concepts I learned, combining it with the other dozen novels I had read that month.  As for the hero’s journey, that is a favorite topic I like to apply to real life. We are all on our own journey, each on a unique path that should be respected.

Just as in the stories I read, my journey included both special powers and monsters. I often felt like an anthropologist in my own culture, marveling at the natives who, in turn, found themselves marveling at me and my lack of assimilation. I perceive the world in a unique way, both philosophically and literally, and life experiences – including a violent childhood – only heightened these traits.

I never subscribed to social hierarchies and other conventions requiring blind conformity, including that of the public school I attended. From my earliest memories, I saw everyone as being equally human – both fallible and worthy of love – and applied this to both students and educators. Friends with anyone friendly, I ignored cliques and pedestals – including the ones people tried to put me on. I also have always required a clear purpose for any task or expected behavior. Not motivated by gold star foil stickers or their equivalent, I needed something more meaningful. “What’s the goal?” is a question people learn to expect from me. “Because I said so” or “that’s just how it’s supposed to be” are never acceptable answers.  And even if the goal is agreed upon, the path to that goal is a separate conversation.

I also have a “super power.” Neurodivergent, I perceive and process information in a sometimes intense way that can be advantageous for learning and creating. I’m a synesthete, crossing perceptual modalities and even abstract concepts. For example, each number, letter, month, and day of the week has a color, gender, and personality.  Sounds, especially music, have colors and textures. So will your personality once I get to know you. Perceptions are sometimes amplified – with sounds, textures and scents proving overwhelming. When preparing to write this post, ideas formed in the air, some moving through me to hover behind me, others clustering together as I saw their connections. Suddenly tired, I closed my eyes to more easily sink into the ideas without the distractions of the physical world. Yes, I literally work in my sleep!

When allowed to learn and work in a way that meets my needs, I can absorb information and produce work at a greater level. Other than those moments of sleep-working, I am usually moving; a standing desk and pathways for pacing are ideal, along with a large table or floor space to spread out. I will take the ideas in the air and map them on graph paper so others can work with me. The challenge for me is to clearly communicate the many connections I am making in my head, sometimes including concepts for which spoken language is limited.

I learned early that not everybody understands this way of perceiving. I remember asking my grandmother what gender the ring finger was since it wasn’t clear to me like the other ones were. “What? You’re a girl. They’re all girl fingers.” I continued staring at my fingers, wondering why I felt she was wrong, and I decided to not ask certain types of questions. By the way, years later I would learn the word “androgynous.”  In public school, I remember feeling intellectually stifled by being forced to sit in a hard desk for hours each day, and I most enjoyed classes that allowed for movement and active engagement with the task at hand. Meanwhile, if I wanted to sit quietly with a book, why not outside on the lawn, or better yet, up in a tree?

The monsters are not something I want to spend too much time on here, but they played an important role. Being a survivor of child abuse and other forms of assault, and having to engage in physical battles to protect myself and family members, are definitely things that impacted my ability to learn and engage in school-related activities. My biological father was traveling the country from one job to another and was unaware of what was happening. I remained quiet because I didn’t want to be separated from my half-brother, and I was warned of the far-reaching consequences of breaking that silence.

I really should have slipped through the cracks.

One of the reasons I didn’t is because a school principal refused to let me. Robin Emmingham became principal at the elementary I attended, and the same year I moved to the combination middle/high school, so did he.  I just couldn’t get rid of the guy. He knew my dad’s side of the family and seemed to take it upon himself to keep an eye on me. I would appreciate this later in life. Thanks to him, I was enrolled in classes that challenged me and enriched my education beyond the typical choices, turning learning challenges into special skills. I found myself attending musicals, enrolled in clubs such as drama and problem-solvers, and participating in off-campus learning conventions. During my senior year, I only had to take two classes on site, and the rest of my learning was on a job site earning work-based credit.

Where the principal noticed me, the counselor didn’t until near the end of my time there.  When Pre-SAT, ASVAB, and IQ/capability test scores came in, she called me into her office to inform me that I earned the highest scores in my class, and was only ever outscored in some areas by one other person in the school.  While her voice and face expression seemed negative, her words sounded positive, so I smiled at the news.  My smile quickly faded when she began scolding me for not having a 4.0 GPA, and proceeded to lecture me about priorities. My legs started to give out as I began to shake, biting out the words, “You. Have. No. Idea.” And she didn’t, so I proceeded to tell her about those monsters. Outside of the school walls, I had little time for homework; I was too busy just surviving. The silence was broken, but it would take a few more years to free myself, and decades to heal.

I am thankful for both the principal and the counselor, and the many other educators who were part of my journey. The result of even the negative experiences is a well-rounded perspective that gave me what I needed in order to go into education as a change agent. After earning my teacher certification, I jumped immediately into working with at-risk youth and developing personalized education programs in various forms. I especially connected with neurodivergent students and found myself becoming an advocate for student-centered education, using technology to facilitate that process. I experienced growing success, but that didn’t prevent my own daughter from facing adversity. What happened to her was an important turning point in my own life. I was motivated before, but now my passion and drive was all the more fierce.  And that is its own story.

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