I assigned the students a project called, “United by Borders.” Here, each child wrote about personal borders that they have attempted to cross. Some students described reading the eviction notices and going through the ritual of packing quickly as they jumped from apartment to apartment. Others wrote about the literal border, the behemoth monster that spirals through the arid landscape and separates wealth from poverty by the crapshoot of geography. One girl wrote a poingnant essay on the death of her father, wondering if the true border is mortality or the emotional border that prevented her from ever truly knowing him in the first place.
The project isn’t due for another week, but many students turned theirs in already. A few papers seem tear-stained. Others have been meticulously re-written and polished for easy reading. Still others have smudges and black lines scratching out the raw emotions. Every story is individual and reveals a side to students that I often miss. It’s beautiful and sad and occasionally triumphant, but I’m not sure it will raise test scores or help our school make AYP.
It has me thinking about a scene from a Christmas special, where Rudolph visits the Island of Misfit Toys. The toys stay in isolation, because they are viewed as different. Some are legitmately broken. They don’t bounce properly. A clown fails to smile. A jack in the box doesn’t pop up on time. I’ve made referance to my Legion of Piss Poor Scholars who would fit well within the Island of Misfit Toys. Here I see kids who don’t smile right or feel broken or don’t answer questions the way that McGraw Hill demands of them.
Maybe that’s why I like teaching junior high. At that age, I was so convinced I belonged on the Island of Misfit Toys; that I was too broken for normalcy and that somewhere on the mainland were the pretty ones who didn’t break, who could smile on demand and could be more useful. Maybe that’s why, as removed as I am from most of my students’ borders, I feel a certain kinship as I read each paper. It makes me wonder if we’re all misfits and there is no “mainland” at least not in this world and that maybe the best I can do as a teacher is be vulernable and transparent and allow students to feel known and heard.
Pretentious, Presumptuous and Perhaps Practical Advice
1. If you can, carve out a time when “rejects” are allowed to come into the classroom. Maybe it’s before school or after school, but deliberately invite them. Make it a haven for the socially awkward. Maybe you won’t be able to do it your first semester. Maybe you’ll be too busy. But it very well might save you from burn-out.
2. Do everything in your power to protect the class from bullying. On day one compare the classroom to a family (or find another metaphor) and explain why bullying won’t be tolerated, even if it’s done in the name of humor.
3. Be open about your own social awkwardness or insecurity at a certain age. I always tell a few stories about junior high. If I sound like a loser to a “cool kid,” I just remind myself that the mere fact that I can drive makes me cooler than the coolest kid in class.
4. Don’t pry into students’ lives to see brokennes, but be ready to listen when they need to talk.
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