One of the things on my summer to-do list was to go through the countless boxes of paper and files that I had accumulated over the years: from university courses, various classrooms, and three separate offices. I ended up with five blue bags full of shredding and many other boxes to give away or recycle.
During this process, I came upon a piece of writing from a student that I mention in my first book. ‘John’ was the self-proclaimed outcast in our classroom. It was a complicated situation rooted in years of interactions with his peers. In the book I explain how one October day freewriting enabled John to find a tentative entry point into our classroom community.
The piece of writing I came across recently echoed the same sentiments – a need for belonging and acceptance – as the freewriting I referred to in my book. This time the prompt was “I am…”
“I am ‘John’, the one who always gets bugged in our class…”
“People bug me and they never stop… if they can, that would make me surprised. But they can never do that. Don’t try to ask.”
I am not sure if I noticed it at the time, but reading it now, I notice that he begins with his name. “I am John.” Perhaps he was trying to reclaim his identity and redefine himself through his writing.
Before freewriting, John did not voice his frustration or sadness in appropriate ways but instead in ways that simply reinforced the stereotypes around him. Yelling. Teasing. Crying. Flailing his arms. Acting out. Insulting others.
As we begin the school year, I am thinking about how important it is to set the tone for the year… to help kids like John find their place… to create a safe space for students to take risks and explore their identities… to create a genuine community of learners.
I am thankful to John for the unexpected reminder.