Class Notes

IMG_0228A few years ago, I read a story about one of those life-changing teachers that lifted her students’s self-image by having them write one thing that they admired about each person in their class. It was a sweet story and one that I knew I could never replicate because the amount of censoring I’d have to do with so many notes would be brain-numbing.

But by the end of this school year, I started to wonder if maybe it’d be worth it. God knows, my students could use a little encouragement from their peers, and my classes seemed a little more likely to cooperate than my previous year’s students.

So in the last few weeks of school, I stood in front of each class with a big smile and announced that they would be writing notes to everyone in their class–good notes! Positive notes! Just one good thing about each person in the room.

The students groaned.

“Everybody?” One of them asked.

“I ain’t got nothin’ good to say about him!” Another said, pointing a finger across the classroom to a boy who stuck his tongue out at her.

“Come on,” I said, dropping my smile, but trying not to drop my hope. “You guys can do this! You’ve been with each other all year! You know each other so well!”

It took a little more coaxing before they were willing to try. But all I needed was for them to try.

Now, I don’t know what the legendary teacher of the tale had done to help her students find positive things to say about each other, but for me, it was an interesting journey. I knew the students would draw blanks on a lot of their classmates, so to help them along, I made a chart filled with words like “dignified,” “meek,” “funny,” “leader,” and “mad scientist.” For one full day, we worked on putting students into broad categories that might jog their minds about what to say.

It was supposed to be a simple warm-up, but I was glad that it became much more involved. The students spent the first bit of class asking each other how to spell their names, arguing with each other about who belongs where, and defending each other for their positions in the chart.

After they had settled a few things between them, I gave the students an opportunity to come up to the front of class and share where they put someone on the chart and then explain why. “Try to tell us about someone that maybe other classmates forgot about,” I said, hoping that my more difficult students would get a chance to hear something nice about them.

This turned out to be pretty inspiring! Students who normally caught a lot of flack from others had the chance to hear accolades about them. “Ariel is a ‘superhero’ to me,” one student said about a particularly abrasive classmate. “Whenever someone is picking on me, she always stands up for me!”

“Omarion is a mad scientist.” Another student got up to speak about an autistic boy in the class who really struggled with social interaction. “He’s always on technology.” This made Omarion rock back and forth in his chair with little happy sounds. It was the first time his classmates said so many positive things about him. Normally they just directed him around class.

The verbal accolades for each other stretched on until the bell rang that day, and even then, a lot of students wanted to stay after and say just one more nice thing about someone else. The few students I had that couldn’t read or write really soaked up this time to be able to tell the class how they felt without ever writing it down. Students who normally get ignored were acknowledged and discussed with more and more students adding on what good thing they noticed. And at the end of the day, I had learned a thing or two about my students that I had not known before!

And then it was time for the note writing. I gave the students colored pieces of paper to write their notes on and then told them to make sure they got to everyone in class. Each class responded differently to the task. In one block, I had students writing notes and then wanting to run around class, or call out across class to tell the other person immediately what they had written about them. It brought instant joy in sharing the sweet thoughts.

In another class, the students were a lot more secretive. And in another class, I had a handful of students who purposefully thought through all the students that might get overlooked and then take time to write profoundly edifying notes to those students. One of my students who could not read or write begged me to help him write a note–just one–to the classmate that had affected him the most–it was the girl that had the patience to work with him and didn’t make him feel humiliated for not knowing how to read and write.

While the students wrote their notes to each other, I, too, wrote notes to each of them. When I started, I thought it’d just be a really nice way to end the year and say something encouraging to each of my students. But after a while, I really started to understand how big the number 85 was. And by the time I made it through 60 students, I was running out of ways to be encouraging.

But, class by class, I wrote notes to each student on the back of their envelope. And for the next few days, as I worked to complete those notes in all of my free time, the students begged to see what I said about them. Some of them tried to steal them off my desk to take a peek. Several students, when they saw that I was writing them notes, started writing me notes, too.

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Quick note about the green one on the right: The “hateful comments” she’s referring to are things that she said a few weeks prior to this. It was especially encouraging to hear her say she respected me after the things she had said to me earlier.

In the last week of school, I started handing out the envelopes for each student, filled with notes that his or her classmates had written. On the back of each envelop was the note I had written to each of them. I passed them out to the students at the very end of the day, as they were getting ready to go to the buses or to their cars. And all through the halls, 6th graders walked with their heads down, reading their envelopes, or pulling out the notes to see what others had said about them.

Honestly, I don’t know if this activity will be as life-changing and influential as the story that inspired it. But over the last few days of school, the students showed a lot of care and tenderness for each other. They constantly came up to me to say how much they appreciated my note and talked about what others had said about them. And by the end of the year, after the students had run out of paper and lost all their pencils, my classroom was filled with more notes:

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The Cow-Tail Switch and Family Values

One of my favorite stories to read with my classes is The Cow-Tail Switch. It’s a short, African folktale about a hunter that is killed by a leopard in the forest. It takes all of his sons to bring him back to life, and after he returns form the dead, he makes a cow-tail switch (a sign of honor and authority in the village) and wants to give it to the son that did the most to bring him back home.

The funnest thing about this story is that, traditionally, there was no real ending. The point of it was to argue over which son did the most important thing to bring him back from the dead, but it’s impossible to say which was most important because each brother’s work was useless on its own and dependent on each other to bring the father back. So how do you decide?

“Let’s have a death match over it,” one of my students said in 3rd block. We had just performed a little reader’s theater with the piece, which really put the students in the mindset of the characters. Then we started a class debate over who should get the cow-tail switch. Both previous classes had argued and voted, civilly on who should get the switch. But my 3rd block always made things interesting. “I can take all ya’ll,” he said as if he really was the son that gave his father blood to live.

“That’s not fair, Zion,” I said. “The youngest brother is only two years old by the time they find the father. You can’t fight a two year old!”

“Yes, I can!” he said. “He’ll be the first one out!”

“I think we should just burn it,” one of the girls said as if the switch was really sitting front of us. “It’s causing too much trouble.”

The verbal battle over the imaginary cow-tail switch (an item that no one in the class understood or cared about when we first started the story), went on until the bell interrupted us, signalling the end of class. My 3rd block students argued all the way out the door and into math class.

Then it was time for 4th block. We went through the story in the same way and when it arrived for the big celebration where the hunter, Ogaloussa, chooses which son to give the switch to, we began our debate.

At first, it was a debate very similar to every class before us, they brought up each of the sons and weighed their contributions to their father’s reincarnation. But then something strange happened.

“So what do we do?” I asked to wrap things up.

A tiny little doll of a girl raised her hand. “I think we should share it,” she said. “Can we share it?”

A few other students nodded their heads.

“Oh yeah!” another student added on. “We can put it in one of those glass cases and the whole family can keep it in their house!”

“How about if we just make more of them?” Another student said. “Then each son can get one.”

“Or we could take it apart and use each piece in a new switch so that every son gets a piece of the first switch.”

This class came up with more ways to share the switch than there were characters to give it to! I had never heard any idea like it in all the times I’ve taught the story. But I had to stir up some kind of controversy. So I said, “Let’s assume we only have the one switch and we have to give it to only one person. Who would we give it to?”

They thought for a moment, and then someone raised their hand. “What about the mother?” he said “She’s the one that raised all the sons. She had to raise all seven of them! She’s the one that kept the family together when the father was dead. She’s the one that must’ve taught them to do all the things they know how to do. She deserves it the most.”

All the students nodded.

We took a vote in the last minute before the end of class and the mother won in a landslide.

It struck me how odd that was. The mother is barely even a character in the story. She has no lines of dialogue and is mentioned perhaps twice in the whole passage. She could have just as easily not existed and it wouldn’t’ve changed the story.

But the mother figure of any family is not so easily overlooked by my students–most of whom live with single mothers. To them, that invisible mother in the African village was the cornerstone of the family. All of the arguments spoken on her behalf were just as true for each student’s own mother. And when they took that vote in the end, they weren’t voting for a fictional character. They voted with a heart dipped in the reality of their own lives.

It was beautiful.

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