Making space for students by making time for students.
SAFE ENOUGH TO LEARN
Many of my students walk into school carrying not just their backpacks but a heavy burden of trauma. Because of this trauma, their attention in school is distracted, disrupted, and displaced. They struggle to trust their teachers, to value what they’re being taught, and to collaborate with their peers. But what if there was a space for students to begin the process of unloading that burden? My answer to this is intentional conferencing. I believe that through structured conversations with students, we can acknowledge the burden kids carry, practice helpful coping strategies, and build students up to identify not just with what they’ve experienced but with what they are capable of achieving.
I cracked open my classroom door and poked my head out. Titus stood there with his eyes downcast; he was uncharacteristically subdued.
“Hey, good to see ya.” I greeted him in my typical coffee-fueled, fully feigned cheerfulness.
He looked at me. His eyes met mine and immediately I noticed the purple ring encircling his eye. I was shocked. He was quiet. Titus was normally unabashed in his effort to receive all of the attention in my classroom, but now he lingered in the hallway, shrinking away from the door and from me.
Teachers do a lot. This isn’t new information; most people will easily agree that educators have to inhabit a variety of different roles to be at all competent at their jobs. In fact, there's a whole nationally-celebrated week devoted to appreciating all that teachers do. Yet, it’s not the diversity of the roles I’m called to fill that exhausts me. It’s not the pressure of impending state tests. It’s not even the Chromebooks flying out of the window, the curse words flying across my room, or the hoods-up-heads-down refusal to do work. The part of my job that leaves me heavy-hearted and inching toward hopelessness is the fact that all of these things swirl around the school while students walk into my room with unprocessed trauma chemically and emotionally inhibiting their ability to feel safe enough to learn. Many of our students just don’t feel known.
This was all too evident as I stood across from Titus. I asked him to wait a minute and walked inside to my class phone to ensure that his situation had been reported. I hurried back to the door, took a deep breath, and invited him to come sit at my desk with me. It just so happened that this was the first day I was hosting conversational conferences with my students. I explained to Titus that he simply had to answer the questions on the self survey and then we’d talk about it.
I had spent quite a while developing this system of checking in with students that I called conversational conferencing. The process began when I found myself wondering how to create a space where kids felt known. I was envisioning a classroom where kids neither feel alone with the burdens they carried, nor acted out of the hurt. Instead, students would able to acknowledge the heaviness of their own worlds, employ helpful coping strategies, and be built up and encouraged. I believe that kids shouldn’t have to just identify with what they’ve experienced, but also with what they are capable of achieving. Conversational conferencing flowed out of this vague vision of what it could mean to love my students holistically.
Eventually this vision became clearer as I created a self survey (or more specifically, a Google Slideshow) with questions about my students' personal lives, their academic woes, and anything else they wanted me to know. It didn’t feel like enough, though. Would the self surveys usher in sadness or would they help students develop necessary self-awareness? I was terrified of forcing kids to be real without providing them a good, hard look at an attainable joy.
So, I added the mantras. Colorful card-stock lined my classroom walls, each with a different positive self-statement -- a mantra. The self surveys asked students to identify the mantra they needed to hear that week. Then they were instructed to reflect on how they would be different if they truly believed in their mantra. Some were cheesy ("I am beautiful inside and out!") some sounded like they were stolen from a Nike commercial ("I can decide to drown out the distractions"). I was worried about how students would respond to such a blatant expression of touchy-feely positivity.
On that first day of conversational conferencing, I sat across from Titus as he filled out his self survey. When he got to the mantras, I watched his eyes scan the wall of cheerfully vibrant posters. Inside, regret swelled as I considered how silly my idea was. How could I think this would be a sufficient help for my students, whose challenges are so much bigger than a mantra? So much bigger than me and my classroom?
“Ms. Esler, I think I found the right one,” Titus said, turning from the mantras to me. “The pain you feel today will be the strength you feel tomorrow.” We sat there together, those words hanging over us, over his bruised eye.
“Good choice,” was all I could muster in response. He nodded.
Titus didn’t walk away from our conversation with a resolution to his conflict; conferences don’t solve students’ problems. But they’re still worth it. They’re still some kind of help. As much as my students need to be able to analyze a text and determine an author's purpose, their need to be known outside of their academic capacity - or incapacity - is so much more important. Indeed, it's often the prerequisite to everything else we think school needs to be. They have bigger things to worry about than worksheets, book clubs, and Google Classroom. Teachers need to consider that maybe, through conversational conferencing, we can have the honor of knowing our students apart from what classwork we need them to do. Maybe, even if it’s briefly, they get to feel known and safe at school, too.
Thanks for stopping by! My name is Sarah Esler and I live in Louisville, Kentucky where I attempt to teach English Language Arts to 7th graders. I love teaching because I love to engage with students and stay up to date with what phrases are cool. Why do I do what I do? Ultimately, I hope to intentionally listen and relate to myself and others in order to deeply cultivate in all empathy, compassion, and a sense of wonder at the beauty of life. If something isn't contributing to that goal, feel free to tell me to stop doing it.
Follow me on Twitter @ELAwithMsEsler