I work with the United States History and the other American Literature teachers on a project that is wholly valuable, consistently maddening, and frequently time sucking. There are definitely days when it doesn’t feel worth all the work, all the talking and thinking, all the mediating and prodding. And then a student will remind me about why we do this.
We call the project Community Connections and it is the junior class community action project where we engage in major social justice issues in the city and connect those issues to the works that we read in American Lit and trends and movements in US History. Our brain dump, The Pensieve, is where we try to capture the work of graderoom meetings and fieldwork days.
Last year we published an anthology of student work (titled Common Air for a line from Song of Myself) from narratives collected from one of the assignments – the new chapters for the Grapes of Wrath. They were often very good, but the work reminded me that juniors in high school are not all at the same developmental level when it comes to abstractly connecting big ideas to events or taking a small moment and seeing the universality in it. (I posted about the process last August.)
One story in particular was troublesome. The writer seemed not only snarky and smug, but there was not even a glimpse of empathy in his narrative for the people who are homeless (the social justice project he was working on). I helped him to excerpt his narrative, and the teacher that he was working with dismissed him as a privileged jerk who was more concerned about the songs on his iPod than people freezing on the streets.
And then there was Walden
This year that same boy/child/student is in my Autobiography and Memoir class. Last year he read On the Duty of Civil Disobedience by Thoreau, and as I didn’t share that text with him I have no idea how he reacted to Thoreau’s charge that we should throw ourselves on the machine to stop it. But this year I know what we did with Walden. We paired it with Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (Dillard) and The Sand County Almanac (Leopold) and we went to our own pond and wrote. And then we wrote some more. And here is what he wrote:
Henry David Thoreau chose to put himself into nature to “live off the land.” I don’t think that is possible to achieve in the city. This may sound a bit racy [**love this adjective], but the closest thing to Thoreau in the city is a homeless person, though they probably did not choose to put themselves on the street. They are not exactly living off of the land and in a city such as ours the living style of Thoreau would be quite impossible.
Okay, it’s not a fully formed thought yet, but what I see is this student thinking. He’s got a “racy” thought – and I read that as an idea that to him is exciting. He’s spontaneously making a connection between the work he did last year and the work he is doing this year. It’s “racy” because it is unexplored for him, unusual in that it is an untested, unsupported idea. Thoreau was living off the kindness of friends, exploring his world. Although the need to live “deliberately” (as HDT would say) is not a choice that most homeless make; it is forced upon them. What is most exciting here for me is that the work from last year is still present for this student, and he is still struggling to make sense of it.
The Upshot (as Leopold would say)
What do I take away from this? Don’t give up. Don’t stop trying to help kids find connections in their world to their work in class. Remember that developmental abilities trump so many other factors. They are just kids. They know when we care about them. This essay changed me. The work we do is worth the frustration and effort.