Saturday, October 18, 2014

Back to School: a journal entry

At 7:45 on Thursday morning I had to clean out the rotted food in our broken fridge before the repair man came by and noticed how rancid it was. After a rushed job of tossing jars and produce bags into a hefty bag I hopped on my bike ready to whizz away to my volunteer gig that started at 8:25. Too bad my tire was flat, and the ride share service I usually rely on was not working at the time. I finally got there at 8:40 after calling my partner and having him send a car to me from another ride share service. I arrived late just in time for action.

This week I started volunteering as an in-class writing and reading tutor for a local Oakland high school. I chose this program because of it's integrated vision. It gives individualized attention to students during school hours and its methods are built off of a respectful student-centered "meet the writer/reader where they are at" philosophy. So I don't have to worry about 'motivating' my student to get a good grade (unless the student cares about that, which most do).

Right now I am working with three students, who for the sake of anonymity I'll call Marco, Emma, and Brent.

Immediately after I arrived I was assigned to work with Emma. She had trouble looking at me. She fidgeted frequently. I think felt shame/embarrassment about the very small amount of work she had done so far, but also about the kind of work she thought she would do. I think, based on what she was telling me, she is going to write about thoughts of self harm, among other things. Which is some heavy shit indeed.

I wondered very briefly about talking to her teacher about what she told me. But for the moment, for this week, I want to keep her trust. And as a person who regularly contemplates self harm I believed that it was only thoughts. I hope I'm right. I feel some regret about this decision and I made a promise that if she mentions it again I will let her know that those kinds of thoughts can be very serious. Let her know I care about her well being and ask if she want help finding a teacher or a counsellor to talk to about those them.

But that resolution was made long after she and I interacted. Most of the time when I am working with these student writers I ask questions, listen, and write down everything they say (as much if it as my slow hands can catch). Afterwards I hand over the sheet of what I transcribed and say "look how much work you got done!"

A little later than I was supposed to, I switched to working with Marco fro the rest of this period. He let me sit awkwardly in silence for the better half of out time together while he worked through the finishing touches of the assignment he had a very good handle on. He did ask me he read his work to him and we talked a little about it. It was nice to see him get his poem on independently. However I couldn't help but feel I should have offered more assistance or more something at least. I always feel that way when the student knows what they're doing and has now fears/anxious about their work.

During the next class I had the privilege of working with Brent for the entire period. Who, when I plunked down next to him was certain that I was Johnny Law and that I'd arrived to tell him to get to work and do it right. He was determined not to show that he might have a good time writing.

Now I did tell him to get work done, but I also told him that writing poetry is work. And I'm sure there was a danger in writing what he wrote about disliking school. I told him "You can like the writing you do at school and still hate school. A lot of school is pretty much bull shit. But the work you do here can still matter to you."

Mostly we sat in silence together while he wrote a fantastic poem that used to assigned form to draw out the delicious contrast between expressing his respect to family and performing empty gestures of "respect" required by school.

I know I'm no supposed to pick favorites, but jesus, he wrote 12 lines of searing words from just a bubble of brainstormed words. Hell, I write poetry as a calling and usually can't to that in 45 minutes. I was most impressed with him (even though Marco was further along). Before I had to leave we scholgged through how he might include alliteration and more sensory details (the reqs of the assignment). While he clearly resented being required to include these elements, I'm pretty sure he enjoyed learning about and experimenting with them. I found his reluctant enjoyment of writing very exciting.

As I was leaving I saw Emma in the hall surrounded by friends. She smiled at me and said "that's my writing coach".

That smile made me forget all about the horrible details of my moldy flat-tire morning.

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