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Sometimes students long for something real

Working with student-created images does not have to be frivolous

I was looking through some of my favorite One Word Images that my students created in 2017 and I came across the story of Coco, the tale of a transgender piece of paper born with all of the biological parts of un papel but self-identifying as “una hoja” de papel. I made this with a Spanish 3 class.

I did not walk into class that day with the intention of creating a heavy story. I did sense that students were not in the mood for another crazy adventure with wacky details and a nonsensical plot. Sometimes they like that; when they take ownership of such a story there is no better use of class time than following that crazy story. But when students get burned out on stories, sometimes what they really want is to talk about something real.

The trick to eliciting these kinds of stories is to zealously protect a classroom culture of trust. Adolescents constantly monitor social boundaries. When a student makes an off-color remark, every adolescent in the room is watching to see what is permitted by the teacher. When a student makes a racist or homophobic comment, a stern but silent look of reproach is not the right response. Silence communicates to some students that there are some things which are left unsaid in polite society, but we essentially agree. It took me a long time to realize that the stern glare of reproach does not condemn intolerance, instead it pathetically pleads “not here, please don’t ruin my class”. Every other student observes this dynamic. Students in such a class learn that their feelings will not be protected, that there is no line that cannot be crossed. I developed a routine that I call “the cool generation” to create a safe space in my classroom. Click here to read about it; the key is to make sure that you get a full, hearty class response that they reject the hatred of past generations.

On that day I chose the drawing of a piece of paper from a pile that students had created weeks beforehand. Sometimes when class-created stories are not clicking I will “press the reset button” by having students draw for ten minutes in silence, and then we will move on with a student interview or a movie talk. For that reason I always have a pile of drawings on my desk that we can later use as inspiration. As I held up the drawing and we established some basic information about the character, I listened closely and did not jump at the first crazy idea that was offered.

This is the character that my kids came up with. Totally respectful, these kids embraced the metaphor in our character and created a serious, meaningful story. Here is the set-up to “Coco” that we created on the first day:

En un bosque mágico hay una hoja de papel que se llama Coco. Coco nació con todas las partes biológicas de un papel, pero ahora que tiene ocho años y seis meses ella se identifica como “una hoja”, no como “un papel”.

Todos los árboles del bosque son las madres de Coco. Coco tiene muchas mamás.

Ella tiene un hermano mayor también. El hermano es un papel grande que le pega a Coco cuando sus madres no están mirando. Coco se pone maquillaje (líquido corrector) para que sus mamás no vean los moretones.

That took us a good half hour of discussion in Spanish to develop the idea while making sure that each development of our story remained perfectly comprehensible to everyone. When the student came up with that first powerhouse idea, that Coco self-identifies as “a piece of paper” (feminine noun) although she was born with all of the biological parts of “un papel” (masculine noun), I paused and in English told the class that we could not move forward if we could not do this respectfully. “I am willing to follow this story to see where it goes, but we are not using this as a code to make fun of somebody real in this school. Are you with me?” I think that pausing and explicitly setting the boundaries in English was important, even though that was a norm that should be expected of any class story. I think it also served as a social cue that we were doing something extraordinary in that story, and so the engagement was quite high.

The next day was one of the most emotionally draining classes I have ever taught. At first everyone was silent, reluctant to face what we constructed the day before. I let them brainstorm in pairs for a few minutes and then an avalanche of violent, vengeful plots came forward… pushing her bully brother into a paper shredder, for example. Finally I turned to them and admitted (in English) that I really needed a hopeful ending. An ending that did not walk the road of violence. An ending that is not pure fantasy but maybe, with the help of a little poetry, could help us imagine a brighter future. Wow did they come through. The ending is bittersweet.

This was an effective language class because students were so engaged. It is not a question of how many repetitions did I get on a particular target structure– when students are highly engaged, they pick up more with less repetitions. This is how my students learn the subjunctive, this is how they learn advanced grammatical constructions like si clauses. We were also hitting so many AP and IB themes in this story that it is no wonder that my students can spontaneously respond when they take those exams after only four years of classes.

Here is the rest of the story that we created together on the second day:

Coco se culpa por el abuso de su hermano. Ella se dice que no debe decírselo a nadie. Ella cree que es ella la mala. Ella cree que si dijera algo a sus mamás, sería una mala hoja de papel. Nosotros sabemos que ella está equivocada, pero muchas veces las víctimas se quedan en silencio. No debe ser así, pero desafortunadamente es normal.

Un día Coco decide decir algo a su mamá. Ella dice a una de sus mamás que su hermano le pega y primero la mamá no cree que sea la verdad. “Mi hijo nunca te pegaría”, dice la mamá-árbol. Después la mamá le dice que “papeles serán papeles” y que Coco no debe provocar a su hermano. Coco se pone muy triste.

Coco decide que necesita irse. Ella se dobla y se convierte en un avión de papel. Vuela muy lejos. El hermano está solo. Después de años él se siente solo, muy solo. Él quiere hablar con su hermana, pero ella no está.

Un día el hermano recibe un regalo. Cuando abre el regalo, él ve que el papel alrededor del regalo es su hermana. Ella volvió solo cuando él estaba listo para verla.

3 thoughts on “Sometimes students long for something real

  1. Wow! What an amazing story they created through your guidance of humanity. It seems like students gravitate at first toward violence as a quick and normal (meaning they see it everywhere) way of dealing with topics that cause discomfort. I appreciate you sharing how you handle the commentary that issues from teenagers at times. It always catches me off-guard and I usually respond with a “that’s not acceptable in here” comment. Your approach was more proactive. Again, thank you for sharing.

  2. Beautiful! Thank you for sharing.

  3. Thank you so much for this, the story is amazing and reading how you address “wacky story fatigue” and sensitive subjects is really helpful.

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