Sunday, May 18, 2014

The Call to Reveal: Developing Self-Knowing and Empathy within our Students

By: Dr. Mark Shinar, Director of General Studies

For the past five years, I have taught a twelfth grade English elective called Contemporary American Short Stories. This past year, in addition to the traditional literary analysis that rests at the foundation of the course, I was very interested in studying how the stories that we read and wrote would provide the students with a different type of understanding: an understanding of self. I wanted the stories to teach the students a deeper sense of empathy for others and inspire within them a willingness to share their own personal truths as a way to connect. I have dubbed this notion “The Call to Reveal.” 

As a person who is deeply committed to stories, I have learned that narrative, all narrative, inspires this call to reveal. We make meaning of our lives through the stories that we tell, and when we tell these stories, we also make personal connections. As such, there is not one uniform understanding of any story, and that is how we reach an appreciation for multiple, valid interpretations. By telling stories and revealing pieces of themselves, students learn that they are storied people. They bring their narratives to the table as a way of understanding themselves and their peers, as well as the stories that they have read in class.

To punctuate this point, I added a Performance Poetry unit to the second semester of the course, a time that could easily become less rigorous and demanding for graduating seniors. When I first introduced the unit and its goals to the students, I admit that they reacted with a mixture of incredulity and disdain. There was no way, they almost collectively claimed, that they could write, memorize, and perform a piece of poetry in front of the class. This was not what they had signed up for, and given the fact that it was second semester, the time commitment seemed too high and the task too daunting. 

We persisted, and in doing so, I am proud to say that the students were met with tremendous success. After learning and practicing the skills of performance poetry, which included in-class writing exercises and peer reviews, and watching countless video performances on YouTube, the students received their assignment. 
  • The Topic of the Poem: “You Don’t Know Me”
  • The Assignment: A 2-3 minute performance piece, written and memorized. Students were required to incorporate rich language and poetic devices, pay attention to the elements of performance that they had learned, and most importantly, honor The Call to Reveal.
  • The Promise: Over the week of performances, the class would transform into an audience; all readings were met with gentle snaps instead of raucous applause, and all voices and ideas were honored and supported.
On the whole, the poems, which ranged from charmingly funny to seriously poignant, were extremely moving. The support that the students gave one another throughout the process was also remarkably noteworthy. After the performances, I asked the kids to write self-reflective pieces that also evaluated the effectiveness of the unit itself. Here are a few of the comments that I received from the seniors:
  • By showing us videos of performances, I got very excited about creating my own poem, and I was motivated to do so. At first, I did not think that I could do it because it seemed impossible, but in the end, I learned a lot about myself and what I can do.
  • The performance poetry unit was amazing. I wish it went on for longer. That week was very special for everyone in the class because everyone opened up, and it taught us so much about each person and about ourselves. Public speaking is difficult for me and so was performing the poem, but I am so happy I was able to do it. I really feel like I accomplished something. I think performance poetry is such an amazing art and it really lets the poet open up in a safe space – which is the same goal as short stories, and all literature – the call to reveal. 
  • I was able to uncover more about myself than I would have thought. I also didn’t realize that I could write good stories that meant a lot to me. But, I was really able to know myself when I wrote my slam poem. I was able to show the class something about myself that I really care about.
  • I do not have to tell you, because you already know, but performance poetry was SUCH a hit. I can admit it now, because the assignment is over, but I wrote my poem two days before performing it. The weeks before that I was working on an entirely different poem that I planned on performing. It was not really a call to reveal, it was not so personal, but it was safe. Your class has taught me that “safe” rarely produces a powerful paper. Being risky and vulnerable is what makes a topic endearing.  
  • One of the most surprising units in the course was the poetry unit. Most of the class was appalled by the idea, and I was no exception. I rarely voice my personal opinions or take time to reflect on myself. The poem made me think about certain aspects of my character that I have never given time to think about. The poem may have been intended to educate my classmates on who I am, but it simultaneously educated me on who I am. 
  • Of course, as with most of my classmates, the performance poetry unit was my favorite because it combined writing ability, creativity, and empathy all in one assignment.           

When writing creatively, students tend to place themselves as the heroes in their own stories, but the narratives that help them grow the most are much more grueling and uncomfortable. They are the ones that push them to reveal their shortcomings, as well as their victories; to acknowledge and honor the valleys, not just the peaks. What surprised me most about this unit is not how well the students did with the assignment, but that it showed us, myself included, how the writing of story can reorient students towards a better understanding of themselves and their peers. Stories, whether they are fiction or not, help us make meaning out of our lives. They push us towards a heightened level of awareness of how we listen to others, empathize with them, and understand their perspectives to be as equal and as valid as our own. In the end, the students’ lives became that much more enriched by truly listening and learning from the stories that surround them every day.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Kindly post your name with your comment to continue the Grand Conversation. The SAR High School Blog will not post any comments by an anonymous user. Thank you.