Learning to Ask the Tough Questions
There's a story I've wanted to tell you about my students for a while, but I haven't known how yet.
To understand the story, I need to tell you about this 9th grade class. I adore them, but I'd be lying if I said they weren't a little bit of a handful. I had them as 7th graders, and so have experienced their... *robust* energy two years prior, but this is the first year I've had a set of students who I'd previously taught.
It's an interesting experience, to say the least. In some ways, there is a previously-built relationships that makes certain aspects of my classroom run much more smoothly. We can skip over some of the introductory aspects of the classroom. My students know what pushes my buttons; I know what sorts of topics and discussions will get them going. Hopefully, they still trust that I want the best for them at the end of the day. I hope they know that I know that, even when they drive me bonkers, I adore them.
Still, it would be naive to believe that neither of us had changed in the two years. I have had to get accustomed to how this energy plays out in bigger bodies. There is significantly more drama. Some of them are dating (AGH!).
Suffice it to say, it's been a fun but challenging year. My students often make me laugh and smile, but as we barrel towards the end of the year and spring fever (perpetual, perhaps, in Honolulu's temperate climate), some of their immaturities have seemed a bit more... prevalent.
Then, International Women's Day happened. I didn't have a big discussion planned—I was busy, and we have a lot of gender discussions coming up through Lord of the Flies. I did ask them to write their daily journal about what they knew about the day and whether or not they thought it was important.
Nothing could have prepared me for the discussion I was going to have with my 7th period that day.
Seventh period is directly after lunch, a.k.a "the dark black hole" for many teachers. I jest—but normally kids after lunch are either much, much bouncier and harder to focus, or they are in a food-induced-fugue-state.
So, once I finally got them to write, I was surprised at how many of them wanted to share.
What happened next was, frankly, beautiful. First, I had three boys share that while they thought it was important, they struggled understanding *their* particular role (sort of a "not-all-men" question, which I will allow out of 14-year-olds).
I pointed out to them that I understood their question, but also asked them to notice that, in a discussion about women's equality, only male students had adamantly wanted to share their opinions.
They fell silent for a moment.
"Why do you think that happens?" I asked. "What do you think makes it less likely for girls to speak up?"
A few boys began to raise their hands, then, remembering what I had just said, paused. After a moment, girls started raising their hand. They shared fears of being picked on or targeted for talking too much. They talked about how often they'd been told to shut up or listen. They even talked about how they felt other women in their lives—aunties, cousins, other classmates, mothers—told them not to talk so much.
And the boys sat there.
And they listened.
I was, to be honest, in awe.
At the end of the discussion, one of my boys raised his hand and asked, "Can I ask something of the girls here?"
"Well..." he started, "how do we know... or like... which do you want? Do you want men to stand up for you and say something so you don't have to sometimes? Or do you want us to step back and listen and let you take the lead?"
Immediately, the girls looked at each other and said, "Well, it depends." It depends on the situation, the person, the man.
I was nearly about to cry with pride at that point, and I looked at my student and said, "Yes, it depends. But you know what? I think that question you just asked is what's most important. And learning to ask that question is the toughest part."
I don't always think I'm a good teacher. Heck, I know I'm not always a good teacher. I worry often if I've set my students on a useful path; if I did enough that day. It's easy to see our students through one lens. Frankly, I probably spend more time with my kids than I do with anyone else, and so it's easy to focus only on the daily interactions and even frustrations from our students.
This discussion forced me to take a giant step back though and realize something important: my students had changed. They were questioning and pushing each other. They were listening. My babies were growing up, right there in front of me, and I was getting to watch it happen (yes, I am perhaps tearing up as I write this).
I knew that this discussion was amazing when it happened, but even in the moment, I wasn't able to appreciate the full worth of it. After a month, I've seen them occasionally regress to the middle-school behavior I saw them exhibit when I first had then a few years ago. But I've been able to realize that this discussion was no fluke—it was a benchmark of the growth they are continuing every day.
I see now, though, that whether or not I had anything to do with it, my students are asking the tough questions. My students are trying to listen to each other.
And that is a very good thing.
Photo Credit: Christina Torres