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Learn Student Culture Through Writing Assignments

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I've always found that getting into the heads of your students is one of the best ways to learn what they bring with them into the classroom. In today's stressful, standardized testing-based culture, it's easy to ignore the importance of students' cultural capital.

But as a teacher in a large urban school in Lansing, Mich., I see diversity come through my classroom door daily. The life experiences that students (and teachers) bring with them—their cultural capital—present a unique advantage that any educator can use to get to know their students.

In my district, students' cultural capital makes teaching very rewarding. Over 25 languages are spoken in our student population besides English. Our students are from all over the world: the Lost Boys of Sudan, refugees from Bosnia and Serbia, as well as Somalia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Burma, and Nepal.

These students all come with stories, some of which are truly amazing. I remember Sudanese students describe escaping through difficult terrain and seeing people eaten by alligators. These students not only have horrific trauma to cope with—they also have to handle the culture shock of living in the United States. It's incredible to see them dedicate themselves to their education and transition to surviving (and laughing about) hard Michigan winters.

One of my former principals, Howard Cousins, enjoyed the diversity of our building and often spoke to me about ways to get to know students. We both acknowledged the importance of doing this during the first weeks of school in order to build relationships.

Because I feel this is so important, I always assign a student-centered writing assignment during the first week of school that gets to the heart of who my students are. Students realize that I value them as people because I want to know more about their personal history and what experiences they've had. It’s also a great icebreaker, especially if you share something about yourself with students.

Finding a Topic

I give a couple of writing assignments during the first week of school or to any student who enters my classroom later in the year. As I teach a few different social studies classes, I can easily adapt the theme to fit the students and content of the class. For my economics students, I assign “The Most Difficult Decision in Your Life,” while my history students write about “The Worst Moment of Your Life.”

"Discussion helps them see that others have overcome their struggles and gone on to achieve their dreams."

Both of these topics relate well to their respective subjects. For example, the “Most Difficult Decision In Your Life” has to do with two very important but basic economic concepts: choice and opportunity costs. These are concepts that people face every day in situations both small and life changing, so writing from their personal experience helps students understand these ideas better.

In particular, the opportunity-cost concept is easier to explain when you make it personal for students. For example, one student, “Mark,” wrote about smoking marijuana in 8th grade and resisting arrest. He was charged with possession of an illegal substance and assaulting a police officer. He wrote, “I ended up on probation which took away some of my freedom … all because I chose to smoke some weed.” Students have also shared other difficult choices such as choosing which parent to live with after a divorce, breaking away from friends who are making poor choices, and even more serious situations.

Writing about the worst moment in their lives connects students to the concept of overcoming difficulties and challenges, which is a central theme in history. History is loaded with stories of historical figures overcoming great hardships.

To help students relate to the concept of hardship, I gave my 9th grade World History students the following prompt:

What is the worst thing that has happened to you in your life so far? Please explain the situation in terms of your own history. What have you done, or what will you do, to overcome this situation (what choices have you made or will you make)?

Many students wrote about their parents' divorce. Others shared stories about parents who were abusive or decided to walk away from the family. The divorce stories hit close to home for me as I am a child of divorced parents, so I make sure to bring this up when we discuss students’ writing. Students see that I am willing to let them into my own life, so they consider this a fair exchange in getting to know them. Some students are also able to relate to me because I have been in their shoes.

Alternative Strategies

There are many ways to customize student-centered assignments. Try these resources:

Facing History: This site “encourages teachers to use student-centered teaching strategies that nurture students' literacy and critical thinking skills within a respectful classroom climate.”

Life Road Map: These maps can be used to help students better understand the decisions influencing historical events and even their personal choices.

Teaching for Understanding/Teaching Generative Lessons: This pedagogy helps teachers choose topics of interest to students and assess students for understanding. Find sample lessons here.

Student-centered assignments like this are a winner because the assignment is about students—and it helps build the understanding that all people struggle in life. Discussion also helps them see that others have overcome their struggles and gone on to achieve their dreams.

Getting to know students this way has many other advantages, too: from figuring out what hooks them as learners to understanding their individuality and the circumstances that might explain why they act or behave a certain way. When you gain information about students directly from them, it shows that you actually want to know something about them as human beings—rather than seeing them as a score or grade.

It also opens the door for you to be seen as a person rather than just a teacher because you are doing something different and student centered. Relationship building is the first step in having kids accept you and what you are trying to do as a teacher and adult mentor.

I have found that students often open their hearts to you and tell you things that really help you understand some of the difficulties they have had to overcome just to walk through the door. Students have so much going on in their personal lives that they are sometimes escaping from. When teachers take a moment to get to know their students with creative assignments, they have a much better chance at developing a relationship with their students and guiding them in a positive direction.

Setting Expectations

To be sure, students often share very sensitive information in their essays. For that reason, I suggest that you have students turn in their writing before having a class discussion about it. This will give you the opportunity to go through all the essays, then select a few and ask those students if you can share their writing without naming them.

Keep in mind: There's a lot of potential for dramatic moments that can take a wrong turn. Students want adults to know what they have gone through—but at times, you may get to know more than you bargained for. To prevent outbursts and maintain the learning environment, it’s important to go over some ground rules for discussions when people share their personal experiences.

I often tell students that there is a code of honor that we maintain as a classroom family. That code of honor asks students to listen, participate respectfully, and refrain from disrupting others. I also assure students that their stories will never be shared without their permission, and if I do, that I will never identify students. Most importantly, students are never required to share.

As I've already mentioned, it’s helpful to get on students’ wavelengths by sharing something personal with them. You need to let your students know that you too are a fallible human being—and that even though you are an adult, you have imperfections and have overcome difficulties. However, that doesn't mean you should tell them everything about you, as some of your experiences may not be relevant to the classroom or school experience. As teachers, we need to exercise our best judgment when sharing personal experiences with our students.

Later on, it's helpful to remember details that may continue to affect a student's life. Divorce is a great example. This can be useful to keep in mind when calling home or scheduling parent-teacher conferences.

Trying to get to know students is probably one of the best classroom-management techniques there is. It’s a long process that takes time. But by starting the year off with a student-centered assignment, teachers can be confident that they will engage students and gain insight into their personal lives in a nonthreatening manner.

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