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The Power of Just Shutting Up

This post is written by NCTE member Ashley Lamb-Sinclair, the 2016 Kentucky Teacher of the Year.

 Ashley-Lamb SinclairLast fall, I spent two days not speaking to my creative writing class.

I wasn’t giving them the silent treatment; they just didn’t really need me. You would think that this would make me feel bad. After all, if they don’t need me, then what exactly am I being paid to do? But what happened in room 411 those two days is exactly what teachers should be paid to do.

I have now taught a creative writing course for a total of five years—two, many years ago, and three cumulative years now at my current school. I have dreamed of recreating what I experienced a lifetime ago in workshop classes I took in college—the camaraderie that comes with baring one’s soul with strangers. But after all this time, I had resigned myself to accepting something reminiscent of that world I left—the world that has become little particles of me that I carry around on my fingertips and in my hair. Because once you have experienced what is possible in a creative writing workshop, you can’t deny its awesome power to transform everyone who walks away from it.

But I finally accepted that high school kids just can’t get there. They’re too self-conscious, too anxious, too immature. I thought I could just expose them to the amazing world of their own imaginations—the world they lost touch with somewhere around the time they started school—and that would be enough until they found their own voice and their own love of the written word and then had a cathartic experience on some lucky poetry professor’s watch somewhere down the line.

I cannot believe how wrong I was.

I gave my students an experimental assignment—no real direction, no explicit instructions, no standards, no rubric. I simply told them to take a song they loved and create something inspired by it. That’s it. I wanted to see what would happen if I just gave them the space to create, so I gave them three days to work on it. Some of them cranked something out quickly and worked on math homework on the last day. Some listened to music on their headphones the whole time and never wrote a word during class time. Some sought feedback for their ideas from me and from their peers. Some wrote, scratched it out, started over, wrote again. Someone else might have entered my room and at first glance thought it was a complete waste of academic time. It did not look the way we as educators have come to believe rigor should look.

In fact, just last week a colleague pointed out, “No offense, Ashley, but if we took away these electives, you could have another English class and all of our class numbers would be lower.” She has a point, really. Many of our core classes are overcrowded, and it is truly hard to reach each and every one of those 31 minds and hearts and bodies sitting in our classrooms every day. I don’t fault her for her opinion; it’s the opinion of most people who know a thing or two about education, and even of those who know absolutely nothing about it at all.

But here is what I saw during those two days:

I saw kids come into our room, happily put cell phones away, and start sharing and responding to each other’s work without any direction from me whatsoever. I actually had to interrupt them to take attendance. I don’t think they even knew I was in the room.

I saw each and every student in our room show up with a piece of writing that they had spent time crafting. No one forgot it at home. No one had excuses about why it was incomplete. No one asked how many points it was worth.

I saw a room full of teenagers raising their hands to comment thoughtfully on the work of their peers. They weren’t raising their hands for me to call on them; they raised their hands to be called on by each other.

I saw 100 percent engagement. Every person in our room shared; every person in our room responded. I didn’t require it. I didn’t even ask them to do it. They just did it because they cared about the work being done. And they cared about the work of their community, not just their own.

I saw students who had taken every AP class in the book, students who could and might go on to Ivy League colleges interact respectfully and intelligently with kids who had never set foot in an advanced class of any kind—kids who had failed classes, been labeled as “lazy,” heard every label as a reason for why they just didn’t get it. Neither I nor anyone else could tell the difference between these students. And neither could they. Or if they could, they certainly didn’t care one way or another about it. They respected each other as intellectual equals.

And truly, the most amazing thing I saw was kids sharing traumatic experiences, feelings of waiting, feelings of not being good enough, feelings of distance, heartache, funny stories, imagined worlds, and images so clear and so perfectly placed that in the span of 48 hours I lay with them in hospital beds, felt bored with them in high school classrooms, fought battles with them, desperately tried to put the pieces of a broken heart back together with them. There was no mumbled laughter. No awkward silences. No one slunk out at the end of class embarrassed, hurt, or ashamed. In fact, they bellowed “No!!!” at the bell that ended our hour together.

So in response to the world who peeks into a classroom like the one I got the good luck to inhabit and believes it should be replaced with a core class, or more rigor, or more standards, or more assessments, or all the mores that are plopped onto kids and teachers and schools these days, I would like to politely disagree. Instead, I would like to offer you a seat in our circle because I wish that every student and every teacher got to do every day what I got to do during those two: just shut up for a little while and let kids show you what they are capable of.

Ashley Lamb-Sinclair is the 2016 Kentucky Teacher of the Year and will return to her classroom after a sabbatical as teacher in residence with the Kentucky Department of Education. She teaches high school English and creative writing. Find her at beautifuljunkyard.com or @AshleyLambS.