Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Breaking Up and Moving On

Sometimes, teaching American Literature is tough. Early American lit involves so many historical documents and so much dense nonfiction. It can be daunting and overwhelming for students. While we want them to see the relevance of our forefathers in our everyday lives, and while those historical documents do frame the nation in which we now live, I really believe it's important for teachers to throw some spice and excitement into the writings of our founding fathers. We have to help kids find their own, personal meaning in these old letters, speeches, and founding documents.

One of my favorite writing projects that I ask my students to complete is a companion assignment to the Declaration of Independence. A fabulous teacher in my department, Terri Newton, gave me this assignment and allowed me to share it here. Terri is an incredible writing teacher. What I love the most about her is the heart she has for her students. She empathizes with and relates to kids in a way that is truly inspiring to me. She is also a lifeline for me as a "new to high school" teacher. The work she has shared with me has helped me so much in my transition to this new teaching position.

 The assignment is a breakup letter. We've all written them. We were probably in middle school, writing the letter on a ripped half-sheet of notebook paper, folding it up, and passing it across a lunch room. I ask my students to look at the Declaration of Independence not as a stuffy, old legal document, but as the ultimate guide to writing a break up letter. You can see the breakdown here. Terri created this excellent guide, and I can't thank her enough for sharing it with me and allowing me to share it with you.

I give kids this document, and I also give them a five paragraph outline. It looks like this:

  1. State the reasons that this breakup is necessary. What is wrong in the relationship? 
  2. Describe the ideal relationship. What would a healthy relationship look like? 
  3. Explain your right to end the relationship. What rights do you have as a person seeking happiness?
  4. Prove your accusations and state the "deal breakers." What makes this relationship unfixable? 
  5. State the consequences of ignoring your breakup letter. What is your final warning? 
I tell kids that they can write to anything or anyone. They can write to a negative person in their lives, a bad habit, a personal quality they dislike. My only condition is that they write to someone or something that really needs to leave their lives. 

Some students are pretty silly with this. I had several students write to their high school jobs, which are typically in fast food restaurants: 

Dear Taco Bell, 
Dear Wendy's, 

Others wrote to bad habits:

Dear Procrastination, 
Dear Junk Food, 

But I had far more kids write real, meaningful letters to people and things that have caused them pain and heartbreak. 

Dear Addiction,
Dear Ex-boyfriend, 
Dear Lack of Self Esteem, 
Dear Regret, 

As I was reading these letters my heart broke into a million pieces. At first, I wondered if students forgot I was going to be reading what they wrote, and I think some of them did. I think the act of writing and purging all of that frustration and sadness was so therapeutic for some of my students that they didn't think for a second about there being any kind of audience. It just felt right to get out all of their feelings. For others, I think they wrote these letters because they wanted someone to know. 

What I've noticed more and more this year is that kids need a champion. I've always known that, but I'm constantly reminded, now more than ever, that my job as a teacher isn't to talk; it's to listen. My job is to be present, to be available, to be a cheerleader, to be the person that kids know will challenge them and push them to be their best, not just as students but as human beings. I want the opportunity to challenge kids every day to tell stories in interesting ways, to address their feelings, and to grow and stretch themselves, even when it's hard and even when it hurts.

This assignment makes kids uncomfortable and vulnerable, and that's the place you have to go to tell the best stories. It's the place you go to stretch yourself and figure out how you're going to stand up for yourself and make yourself better. I found myself commenting on letter after letter: "I am so proud of you! You are awesome, and you deserve the BEST!" And it's true. Our kids DO deserve the best. There is nothing that hurts my heart more that the idea that my students don't feel loved and valued. I want them to know how much they matter. I want to make sure that I can give them my best when they walk in my classroom everyday.