October 8, 2014 by Jennifer Coreas
TALKING AND WRITING ABOUT UNIVERSAL THOUGHTS
Geovany and Leydi are siblings. They live in Huizucar, and Emilio lives in San José Villanueva. Both cities are rural areas that belong to the state of La Libertad. We met them through a partnership with their University, where they are studying to become teachers. They come once a week to our office as volunteers to help us create didactic material for our workshops and serve as teacher fellows for the reading/writing workshops ConTextos develops at the Municipal Children’s Library in Santa Tecla –one of the first projects of ConTextos two years ago. To visit the library, we picked up the 1st graders and walk in the crowded sidewalks, next to vendors, ice cream cars, and buses. No need to say students are thrilled about this experience. They run, play and laugh with joy.
I met with Geovany, Leydi and Emilio the first time to present the idea of the exchange. We were together for almost two hours. We did the ice break Mohsin, director of Andover Bread Loaf, did with us during the three-week summer workshop in Massachusetts. (In pairs, each person draws anything on the half of the paper while the other does a drawing too… Then, they have to find connections between the two drawings) After that we saw pictures of Karachi (from Google) and talked about what we observed, and the connections we could make… When we first told them about the exchange of stories with teachers from Pakistan, their first reaction was to look at each other. Their eyes, wide open, their mouths mute, they just stared at each other and at us with wonder. A smile slowly took over their faces. Later during the session, we talked about the writing process as a dynamic process that would make their writing understandable for every audience. As a practice, we started writing that day based on the prompt «if you had a wish, what would you ask for?» We also watched a video that ConTextos filmed about this question. After a discussion about this, we started to plan a letter to someone who would help us make this wish come true. We used the RAFT strategy (Rol, Audience, Format, and Topic). First, we did it together to model the thinking process of taking decisions when writing (think aloud) and did a shared writing to write a letter. Afterwards we had time to write and share.
I observed that at the end of the lesson they were still and nervous; overwhelmed. It seemed like a lot of work just to write one letter. Most writing experiences in the classroom in salvadoran contexts would not involve that amount of work for only one piece. It will be either copying what the teacher dictates, write what´s on the book, answer questionaries, among other similar writing activities. Some teachers would ask students to write the end of a story in a different way or to write a summary of a story they have read or heard. However, in few classrooms teachers would take students to consciously write and treat their piece of writing as a treasure that needs to be nurtured, spoiled, and loved. As a «homework» they had to write a story using the prompt that Mohsin and I had agreed on «Why did I decided to become a teacher?» And they left our office.
The next time we met, only Geovany came. I couldn´t help feeling a bit dissapointed. I thought I had scared them and pushed them away. That day, while Geovany was working on a chart, I sat with him to help. As we both were colouring, he asked me «Why are we doing this exchange? What benefits will it bring to my life?» It took me a second to react. They were completely understandable and logical questions to ask. His questions made me believe he was the right student to do this exchange. I put on my teacher hat and answered with another question «What do you think?» An hour went by while we had a dialogue about «why?» In the end, he left the office with answers and more questions, and me, I stayed in the office working on a plan for our next meeting.
The next day we met. I was happy to see the three of them on time and holding the «homework» in pieces of paper excited to share. I had my own piece too. Before starting to share what we had written, I introduced a routine for active listening. It´s more common in slam poetry, but we use it for our stories. We snapped! We snapped when we could make a connection with what the person was saying or found something interesting or fun. Although they were a bit shy in the beginning, it all became really natural as we were taking turns to share our one or two pages story. It was time to revise the first draft based on the audience we were writing to, the format, and the structure of the story itself. We worked on a basic story outline (beginning, middle, end) and talked a lot about who the audience was. After we revised, we shared one more time. This time the snapping was louder and more frequent.
They left that day with smiles, and at the end I asked Geovany to share our conversation from the previous day. We wrap up the lesson by reflecting on questions about «why we are doing this?» and share our thoughts and opinions.
The next week, they came to the office to do their regular volunteer work. I was out of town doing a workshop at a public school. We were scheduled to meet at the end of the week. However, when I arrive to the office our eyes met, the excitement was clear. No words were exchanged, just big smiles, smiles you would see from children. I couldn’t help it and went straight to the office and printed the letters Mohsin had previously sent. I gave the letters that day. Before actually reading the whole thing, they got stuck in the names. They repeated them over and over to make sure they got it right. They asked me «It is pronounced Abdul… Ab…dul, right?» I nodded even when I was in the same place as them.
We met for our third formal reunion to write response letters. The bell rang; somebody at the office opened the door. I knew it was them, they were right on time. I met them in the main room. I sat down and said «Hello» They responded:
«We, as teachers, have the responsibility to transform the world from our classes and beyond!», «We need our classes to be motivating», «I found interesting that they didn’t ask us any questions», «Their letters and our letters are different; their stories are more about their practice in the classroom and their idea about teaching, ours are about childhood experiences», «I don’t think we are that different… I mean, seems like our contexts are very similar», «We have the same goals and objectives as teachers… They might be universal thoughts».
They went nonstop.
Their faces lighted up, their eyes finding words and phrases to connect. Thinking out loud. Laughing and thinking. Talking and talking and talking. I was taking notes and moderating the conversation when it was necessary (it really wasn’t). With all this out, we started the lesson. We did an independent reading strategy focused on finding connections with the text and elicit questions to the author. We read and read and read the letter. I gave them post its so they could put them in places where connection or questions where found. By the way, we are using iPads to do the exchange, so after they had all their connections and questions they started typing their response letter into the iPad.
We shared. We snapped. We went home.
They are committed, they are interested, they are motivated to share and learn from others. Me? I am blown away. It is amazing how much meaning they are finding. They find meaning in everything. In the commas, periods, tone of the voice in the story, the feelings, the «technical words», and the «universal thoughts».
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