This is an installment of the Stories Teachers Share podcast. Listen above or on iTunes to hear how the story unfolds.

High school English teacher Alexa Schlechter was used to having a mix of students — those who really wanted to learn creative writing alongside kids who were just looking for class credit. Like many teachers, most of her attention was dominated by the kids who told her with their voices and actions that they didn’t want to be there. Less obvious to her were the silent, well-behaved kids who also needed help, until one fateful writing assignment.

Alexa Alison

Schlechter told students to write a memoir for a future reader. What would they want that person to know about the mark they’d left on the world? What would be their legacy?

Normally Schlechter likes to check her students’ writing progress as they work, but one girl insisted that Schlechter shouldn’t read her memoir until it was finished. Schlechter agreed because the girl had always worked hard and was making progress, but when she read what had been written, it changed their lives.

Alexa shared this experience with her best friend, Alison Smith, who has supported her throughout her teaching career. Listen to Alexa’s story of that fateful creative writing assignment in the first episode of Stories Teachers Share, a new podcast from MindShift and KQED Public Media.

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The Creative Writing Assignment 24 August,2017MindShift

  • When I retired last year, my closest non-teacher friend who had worked a desk job and who had many friends through work, wrote to me that when fall rolled around and I did not go back to work, I would be doing my happy dance. I cannot express my sadness when I read this.

    The job was stressful and worrying and rewarding and wonderful. I did not and do not have many friends through work and I regretted that at the time, and still do. I have former students. I have a patient husband who claims he cannot count the number of stories I have shared with him. A few times in my role as mandatory reporter, I found myself shut out by students who were embarrassed by the consequences. Students have turned away when they disliked my counsel. I tried to do my best. I tried to be a supportive teacher.

    Like Alexa, I offered many writing assignments, including creative writing assignments. Students have confessed suicidal thoughts, which I reported. They have described ugly thoughts and beautiful ones, past abuse and future dreams. “Every child has a backstory,” Alexa says. Yes, they do.

    Unlike Alexa, I listened to these stories for twenty-five years. They need someone to tell. For a long time I was privileged to be that person.

  • Gary Gruber

    I taught a class called “Creative Writing” to a group of 11th and 12th graders in two different schools, one in Princeton, New Jersey, the other in London. It was an elective and one of my first “assignments” was to ask the students to write a short essay on why they wanted to sign up for this class. The responses varied, as you might imagine, from “I needed to fill up my schedule” to “I have a story that I need to write down.”
    Suffice to say, the students and I had a grand time, learning together, writing our stories, sharing them and creating an atmosphere of open exploration, discovery and trust. What the students told me that was most rewarding was that they found themselves expressing thoughts and feelings in ways heretofore untapped. I give credit to the students who encouraged and supported each other through this process of creating, criticizing, editing, improving and working hard to achieve their best work. Here is an illustration of how it worked for at least one student.

    John handed me a paper one day and and said, “Is this what you want?” I replied, “It’s your work, is this what you want to give me?”
    “You made the assignment,” John answered. “Yes, I did and it’s your paper and your work, not mine, so is this your best shot?” I queried. He looked at me,puzzled by my response. I went on. “John, what I want is your best work. If I gave you another 24 hours to make it better, would you like to do that?” John: “You’re serious?” “Sure, I’m serious, because this is serious work. Do you want to do it?” I responded.
    “Well, yes, I guess so,” and off he went, paper in hand, to return the next day with a much more polished piece of work.

    The stories that came out of those classes were nothing short of amazing. They had depth of self-reflection and understanding and ranged from humorous descriptions of everyday occurrences to family stories, to their own journeys of growth often filled with pain and joy. I felt an enormous privilege being in a position to encourage these young people to take the risk of being vulnerable with one another in order to grow as human beings. They rose to the occasion with enormous success. Writing became the vehicle for the journey.

  • TM Kelly

    Alexa’s student was open to her because Alexa was open to the student. Ultimately, Alexa left teaching because it was not healthy for her. The lack of a systemic support system is why educators walk away and why they don’t want to open the door for the backstories. If we want to develop a truly supportive educational system, we have to support the students and the teachers. We have many tools in place for students, but when Alexa reported the student who was cutting, did anyone ask her if she was okay or needed to talk? We see this support in other high pressure, service careers, but the only time it appears to be automatic in education is when something traumatic happens.

    The natural support system – fellow professionals you work with every day – isn’t the answer because of privacy concerns. So, how do we open the pool of support? Support meetings? We hit the time and the fear factor again. Cultivate friends and family? Alexa was lucky that Allison under stood. My SIL teaches 5-7 language arts. When she tries to talk with my brother – a cop – about issues his response is “you’re the teacher. Make them do it.”

    We have to start at the basics. Schools or systems need to take a long look at their reporting protocols and add provisions for someone – maybe a counselor at another school or the district level – to help faculty as part of the protocol. Making it part of the process pushes faculty to develop the habit of seeking support.

    We also have to start to leverage digital communities for educators. Not only do they allow some anonymity, but there is an ease of access. Brain racing at 3 in the morning? You can jump on.

    None of these solutions is complete or easy. We have to start with best practices for providing emotional support to teachers so that they can continue to support students.

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