Teaching In The 614: Who Am I?

Editor’s Note: This installment of Teaching In The 614 was written by Mister Umm, a high school teacher with more than ten years of experience serving the students and families of CCS.

Who I Am? by flickr user tonyhall.

Who I Am? by flickr user tonyhall.

For nearly the past decade, I have given my students an oral project as their first “real” homework assignment. The project, called “Who Am I?” is always due the second Friday of the school year.

The point of the assignment is simple—I want to know my students better. I need to know about the young people I am teaching, and they are the foremost experts on themselves.

“How would you like to earn a project grade and not have to write a single thing down?” I ask each of my classes.

The classroom resounds with positive noises. This will be easy, many think. They don’t know what is going to be expected of them– yet.

I turn on my overhead projector and begin to explain the concept of my “Who Am I?” assignment.

As they hastily copy my transparency notes, I explain that they will be required to bring in four objects for the assignment. Each object must answer the question “Who Am I?”.

It is then that I inform them that they must stand in front of the class and explain how each object they bring in answers the aforementioned question.

A mosaic of fear and puzzled stares appear on my students’ faces. A handful of them still don’t understand the assignment. Many students simply don’t want to do the assignment.

“Have you ever made chocolate chip cookies?” I ask them.

“Yes,” they always respond.

“Well, if you didn’t put the chocolate chips in the dough, when you baked the dough,“ I explain, “They’d just be plain cookies.  For this assignment, you’ve got to bring in the four things that are your chocolate chips, the things that make you unique.”

 “And by the way,” I add, “Don’t bring a spoon, a pillow, a CD or a phone. Every student in this school likes to eat, sleep, listen to music and talk on the phone. Don’t be a plain cookie.”

Grumbles fill the classroom. I reassure them that I will participate in this assignment. In fact, I am always the first to go. I’ve got to model the behavior I expect them to exhibit.

Some students stay after class to plead with me, asking to do an alternate assignment in place of standing in front of their classmates and presenting.

They are quite generous with their ideas of an alternate assignment.

“Can’t I write a report and turn it in with what I would have said?” students often suggest.

“That’s a great idea,” I tell them, watching their eyes light up. “It will help you organize your thoughts for when you actually get up in front of the class and complete this project. I won’t ask you to do anything I won’t do, and if I’m going to stand up and do this assignment in front of the class, then I expect you to do the same.”

The light in their eyes has abruptly turned off– the student walks out of my classroom with the clear understanding that every student is expected to complete this assignment.

On the due the date of the assignment, I am the first to get up and speak of my family, my life, my need to teach and how it relates to who I am as a person. When I finish, I open up the floor for volunteers.

Each year, students share their fifteen or sixteen years of life with their classmates. Some speak in vague terms about who they are, uncomfortable or unwilling to share themselves with their peers. Others are remarkably candid, given the fact that the most intimidating audience possible—their peers—sit before them.

The items that the students bring in are sometimes predictable, sometimes surprising. We are presented with baby blankets, necklaces, letters, dog-eared pictures, poetry journals, trophies, newspaper clippings and funeral programs.

The class and I are shown multitudes of pictures of students’ friends, family members and other loved ones. Some of the pictures’ subjects are still living, but many have departed this earth.

We hear of the importance of these individuals in their lives, how they have helped to shape my students into who they are today. Many times students who are presenting begin to cry when speaking about these individuals, prompting some in the audience to do the same.

We are regaled by tales of teenage victories: stories of championship games that were won, of personal accomplishments that they savor. We hear of individual and family hardships, and many are unmatched for their poignancy.

Some of these events, both good and bad, will continue to define these young adults well into their future. Others will be bested and subsequently forgotten due to the mercurial nature of youth.

Students speak of their carefully guarded talents; of singing, drawing, dancing, writing, performing abilities, all kinds of talents. The end result is the same—their classmates always ask for a command performance of their talent when they are done presenting.

I tell them performing is their choice, a decision they must make on their own. Some refuse, but a few change their minds later with the encouragement of their classmates. Other students volunteer to perform without hesitation.

Sometimes students close the classroom door for privacy before they start. When the performance does begin, the room is quiet enough to hear a pin drop. Performers close their eyes, or stare at a randomly selected spot on the wall or floor, foregoing eye contact with their audience. After it is over, the class always applauds without prompting from me.

After we finish the assignments, my line is always the same.

“If you can get up in front of people you know and do that,” I say, “then you can surely pass a bunch of stupid state tests in March with flying colors.”

When the period is over, my students walk out two or three inches taller, having shared of themselves and survived. My class feels a connection to each other that wasn’t there before. I’ve learned more about my students and I have a connection to them and they to me.  The seeds of a meaningful, productive teacher/student  relationship have begun to grow.

A principal whose views I value highly often correctly summarizes students’ perspective of teachers in the urban environment with the saying “If you don’t know me, you can’t teach me.”

He’s 120 percent correct. The devotion I show to my students is matched and exceeded by the thousands of my colleagues in the Columbus Education Association working with and for the students and the families enrolled in the Columbus City Schools.

Members of CEA work tirelessly to prepare our students for the future. The CEA Blog is proud to host the ongoing series “Teaching in the 614”. Written by CEA members, it provides an insight into the personal victories and challenges our members experience on a daily basis, working with the students of Ohio’s largest urban school district.

If you are interested in writing for “Teaching In The 614”, email Phil Hayes, CEA Electronic Outreach Coordinator at phayes [at] ceaohio.org.

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