Narratives in the classroom

I like to think of the relationships I have with students as stories. Each story — just like each student — is unique, having its share of slow starts, funny moments, ups and downs, and dramatic pauses. Some are less eventful than others, or take a longer time to evolve, but they are stories nonetheless.

Unless I’ve taught a student before, their story usually, but not always, begins in September. It’s then when our relationship consists of nothing more than my name on their schedule. We’re strangers. But over the course of the next 10 months, a lot changes. Histories and passions and fears and hopes and interests are revealed, all expressed (or not) in myriad ways both during the 45 minutes we are granted each day and after it.

How and when these things develop over time determines the shape of the arc of each relationship. Some arcs are wide and far-reaching, others are more straight and direct. There are those that bend only through content, which is fine, but the good ones veer and loop through the many crevasses of life. Many arcs come to a solemn end at the close of the school year. A few persistent ones continue to curl and twist long after June.

For me, because teaching is so relational, each of these mostly 10-month arcs makeup one of the most important aspects of teaching. When I think about this, questions emerge. For example, how am I thinking about the bonds I create with students, both personal and academic, as something that matures, little by little, over the course of the school year — and beyond? Instead of focusing on distinct moments I share with them, how can I view my relationships with students longitudinally, where these moments come together to tell the bigger story of our work together? Over the course of many months, how I can strategically piece together and, dare I say, sequence conversations and other shared experiences that enable me to connect with a given student effectively?

Suppose today I learn, somewhat randomly, that one of my students made breakfast for their sister. Let’s say it was eggs and bacon. Let’s also say that learning this was the consequence of a 5-minute conversation at the end of class in which I asked them about their day. Maybe, a couple of days later, I ask if they’ve made breakfast since then. If so, was it the same thing or something different? Why? Was it good? Maybe after a week or two of casual moments discussing food and their chef-life nature, I learn how they’ve been watching cooking shows since they were nine. Or maybe in a Friday Letter I share that I made eggs and bacon for my wife and it reminded me of them and their sister. As we laugh, one of their responses leads to something deeper, like how when the student doesn’t eat breakfast, they get headaches.

Then, after seeing how disengaged they are during class one day, they tell me they have a headache…and I guess right that it’s because they didn’t eat that morning. They were running late and almost missed the bus. We talk a week later, in the middle of class, while everyone else is working, and learn that their headaches sometimes trigger migraines. These migraines can be crippling and even keep them from attending school, which explains why they missed school the day before. During a few of our tutoring sessions after school, we casually chat between problems about other causes for their migraines. Every couple of weeks I informally check in on them and if they’ve experienced any migraines, and while doing so, we branch out to other areas of their life, like their love of softball, which helps them cope with the ongoing stress that their migraines cause them. I make it known that I want attend one of their upcoming softball games…and eventually do. That opens up a world new talking points for us, like how they want to study sports journalism after high school.

I could go on here, but I won’t. It’s but one simplified, somewhat exaggerated example, but it’s how narratives can be created in the classroom and how I tend to nurture them. They’re not always rich with detail or result in frequent check ins, but they do require my inside-out, intentional pursuit for them to materialize. Framing each relationship as an ongoing set of daisy-chained exchanges like the one above sets me up to deliberately and continually see each story through to its conclusion. As they mature, I become part of and invested in each narrative. I have buy in. Each one is a thread that when picked up, followed, and woven together with the 25 others in the class, creates a fabric of humanity that makes it possible for me teach my students mathematics. Steeped in a system that too often reduces my students to test scores and accommodations, knowing their stories leads me to knowing how to teach them. For me, it comes down to stories over statistics. I don’t always live out this creed, but I try.

Because remote learning — and its endless Zoom links — has made it impossibly hard to have meaningful interactions with my students, their stories have largely gone unwritten this year. I wonder sometimes about all the moments I’m missing because of the pandemic, all the 5-minute conversations at the end of class about eggs and bacon that lead to so much more. I wonder who my students actually are.

I sit in despair when I think about these things. I struggle to accept how the arcs of their stories, of our relationships, are unmistakably flat, linear, and uneventful. There are implications buried in this struggle for me and my teaching, the affects of which I probably won’t comprehend for a long, long time.


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