The other day I tweeted about StoryCorps and how easy it is to capture relatives’ stories during the holidays. I still have the recording of my grandfather saved, where he recounts growing up in Fowlerville, Michigan, as an orphan.
And remembering this, made me remember the time that one of my Creative Writing classes was at war. Some students would frequently volunteer to share their writing after Sacred Writing Time, and a small faction of students began expressing their frustration at repeated topics. No matter how many times I assured that them it is okay to “write what we know,” the same small group of students would still mumble and disengage, subtracting from the safe environment that I had hoped to create. I knew that I had to repair the sense of community before we could move on, before we could share our StoryCorps recordings from the holiday season. If not, no student would be willing to take the risk necessary to put their families, their histories, their cultures and traditions on display.
I can’t remember what was said that day, but I remember the tears and shouting from students. Had I been observed, I am sure that from the outside my classroom management skills would have been considered incredibly weak. The classroom had reached a point so divided that I knew that what I had planned would never come to fruition if we did not address our sense of community.
So I stopped. The writing for that day? Moved. The mini lesson I had planned? Postponed. We needed to get to know each other even more. We needed to understand our similarities and our differences. We needed to focus on interacting as people before we could fully interact as writers.
So I used a tool that was shared with me by the Michigan Roundtable for Diversity and Inclusion. This “Cultural Sharing Sheet” became the foundation of our next few days, including an exploration of “Life’s Lessons,” the verbal and non-verbal lessons that were imparted to us about nationalities, genders, races, socio-economic status, and education levels.
It was awkwardly slow at first. I had to begin by sharing the messages that were shared with me growing up: Hard work is the solution for everything. You will go to college and be the first person in our family to graduate from a university. No one is better than anyone else.
As we went around the group, first sharing safer categories and then others not so safe, students began to see each other in a different light. While we are not inherently the beliefs that raised us, we are influenced by them. Sometimes we want to embrace them, and other times we need to actively work to distance ourselves from them.
I wish I could say that everyone got along from then on out, but that would be a lie. The tension dissipated, sure. There were still disagreements and misunderstandings. But when they did happen, everyone was a lot more willing to pause and think, recognizing that we aren’t necessarily the beliefs and actions of our families, but we are definitely shaped by them.