By Jonathon Medeiros
I can already hear the responses: Be more engaging. Control your students. You can’t let them act that way. Work on your classroom management!
Sure, but let me think about my school day, one single day. I welcome each student out in the hall, hello, aloha, good morning, yes I’m well, you? The students enter a calm and uncluttered space, the rainbow on the whiteboard declaring that “if you are kind, your day will be like a bright rainbow,” courtesy of my 9 year old. They see the ever present note that “being understood feels like love” and they know exactly how class will go.
We will talk, share our kind attention, we will read, and write, and listen, and have time to quietly reflect, time to take a public academic risk, if we are ready. They always know I am there pushing them to think, to change, to struggle with difficult ideas that matter but that I am always there with them as a partner in the learning. This is not to imply that other classes do not do this, only that this classroom, the one I share with my students, is purpose built to be engaging, challenging, safe, and honest.
And who walks into this class each morning? Five students buried deep beneath hats, hoodies, and shades, earbuds in, screens in palms. Some others without the hoodies but still the devices. Some with no ability to talk on a given day. Some in surf shorts and cowboy boots. Some on time, many five, ten, twenty minutes late, but consistently so that one might say they are punctual. Some show up with smiles, some genuine, some in defense against the world of school, or the world in general. Some arrive at 8:05 with a full plate of fried chicken.
We aren’t reading irrelevant, dead pieces of the canon and completing worksheets or meaningless essays. We investigate our places, the stories that are here, the ones erased and the reasons for the erasure of those stories. We learn about people’s beliefs and investigate our own; we think about and talk about how people in power try to keep that power. We grapple with the unkindess of the world and our kuleana, our reciprocal responsibility, in the face of that. And when one student is talking about how they feel marginalzed because they are queer, or because they have an accent, or they are from the Marshall Islands, another is numbing themselves with the videos on their phone.
And my “please stop watching videos” is met with “f– you fag bitch!” And “please join the circle and learn with us” is met with lying across three chairs or hiding on the floor under a desk.
And I think about how the octopus used to have a shell.
Adults sometimes use this metaphor to talk about hard to reach students, asking questions about getting them out of their shells. Early in its evolution, the shelled mollusk that became the octopus let its shell go, abandoning its most effective safety mechanism. Naked, the world became dangerous.
Without a shell, the octopus heightened its attention to danger, sending its nervous development into overdrive, creating a creature that has more neurons in its limbs and body and skin than it has in its entire relatively large brain. The octopus is now a master of disguise, able to taste and see danger with its skin, a shapeshifting living movie screen that projects all the colors we can and can’t imagine. All of these adaptations are defenses; its speed, its disguise, its jets, its sensing seeing skin, its clouds of ink, all of it developed to be the shell it abandoned.
Now, hyper aware of danger, this being that puts so much energy, so much of its intelligence and creative ability, into defense spends it all in a blur and is dead by the time two years is up.
And when I look across my school day, I do not think these students are building walls or hiding inside of shells. As they enter the classroom, they are on high alert, everything is potentially dangerous, sus. I think about the shells that the students have abandoned or have had stolen from them and the defenses they have developed to cope.
I am the teacher in my classroom; I am a swimmer in the ocean, an interloper, and I am trying to be still so that the shell-less among us can somehow find a way to not see every moment at school as a potential danger or threat.
Jonathon Medeiros has been teaching and learning about Language Arts and rhetoric for sixteen years with students on Kauaʻi. He frequently writes poetry, memoir, and essays about education. He is the former director of the Kauaʻi Teacher Fellowship. Jonathon enjoys building things, surfing, and spending time with his wife and daughters. He believes in teaching his students that if you change all of your mistakes and regrets, you’d erase yourself. Follow Jonathon on Twitter – @jonmedeiros or at jonathonmedeiros.com.
Editors’ Note: Jonathon’s post beautifully exemplifies the earnest reflection and relational teaching that characterize effective implementation of the ERWC curriculum. For more information on the ERWC and its theoretical foundations, please visit the ERWC Online Community.