Eric Trinh Chu is a 2013 Meritus Scholar and rising senior at Kenyon College, studying sociology and literature. Through the Meritus internship program, he is spending this summer teaching creative writing to kids aged 7-10 with 826 Valencia, an education nonprofit. He plans lessons, supervises breaks and field trips, and gives instruction with a team of two other intern-teachers. Post-grad goal: become a published novelist.
Every teacher dreams of a classroom rapt at attention, of that a-ha moment when a student arrives at understanding.
My kids at 826 Valencia had different ideas. For them, learning happened at the edges of boundaries just as often as inside. That is to say, my kids spent about as much time throwing things at each other, screaming, bickering, crawling under tables, and finding creative ways to leave the classroom as they did completing each day’s assignments. I learned that it was all a part of the process. They were testing me—would I return, day after day? Would I still believe in them, even when they didn’t believe in themselves? Would I be able to address needs many of them still lacked the language to express? One of my fellow interns discovered, weeks into teaching, that one of our youngest students had dyslexia. What we had assumed were simply symptoms of an unusually large developmental gap suddenly made sense: quick fatigue when reading, eccentric spelling, and reliance on audio cues; it all added up. But then what? All we had found was a label for our student’s struggles. Whether each struggle had a diagnosis, like an acronymed disorder, or was just a nebulous lack of resources (self-esteem, prior mastery of language mechanics, etc), each of our students’ unique dispositions posed challenges to us intern-teachers. It was hard not to take things personally when a student slammed a door in my face, or when another student flat-out refused to write after calling my instructions boring and unclear—but it was necessary to always look at why the student was acting out, to keep an awareness of the unspoken worlds each kid held.
Many days frustrated me. After all, my team and I were attempting something a little bit crazy: between the three of us, we were trying to meet the diverse learning needs of twenty-odd quickly-growing humans. We were trying to give and give—knowledge, guidance, mentorship, love—to a group of students who would always need more than we could give. I felt inadequate. I knew I did not have the tools to be as inspiring, or compassionate, or nurturing as I wanted to be. I had to learn to rely on my team to pick up where I faltered (and vice versa). We reminded each other to make multi-modal lessons (meaning we had to plan our lessons to include visual, audio, kinesthetic, etc activities to fully address the range of learning styles our students embodied). We remembered to praise our students for the hard work they put in rather than for their abilities (according to an educational framework called growth-mindset). We even remembered to praise each other for the hard work we were doing, as teachers; we gave ourselves, like our students, room to grow.
And let me tell you, it was so rewarding. I saw magic happen: I witnessed a student stand up for another student who was being bullied. They didn’t have to know the words autism or restorative justice to defend their peer and open up an opportunity for communal healing. I read, or more often heard aloud, wildly creative stories from my students’ imaginations. Once, when I struggled to help a student see the point of poetry, I let him instead follow his whimsy to draw a teddy bear. When I came back to him a few minutes later, I found that he had written a verse in rhymed couplets about the emotional comfort of his teddy bear. He had found a way to let his soul grow warm, and, in the act of surrendering to his muse, birthed verse. It was then that I realized how little I had to teach these kids. They all had it in them—the wild imagination, the capacity to feel—that all creative writers have. My role, I realized, was to contrive the structure to guide my students to themselves.
I found myself growing stricter. Every minute wasted to silliness, noise, and disorder was a minute of which I was allowing my students to rob themselves. Each minute was one that they could have otherwise used to find their ways back to themselves, to the aesthetic bliss of creation and self-understanding through writing. A lot of them didn’t see it that way. If you asked my students today, I’d bet some of them would groan about the “torture” they had to experience, hunkering down to put pencil to paper in those hot afternoons when the sun beat in on our classroom relentlessly. They would probably tell you how at first, I let them fly paper airplanes, scream what are those and I like turtles! at the top of their lungs, and use the bathroom whenever they wanted. Then, they’d tell you, I became a meanieMcscroogeface. That’s part of the experience, I suppose, working with kids—things are either the awesomest or horrible.
Learning to be more firm was an important step in my growth. I began by assuming that my kids knew what was best for themselves and would communicate that to me. While this was often true (I witnessed moments of self-advocacy from my students), I more often found that my students didn’t even know that they didn’t know. It was okay to miss a step here or there in instruction, because one of us teachers would bridge that gap, but we found that the gaps grew. Some kids would struggle to begin their writing while others had finished. Like my mother insisting that I wrote to completion during my childhood summers, I found myself being firm with my students because I believe in their potential. It’s a tough balance. I don’t know if I hit it.
But then, I remember some of the pieces they’ve written. The pieces we had to coax, cajole, and challenge them to stick with. The wildly funny, thoughtful, tender, unexpectedly profound, sometimes-sad gems of prose and poetry they breathed life into with their hard work. Their successes are my vindication. And our lives, students and teachers alike, are immeasurably richer because we have met.
“Look. How lovely it is, this thing we have done – together.”