Can we call this learning how important it is to empower students? My last year at Kettering Middle School, where I first taught, I had only two classes of 8th grade students, each of which I saw for two 73-minute periods a day, teaching them English, Reading, and American History. I wanted them to work on being able to tell personal narratives.

I prepared them using several approaches. First, we read a passage from Once Upon a Time When We Were Colored by Clifton Taulbert. The passage we read was about going to see the circus, but were evicted by an usher and were told ‘This ain’t the night for niggers/\.’ Given the largely African-American makeup of my classes, I suppose there was some risk, but my students knew of my own work in civil rights, and were willing to trust me.

The next day I came dressed as a Roman Catholic Monsignor. I then put up two different versions of a personal narrative of my own life, when I as a student of Jewish background was enrolled in a masters program at a Roman Catholic Seminary. While I was Christian, I was not Catholic. One of my teachers, Monsignor Dan Murray, went out of his way to make sure I was not uncomfortable, particularly when we were studying the Gospel of John, which has passages that can be interpreted as anti-Semitic. I offered first a plain, bland version, which offered the facts, but had little life or energy to it. Then I shared a different version, one of which was much more personal, including more of a sense of Fr. Dan, and of what I experienced. I then encouraged my students to pick something from their own lives that mattered to them.

What I got back after the weekend blew me away. One narrative in particular, by a young lady I will call Chanel. It was her 14th birthday, and her uncle who was in his early 20s took her out to celebrate. His pager kept going off, and he ignored it to be with her. She knew her uncle was a gangbanger, and was honored that he was focusing on her. Then at one point he glanced at the pager, became very somber and told her ‘Baby, I have to go.’ It was from the head of the gang, who ordered him to appear. The story as later reconstructed by the police is that when her uncle appeared, he tried to quit the gang, whereupon the gang leader shot him in the forehead, killing him immediately.

Chanel’s narrative went on, with her wrestling with her sense of guilt ‘ was she responsible for her uncle’s death? Ultimately she decided she was not: he had chosen his life, still she felt terrible at the loss. It was a powerful piece of personal narrative. I asked her to read it to her classmates. When she completed her reading, at first there was absolute silence for more than a minute, then slowly her classmates began engaging her in conversation. Some of it was reaching out to affirm her. Other parts were asking questions, probing further, seeking to connect themselves and things in their lives to what she had just shared.

For the rest of that year those students became passionate about what they read, and even more about what they wrote, insisting on hearing each other’s work. I claim no great wisdom in what happened. This event speaks to an important role of the teacher, which is to remove barriers to student learning, to encourage students to take risks. None of which will really matter until at least one student demonstrates that for the others, as Chanel did for her classmates in that remarkable personal narrative. And from that exchange I learned that the most important learning often comes when a student is empowered to take the lead.

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