Welcome back to Sixtraitgurus! We hope you had a restful, relaxing holiday break and were able to spend important time with family and friends. We thought it would be an inspiring way to kick off 2014 by hearing from a different voice, in particular, the voice of a student reader and writer.
Alejandro S., who self identifies as Hispanic, is a senior at a high school here in Beaverton, Oregon (where I, Jeff, live). He has very kindly agreed to share his thoughts about his experiences as a student, his interests in reading and writing (a couple of things we at STG care deeply about), and his post-high school plans. What follows is the text of a speech Alejandro was asked to give at the Oregon Leadership Network’s 2013 Fall Leadership Institute on December 3rd in Portland, Oregon. The OLN (oln.educationnorthwest.org) “…is the only statewide educational leadership network in the nation with equity at its core. It seeks to expand and transform the knowledge, will, skill, and capacity of educational leadership to focus on issues of educational equity so each student can achieve at the highest level.” Alejandro’s speech was delivered to an audience of hundreds of educators from over twenty Oregon school districts and ESDs. During a session called Realizing Dreams and Aspirations Through Student Voice, he and several other students shared their honest feelings about school, what their teachers could do to help them, and about what they perceived as their personal challenges or barriers to success.
Hello! My name is Alejandro, and just like any other student, I have aspirations for my future. One of them is to become a writer and have my work published and spread throughout the world for people to enjoy, as well as to learn from.
A couple things I’m doing to help realize this goal is that I’m reading everyday and writing any chance I get; it’s even a part of my senior project. I’m going to write a collection of short stories and self-publish it. But another goal I have is to become a teacher. I believe that teaching is the best way to lead young people to success and a better future for everyone. As a senior, I’m very nervous and anxious for what happens next, but I know that being a teacher is what I need to be. That’s why I’m going to apply to the Portland Teachers Program (www.pcc.edu/resources/portland-teachers/) because of the opportunities this will present to me, and because I know this program will better equip me with the skills, qualities, and values needed for me to succeed and better educate students.
I’ve also had to face challenges along the way. A specific challenge happened when I was in middle school and I had received a good grade on a paper I had done. The teacher handed me the paper and said, “You actually did well”. This was the first time I realized the real power behind language—that language could be used in a negative or positive way. That one word, Actually, was said to me with so many insinuations and expectations on how the teacher believed I would progress in school based on my background.
Another challenge I’ve had to face came from my fellow classmates, students themselves. While many students looked at the good grades I’ve gotten with shock, the kids from my same background also look at me differently. They expect me to be a stereotype—to hate school and do poorly. The word “white wash” has been said to me many times, even from people I don’t know. So I’ve had to face this challenge and decide whether I want to be a stereotype and act the way society has invented a person of my background to act and be accepted by everyone, or divert from that social construct and just be me and do the best I can to get the most out of my education. It took a while and a lot of thinking, but I will always choose what’s best for me and not let others ignorant comments or perspectives dictate the way I should act.
Although I might see education as an important way for me to succeed, many other students don’t see it the same way. They see it as a system that’s against them, a system that doesn’t care about them as much as it does the white students, so they decide to give up. I know they feel this way because I’ve talked to these types of kids, and because I used to feel the same way. I still feel that the system is more flawed than we admit it is, but it’s because of the many great teachers who dismiss this system and teach in a way that enables students to succeed, that gives me hope that we can create change and progress for all students.
There are things that you as educators can do to help kids feel differently about school and better appreciate it. One important thing I would say is to get to know your students better on a personal level. Ask them exactly what we are talking about today. Ask them to write you a paper on how they really feel about school and what you can do to help them make school more enjoyable and important to them. And there is another thing. I’ve noticed with many of the students today that they don’t like to read. They get a book assigned in class and they immediately groan and perceive the book is bad before even turning one page. I’ve noticed it with many of my friends, and it’s really a shame. It’s a shame because reading is an important foundation, an important first step to success. Reading in itself is a different language, one that we can “master” but never stop learning about. It’s also what has motivated me to speak to you today.
When you read, you’re reading about the world and people’s experiences. Reading allows you to expand your mind with new ideas and forces you to support or challenge what it says. It’s also a very important step to success because after reading, comes writing. When you write you create your own ideas from your experiences from reading. You see the world in a different light and although it doesn’t seem like it, writing allows you to be heard and create change. And that’s what teachers today have to do, present reading in a different and creative light that will interest students.
Because when you read about the world, you then write about the world, which leads to speaking to the world, and this allows you to change the world. And that is my ultimate goal and aspiration, to change the world in the classroom as a future educator and to change the world as a future writer.
A Bit More About Alejandro
I recently sat down with Alejandro to attempt to mine a bit more gold from the mind of this amazing young man. Here are some of the questions I asked and some nuggets from his answers.
What’s the inspiration for your interest in reading?
My mom was a single parent and worked a lot. I don’t remember her reading to me much, but there was a volunteer at my elementary school, who read with me and gave me books to read. In middle school, I would get books from the school library—I chose a lot of books because of their covers and if they were popular. I would stay up late reading, sometimes until midnight. I saw the Stephen King movie, It, then decided to read the book. It was my first really big book. I didn’t know you could write a scary story and still have it be about real life or important social issues. I learned that I liked horror, sci-fi, and dystopian novels. When I was a freshman, I read Fahrenheit 451 and was dumfounded. The same things happened with 1984. I learned to read things twice, the first time to enjoy it and the second time to learn. One of my teachers said literature is asking questions without getting the answer, and I like thinking that way when I read.
Well, like I said in my speech, after reading comes writing. It’s the best way to express yourself and speak to people and get your ideas out in the world. I’m going to be a teacher and I want to be able to help my students succeed. I want them to know that I’m a reader and a writer, too.
What is your message to teachers about helping students become more interested in reading and writing?
The main thing for students, especially middle school students, is to be engaging. You can’t just tell a student to read a book by a certain day. You have to get them talking about the book, like in a Socratic seminar, where you are the guide, but they’re thinking and talking with each other and their ideas count. When they write about the books and their ideas later, it’s more like they’re speaking to someone.
I hope you are as impressed (and inspired) as I am by Alejandro’s words. Think about all the fortunate students who will one day walk into his classroom and be energized by his passion. If you would like to ask Alejandro a question or comment on his speech, send it to me here at STG, and I will pass it along to him. I know he would greatly appreciate the feedback.
Coming up on Gurus . . .
I managed to get quite a bit of reading done over the holidays, and I’m planning on sharing a few of my favorites over the next couple of posts. Here are some titles for you to explore in advance: Winger by Andrew Smith, Around the World by Matt Phelan, Lifetime: The Amazing Numbers in Animal Lives by Lola M. Schaefer, The Cheshire Cheese Cat: A Dickens of a Tale by Carmen Agra Deedy & Randall Wright, Math Talk: Mathematical Ideas in Poems for Two Voices by Theoni Pappas, and Amelia Lost: The Life and Disappearance of Amelia Earhart by Candace Fleming.
2014 is upon us, and if you’re considering professional development in writing during the current school year (or getting geared up for the next), we’d love to design a seminar or series of classroom demo’s to meet your needs at the classroom, building, or district level. We can incorporate any combination of the following: Common Core Standards for writing, the 6 traits, effective approaches to dealing with genre, and the best in literature for young people (including emphasis on reading to write). Please contact us for details or with questions at any time: 503-579-3034. Thanks for stopping by. Come back—and bring friends. And remember . . . Give every child a voice.