I've been teaching in the Bloomfield Hills School District for nearly 35 years. It is an affluent, suburban school system northwest of Detroit, serving nearly 6,000 students.
There have been a number of changes in our district over the decades related to student demographics, school initiatives, and state and federal mandates, just to name a few. But the one constant that has remained in place over the years is the inherent insecurity of young people. This lack of confidence is perhaps most noticeable during the middle years. I'm an eighth grade English teacher, and I am always moved and dismayed by the hesitancy I see in my students. Whether they are the star pupil with a perfect GPA or a struggling student with significant learning challenges, they all share one trait in common: self-doubt.
Regardless of the content I'm teaching, one of my most important focal points throughout the year is building confidence in my students.
Ironically enough, it starts with making myself vulnerable in front of my students. I share with them the fact that I have a neurological condition called essential tremor, which causes my head and hands to shake to a significant degree. I talk to my students about how much trauma it's caused in my life, but I also talk about how, despite that challenge, I have built a life where I am deliriously happy. I want them to see that all of us are battling some barrier, and it's important not to let those impediments defeat us.
The revelation of my neurological disorder is often a springboard to poignant and heartfelt conversations about some of the challenges my students are facing. And as they articulate the struggles they’ve endured, I can see them becoming less embarrassed and more able to accept that we all have our own hurdles to leap over, and they begin to feel more empowered to leap over them.
One of the most profound ways I have found to help students gain more confidence is the Breaking Barriers program. It is a curriculum as well as a writing contest designed to help students understand the challenges that others face, look at the difficulties in their own world, and recognize how much strength they have exhibited in actually coping with and sometimes even overcoming these barriers.
I embed the program into my short story unit. Every story the students read helps raise an issue around some type of stereotype, including those related to mental illness, socioeconomic status, race, religion, and disabilities. Before ever discussing the literary merits of each story, students are given an opportunity to converse in small groups and sometimes in whole class sessions about real world issues that surface in the stories.
For instance, when the kids read “The Treasure of Lemon Brown” by Walter Dean Myers, they discuss common misperceptions related to the homeless as well as people of color. Those conversations often spin off into broader discussions of racism and how much responsibility we bear to assist those who are impoverished. This year, the conversation included a newspaper editor who recently encouraged a resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan, the appropriateness of kneeling during the national anthem and what role race may have played in people's perceptions, and a white supremacist and Holocaust denier receiving 56,000 votes in a House of Representatives race.
The conversation was student-driven. I never dictated the course of the conversation, nor did I inject my own predispositions and opinions. It wasn't about me proselytizing; it was about students grappling with challenging subjects and finding their own voices and their own perspectives while respecting the viewpoints of others, even those with whom they disagreed.
The actual essay portion of the Breaking Barriers program asks students to write about a challenge or problem they have faced in their own lives, and how they have used some of Jackie Robinson's traits to overcome or at least cope with that barrier. Every year I am deeply moved by the rawness and the level of risk taking the students engage in as they focus on a personal battle they have fought. Most importantly, I can see the students begin to realize how much they have persevered, and for some of them, it is an epiphany. For the first time, they are able to acknowledge how much fortitude they have exhibited and how much innate strength they possess.
Yes, their challenges are harrowing to read about sometimes, but in every single instance, an undercurrent of grit, determination and hope permeates their observations. There is something freeing and empowering about throwing back the veil that has kept their pain hidden from the world. By submitting their essays to a contest, students also begin to see that their struggles, opinions and passions matter to more than just their English teacher. There is world out there just waiting to hear what they have to say, and that is exhilarating to them. Watching my students gain confidence in their own voices gives me confidence in their ability to help shape a better future for us all.