Thursday, April 26, 2012

Trust the Students

*Some not altogether polished thoughts on high school students, books, and writing*

 A couple of my students stopped by my classroom after school. We had a delightful chat about, among other things, books. In the course of the conversation, I asked for their opinion on the controversy surrounding YA books that deal with difficult issues like self-harm, eating disorders, and suicide. I wanted to know if they thought such books were dangerous for kids to read; if they would be "triggers" for someone struggling with such issues or cause someone to try such behaviors.

"I can read those books, know that the feelings are real, and know better how to help someone who is going though something like that." One of the girls told me.

Her classmate was thoughtful while she waited to speak. "I think it depends on the person. For some people it wouldn't be a good idea. They're not in a good place, and reading about it won't help. Other people it's fine. It can help them."

Their responses did not surprise me. It seems that often in our effort to spare kids pain and to keep them safe from what we deem to be hurtful, we forget that kids are capable of making good and healthy choices. So many times I have seen a student choose not to read a book because they know that it's just not for them. There is always going to be someone who doesn't make good choices. But many kids need to read books to help them heal from their own experiences, to understand what someone they care about is going through, or to understand the dangers involved in risky behavior.

Adults are scared-something that is quite understandable when you look at the headlines these days. Students do make cries for help in their writing, but they also use their writing to try to make sense of their world. When I was in high school I wrote a story about a brother & sister who were physically abused by their father. I had read a similar story and was intrigued. My teacher knew my family and knew that this was not a situation with which I had first hand experience. She didn't freak out; she made some comments about the sensitivity and seriousness of the issue, and left the door open if there was anything that I needed to talk about.

I was saddened when a student told me she had stopped writing because her parents had found some of her writing and flipped out because of what she had written. "Parents want you to go to them with things, but when they flip out on you and start distrusting you, it makes you not want to share your thoughts with them. I understand why they're upset. I know that they love me and want to help me, but their reaction makes me not want to share anything." A pretty preceptive kid!

I'm left with a sense of the weight of responsibility I carry as a teacher. I can't just hand any book to any student. I need to know my students. I need to be sensitive to and respect each family's values. I can't just quickly read through their writing without a thought to where it is coming from. I need to create an environment where they feel safe exploring ideas and issues, and feel confident that when help is needed, help will be given.

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