teaching, learning and living around the world
One of the greatest things about teaching at The American School of Kinshasa has been really learning to see my students as humans. I’ve really loved that. Sharing and discussing our own human experiences- through literature and history- has really opened up my mind to envision my classroom as a space for so much MORE than just World History Part I or 8th Grade English. And I know that if I had started my teaching career at a school full of many more constraints, I wouldn’t have been able to be a part of something so exciting. But don’t get me wrong- my classroom wasn’t always exciting… there were dull days and horrible days and days when I knew for sure that I did 99 things wrong and only 1 thing right. But there were moments… brief, awesome moments. And now I sound like one of those cheesy “Teacher Moments” books so let me just stop and cut to the CHASE!
I am attempting unsuccessfully to reach the point of saying that these past three years have really shaped me as a teacher, and I feel like I owe a HUGE thank you to all of the students, parents and administrators- for always supporting me in whatever methods or content I found myself experimenting with. I’ve become a great risk taker in my teaching, which has allowed the kids to take risks with their reading choices and discuss issues that some people think are too controversial to discuss. I have enjoyed sharing all of this risk taking with my students- tremendously. A huge factor in making it enjoyable was always hearing encouragement from fellow faculty and appreciation from parents.
Recently an old friend, who is also now a teacher, asked me for a good anecdote. Instantly I thought of the following moment- involving the Seed family from a few years ago. This is the kind of support and encouragement of risks I have felt time and time again from the Tasok community. This was my very first “teacher moment” where I just thought- holy moly I can’t believe this is happening.
I do reading workshop with the 6th and 7th grade kids which means all year long they get to choose any novels they want to read. Most of them read anywhere from 20 to over 100 books each year- I’ve really enjoyed it. So, my first year doing it I was definitely nervous because… it meant kids had complete freedom. Also, I was new at the school so I was still feeling out the school climate and community expectations for how “risky” their children’s reading material could be. We have a mix that includes everything from Christian missionaries to devout Muslims, and every ethnicity and culture in between… so I really wasn’t sure!
Another tough part of Reading Workshop is figuring out how to inspire kids who would rather stare at the wall for thirty minutes than read. There was one kid in particular, Ryan Seed, who had yet to find “the” book (the one that turned him on to reading). During reading workshop I always had to send him to get water because he would fall asleep reading Eragon! So I kept thinking- maybe some non-fiction would be good for him.
Over my winter break I had read An Ordinary Man by Paul Rusesabagina. He was the real life manager of the Hotel Colline in Kigali, Rwanda and survivor of the genocide. I really loved the book because it was fascinating and down to earth- but it was also quite gory.
Well… when I returned from winter break I thought- Hmm, maybe Ryan Seed would like this. Maybe a little heavy for a seventh grader, but at least it might get him to READ. So… I loaned it to him during class with two other choices. At the end of class he asked if he could take home An Ordinary Man. I said, “Sure- but make sure you run it by your parents because it’s pretty serious stuff.”
After he left class I thought- Hmm. Seventh graders aren’t known for their clear communication with parents… better send them an email before the end of the school day. That evening I got a quick email from Ryan’s father- who wrote, “Sara, thanks for the note about the book. We are okay with him reading it and also just so you know, Ryan’s mother Rose is Rwandan.” So naturally I kind of freaked out… thinking oh no, I’ve opened up this family tragedy. But sure enough every English class for about two weeks Ryan brought that book and read the whooooole time.
A few weeks later I saw Rose, Ryan’s mother, at a family fun day. She came over to me and said, “Sara, I’ve been meaning to talk to you.” She held my hand tightly and we walked. I was so incredibly nervous and hoping she wouldn’t notice my sweaty hands! I was ready for her to ream me out about opening a can of worms that her family didn’t want opened. And you have to imagine a tall, strong, almost regal looking dark-skinned Rwandan woman. In her powerful voice and beautiful accent she said, “Sara, I want to thank you for giving Ryan that book.”
Surprised and relieved I responded, “No problem, I just wanted to give him some choices outside of Eragon that might get his attention and help him realize that reading itself isn’t boring- there’s too many books out there to choose from for it ALL to be boring!”
“And we thank you for that- we’ve loved seeing him reading that book every night. He can’t put it down. But it’s also bigger than that. I think my husband told you- I am Rwandan. And Ryan has always asked a lot of questions about our family, and what happened in ’94- and none of us have been… ready to answer him yet. So… thank you for giving him that book. It has answered so many of those questions that were just too painful for us to explain ourselves. You are really a wonderful teacher.”
Well… WOW! I mean, all I did was give the child a BOOK because I thought it might help him like reading and there I go helping out his whole FAMILY! Needless to say I was sort of shaking after that conversation. I was just so relieved that she wasn’t mad at me, and so amazed that I had really been able to… be the deliverer of a book that really touched a kids life. It was a pretty powerful moment for me.
That experience with Ryan and his family really encouraged me to take more risks in the reading material I recommended to kids. Hence why I felt comfortable giving the 8th graders a book like A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier, or having a debate with seventh graders about the long standing conflict between Israel and Palestine.
I will always cherish the fact that I started my teaching career at TASOK. My experience has freed me from the chains of standardized tests and top-down curriculum design and has not only allowed me to take risks, but the students, administration and parents have supported me, encouraged me and nurtured me throughout my teaching. The community has shared both my struggles and successes all along the way, and being part of that community has given me the strength to move forward, ideas and pencils blazing, on to the next school.