By Apryl Riley, AVID Elective Teacher and Site Coordinator, Harlan Community Academy High School
It’s always hard getting to know your students right away. You have a few who are comfortable telling you every detail of their life (sometimes too comfortable), and others who you can’t get more than a “Hi” from. Eventually, a majority of them come around, and you have an awesome community in your classroom that builds success. Last year, I welcomed a new batch of AVID freshmen after saying goodbye to my lovely seniors. After being with them for four years, it was an adjustment for me getting used to new faces, quirks, and personalities. As always, we know that it’s an adjustment for incoming ninth graders, as well, so I did what any awesome AVID teacher would do: tons and tons and tons of team and community building activities.
I started out lighthearted, and then moved into more detailed getting-to-know-you activities, but this group was quite challenging. For six weeks, there was no icebreaking with these students. Their lack of enthusiasm and brief responses were odd and very frustrating for me. I couldn’t understand why they were so unresponsive, so apathetic. Then, one day while creating questions for a tutorial, one kid blurted out, “This doesn’t even matter right now!” He used way more colorful language than I’m expressing, so he was asked to stay after class. I asked what the issue was and why he felt the need to be inappropriate. He gave me replies like, “This is stupid!” and “I don’t want to be here.” As soon as I told him that it’s okay to not know everything and that he’s in a safe space in my classroom, he looked at me like I had nine heads and said, “Am I really?” The way he said his question and looked at me told me that there was more to this than just tutorial questions. I decided that the next team-building activity would be a little risky.
I decided that my students would write about themselves in a poetic format using a mentor text. This mentor poem made it easier for my students to think of something and start writing, as they mimicked the format and style of the poem. When I gave them the handouts, my students had puzzled looks, and there were some grumbles about AVID “not being an English class,” but I pushed through. I was determined to understand why my students had these walls.
The poem that I chose was “Walk In My Shoes” by Victoria T. Zicafoose. I read the poem aloud once, and they read silently. I read the poem a second time, and they had to highlight lines that resonated with them. Then, the third time got a little trickier. This time when I read it, they were to close their eyes and just listen. After assuring them that no one was going to steal their things and no one was going to get jumped, they relaxed, closed their eyes, and listened. If I read a line that they identified with personally, they were to raise their hand. I paused each time that they raised their hands and thanked them for being open. Once it was read for the third and final time, they opened their eyes, sat with their thoughts, and wrote in the right-hand column across from the original poem. What came next was unbelievable!
I was brave enough to ask if anyone wanted to share their poems. As in the past six weeks, I thought this was going to be like pulling teeth, but the most reluctant (and angry) child read hers first. As she read it, she started to tear up—something I wasn’t expecting. And then, one-by-one, each child felt comfortable reading their poems aloud—letting me and all their classmates know about a walk in their shoes. That day, the ice was broken, the wall was torn down, and the tears flowed from every eye. They kept their promise never to reveal details of everyone’s story, but would tell their friends and other teachers that the activity “was so good.” I learned so much about my kids that day and so much about myself.
Each set of kids who walk into your classroom come with a different set of personalities and a different set of needs. There is no one-size-fits-all activity when it comes to educating children. They all come from different walks of life, different experiences, and different ways of handling it all. I learned that, while we want our kids to understand us, we must also understand them. We must first open up, and then they’ll be inclined to let us in, as well. After the activity, the tutors and I created our own poems and decided to share with the class. They were amazed—just as we were with their stories—about what we have been through and how we were able to stand strong and still pour into them. This activity was probably the best one I’ve ever experienced, and it helped out tremendously moving forward the rest of the school year. You never know what your students could be going through, and it’s up to us to take down those walls and take a walk in their shoes.
For more on AVID, visit AVID.org.
Apryl Riley is an English teacher at Harlan Community Academy High School, where she has taught for the past nine years. Apryl received her bachelor’s degree in English from the University of Illinois, Urbana–Champaign, and decided two years later to enter the educational world, earning her master’s degrees in Secondary Education and Curriculum and Instruction from National Louis University in Chicago, her hometown. Currently enrolled as a doctoral student at Concordia University–Chicago, Apryl aspires to teach readiness skills to bright, new student teachers and refine the skills of seasoned teachers, much like her capacity as an AVID staff developer. In her spare time, she enjoys community service with her sorority, dancing, yoga, and her newfound love affair with creating crafts via Pinterest.