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Sometimes You Just have to Stop What You're Doing

Last week, things broke down with one of my classes. Students are required to bring a writing prompt to class three times during the semester, and a prompt quickly segued into a discussion that stressed our classroom's sense of community. (I think I blogged earlier about this class and the Thanksgiving feast-like arrangement of desks on the first day of school and the insistence that everyone must sit together because "we're family.") It was a prompt that I thought was "safe" but could lead to uncomfortable conversations, which is when we learn the most.

It was then that I remembered a line a professor shared during office hours in college: "When a conversation devolves into that of good versus evil, all room for negotiation has gone out the window." And that's what happened.

When students talk in front of their peers, they take incredible risks. Students analyze the discourse of the other students in the room, even when they think they don't. What words did they use? How did they say them? What moves are they making during the conversation? What does their body language suggest about their beliefs and true intentions? And they did just this during our brief post-writing discussion.

Before I knew it, I had a student so flustered I was afraid she would storm out and another so upset that he couldn't form words. This was the antithesis of what had happened for the previous eight weeks of class, where students were sharing, snapping their fingers together, and encouraging each other to be better each day.

So, I made a professional judgment, and I scrapped the content for this week. Well, I scrapped the writing content and, instead, made my students and our sense of community the content. Sometimes that's just what we need to do.

So, the past few days, my students have "crossed the line," shared the history of themselves, and shared the verbal and non-verbal messages they have received growing up.

Are we the same as before? No. Is there still a little feeling of discomfort because students felt upset with each other? Yes. But it was reassuring when the same students expressed a heartfelt desire to have the other students share their opinions, their viewpoints, and their writing in class. They make me proud.

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