Sunday, November 15, 2015

Writing, Listening, and Healing: Reflecting on our Lives as Students

Reading through students’ exit cards the other day hit me pretty hard, left me feeling heavy with sadness. I had asked students to write about what would happen if they spent time reflecting on their lives as students. Most students are entering freshman and first generation, so I asked this question because I wanted to help them build a habit of reflection and introspection. 

They wrote. A lot. But I didn’t expect to read such discouraging answers:
  • If I spent my time reflecting on my student life, I would most likely start stressing over time. I suck at time management, and I feel stupid for falling so far behind. 
  • I would start to doubt my feelings about going to school. My motivation to stay would disappear, and would honestly just start to give up. My mind is constantly wondering, “What if I just got a full time job?” 
  • I honestly think I would get scared. I am more afraid of failure when it comes to school.
Some students recognized the value of introspection. But several answer suggested anxiety over even trying to do so: “I should reflect more each day. But I don’t.. . . I doubt I will change because of my stubbornness and excuses I make. ” Others simply felt fear: "Just reflecting on life scares me”. 

Yet several students, even ones who had written about their fears over reflecting on their lives, wrote hopeful words, answers that remind me of what James Baldwin said: “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” If we don't tell the truth about our problems, until we face them, those problems won't necessarily vanish. But if we ignore those problems, we'll never solve them. Here's what some of those students had to say: 
  • [Reflection] is good and necessary. On a normal day, as a student, I just go to school, go to class, go to lunch, go to work, then go back home. But how often do I set and think about my day? The majority of time, I only reflect on my day if something really good or bad happened. I need to sit and think on my life so I can keep track of what I’m doing.
  • If I spent time reflecting about my life at school, it would feel so much easier to get through the struggles I have with homework, essays, exams, or whatever. I would feel enlightened and less stressful just by talking about it or meditating more.
  • [Reflecting] would probably help me to get things off my chest and let other people understand a bit more about my life and my situation. I would be some sort of therapy to just talk about myself and my life to someone who would actually listen.
After reading the comments, I knew I had a responsibility to address the mood in the room and to provide some guidance. So I shared the reflections the next meeting, reading comments but without mentioning names. The more optimistic words students shared gave students hope. That was my goal, and I wasn’t disappointed. 

But the greatest benefit of the our sharing had less to do with those more optimistic responses than with the other comments. The more pessimistic responses had an even greater positive impact considering the high engagement and meaningful discussion that followed my reading of the more "negative" responses. 

I feared that sharing the vulnerable reflections would push the class into an even deeper downward spiral. But instead of discouraging students, their words made them feel less alone. A lively and often tearful conversation ensued. Students openly shared their struggles with school and the difficulties they faced in other areas in their lives. 

It turned out that the written reflection encouraged them to open up and reach out. Even though the written reflection was anonymous, students' words created enough trust for classmates to reveal what was going on. 

And just as importantly, their vulnerability made them feel closer, as did their offers of support to each other. People attended to each other in the most non-judgmental, caring way. Even if students often didn't have clear, definitive answers to solve each others' problems, their attentiveness had a healing quality - the power of listening. 

I’m blown away at the sort of sharing that happened in class, the high degree of openness and risk-taking, and the genuine offering of support. None of this could have happened had students been too scared to speak on their own fears, had they not trusted themselves, and each other. 

Writing and speaking toward their weakness, sharing their truths, strengthened our community. Certainly, speaking their fears didn’t directly solve their problems, but students are in a much better place to face their particular struggles knowing they have each others' backs. 

Our meeting also reminded of the power of students' language. I intended to give a pep talk. But their own words, in their own vernacular, sparked a kind of growth that no lecture or rallying cry could offer. This experience made me discover - again - that I can trust students much more than I do. And I thought I already trusted them! 

It's my job to create the conditions to get students to find their own solutions, and this set of activities helped me learn again that those problems are not limited to the course objectives. I keep learning, at progressively deeper levels, that our success in reaching our learning objectives depends on the health of the learning community. The personal, and interpersonal issues that we all bring to the class condition our ability to reach our shared task.