Sink Holes and Lava Flows

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On Mondays, if I remember, I ask my class how their weekend was, though sometimes by last period the weekend seems far away. I don’t have any research on this, but somehow it seems like talking about their weekend honors their life outside of school and says that what they experience matters. Also, sometimes I glean interesting tidbits about them, and pretty much always I can get a sense of the class energy from the way the discussion flows. So I ask.

Today, before I even finished the question, one girl was shaking her head and making a face. It was not a good weekend. She wants to move. Uh-oh.  I looked at her hard – I know of several reasons why she might want to move, so I wanted to tread carefully, but I also knew that if she spoke up, she might make connections in the classroom, and she might find support, so I took the plunge: “Anything you can share?”

There was a shooting just four doors down from her house; she had heard the shots. She didn’t feel safe. “It was a homicide!” called in a boy across the room. Then he added, almost casually, “I live around the corner. A guy got killed.”  I was shocked, but my students were not. Most of them live in the neighborhood, and they had lots to share. They talked about gun violence in their lives: they have heard it, seen it, been affected by it. I wanted to ask questions, find out if they were scared, know what they have seen, but I also didn’t want to push them or puncture the fragile veneer of safety they had created. One boy said he was not afraid because he wasn’t home when the shooting occurred. One girl said most of the shootings are on the 8th floor of her building, and she doesn’t live on that floor. As they talked, I realized that I didn’t know what to do.

I struggled to figure out my next steps, but my students didn’t hesitate. “Miss, did you hear about the sink hole in New Zealand? It’s GIANT!” “Yeah, and the volcano in Hawaii – you can see the lava!” I shook my head – I hadn’t followed any news this weekend, so I knew nothing. They were really proud that they knew things I didn’t. And just like that, we were talking about the changing world. We searched for articles, collected interesting words (“gigantic cavernous void”), talked about potential found poetry, watched videos. I complimented them for being so aware of the world – they weren’t doing this when the semester started. Most students participated in our discussion; everyone looked at the sinkhole video over and over. We couldn’t believe that it just opened up overnight, that the farmer just happened upon it. We couldn’t imagine having lava flow down our street. We decided that if we were in Hawaii we would NOT be dumb enough to go near the flowing lava to try to take pictures (though I’m pretty sure some of the boys were lying). And then we moved on to the rest of the lesson.

Now it’s evening, and I can’t shake off the shots that my students buried in that sink hole, that they burned beneath the lava flow. In case I had forgotten, my students reminded me today that they lead real lives that can sometimes make school seem beside the point. As we talked in class, we tried to imagine what it would be like to walk somewhere we knew well and happen upon a giant sinkhole in ground that had seemed solid just the day before.  I think that actually happened to me today. Their world is not mine. I am shocked, overwhelmed, embarrassed again and again that I can think that I know who they are. I love them, but I know nothing.

17 thoughts on “Sink Holes and Lava Flows

  1. Wow, I feel your shock and fear for your students. Have you heard about Sara Ahmed’s book, Being the Change? You should look into it. Heinemann has a few podcasts with her about it. The book is about social comprehension and what to do about those awkward moments in the classroom. I heard her at NCTE and have the book on my summer reading list.

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  2. Thank you for sharing. This is a story that many, many children live each day. It is our job as educators to share these stories especially with who are in positions of power. You and your students are amazing. Thank you again for sharing and for the work you do for these traumatized children.

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    1. Writing this last night gave me the push I needed to tell my Admin team this morning. Hopefully we can serve our students with increasing understanding as we learn about their worlds.

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  3. As evident from your post, these shared moments about life teach both us and the students. You gave your students the opportunity to share and talk and process. No need for embarrassment! Your exchange was real.

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  4. Your post gave my goosebumps–that moment when they are suddenly so excited to share about the sink hole and the lava and whatever your plans were for that moment, you set them aside to lead your students down a wonderful rabbit hole to pursue their wonderings and curiosities. If I experienced that moment as a teacher, I would be like, I’m done, I’ve taught them everything I know, they’ve learned it, we are GOLDEN, we can stop now, because we all got 100%!. Because that is huge. And then the way you take the sink hole and turn it into a metaphor for everything you don’t know about their lives, everything they walk around in their world every single day. Such a beautiful piece of writing. (I’m reading Being the Change right now and can second that recommendation.) Also, do you know Malcolm London’s spoken word poetry? He has a tremendous Ted Talk that’s him performing a spoken word piece about education, but then he has another piece about a friend who died from gun violence that is also very powerful.

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    1. I am totally with you about the discussion. It was awesome. I found the whole class oddly hard to process. I mean, we had a GREAT discussion and I was secretly really proud of the work we’ve done and our ability to have these wide-ranging conversations. I’m all like “they have LEARNED” something – and then, later on I realized – whoa – they are living in a world that is so so incredibly different than mine. And I know this – I mean, I’ve been teaching forever – but I haven’t worked with this particular kind of student (as much as a group of kids can be a “kind” of student) in a while. And it’s a magnet school, so the division is even more pronounced… AH… this is an entirely different blog post…. Thanks for telling me about Malcolm London – watched approximately all of his pieces during my prep this afternoon. AND I harassed my admin team into allowing me to buy the hardcover of Jason Reynolds’ Long Way Down to teach to this group. I hadn’t dared ask, but today I was fired by righteousness. This is the right book for this group. It comes Friday. 🙂

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  5. You are definitely validating your Ss lives outside of school by inviting their experiences into the classroom.

    As you found out, (the hard way), the responses you receive are oftentimes unpredictable. Kudos to you for offering a space where your S felt safe enough to share and that you have built a community within your four walls that knows how to support each other.

    I love your reflection: “Now it’s evening, and I can’t shake off the shots that my students buried in that sink hole, that they burned beneath the lava flow.”

    You did just that for your student – helped to bury the fear a bit and give a reprieve from worrying about homelife.

    Goosebumps for sure!

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  6. I spend a lot of time thinking about how little I know about my students, how complicated and challenging their lives are. It’s good to ask the kids about their lives, about their weekend. It really how they know we care.

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    1. Yeah – I’m kind of shocked that I’m shocked. I mean, I should know better – I *do* know better. I talk about my students, think about them, know that I don’t know… but then one of them tells me about the murder a few houses over, and I’m turned inside out all over again.

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  7. Hearing stories like this is always a shock to me because my personal world is peaceful. However, I know from experience that this is not the case for far too many. I student-taught where neighborhood shootings were common to my fourth graders, one was injured in a shooting. I worked in a school where a student committed suicide with a gun in the gym. I’ve shared PD in schools traumatized by violence. Once a family feud from several generations locked down a very small school in a very rural mid-America town while I was there. A week later the principal was hospitalized because she got caught in the middle. I have visited refugee camps on the Thailand-Myanmar border filled with people, many orphaned children, who fled as their jungle villages were burned by their enemies. Forgive me for rambling, Amanda. But believe me when I say, you are light, life, and hope to your students. We may not be able to change their world, but we can help them so they can choose to live in a different one. Blessings!

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  8. I taught in East Harlem. Many of my students lived in “the projects” across the street. The stories they told me — which ranged from mattresses being set on fire to drug busts to shootings — stunned me when I started out. I learned then that I had a lot to learn so I listened. I listened with empathy, like you did, in an effort to cultivate better and deeper understanding.

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    1. Stacey! I completely forgot to respond. Thank you for your comment last week. It really helps to know that other teachers have experienced/ are experiencing this. My students don’t live in “the projects” – at least not my version of it – so I’m having to re-think my idea of what it means to live in the area around my school.

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  9. I think you attempt to know them, and the fact that they feel comfortable talking to you about their fears and their hopes, proves that. It sounds like they want you to know them. We’re all so multi-faceted, and in our short time with our students each week, we can learn part of who they are, but not all of who they are. I can tell you have a way about you that makes them feel safe sharing, and, sometimes, that is everything, despite what we can/cannot teach them or provide them, otherwise. The world my current students live in is so sheltered. They seem to know nothing of the things that can hurt them, but they are also second graders. When I student taught 5th graders in the inner city, it was a different story, and I remember vividly the horrible things they feared and knew too well too soon. Thank you for yet another insightful slice and thank you for providing these moments for your children to share and to be vulnerable.

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    1. Hi there – I got slack with responding (because I got busy with school – sigh). I completely agree that we can learn part of who they are, but not all of who they are. Kind of true about everyone, I suppose. Sometimes I feel like they really *want* me to know them & it’s almost disappointing for teenagers to realize that we can’t know them completely; other times I know that they would prefer to stay hidden. Also, I didn’t know you taught second grade – my son is in second grade. Bet he would love you – but he is a handful (the best kind of handful). 🙂

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