As a teacher, I look to assign work through which students can make a deep personal investment. Every teacher knows that if work relates to a child’s world, their dedication to achieving success in the work will be that much greater.
Our Mosaic lesson today focused on cultivating thoughts that would motivate the students to capture photographs that spoke about them as members of the community. I shut the lights, asked them to put their heads down, close their eyes, and get comfortable. I prayed the phone or fire alarm wouldn’t ring and that no student would immaturely sabotage the meditation activity I was about to lead the class through.
(I should take this opportunity to mention that so much of the wonderful work I was able to get out of my students last year – and anticipate this year – is due to the mentoring of one of my favorite photographers, and friends, Jessica Fei. She is the one who suggested, among countless other ideas, the meditation exercise as a way to stimulate thinking. Her site showcases her breathtaking photos.)
The meditation required the students to visualize themselves in an elevator, that, upon opening would deposit them on their neighborhood block. Eyes closed, I asked them to look around, noting colors, shapes, sounds, tastes, textures, smells, feelings, voices, and languages. I had them return to the elevator, and when it opened this time, they’d be back in the classroom. When I gave the command to open their eyes, there was to be no talking or questions. They opened their notebooks and started writing immediately about what they experienced after they got out of the elevator.
Bliss ensued. Pencils flew across the pages as students fought to record the words as quickly as their hands would allow them. No one spoke. It was an unspoken understanding as we all united in passion for this experience. No one wanted to break the sanctity of the creativity and silence. I tiptoed through the room, lights still off, trying to remain unobtrusive as I excitedly fought to read their passages. For a solid 15 or 20 minutes, my charges dedicated themselves to total detail recall.
Maintaining my calm voice I told the students that, if they chose, they could continue to write down details. The others, though, should proceed by reading what they wrote and condensing it into one sentence beginning with the words, “My neighborhood is”. For some, this was a major challenge, given the amount they wrote, but they approached it with similar gusto. I remained elated and inspired. I eagerly and greedily skipped around the room, anxious to see what gold they were mining with their words.
When we joined together 10 minutes later, I told the class that they would each be required to read one of their sentences to the group. There would be no commentary. It would just be an opportunity for us to all hear, enjoy, and ponder the different viewpoints. For some students, sharing personal, intimate work like what they did today is terrifying. Yet, they all spoke clearly and proudly when they read their amazing sentences.
Two stick in my head tonight as I reflect on the day with my blossoming storytelling photographers. One girl wrote something along the lines of, “My neighborhood is a place for family and memories.” I just loved how she recognized the impact of the neighborhood in formulating memories. She’s also set herself up for wonderful possibilities and some creative thinking. I asked her on the way out how she planned to capture such a sentence. She said she’d bring her family outside into the street (I think there is great potential here). I was really intrigued by the question I left her with, though. I wanted to know how she planned to show a memory in a photo. I can’t wait to see what ideas she brings back.
The other sentence that really touched me was constructed by a boy who, unlike any of my students, immigrated to this country less than 3 years ago. He’s a quiet young man, who is older than his peers, and while I wouldn’t call him shy, I would say he’s withdrawn. His sentence carries the impact that makes this project so wonderful. When he read it to the class, it was very longwinded, and he knew he had to get it to be more succinct and clearer.
As he left the room, I remarked how much I enjoyed the thoughts he was seeking to convey. And he told me that he had figured out how to say what he meant. He struggled to get the words out properly, and said “My neighborhood is where I was born.” I reminded him he wasn’t born here, and he clarified, saying “It’s where I started a new life.” So I said, “Do you mean to say ‘My neighborhood is where I was reborn?” That was it, he said, and he positively beamed when I told him how fantastic his idea was. I’m just tickled pink that a student of mine took this so much to heart and unlocked a piece of himself that can be let out creatively.
The Mosaic Project, year two. New students, new thoughts. A project, and teacher, reborn.