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I cannot forget Vaishali.
She was, interestingly enough, the most forgettable student in 7th grade. She seemed to be invisible even in an empty classroom, blending in seamlessly with the desks and walls. When I realized 6 months into teaching her that I didn’t know what she sounded like, I also didn’t know that her invisibility was not an accident. I would discover later that it was a carefully planned, staged performance. My colleagues told me how tired they were of encouraging her, even admonishing her to speak up in class.
Given her poor academic performance and a letter of request, she got herself a seat in my Academic Support Group, a small-group intervention class for students who needed additional support. After over 6 months of intense 1-1 and small-group time with her, one day, I decided to ask.
“Why are you so quiet in class, Vaishali?”
“Because I don’t like to be embarrassed.”
The story, I learnt, went back to 3rd grade when Vaishali was only 2 days old at the school. The Geography teacher asked a question to the class. She answered. She remembers neither the question nor the answer. What she remembers vividly, however, is how 3 boys smirked at her answer and said, “Itta bhi nahi aata!” [Doesn’t know even this much!]
5 years ago, I saw only one aspect of Vaishali’s second day at school: bullying. The role of the 3 boys and the role of the teacher as a silent spectator sealed Vaishali’s humiliation. In a classroom with a better culture, this may not have happened. In a classroom with a more sensitive and alert teacher, more damage control might have been possible. After having fought hard against bullying over the years, what stands out to me today, additionally, is that Vaishali was never able to speak except in 1-1 and very safe small-group settings despite how safe the classroom was or how sensitive the teacher was. Today, I want to pause and think about the internal barriers Vaishali found almost impossible to overcome.
In his book Embarrassment: And the Emotional Underlife of Learning, Thomas Newkirk aptly points out how the original meaning of embarrassment was “something like ‘barrier’ or ‘obstacle’ – an impediment that might be used in fortification.” Embarrassment was such a huge barrier to Vaishali that her reading and writing were 4 years behind when she was 14 years old. She felt safe in an invisibility that was suffocating her learning.
If embarrassment can act as such a powerful deterrent to learning, I wonder how much more potent its effects are in a writing classroom given how writing is perceived in general versus its true nature.
Most students who come into my classroom think that writing is an innate talent, something only a few students have. They don’t believe it can be taught or learnt. They are surprised that they’re being asked to undertake a creative pursuit in the classroom. “What’s the point of writing a poem?” they ask. “No one is going to ask us to write one in the exam.” It’s far easier to fail in an act that is understood to require learning and struggle than in an act that measures innate talent. Trying original writing, to my students, felt like an invitation for embarrassment.
Even outside of the Indian education system, writing is such a radically brave act. The braver the act, the more difficult it is to be vulnerable, and hence is more prone to embarrassment: a constant presence in my writing classes witnessed in the ever so slight hesitation before handing me a draft, the tight muscles during writing conferences, and the avoided eye contact as I walk past a desk. Newkirk’s describes it fittingly: “When we are embarrassed, we feel for a moment outside of the human collective, stranded, alone.” (Newkirk, chapter 2) Put this way, it makes complete sense why Vaishali or the students in my writing classes try so hard to be less alone even at the cost of their learning and future prospects of a good life.
How then can we help ourselves and our students feel less alone in a writing classroom where being brave is a prerequisite to learning?
Every month, I plan to suggest one idea in this direction.
Tell them that they’re not alone.
- For slightly older children, read aloud excerpts from books or articles on the struggles of writing and the role of embarrassment in preventing successful learning. Two of my favourites are
- For younger (and older children), read aloud picture books that talk of embarrassment and the frustrations of trying something new. I list some of my favourites below. Although many of these books are not strictly about embarrassment in a writing classroom, they all touch upon how someone in the act of learning feels alone and hence act as great conversation starters
- Source video/written interviews of their favorite authors talking about their frustrations to show students that all writers go through similar difficulties.
- Most important of all, share your own frustrations and embarrassment with your students. Show them drafts you’re working on. Share what you’re struggling with. It’s equally important to share stories of ongoing frustration, problems you haven’t solved yet along with frustrations of the past, and how you overcame them.
I now make it point to include one of these read-alouds as a mini-lesson at least once a trimester. Periodic reminders are essential given how easy it is to drown in the quick-sand of embarrassment.
When we know we’re not alone, writing (and life) can be a little less daunting.
What read-alouds have you found helpful in navigating the topic of writing struggles and the resulting embarrassment?
You can connect with me on Twitter @teachingtenets or on Facebook at facebook.com/movingwriters.
*didi: sister, in Hindi. In one of the schools I worked, teachers were addressed as didi.
Newkirk, Thomas. Embarrassment: And the Emotional Underlife of Learning. Portsmouth, NH, Heinemann, 2017.
NOTE: All student names are changed to protect their identity.
Featured art by https://www.khidkiyaa.com/
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