I posted short journaling activities for my seventh grade students on the board every morning. Students responded to each statement or question in their writing notebooks when they entered the classroom. I designed the journaling activities to serve as springboards for discussion during instruction. Oftentimes, the writing activities invited us into deeper learning within the learning experiences that none of us ever expected.
One morning, I instructed them to describe a robot that would meet their every need. What would the robot look like? What special buttons did it have? What functions could it carry out for you? I took attendance and stacked homework assignments while they invented robots on paper.
Students eagerly volunteered to share their robot descriptions with their classmates. I expected to hear imaginative stories about flashy machines that cleverly transformed into Lamborghinis with video game accessories and slots which dispensed money like ATM machines. Tamisha proudly stepped to the front of the classroom.
“My robot is named Rolanda. She has the same name as my mother,” explained Tamisha. “My robot has soft skin. Rolanda has strong ears like a cat so she can hear when I’m unhappy or had a bad day. We eat fried catfish and collards because she know that’s my favorite. Rolanda helps me with my homework. She thinks I’m smart. Sometimes I call my robot ‘Mama’ and she don’t mind.”
“My robot has big dark eyes and she thinks I’m funny,” laughed Arthur. “She has a really big purse with lots of money. She always has enough money to pay bills. The landlord is afraid of my robot. My robot say, ‘You best not come to this house and tell us to go somewhere else because I’ll lay you flat.’ And my robot say, ‘You ain’t got nuthing to worry about, Authur, because everything is going to be fine.’ And I believe her.”
“My robot wears an apron just like my grandma,” said Marcus. “She smell like apple pie. My robot say, ‘Well, how you doing?’ when I get home from school. She listens while I talk to her and laughs at my jokes. She takes me to the store to buy new Nikes because she knows I don’t like nobody to know I got holes in the bottom of my shoes.” He chuckled and added, “My grandma robot wears Nikes, too.”
“My robot is named Julius. He has muscles and he’s tough,” Toya added. “Julius don’t let nobody in our apartment. He locks the door and if anybody try to get in, he punches them in the face. He don’t like my mama’s boyfriends and he makes them go home at night. And my robot tells her boyfriends that they best not put a hand on me or it will be the last day they touched anybody. Julius promised me he would saw their hands off if they hurt me.”
Jelanor rarely spoke out in class, but the intensity of her gaze reflected hungry absorption of every word. She cautiously raised her hand.
“Everybody likes my robot in my family because she make everybody feel special,” softly explained Jelanor. “Nobody fights or argues when my robot is in the room. They respect her and they treat each other nice. Nobody gets hit. Nobody points a weapon at nobody else. My robot is sweet and very pretty. She talk in a soft voice and don’t yell. My robot is my best friend. I feel safe when I stand by my robot. When I go to bed at night, I hear shouting and gunshots. But my robot say, ‘Stop that and you all behave.’ She turns a light on outside my room when I go to bed at night. She stays awake until I go to sleep.”
The students nod. Tears fill my eyes and I find it hard to speak. Violence and being left alone at night is a common, dark reality in the lives of most of my students.
“What you want to be when you grow up?” Tamisha asked Jelanor.
“What’s that got to do with anything?” snapped Benjamin.
“When I grow up,” Jelanor replied, “I want to be a robot.”
“A robot?” laughed Shaniqua. “That’s stupid. Then you can’t feel nothing.”
Jelanor considered this.
“Then I’ll keep the best parts of my robot inside of me,” she answered.
“It sounds like the best parts of your robot are already inside of you, Jelanor,” I added.
Words have power.
“Can we draw pictures of our robots, Miss Connor?” Tyrone asked.
I reached for a large crate filled with art supplies. They tacked their pictures and stories to a bulletin board they named The Art Gallery. When questioned about the pictures on the board and their lack of alignment with district assessment standards by school administrators, I explained the pictures, poems, and stories showed we valued what was in the minds and hearts of our children.
There is a time for everything within the school curriculum and students’ lived experiences. There is “a time to tear down and a time to build … a time to weep and a time to laugh … a time to mourn and a time to dance” (Ecclesiastes 3:3-4, NIV). There is a time to write, a time to draw, a time to share, and a time to listen.
Leo Buscaglia, author of Living Loving and Learning, said, “Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have potential to turn a life around.” We have within us the Power to be instruments of change in the world. Storytelling and story-listening forms connective tissue between what we hear, what we see, what we experience, and what we value. We are called to listen to the Voice within that invites us into communion with one another … to be fully aware and fully connected to the All-Good in all people and in all things.