Scaring My Students, submitted by Michelle Byrne
I’ve been told on occasion I am brave, but bravery implies that the person being brave has some sense of the risk and face the danger despite knowing about it. So I can’t call myself brave. Silly, maybe. Optimistic, preferably.
I felt optimistic when I left a meeting with a colleague from our law school and our campus service-learning coordinator. We met to talk about ways to create a service-learning based project on Orange is the New Black, our common reader for the upcoming semester. I explained these were first semester students and this course was not a heavy research course, so after brainstorming, we decided my students would attend events for recently-released prisoners and interview them. Students would write profiles based on the interviews and the re-entry network would have them to use on their website to tell the stories of people working to turn their lives around.
It was July and I was in the euphoric planning stages of the semester when possibility shines: “I will do this and this and this and this!” Only after describing my project, did it begin to sink in what I agreed to. I was going to ask first-semester college students to meet ex-felons, interview them about their prison and post-prison experiences and then write about it. What could possibly go wrong?
The first day of class, I laid it out for them. The project was voluntary, but if they opted out they would have to write an alternative paper comparing two or three essays. I had them sign a statement saying they understood the project and agreed to it. I acted as if this was happening in all the other classes all over campus, and it was completely normal.
They were scared. They were scared before they got to class, but they were especially scared after my class. New-job-scared. I’ve-never-done-this-scared. I-have-no-idea-what-you-are-talking-about- scared. You’re-really-gonna-let-me-do-this?-scared. So-this-is-college-scared. All of which turned about to be good kinds of scared. They all volunteered to do the interviews.
In small groups, over the course of two months, they got their interviews done. After each one, students remarked how surprised they were by the kindness of the person they spoke with, at how eager they were to get back to a regular life, at how much they loved their kids, at how our lives are really not that different. We all want the opportunities to do better. That message resonated strongly with my students.
When they finished their profiles, which were sent to the re-entry program for use on their website, I asked students if writing for an outside source made them write better. Most students said that being responsible for someone else’s story was the motivation to write well, not because it would be on a website. One student said, “Writing about another individual was very challenging at first, because it made me realize that I have the power to portray this individual however I like. So I wanted to be extremely careful not to portray her in a false light.” Another student wrote, “I wanted to tell his story and make sure people know that he just made a mistake and that people should give him more of a chance. And I think I did that. It was kind of hard, I’ll be honest.” And finally, another student said, “I mostly wanted to make this paper good for K.V. [the interviewee] because it’s his story and I needed to capture it perfectly. It puts a lot more pressure on you while you’re writing but it also makes the paper better.”
They almost all mentioned they were scared to do this. In a reflection, a reluctant student wrote, “When I learned that our most important writing assignment this semester would be a service learning project that would require us to interview an ex-felon, my first thought was, ‘What the hell; I’m not doing that’.” At the end of the semester 100% of the students enjoyed the project and felt they learned a great deal, not only about writing but also about the issues in our criminal justice system. They appreciated being considered mature enough to complete the work and responsible enough to do well.
Expectations matter. They may matter the most. When we expect a lot from our students, it will scare them. It will scare us. Working together, we overcome the fear and we prove what we are capable of. And we are a little less afraid the next time.
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