Deb Brandon: Living in Radiant Color

Safe Environment

Carson burst into song, “I’ve never been to Alaska!”
I had trouble suppressing my smile. “That was definitely something boring in an interesting way.
Many teachers have a ritual to break the ice with a new group of students. Doug asks them about their favorite flavor of ice cream. Russ hands out index cards asking students to write a significant fact about themselves. Janet asks students to speak of their interest in her course.
And I used to tell the students a bit about myself, that my accent wasn’t fake, that I was a weaver and a dragon boater. I never thought to actively involve the students in the process.
After I came home from the surgeries, I felt compelled to write about my journey with cavernous angiomas, brain injury, and recovery, and as I grew as a writer, so did my awareness of the power of storytelling. I found that as we tell our stories, we set ourselves on a path towards mutual trust and respect. Through our stories, we begin to learn to accept each other as multifaceted, complex, valuable human beings.
I’m not sure why I did not think to immediately implement these new discoveries into my teaching. I’m pretty sure that during my first year back to teaching, I was too afraid to expose my vulnerabilities. My second year, when I decided to open up about the bloody brain, I had no inkling that it would start a dialogue, an exchange of stories between my students and myself. Nor did I have any idea that it would transform the classroom experience, taking it to another level.
But as that second year progressed, I noticed that my lectures had become became more interactive. It eventually clicked: my discoveries about storytelling applied to the classroom. I recognized that by sharing my story, I showed the students that I saw them as people, individuals who have something to offer, not as faceless names on a long roster who sit passively while I lecture.
From that recognition came the realization that I should give the students the opportunity to share their stories, not merely sit and listen to mine. The key, I realized, was having the students play an active part in the conversation.
On the first day of the following semester, I started my new ritual. “Tell me something boring in an interesting way, or something interesting in a boring way.” They responded enthusiastically. As a result, they felt more at ease with me and with each other.
And the classroom became a safe place, for all of us.