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A Safe Space to Embrace What You Love

by Mary Cotillo
October 8, 2013

When I was in eighth grade, I loved things. I loved my friends. I loved Bad English and Poison. I loved reading David Eddings’ fantasy series The Belgariad and The Mallorean. One of these things was not quite as socially acceptable as the others, but I didn’t really know that. Or if I did, I didn’t really get it. I was, and am, a passionate person. I love out loud. And so sometimes my thirteen year old self found herself in the awkward position of loving something that was not cool.

p: cdrummbks via photopin cc

Imagine, if you will, a typical late ’80s junior high classroom. Desks are in rows. The boys and the cool kids sit in the back. I’d ventured back into their territory one day because I’d discovered that one of the cool boys also read David Eddings. He hadn’t gone quite as far into the series as I, and I had a copy of the book he needed next.

It was such a thrill to be making this symbolic trek; I could barely contain my excitement. Here was someone who read what I read, how much more did we have in common? Certainly we’d become good friends. He was likely to fall madly in love with me and be my boyfriend! Wouldn’t all my friends be, like, so jealous? So, with the anticipated envy of the female population of eighth grade prominently displayed on my sleeve, I handed over KING OF THE MURGOS and stood back, awaiting his effusive thanks and a smoldering glance meant to convey his awakening desire.

It didn’t turn out quite like I’d imagined.

Cool boy was more in tune to the social world than I. He knew that reading wasn’t something to be flaunted. He knew that fantasy, in particular, was associated with awkward girls in unflattering haircuts and giant glasses that didn’t even look good on Kim Bassinger in BATMAN. Reading was associated with boys who didn’t play football. So instead of sweeping me off my feet and manfully striding into the sunset, he looked at the cover art featuring the primary female protagonist, and quipped to the delight of his entourage, “Who’s the chick with the rack?”

Twenty four years later I’m still embarrassed when I think about it.

Silly Mary. Don’t you get it? Reading isn’t cool. You have to hide such ridiculous passions. Some things are okay, and some are not. And never the two shall meet. You can’t be on the basketball team and audition for the school play. You can’t go around singing show tunes and expect to get a date for the prom. It was some time around eighth or ninth grade that I started paying attention to what was cool and what wasn’t, and I believed a lot of what I saw and heard. It took twenty years for me to stop believing it.

So why are you reading transcripts from my therapy sessions? What does this have to do with teaching reading? Everything. This has everything to do with teaching reading.

I have decided to take the coolness hierarchy that everyone implicitly agrees to, and I’m going to banish it from my classroom.

This summer I went to craft stores and bought scrapbooking paper. Each page represented something I think my students might love, and the pages became the backing for my bulletin boards. Football, hockey, dolphins, moustaches, cupcakes: those were easy. I forced myself to stretch. I made myself buy paper with math symbols and NASCAR on it. I swallowed my discomfort and bought paper with scriptures that proclaimed “God is love.” After all, these bulletin boards aren’t about endorsing any one ideal; they’re about acknowledging that we ALL have passions, and they are ALL worthwhile. And, more importantly, they are equal.

This year, when I introduced myself to my students, I called myself a “literary dork.” I pointed out the action figures of Shakespeare, Poe, Dickens, and Austen prominently displayed in my room. I let my guard down and gushed about my love of words and how the meaning of a story or a passage or a poem could hinge on one tiny little article. I recited my favorite lines from literature: HAMLET, JANE EYRE, PRIDE AND PREJUDICE, TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD. William Carlos Williams, “So much depends upon a red wheelbarrow…” I felt my volume rise, my face warm. “Neighbors bring food with death and flowers with sickness and little things in between.” I felt tears come to my eyes and I let them come. It was hard, it wasn’t comfortable, and it was a risk, but I stopped worrying about being pretty and composed and authoritative and cool, and I was just me.

In a good classroom, there are moments. I’m sure you’ve had them. The room is silent and all eyes are on you and you know that the kids are just soaking up everything and really feeling it. This was one of those moments.

Because although they may not have discovered exactly what it is they love, they know they want to love. They want to feel deeply and passionately about something important. Even at the young age of 14 they can recognize the bravery it takes to love out loud, and they admire it. They want to emulate it.

And that’s when I pulled out Wesley.

p: WilWheaton via photopin cc

Wil Wheaton is known for his portrayal of Wesley Crusher on STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION. This summer a video surfaced of a touching answer he gave to a woman’s request at ComicCon. She asked Wil to explain to her new baby girl why it’s awesome to be a nerd. His response, which you can watch in its entirety here, is probably best summed up around 1:40 when he says, “It’s not about what you love, it’s about HOW you love it.”

That is the atmosphere I want to create in my room. I want my students to love deeply, passionately, wildly for whatever it is that speaks to them. A handful will react to literature the way I do, and that’s great. But I don’t need all of my students to be mini-Marys. I want them to be artists and actors and jocks and musicians and skaters if that’s what they want to be. I want to open my classroom to all the potential they bring. But I can’t do it alone. In order for my room to be a judgment free place, I need the explicit help of everyone in there with me.

Instead of implicitly going along with the judgmental standard quo, I ask my students to actively choose to be accepting of others’ differences. Students have acknowledged, in writing, that their peers will like things they do not. They’ve also agreed not to give others a hard time. Students agreed not to act as if they are better than anyone else. If they do, they’ve acknowledged that they may be asked to apologize verbally and in writing. Because I can tell my students all day long that my room is a safe place, but if my students don’t back me up, my words mean nothing.

In the coming months, my students will engage in self-directed inquiry projects. They’ll be expected to choose a topic to research, required to develop an inquiry plan, and present a final project that will demonstrate learning in the four content areas. It’s a new idea my team is trying out, and I sometimes feel a little overwhelmed at how open ended and daunting it seems. But then I look at my bulletin boards, clad in sheet music and manuscripts and baseball bats, and I recommit to helping students explore and express what they love.

Mary Cotillo is an 8th grade ELA teacher at Horace Mann Middle School in Franklin, MA. Mother to two children, she enjoys engaging in light saber battles and hanging out on soccer fields. She earned her National Board Certification in 2009.

© 2013 Mary Cotillo. Please do not reproduce in any form, electronic or otherwise.
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