One of the most memorable lessons of 7th grade is the “Interview and Experience” Project. We assign students to identify, contact, interview and “experience” a slice of someone’s life. The person they choose needs to be different from them in at least one substantial way. We spend much time and effort in 7th grade discussing issues of identity, shifting selves, and the impact of cultural identifiers upon one’s sense of self.
This project makes differences real by engaging students in experiencing stories. The stories they hear in the interview are the ones that will simmer in them and challenge them.
What has emerged from this project is a mixture of growing up on the part of the 7th graders and a sense of belonging in a community beyond the immediate walls that surround them. What has also emerged is a palpable connection between the students and the interviewees. The genuine respect, learning and appreciation on both ends of the experience is reflected in the words the students write and in the reaction of the interviewees who sometimes have said that they feel appreciated, respected and validated in a way that they never thought possible.
Because this project is demanding – requiring courage, poise and preparation on the part of the 7th grade students, we conduct practice interviews in school as part of the process of learning about what it takes to make a good interview.
Today, we prepared our students by brainstorming questions, discussing how to ask follow up questions, and how to deal with difficult questions and responses. We talked about being polite, being alert to body language and nuances that suggest discomfort on the part of the interviewee. And then each of the three humanities teachers rotated classes so that the students were interviewing a 7th grade humanities teacher that they perhaps had seen in the halls, but that they did not have contact with on a daily basis.
These times are exciting and filled with possibility. The interview last only 20-25 minutes, but they just might be the moments of 7th grade that define us. During this time, students seem more focused, intent and involved than at almost any other time.
During my interviews today, students asked me about my tattoos. I was prepared for this. I have been asked about them before. It is a moment of unexpected seriousness for the students, I think. They have preconceived notions about what it means to have a tattoo. Both times today, when I explained one of my two tattoos, the room became even more quiet, the students contemplative.
I explained to them that the tattoo is a Celtic D, and that I had it done two years ago, to commemorate what would have been the fifth birthday of my son, Declan, who died shortly after he was born. They were silent, reverent even. And, the student who had been elected to conduct the interview was in both cases, caught off guard, but poised nonetheless. Each expressed sympathy, and as they grasped for a question that would allow them to continue the interview, I found myself helping them to be at ease with the hard but honest truth of loss. For some of them, this moment might be the closest they have come to this kind of loss, while for others it might have been a reminder of their own losses.
The moment passed, and the student interviewers took deep breaths, and plunged ahead, moving on to ask about Gorilla Girl and Monkey Man, about adoption and whether or not to learn Vietnamese. They wanted stories about Gorilla Girl and Monkey Man, and I happily and obligingly told them about doorbells and blueberries. We ended in a transformative moment, one of growth, change and putting the pieces of life back in place.
This afternoon, when I returned to my own students who had been interviewing one of the other teachers in my absence, they wanted to know about my tattoo – they had asked the other 7th grade teacher, and she told them that she knew, but that they needed to hear the story from me. I wanted to keep them focused for the moment on debriefing the experience they just had, but finally I relented.
I was telling the story again, for the third time in one day. After I finished, several of the students had tears in their eyes, and a pall had fallen over what is usually a rambunctious and high-energy class. They wanted to know how the other classes responded, and I explained, as best I could, that from such seemingly innocent questions, deep and personal information can be learned. I also tried to offer to them the idea that though this death has permanently marked me, and the tattoo is an outward sign and reminder of that, that unlike the tattoo, my relationship to the loss changes. They asked quiet, thoughtful questions, and finally, I moved them to a place where I could tell them the story of doorbells and blueberries. They needed a moment of solace and the joy of Monkey Man and Gorilla Girl helped them find that comfort.
When I worried about revealing too much of my personal life to my students, my colleague reminded me that our stories are what define us. What we remember about our teachers and ultimately what connects us to our students are the stories we share. She said, “You have become three dimensional to them and this moment is something they will remember long after 7th grade is over.”