Doing math happened like this: My dad and I sat together at the dining room table. He had two or three mechanical pencils; a thick, white eraser; and a tablet of graph paper. I had my loose leaf notebook paper that was mostly shredded from all my blotted attempts, a dull pencil with an eraser scraped to the metal, and several Kleenex scattered around my pre-algebra textbook.
“When am I ever going to need this?” I sobbed.
My dad, the most patient man in the world, slowly showed me again how to solve for x, neatly filling the boxes of graph paper. He knew he didn’t have an answer that would satisfy me. If he’d told me, “Algebra teaches you how to think,” I would’ve said, “I think this is bullsh—t,” and I would’ve been sent to bed.
I never had this angst about writing. I can endure confusion, uncertainty, sadness, and anger in stories whether it’s one I’m reading or writing. However, I know students who’ve desperately asked the same question I asked about math: When will I ever need this?
On the day the new U.S. president was chosen, I was teaching in Detroit. I knew my students wanted to talk about the election, and I also knew I didn’t want my classroom to turn into a screaming free-for-all. So I brought in a story.
Teaching Mixed Emotions Through the Story
As Fast As Words Could Fly, by Pamela M. Tuck, is a nonfiction picture book about a boy named Mason Steele. Mason was a writer who, as a young boy, turned “his father’s excited ramblings about the latest civil rights incidents into handwritten letters.” Mason was also a self-taught typist, and one of the first black children (along with his brothers) in Greenville, North Carolina, to attend a previously segregated all-white school.
Before I read the book to my students, I asked: Can you be brave and afraid, articulate and sad, respectful and angry at the same time?
As we read, we looked for examples of where the Steele family, as well as some of the white characters, were both of these things at once. Here we have one of the many examples of the power of story: it loosens up knots we’ve tied within ourselves. It shows us possibility in people we might otherwise write off.
After we discussed the story, I asked students to write a letter to the then President-elect, keeping these questions in mind. I told them it is absolutely okay and perhaps necessary to be afraid and sad and angry, but we must figure out a way to express these emotions so we open up possibilities and loosen tight knots. I suggested exploring how Mason Steele did it, and we took a look at the story again. We studied facial expressions and body language from the pictures. We analyzed the words characters spoke. I also suggested they find a story to tell the new president. “Tell him about yourself; something you’ve done, something you’d like to do with your life.”
One sixth grader told him how much she loves gymnastics; another told him she thinks she wants to be a writer, but she’s nervous about the work. Another boy wrote about a time he was walking home from school and found a kitten lying in the gutter. “I took him home and gave him milk, and I think what I did was good.”
Picture books are excellent for all ages and if you have smaller children at home or school, it’s possible to teach the same concept of “mixed emotions” on a simpler level. Look at the pictures, discuss and define “civil rights.” Ask students if they’ve ever been in a situation when it was hard to speak because they were angry or afraid. Children can draw cartoon strips, or collages expressing a time (or times) when this has happened. Instead of a letter, consider making a greeting card for a government official thanking them for their work, but also expressing a concern.
The point is to get students practicing a skill when they might be discouraged and might not see the point of pursuing that skill. In As Fast As Words Can Fly, students can walk with Mason Steele and watch him feel tough, conflicting emotions (and maybe feel them along with him), and they can see Mason continue to put one foot in front of the other.
I never became a master at math. Thinking about solving equations makes me short of breath, but maybe what my dad was trying to show me was not so much how to solve for x; but how to struggle with x. Through the power of story, we can teach students the art of doing the same—whatever x might be.
“Practicing Mixed Emotions” Activities & Discussion
1. Do you think it’s possible to be brave and afraid? Why or why not?
2. Do you think you can be articulate and sad? Why or why not?
3. Do you think you can be respectful and angry? Why or why not?
4. Can you write about a time when you felt one of these sets of emotions? For example, have you felt sad, but were you also able to express yourself?
5. Read As Fast As Words Can Fly, and take note of examples where you see someone being brave/afraid; articulate/sad; respectful/angry. Write those examples down.
6. Your Choice – Create something that expresses anger and bravery, sadness and articulation, anger and respect. You can make a collage, comic strip, write a letter, greeting card, a short story, or poem.
How to Read a Poem uses images like the mouse, the hive, the switch (from the Billy Collins poem)—to guide readers into new ways of understanding poems. Anthology included.
“This will be the main textbook for the poetry unit from now on.”