The unexpected discovery


RER track Aulnay-sous-Bois, near Paris, France

Often when students are asked to write a personal narrative about their experiences we don’t expect a story, just a description of a lesson learned. I feel like throwing up my hands in frustration when a student says “I never learned nothing.” I remind them that they discovered how to navigate through the school, get favors from teachers and pass with as little work as possible. They just don’t recall how they learned these things. A daily journal is one way to help students keep track.

I decided to practice this discipline myself on my first visit to Paris. At the end of an exhausting day of “memorable” sight-seeing, I would struggle to recall how to return to my hotel on the metro. There, I was tempted to collapse on the bed, turn on the TV to the BBC and immerse myself in a familiar language.  Instead I recorded short notes on things I did not expect. I was fully prepared for the metro to be confusing, but I did not expect it to be burrowed so far into the earth. I had to climb two stories of stairs at La Forche, lugging a small wheeled suitcase that seemed to increase in weight with every step. Neither did I expect the help I received from an African family in toting my luggage.

When I finally reached my destination, the metro car was mostly emptied. I stood there alone stupidly waiting for the door to open automatically; it did not. Finally, the man on the outside of the car noted my confusion and pushed the button on the door so it would open and I could exit.

It is these kind of daily observances that I share with my students, not “le museum magnifique.” The ordinary “not what I expected” experiences are much closer to their lives. I try to be humble and tell them about things that I should have known, but did not, so that they do not feel so embarrassed about describing how they learned small, but important lessons.

There are a few things I do to encourage this is class.  One is a game called “I have never.” Every person describes something that they have never done, which they believe most people have. Every one else who has done this stands up. The point is to get the most people to stand up. I usually start with something such as “I have never gone swimming in a pool.” (I don’t know how to swim.) Lack of experience actually helps a student win the game. It also helps student to see how they are unique and being able to relate this uniqueness is important in writing.

Another activity is “forecasting.” Students write down predictions for their lives for the following week. Then the following week the record how close they came to what actually happened. This can also be adapted and used as a daily writing exercise to help students transition into a daily journal.

Finally, I try to encourage a unique personal content in the journals; I tell the students not to be concerned about what everyone else is writing. I don’t want to be bored by reading the same thing over and over again. Neither should they worry about usage or spelling. Instead, concentrate on ideas in their raw form. The journal is something that they keep and refer to when it is time to write one of those personal narratives, which is really about a lesson learned.

One thing I learned in France – it is impolite to take pictures of the tiny but beautiful personal gardens unless you know the people who live there. They let me know this by staring suspiciously out of their windows. So I took pictures of a few of the ubiquitous red-orange poppies that managed to grow inside the railroad track. It was not what I expected.


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