Passion and Action: Hard Work, Intentional Rest, and Vulnerability in a Pandemic

May 28th, 2021 | By | Category: BLTN Teachers, Featured, Spring 2021
Anna Russell Thornton teaches at Yes Prep Public Schools in Houston, TX. She is a 2020-21 Gately BLTN Fellow.

There is a piece of writing advice that floats around in my mind, the origin of which I no longer remember (if you do, will you let me know?). Paraphrased, it’s something like: “When writing for children, one should never ask, ‘What lesson do children need?’ Instead, one should ask, ‘What lesson do I need?’ and go and write that.” Propelled into this school year by the spring and summer of 2020, that latter question rattled the walls of my brain with new urgency. What I needed this year was space for movement, reflection, and growth within my own body.

Thus, for my Summer of Writing Bread Loaf tutorial project, I set out to design a unit for my students that would both give them space for reflection and draw on their own passions to take action within their communities. I teach at a Title 1 public charter school in Houston, Texas. Most of my students are Latinx and Black. While my school seeks to be an actively anti-racist organization, and we do teach the history of racism and colonialism and read Black and Latinx authors, the entire curriculum is organized around the standardized tests that students must pass at the end of the year in order to graduate (and upon which my school’s rating and funding is based). To me, this is a well-intended but deceptively capitalist and colonialist model that flattens my students into a quantifiable measure of success (or lack thereof). I planned for this project to have three parts: self-healing, writing, and community engagement.

The self-healing portion of this project was partially inspired by a question that a fellow Bread Loafer posed on social media: why do so many white teachers feel the need to heal our students? Where does that urge come from, and how can we get out of our own way and theirs? My students are experts in their own experience; they have ways of knowing that I do not yet know or imagine.

For this project, I viewed my students as co-researchers who were engaging in and reflecting on their own healing. Over the course of this year, I sought, alongside my students, to develop skills and strategies for resisting colonialist and white supremacist narratives by inhabiting and inscribing safety in our own bodies through breath.

On the first day of school, I began by teaching my students a breath pattern that became a daily practice at the start of class. We set four goals for our breath practice, which we conduct daily:

  • Use breath to write a new story in our bodies about who we are and how we relate to the world
  • Question traditional assumptions about knowledge and learning
  • Extend compassion and curiosity to self-in-relation to others
  • Conspire, or “breathe together,” to heal and to resist

When I initially introduced this practice, we discussed the history of breath practices, specifically the ancient Indian practice of pranayama. We talked about how the West loves to dismiss and demean ancient Eastern and Indigenous practices, until we decide to co-opt them for ourselves. Embodied learning and stress management practices are having a moment in the West, but that moment is widely divorced from its roots.

Before and after the first breath practice we did as a class, I had students set intentions and complete reflections on the experience. Here are some excerpts from their reflections:

  • “Just the thought that every one of us is just another being out there and that every choice in my life led to this exercise, that help me reflect upon myself and helped me realize that I am very stressed.”
  • “When practicing the Pranayama, in my body I felt tranquility as well as stillness. Along with it calmness came naturally. To full fill my intentions I’m trying to advocate more for myself as I usually stay quiet even if I need help, it’s a bad habit I’m also trying to better.”
  • “While we were doing the breathing exercise I took that as a way of leaving school and going to another world. I naturally felt like if I was under water, where everything was just turned on silent. My intention for this school year is to not be nervous and feel relaxed when taking and English test. I will pursue this by trusting more by abilities because doubting me is not gonna fix anything.”
  • “I felt a little feeling that I was free.”

For the next piece of the project, students engaged in a full research project, which included a self-healing practice and community engagement pieces. This was designed to be a “passion project,” for students to choose something they genuinely care about and want to educate or advocate for change. I felt this was particularly important in light of the summer of 2020; I wanted students to know how to channel their beliefs into concrete action. Two of my students did their project on a trucking group they founded in order to create a positive, welcoming environment within the competitive world of trucking. Their action step was to organize members of their group to combat a bill that would prohibit car modifications like those used in their group. I knew little about the trucking world before this, and their presentation not only elicited enthusiasm and engagement from them I had not before seen, it also expanded my understanding of the importance of their passion for trucks to their own identities as people. Another group of my students produced a podcast sharing their own experiences with mental health. They talked about the ways racism and sexism had limited their ability to see and love themselves, and about the work they’d done personally and in therapy to change those narratives for themselves. They shared their stories vulnerably in front of the whole class, emboldened by their shared experience. The other students listened with their whole beings, drinking in their authenticity like oxygen. Other students wrote letters to local representatives about pollution in the bayou near their home, or expressing their views on immigration policy, or proposing a plan to establish a produce garden in their neighborhood. Many students created Instagrams featuring everything from body positivity to the benefits of sports. In both their action and their reflection, they accomplished important and necessary work. 

In the future, I hope to engage more deeply with my students’ communities. This year’s restrictions posed challenges, so for next year I hope to research and collaborate with other teachers and community leaders who can help my students get the most out of the experience. I want to know: Who is already doing this work? Who in my students’ community can walk alongside them in this project? How can my students use what they learn to contribute to their communities in more lasting ways?

I will give my students the last word. The linked file provides one student’s introductory reflection exercise, followed by several of my students’ post-project reflections. I am enormously proud of their hard work, intentional rest, and vulnerability.

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