Challenged by a classroom
full of silent, angry, and
disengaged students, a teacher
makes a promise and ignites
When I was hired to teach at-risk students in the poverty-stricken, gang-infested former murder capital East Palo Alto, California, I wasn’t worried. After all, I had
just returned from the South Bronx, New York,
where I had taught high school juniors who lived in
the constant shadow of poverty, crime, drugs, and
violence. So I walked into my first class of the day,
with confidence that I could successfully teach these
students living in the sunny Bay Area.
I immediately launched into my welcome speech,
full of enthusiasm and personal anecdotes, sharing
my story with my students to make them see me
as a person and to begin the process of sharing and
trusting one another. The class of 17 juniors stared
back at me, unresponsive. Unlike my students in the
Bronx, a mix of black, Dominican, and Puerto Rican
adolescents who had come in swearing, jostling,
and shoving, these students, almost all Latino, were
quiet, seemingly respectful, never leaving their seats
or uttering a profanity in class. When the bell rang, I
watched them quietly file out. I was puzzled by this
new behavior, unsure how to proceed.
Loud, I could handle. Rebellious, I could handle.
After all, loudness indicated a need to be heard, and
rebellion indicated a willingness to actively resist.
Both of those openings enabled me to foster student
voice and debate, thus encouraging learning. But this
silence, this passive refusal to interact—and, more
important, to learn—was shocking and painful. Still,
I kept trying. For nearly a week, I kept at it, coming
in every day with new materials, new ideas to break
the ice, all to no avail. There were no questions, no
responses, no raised hands. I stood alone at the front
of the room, clearly an uninvited guest to be tolerated until the bell rang.
Writing from the Heart