Spoken Word: Nurture & Empower Individuality

Embracing Difference Empowers Individuality

Although all of my previous posts have dealt with the lessons I learned and taught inside my classroom, some of the most profound moments have come when my students walk out of these doors to create the next chapter of their lives.

Today I received an email from a former student simply entitled “Thank You.” When I saw who the sender was, I couldn’t help but smile.

Here was a girl who nearly everyone had written off in high school, even her parents. When she first walked into my classroom, she carried the stigmas of being not smart enough, not pretty enough, not good enough. Through her essays and journal writings, I got the sense that her confidence and self-worth had been constricted and strangled by many strands of these thick and heavy “nots”. Ironically, and thankfully, the strongest strand that weaved its way throughout all of her writing was that of hope.

The semester that she was my student just so happened to be the one that I chose to teach from Jean Auel’s, The Clan of the Cave Bear. Themes of Love and Power and Feminine Strength filled the classroom everyday, and I found that this seventeen year old student related to the traits of individuality, perseverance and honor exuded by the main character in the story.

As her peers, parents, and even other teachers continued to label her as academically and socially unmanageable, I hung on to that glimmer and spark which still shone bright in her eyes just behind her veil of insecurity and self-doubt. Along with honest and supportive feedback regarding her coursework, praise for her efforts and pride for her accomplishments were all she heard from me on a daily basis. Over the course of the term, her writing became more insightful and her discussions more expressive. She was beginning to shed the heavy burdens of self-deprecation to reveal her true identity which had been forced to hide in the shadows for so many years. She was growing up, and embracing her positive changes.

When she graduated, I held on to the hope that she would have the strength to maintain out in the real world, for she would be surrounded once again by those who would rather ignore her than try to get to know her.

A year after she walked out of my classroom door for the last time, I received her email and was reminded once again that instead of shunning those deemed different, we should nurture and empower their individuality. For these will be the ones who shine the brightest in our lives.


Jeff Winston ♦ Teaching Teens: Lessons I’ve Learned in the High School Classroom

Jeff Winston writes our monthly column, Teaching Teens: Lessons I’ve Learned in the High School Classroom, illustrating the life lessons that he taught, and just as often learned, both in and out of the classroom. Jeff has lived in Easthampton since 2007, after moving up from Philadelphia with his wife, Alli, and their 3 dogs, Murphy, Zoey and Maggie. Jeff has a private tutoring business, Tap Your Truth, specific to enhancing writing and study skills, focusing on empowering individuals through their own written and spoken words. Jeff writes a blog called Better Out Than In…, a place to read creative expressions of his life’s experiences, samples of his student’s work, and tidbits that will enable readers to gain insight into their own lives.

Spoken Word: Arrogance in the Classroom

Clear Eyes, Full Heart, Can’t Lose

In my classroom, I try to set the example of what I ask of my students.

First off, I leave my ego at the door. There really is no place for arrogance or power-mongering in the classroom, as I want my students to be as authentic as possible.

Since I ask for their respect, I have to mirror the same. I mean, what really is the objective behind pop-quizzes or adding trick questions on an exam? There are so many more effective ways of getting students to study material rather than resorting to sneaky tactics. If I am asking them to express deep reflection in an essay, then they should get an equal amount of reflection in my assessment, and not simply a grade in red ink at the top of their paper.

For some reason, honesty is a tough pill for many people to swallow, and many teenagers skip the dose altogether. I have found that being completely honest with my students sometimes may mean saying, “I don’t know” or “I’m sorry” or “I was wrong.” Clear, open and honest communication is a two-way street, and the more honest I am with them, (even if that means swallowing my own pride), the easier it is for them to speak their truth rather than instantly creating their lie.

Read the rest of this entry »

Spoken Word: Teens Define Responsibility

Defining Responsibility

My ultimate goal as a teacher was to turn teens on to themselves and to guide each of them to their own unique value in this world. One of the paths that I chose to accomplish this was through the texts that we explored.

In my last post, I illustrated how each of the “four obstacles” that Paulo Coelho expresses in his book, The Alchemist , could be applied to our own lives. One of the other books that I loved to teach from was Into The Wild, by Jon Krakauer, as I found that the themes and life lessons expressed within would be of much value to my 11th and 12th grade students.

One of the major themes I cover while teaching Into The Wild is that of Responsibility. Inevitably the class breaks into two factions: those who believe that the protagonist, Christopher McCandless, died on his journey in Alaska because he was irresponsible and reckless, and those who admire him for his courage and independent nature and blame his death simply on an unfortunate accident.

Trying to get teenagers to speak effectively on topics that they are passionate about can be quite the task, as they tend to simply rant narrow-mindedly about their viewpoint without any real meaty substance to support their opinion. In all discussions, I take the middle ground, many times playing devil’s advocate while instigating arguments for both sides of the coin. Especially when it comes to discussing their thoughts on “responsibility”, I try to get them to think deeper than their surface level which is mostly made up of ideals they’ve learned from their parents or peers, or their stubborn denouncements of those very ideals.

Today during this class discussion, all of the above is being highlighted, and the volume is getting louder and the voices more animated by the minute.

In a brief moment of regrouping, one of my students raises her hand.

“What exactly does responsibility mean, anyway?” she asks. “I mean, who’s to say that what you deem responsible I won’t deem careless. For example, I’m sure that Chris believed that he was being responsible as he trekked out into the wild of Alaska alone, but I just think he was ignorant to the power of nature and was simply gambling with his life. So, how do we truly define responsibility?”

These are the moments that I relish, when the student becomes the teacher.

“How many of you define responsibility with a positive connotation?” I ask.

Out of fifteen students, only three have their hands raised.

This brings us to the next question.

“For those of you not raising your hands, why do you view responsibility as a negative ideal?”

In an instant, hands shoot into the air… Read the rest of this entry »

Spoken Word: The Four Obstacles

Alchemist – Four Obstacles

One of my favorite units to teach to my 11th/12th grade English classes was based on The Alchemist by Paulo Coehlo. There are so many life enhancing teachable moments within this text, that this journey would inevitably take us over six weeks to complete. If you haven’t yet read this book, you should. Slowly.

Things I kept reminding my students as we read:

  1. This is a work of fiction.
  2. If the religious material turns you off, simply replace the term “God” with “You”
  3. Believe some, all, or none.
  4. Stay present, with an open mind, and Listen to your Self.

An underlying current throughout this book is what Coelho deems “The Four Obstacles.” For the most passionate of souls who desire to actually obtain their “treasures” in this life, these obstacles must be faced, and overcome, time and time again. For my students, and all readers, it’s where our journey into this text starts. So, let’s begin…

Read the rest of this entry »

Spoken Word: Desire for Truth

Dispelling Fear

I’m sitting and basking in the moment as Jenny, a seventeen year old student, performs her final “goodbye” poem for her weekly “spoken word” assignment in my English class:

“Spoken Word has been the greatest present I’ve been given,
Giving into fears I thought misgiving.
You always say to “go there” and I
Never knew where “there” was, just a
Place with apparitions and monsters
In the back of my mind,
Easier to hide,
Than find, and euthanize…”

I’m truly humbled, because of all the topics in the world for her to write about, she’s chosen to express her own growth, and gained wisdom, and gratitude for my guidance as both teacher and mentor.

Although I always relish a student’s appreciation for the work we accomplished together during the semester, this moment is different. For being a part of Jenny’s journey has proven to be an enriching experience filled with many life lessons worthy of retelling.

Six months ago, Jenny’s fears of being vulnerable and of exposing her true self almost forced her to take a much different path. I believed and expressed to her that her written words were some of the most real and poetic I had ever read from a student her age, but she simply refused to actually perform her pieces out loud.  Read the rest of this entry »

Spoken Word: Nowhere to Hide


I can’t believe what I just saw, heard, and experienced. Standing in front of me is a seventeen-year-old young man who, for the longest time, considered himself worthless, dreamless, lifeless. From my seat in the back of the class, I sit for a moment in awe. Having to give this student a critique on his first “spoken word” performance, a weekly assignment for my English class where students perform their own poetically creative pieces, I am briefly at a loss for words, for there is none that could do justice to what I am feeling. None, but one…Inspiration.

“You are a Poet, in the truest sense of the word,” I hear myself say. Now finished with his recitation, he stands in front of the class, awkward and trembling. As I look down at my hands, I find that I am trembling too, but for different reasons. I close my eyes and realize that I am in the presence of true greatness, of a prodigy. And I am trembling.

“Where did that come from?” another student asks. For, up until he opened his mouth and allowed this volcano of truth to erupt from his soul, he had always presented himself as nervous, insecure and inferior, albeit intelligent, with an inability to even make eye contact, let alone sustain it.

“I don’t know,” he answers, “I guess that’s what I’ve always wanted to say.”

I relish in this moment, as I believe that this is how it must have felt to first experience the genius of Mozart, DaVinci, Angelou. As if I just struck gold, my first instinct is to selfishly protect the treasures of his words. But the more it sinks in, the more I selflessly want others to experience this teen’s talent as well. My mind is racing with how to make that happen.

School performance? No, for I don’t think the majority in attendance would understand or appreciate his words.

YouTube video? Nah, too many would comment negatively based on their own close-minded attitudes.

And then it hits me…Open Mic Night in Northampton. What better audience to share his space than those who will also be airing themselves out on the stage. What a sense of connection, of community this kid would feel for once in his life. To recognize and accept the fact that he’s an Artist, a Writer, an Individual. No longer confined to playing the role of the Hermit, the Loser, the Nobody. I have big dreams for this kid.

Read the rest of this entry »

%d bloggers like this: