Sunday, November 27, 2016

You Are Not Alone: Students Uplifting Students

Olga García Echeverría

5th Grader Reading a Letter of Support From a College Student

In the week following the election, in an attempt to acknowledge and help dismantle (perhaps transform) some of my students' fears, I facilitated a writing activity between 50 Cal State LA students and 50 fifth graders. It was an unplanned activity thrown together at the last minute, born out of necessity and executed in 3 days. At the onset of the exchange, all l knew was that so many of us were feeling bruised and deflated; we needed some light. We needed some solidarity. We needed to step outside of our own grief/anger/fear and help someone else in need. 

"The 5th graders need uplifting!" I  told my Cal State students. "Can you help me send them messages of support?"   

When I next visit the 5th graders I tell them I've brought them a surprise, personalized letters from Cal State LA. 

“Letters from your college students?” 
“They're writing to us? Why?”
“They were wondering how you were doing after the election and they wanted to say hi.”

I hand out their letters one by one, instructing they don't open them just yet. “Wait until everybody has one.”

“For suspense!” Someone says. 
“Yeah, for suspense.”

One student peers into his name on the envelope and asks in astonishment how the college students know all their names. 

“Because I gave them your names.” 

“But Ms., do they know us? Do they know who we are?”

“They don't know you know you, but they know you through me because I talk about you all the time.” 

Questions start flying. How old are they, my college students? Did they vote? Are they mad about Trump? Are the college students gonna come visit them at their school? Was this letter thing the college students' idea or mine? Isn't this like having a pen pal? Can we all take a trip to Cal State LA? Wouldn't that be so much fun? The school bus only costs $700.00. Isn't there a Pollo Loco at Cal State LA? “I think I've been there, Ms., to Cal State, I ate at that Pollo Loco,” says one of the girls. 

“I have an important question,” interjects one of the boys. “Did the boys write to the boys and the girls to the girls?” 

When I answer no, he protests, "Ah, man." He says he's too shy to write to a girl and plus, he only knows how to draw cars. 

“If you get a girl, you can still draw her a car.” He shakes his head and makes a face, letting me know I totally don't get what he's talking about. 

When everyone has a letter, I give them the green light, “Okay, go!” Hands eagerly dig in and unfold. Rustling paper fills the room. It's like Christmas, only the gifts they are unwrapping are words of encouragement being transported from one classroom to another. 

Some of the 5th graders are holding their opened letters in front of their faces, reading them in the air. Scanning eyes, wrinkled brows, sudden smiles. 

Someone is hunched over and peering into his letter on his desk. His buddy comes from behind and leans over him, “What did they write you? Did you get a boy or a girl?” 

Some of the students are running their index fingers along the page as they read. 

There's a kid coming towards me with a creased forehead and a creased letter in his hand, “Ms. Olga” he whines, “I can't read this writing. I already tried two times.” He hands over the paper annoyed. “Can you read it for me?” I do an on-the-spot translation of the cryptic handwriting. He seems appeased, takes the letter, and goes back to his seat.  

Jacquelin stares at her letter with a mixture of seriousness and some kind of awe. “Look!” She's talking to no one in particular. She points to the penciled sketch of an old man using a walker and the crayola-colored Mexican flag at the bottom of the letter. Andrew, who wrote her the letter, wrote near the sketch, “I am 18, but sometimes I feel like I'm 80. LOL.” Jacquelin laughs and then proudly says, “I like the way he draws! He's so funny!” 

Within minutes, they're all sharing, talking, and laughing. Some re-read their letters aloud. Some switch and read silently. Some students start wandering to other tables and desks. More questions: 

“Can we draw them Pokémon characters?” 
“Can we start writing back?”
 “When will you give them our letters?” 
 “Are they gonna write back again?” 

They get to writing. There's still all kinds of excitement and noise, but some of them impress me with their fierce focus and their determination to lay down some words. 

Do not bug these kids. 

A couple of students come up to me pointing to the last names of the two students who wrote them. They've made a discovery that intrigues them. “These two guys have the same last name! Are they brothers?” 

“As far as I know, they're not brothers.” 

The “As far as I know” seems to encourage them. “We're just gonna ask them ourselves in our letters to make sure.” And they do. 

In her letter to a college student, Nathalie writes... “Dear Edwin, I just want to say thank you and you don't have to worry because you are you and you are special...It's okay to be different because different is cool...Trump thinks he can just tell us to leave...but to do that he still needs to go through Congress." 

The 5th graders' previous lesson with me (prior to the letter exchange) was on affirmations, so they use these abundantly with the college students. 

“Believe in you!” 
“Don't let the election get you down!” 
"You can do it!"

When these letters make it back to Cal State LA, my college students turn into 5th graders. They're excited and completely surprised. “They wrote back to us?” They dig into their envelopes and start pulling out tiny drawings, cutout figures, letters with specialized folds. 5th grade origami. Their eyes scan the small pages. Sonrisas beam.

“Somebody gave me .50 cents! How cute!” 
“They sent us little drawings.”
“I got a Pokémon.” 
“Ha ha, this student wrote Dump Trump on my envelope.” 
“I love this," says one student, holding her letter. "I feel like I wrote to myself and myself wrote back."

*A special thank you to Angels Gate Cultural Center for their arts/creative writing programming in elementary schools, and to las maestras Ms. Cabrera and Ms. Altamira at New Academy of Science of Art for their dedication in the classroom and their assistance in facilitating this letter exchange. 

1 comment:

  1. This is so awesome, Olga, and so moving. What we need in these times is more connection and you are making that possible. It is very inspiring!


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