Thursday, October 6, 2016

Paul Sommers - Connecting With Each Other: Sharing Stories and Common Life Threads

For more than 20 years Paul Sommers has worked as an educator in middle and high schools in Chicago, Illinois, Brooklyn, New York, and Oxford, England. He has also worked in non-traditional educational settings in Brazil for a number of years. Paul currently teaches sixth grade Minnesota History at Ramsey Middle School in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

The story of a place reminds me of the many places of story we walk through every day, and how much the places we walk through connect to the stories we remember.

In all of the places I have walked in my life, luck seems to follow me. Certainly bad things have happened to me and my family, but from an early age, I learned that the stories we share contextualize the places we visit and the people we connect to in ways that can bridge divides and heal wounds.

It’s not a stretch to say that my training as a humanities teacher began at home, around the dinner table. My mom — a mother of thirteen children — challenged my siblings and me to listen to each other’s stories. Even with a full, noisy table, she heroically championed for us the need to slow down and listen to each other. She established for us a ritual — blessing of the food, passing of the dishes, some side talking, a quiet lull, and my mom saying, “Can we just talk about…” She called it a table ministry. She reminded us that peace depended on different groups of people sitting around the table and sharing their stories. For me, the dinner table became a place of stories.

As I grew older, the stories multiplied, as did the places. Some story places chose us, like the spot in the road where my sister Pat broke her leg in a bike accident, or the exit ramp where my brother Joe tragically died. Driving by these places still triggers memories; the stories get told and retold.

And sometimes, we choose our places of story. I will never forget the three trees planted in the golf course behind my parent’s house. I can still hear the snow crunch as my family and I plodded through the snow to carol to the trees, and I can still recall singing to trees with my dad, my brother, and my sister Ann.

For me, teaching humanities evokes the discovery of common threads found in multiple stories — past, present, future, across generations, and, across cultures and nations. As much as I try to highlight and build on these common threads in our stories, I find that my students make connections that we, as adults, fail to notice. The classroom becomes a place of story when a student, Nimo, compares her struggles with assimilation to the Dakota being forced into boarding schools so many years ago.

Sometimes connections fail and invite humiliation and microaggressions. Sometimes those very stories of hurt facilitate their own connections. A recent immigrant, Safia, told us she had never heard of Elvis; the laughter burned and made her feel like an outsider. Two other students then shared that a similar experience had happened to them.

Sharing stories involves risk, yet Nimo and Safia’s risks freed others to do the same. Quiet Eduardo shared that he can’t wait to turn 12 this summer because then he will finally be old enough to hear the full story of his father’s deportation. Mirage stood up and shared the story of her hijab.

I believe that my job — the job of a teacher — depends on my ability to transform my classroom into a safe place for stories. Some days I feel like the stories shared weave together like a fine fabric. Other times I feel like the threads are not yet in the loom. Every day, the story of my classroom remains the same: creating a place where stories help us uncover what the Dakota refer to as “Mitakuye Oywasin” — We are all related.

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