10 Things To Tell My Students This Summer | Opinion

Dear students: Listen deeply. Tell your truth. Ask questions. Hear what else this middle school media specialist has to say in her open letter.

Dear middle school student:

Ending this school year in quarantine brings the realization that I never had a chance to say goodbye. I missed being able to say, “have a good summer!” I didn’t get to sign your yearbook. And despite the thrill of seeing some of you online over the last several weeks, there are still so many of you whom I haven’t seen. I still think of you when I read something you might like or listen to a great audiobook or find a new show.

But those conversations mostly remain unspoken this year. Instead, I’ll miss watching as students I have known for four years move up to the high school, despite not having a “proper” ending to their middle school experience. Knowing that next year will require you (and all of us really) to adjust to a new environment as the world continues to shift in uncomfortable ways, I thought I would write to you about these 10 things I want to share with you for this summer.

  1. Listen deeply. The listening I am talking about here may be different from what you’re used to. Often adults ask you to listen to directions, listen to respond, or listen for the answer. These are important skills, but the listening I am talking about is different. Listening deeply is about gaining a better understanding of someone else's perspective or experience. Listening deeply requires your full attention and engagement. At times it may require you to examine your biases and suspend your judgment. Listening deeply allows you to let go of responding and become a witness.
  2. Tell your truth. At a very early age, we learn what not to say. We learn silence as a strategy to get by, to avoid confrontation—often without realizing that this silence only impedes learning rather than enhancing it. So when tough conversations come up, we sometime freeze, not knowing what is required of us in that moment. But if you can forget about having the "right answer, your truth will emerge. Your truth is what you know, what you have seen, what you have experienced. And often, your truth is most quiet when the world is loud. Lean in to that whisper. Your truth may be different from someone else’s and that’s okay. Your truth can and will change and that’s okay too. The goal here is not to allow silence or fear prevent you from telling your truth.
  3. Ask questions. At times this can be even harder than telling your truth. You may feel like you will be judged for not knowing. You may worry that someone will make fun of you for what you don’t know. Do it anyway. Also keep in mind that the key here is to ask yourself questions as often as you ask questions of others. What do I already know? What do I still need to learn? My dad often reminded me of the importance of understanding yourself first and foremost; that is how the light gets in.
  4. Play games. Play games. Lots of games. Not just video games. Board games, cards, or a game you make up yourself. This may seem challenging while we are social distancing so feel free to be creative. Invite family to join you. Invite friends to play outside. There is something magical about games that just brings people together and lifts spirits.
  5. Gather lots of stories. The world is made up of stories and myths that inform our beliefs. Gathering stories allows us to expand our view of the world. By contrast, focusing on a single story may lead us to generalize, to make false inferences or assumptions. Sometimes, a single story is the string holding together the fiction we tell ourselves to feel better about who we are or what we do. And possibly worse, a single story can serve as a license to be complacent and even rely on outdated beliefs. So part of the work of antiracism is to question these beliefs and open yourself up to how someone else experiences the world. Summer offers a wonderful opportunity to explore the world beyond your backyard, especially through books. The more stories you gather, the larger your world becomes.
  6. Keep a journal. Taking time to write down your thoughts can seem like the exact opposite of what you feel like doing over the summer. For some of you it may even feel similar to practicing an instrument or learning a new language—because often the most frustrating part is how hard it is to see our progress. Allow me to suggest that maybe the process of sitting down to write IS the progress. Writing is one of the best ways for you to process your thoughts and feelings while also keeping an honest account of this moment in your life. So you may have to trust me a bit on this one when I say your future self will thank you. Don’t make keeping a journal a chore. This is something you are doing just for you, a gift.
  7. Find joy. The world can be a scary place right now. And it’s important to find joy and hold on to it as much as possible. Joy allows people to persevere under tremendous pressures and circumstances. It doesn’t come from material things. Joy is an inside job. Joy only requires a willingness to embrace it. Its power rests in knowing that no one can take it away. Once you find it, it is yours to keep. Find your joy.
  8. Unplug often. It may seem hard and at times impossible. You have gone from seeing friends and teachers at school to suddenly working online for several hours each day, often in isolation. It may be that you rely on chats, messaging, and even social media for connections to the outside world right now. Those important connections will be there when you plug back in. So even though the world looks different on the outside, the most important focus to help you navigate these challenges is tuning in to what is happening on the inside—of you. Plant a flower. Draw, sing. Try a new recipe. Find activities that will nourish you beyond the screens and online chatter. If you aren’t sure how, ask your parents to help you. Look for opportunities to unplug. Make plans for yourself that allow your mind to drift, to create, and to just be. Many of you already have learned about mindfulness in school; use this time as your opportunity to practice being fully in this moment.
  9. Be gentle with yourself. Recently I went back to an empty school frozen in time. I found memories of classes, teaching ideas, projects interrupted. Soon enough I began wondering, did I do enough for you? When will we go back? What will school look like? How will we prepare for the next school year? What changes will we have to adjust to? I walked away from my brief visit with more questions than answers. But I also realized in the next moment that I don’t need to have all of those answers just yet. Being gentle with yourself is allowing room for growth, mistakes, confusion, even frustration. Being gentle with yourself is knowing that you are still learning. It’s knowing that mistakes are part of the process, and your path to becoming a better version of yourself is by allowing room for compassion.
  10. Ask for help. I usually end each quarter by telling my students that if I can ever be of assistance I hope they will please come to the library. For anything. And now with so much happening in the world and in our own lives, I want to make sure you hear it again. Please come to the library (online or in person) if you need assistance. In just a few weeks, we’ve dealt with once-in-a-lifetime health crisis and ongoing protests to promote racial equality—all while adjusting to being home—so I just want to make sure you know I am on your side. Always on your side. Look for your librarian. He/she/they will always do their best to help you.

Sharon Amy Wiggins is a middle school library media specialist and formerly taught high school English and Special Education. She especially enjoy reading about the history and literature of Blacks throughout the African diaspora. For the last 20 years, she has been the sole black voice nestled in a picturesque school building and is looking forward to seeing that change.



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