Student Writing and Cura Personalis

I have written and spoken about the tremendous benefits I believe journaling and writing in the classroom have for students. Last year, as I was reading my students’ Problem Journals, their periodic special writing prompts, and their quarterly Reflections & Self-Evaluations, I noticed something unexpected – it wasn’t just the students who were benefiting from their writing. I, too, was being helped.

This year, I decided to conduct an experiment of sorts.

Let me give you a little background: I teach at an all-male high school with 1500 students. This past year I taught 5 senior-level, year-long courses (~130 students). As you might imagine, or know, teenagers can get antsy/grumpy/disinterested/lazy/surly/obstinate/etc. at times throughout the year – especially seniors. And there are times when it seems like students project all of those feels onto the teacher. And it’s hard to separate their projection from what is actually happening in your relationship with your students.

In the past, I would find myself “filling in the gaps” or subconsciously jumping to conclusions about a student’s behavior. For example, when the extremely popular, super-star football player, who has just committed to a huge college football program, refuses to put a problem on the board, or puts the problem but doesn’t cooperate in discussing the problem, his thought process, any potential error, other approaches to the problem, etc. – it’s really easy, and human, to jump to conclusions about what’s going on.

My thoughts immediately were: “Oh, Mr. Superstar is too good for math class now.” (Big soul-revealing honesty here…) Then, it’s easy for me to take his actions, his hesitancy, his feelings, and project them onto myself: “He’s being disrespectful (to me).” “He’s being rude (to me).” And, depending on the day, sometimes worse thoughts.

Then it’s only natural for your feelings toward your student to shift, to change. You now see all of your student’s actions/comments/responses in the light of their “disrespect,” their “rudeness.” And that impacts my relationship with my student.

This is where the experiment comes in.

This year, when I noticed a situation like this occurring with one of my students – or even one of my classes – I gave a very deliberate special writing prompt as a homework assignment.

When I caught my opinion of Mr. Football changing, I asked my class to write responses to two prompts. The first: “In all the different aspects of our class, where do you feel you are weakest?” This was my football player’s response:

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I do not present my answers without the fear of being wrong.

That stopped me. That shook me. My big 6’5″ superstar football player wasn’t being disrespectful to me, he wasn’t being rude – deep down, he was just a kid who was afraid. On the football field, he could do no wrong – and he knew it. He was confident there, he had swagger. In my classroom, he was way out of his comfort zone and insecure.

His response to the second prompt:

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What did this writing do?

  • Helped me find the source or root of my student’s issue in the class
  • Helped me see that he wanted to do well (be confident) and allowed me to seek out opportunities and resources to help him.
  • Helped save my relationship with my student.

My students did the writing, and I know that helps them – but I was helped too.

I continued my experiment throughout the year with a variety of writing prompts:

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Not only did my students grow in self-awareness and metacognition, but my relationship with my students was able to grow through the insights I gained from their answers.

I teach at a Jesuit high school. Within our pedagogy, there is an idea called “Cura Personalis” – care for the whole person. Their writing in my classroom allows me a window into their thinking, their concerns, their successes – and helps me care for their whole person.

For me to be the teacher I want to be, it is not enough to just care about my students’ math skills; I need to have them write in my class to understand how to care for their whole person.

Student writing helps me provide cura personalis.

This year wasn’t the easiest with Mr. Football, but our student/teacher relationship was solid. Here is his final quarter Reflection & Self-Evaluation:

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