What did you do this summer?: Asking new questions

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Joanna Tebbs Young

“What did you do this summer?” That has to be the oldest, most boring back-to-school question ever. WSYB’s Kenn Hayes told me once that this question asked by the teacher-nuns, intended to be answered in the form of an essay, used to strike fear into his heart. He wanted his summer to sound exciting, he wanted to answer it “right,” but nothing he’d done over the previous few weeks while out of school seemed exotic enough, and definitely not worthy of a written story.

Today, for some children, the answer to this same question would possibly be of beach and camp and sun-filled adventures, but for others, the answer wouldn’t be so show-and-tell-friendly. Endless days of TV-watching and growling stomachs don’t elicit “how fun!”s from the teacher or oohs and ahhhs from the other kids. While I don’t actually know if many teachers still ask this question, and if they don’t, please forgive me if I am woefully behind the times, I am guessing the off-hand, “How was your summer?” is still ubiquitous. A mumbled, equally ubiquitous “good,” is probably the most you’ll get for an answer from many kids.

And adults faced with this same question? Hidden under the “Oh, great, thanks!” are always some unspoken stories. Summer in Vermont, often fabulous for its sunshine, swimming, open-window breezes, cool tree-lined hikes, hot dogs on the grill, warm evenings on the deck, bright flower beds, fresh vegetables, early morning walks, beach days, etc., can also be challenging.

For those who work outside the home, finding, affording and ferrying to and from camps can be a scheduling and financial nightmare. For the stay/work-at-home parents, it’s the sometime chaos of non-structured days and the frustration of finding space in between obligatory summer fun and the placation of bored, squabbling, over-ice-creamed, over-tired, over-sunned kids to get your own work done.

Then there’s the joy of de-skunking a dog right when you thought you were headed to bed, the pile of damp swimming towels and suits dumped in the middle of the bathroom floor, and the equally big pile of still undone house projects taunting you (“we’ll have soooo much time over the summer,” you said)?

And for those for whom the summer “break” means nothing more than the same work-home-work but while sweating instead of shivering, the question, “How was your summer?” borders on ridiculous.

I recently returned from the Transformative Language Arts Network’s “Power of Words” conference, one I’ve attended annually for the past four years. On the final day, during a panel discussion about literacy, writing, and storytelling as vital to social, political, educational and personal growth, this statement stood out:

Give children language to tell their stories, to help them make sense of their own world.

Any one of the moments and situations noted above warrants the telling of a story, even when — especially when — it feels to the one experiencing the situation that it is of no consequence or meaning, or that no one would care to hear it (because they might say the teller is complaining or boasting or whatever other judgmental thing we tend to say to ourselves — and others).

From my own work and research into how expressive writing — meaning, very basically, the telling of one’s own experiences through writing — can be used in the classroom, I know some who are, not unjustifiably, reluctant to give kids free-rein in telling their own stories. But the research shows that the benefits to the kids outweigh the risks. And of course, this applies to adults too. Giving someone the opportunity to tell their story, and to have others hear it and say, “yes, I know, I’ve experienced that too!” lets us know we are not alone. It gives us a sense of belonging which in turn helps foster empathy and acceptance for others.

During the same discussion at the conference, writer, storyteller and teacher, Joseph Bruchac, told us how, when he led writing groups in prisons, he heard such things as this: “I’m not in prison when I am writing,” and, “When I am writing, I can be who I really am, not who they tell me I am.”

I believe we owe this opportunity to our kids too. Sometimes life can feel like a prison, no matter where one might fall on the socio-economic spectrum and no matter how things might look from the outside. Everyone experiences trouble and heartache, just in slightly different packages, and some more frequently and intensely than others. Our kids deserve to speak and be heard.

I would like to thank the teachers and other mentors out there who are giving both kids and adults a voice. (I’m reminded here of the Photo Voice Project run by Project Vision a couple years ago. This was a fabulous example of giving people the chance to tell their stories, to give them a voice.) You are truly helping them “make sense of their own world” while letting them know they are seen and heard.

So, this new school year, can we start asking some new questions? How about, “What was something beautiful/funny/sad you saw over the summer? What made it beautiful/funny/sad?” “Did you help someone or did someone help you in some way?” “Did you make/fix anything or learn anything new?” Etc. Etc. Let’s help our kids tell us who they are.

Joanna Tebbs Young, MA-TLA

Joanna Tebbs Young is a freelance writer, author, and expressive writing coach living in Rutland. Email her at joanna@wisdomwithinink.com.

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