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Turning darkness into light: Opportunities to build community and learn from our students

Updated: Feb 5, 2019

Crystal L. Beach

Keywords: student voice, writing hope, death

Introduction and Context

Ten years. That’s how long I’ve been a high school English language arts teacher. However, my entrance into education—specifically literacy education—took a circuitous route that included pre-medical/sports science, professional writing/journalism, and rhetoric and composition courses. For this reason, I’ve seen firsthand the power of reading and writing skills across a wide range of subject areas and technical fields. This experience allows me to help students better understand why literacy is so important to them as well as help others make literacy connections within their respective fields.

I still think back to the power of one writing assignment my second year into the profession that changed everything for me. And, perhaps more interestingly, I don’t think I truly learned that lesson until just recently: you never know how one writing assignment can change your students’ lives.

Events, Actions, and Outcomes

The sun is never peeking through the blinds as you first walk into Room 6306. However, that doesn’t mean the bustling of the hallway hasn’t begun as students pour into the building and spread into the classrooms. Room 6306 sees a lot of different faces pass through its doorway in those early hours—some come for help or make-up work, some come as a place to use computers to complete homework, some don’t even have class in the room (some I’ve never taught before), but they come by nonetheless, and some come back after graduation to proudly share their accomplishments and bring you an unsweetened Starbucks green tea. It’s a warm, welcoming “home” to students of all backgrounds. No matter who they are or where they’re from, they always find their way there.

However, September 15, 2012 was different, and a day that has forever changed many lives within my school community including my own. I remember it just like it was yesterday. A 16-year-old, absolutely amazing young man lost his life way too soon after collapsing at school working out for the sport he loved—basketball. And when I received the news that evening, I wondered how I would face my students, let alone stand outside of my own classroom where he would walk by with his infectious smile that made everyone immediately happy. He was a member of my very first class there, and he and his classmates still hold a special spot in my heart.

The next day I struggled with knowing what to say and what to do. We have an extremely close school community, and this loss was devastating for all. The halls were a somber silent as students moved with red, splotchy faces, hugs, and tissues to their next class. At any moment during class a student would break down into uncontrollable sobs. And it wasn’t long into 1st period when I decided no lesson plan on our curriculum calendar could adequately address what so many of my students were feeling: heartbreak.

So, within those first few moments of class, I created a Padlet. I told my students I wanted them to think about legacy and to write their thoughts on our class wall. The wall quickly turned into a place of personal reflection and a place where they could reflect on the legacy of their dear friend. A form of therapy, perhaps, as Graham Greene once said, “Writing is a form of therapy; sometimes I wonder how all those who do not write, compose, or paint can manage to escape the madness, melancholia, the panic and fear which is inherent in a human situation.” Yet, at the time I beat myself up as I considered it a poor excuse of an activity to try to move onward over the pieces of our broken hearts.

Fast forward to October 2017. It was one of those days when you needed a reminder of why you do what you do. (Every teacher, no matter how long we’ve been teaching, knows what I’m talking about!) A Twitter notification pops up on my phone, and I head to see what was there. To my utter shock, I watched a video my student was a part of for the #ThankYouTeachers initiative ( In it, she references the writing assignment I had my students do that devastating day years ago—a day when I felt that I failed them in so many ways. She talks about how I inspired her, and all I could think about was how much she and her peers inspired me. This is what teaching is all about to me: inspiring others to be their best selves even through the darkest times.


The student in that video is set to become a teacher with her own students in the next year. I couldn’t be more proud of her, and I tell her all of the time how lucky her students will be. And maybe I modeled for her and others years ago that as teachers, we don’t have all of the answers all of the time. We’re human, too. And I learned that sometimes what we think are our worst writing lessons or activities actually end up changing our students’ lives, too. This writing assignment, as simple as it was, brought together students through “writing hope” (Sieben) in a time that was so dark and in ways that I didn’t dream possible.

Adventures and detours along our journeys help us become more effective teachers in the end. After all, as the late Maya Angelou said, “We are more alike my friends, than we are unalike . . .” Thus, through our work together as students and teachers, we open each others eyes and create community through ways that no “standard” could assess. My students—past and present—make me a better teacher, researcher, and person every day. They always say how lucky they are to have been students in my classroom; yet, I always tell them that I am truly the lucky one to have had the opportunity to work with such amazing young people. As I’ve said so many times before, the future is truly bright.  


Angelou, M. (1990). Human Family. Poem Hunter. Retrieved from

FSU Seminoles [Seminoles]. (2017 Oct. 18). “‘She gave me the passion for English and

education.’ - Tessa Daniels Shoutout to Dr. Beach! @CFPExtraYard #CFPExtraYard” [Twitter post]. Retrieved from

Greene, G. (2004). Ways of Escape. New York, NY: Vintage Classics.

Sieben, N. (2017). Writing HOPE Works. Retrieved from

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