Creating a Safe Space During Lockdown

A conversation with Luke* via email or creating a safe space. 

This blog post is sort of about an email conversation that took place over the whole school shutdown period (so far), with one particular student: Luke. It is about the value of the interactions we’ve had despite the fact that he has not submitted one single piece of work set by the English department on the VLE. Rather than worry that Luke will have learned less about Macbeth than his classmates (which of course is a worry to an extent because I don’t know how he’s going to be assessed when the time comes and whether this time off will be a problem), I’d like to take a look at what else has gone on between student and teacher during lockdown. What it is also about, however, is the importance of setting up your classroom as a place of dialogue and community: a Safe Space as Luke defines it later. 

Luke is a GCSE student who identifies as Gay and as a ‘BAME’ student. I have discussed this term with him and he knows that’s part of the context of how his words are being included here. It’s not a perfect term but it gives you some context for the conversations we have had and an idea of why I feel Luke has things to teach me. Most of the learning that has gone on over lockdown in our teacher/ student relationship has been him teaching me and expanding my understanding. What can also be seen is the importance of a safe space for all students. Luke writes eloquently about this idea in a piece I have shared. I think that the dialogue I have had with Luke during lockdown is an intensified version of the conversations we’ve had and the relationship that has built since I began teaching him in year 7.  

The emails with Luke began after I sent the one below. It was tricky to word and I think I’ve got better at them over this period but it was one of the first, a week after the Easter Holidays ended (essentially 2 working weeks into school closure): 

Hello, 

I haven’t heard from you since we ‘came back’ so I am sending this to check in. If you are able to, could you send me an email just to let me know if there is a reason I’ve not seen anything from you (it is fine and you are not in trouble either way).  

I’m just emailing to check you are ok and have been able to access the work set. I know this is a hard time and that working from home can be really tricky especially with other people in the house who need to do their work and use computers and things like that. I also hope you are safe and well and that your families are ok.  

If you can’t do work on Macbeth right now, that is really ok. If you are able to, however, you do need to do the work at some point because we aren’t sure when you’ll have time to come back to it next year- so now is a good time! 

If I don’t hear back from you then your head of year will give your parents a call to check in. Just to be clear, you really are not in trouble, we just want to be able to support everyone as best we can so if we don’t hear from you for ages, we check up. This would be the same if you hadn’t turned up to school for ages or if you were being super quiet in class and we thought you might not be ok.  

All the best to you and your family 

Ms Marshall 🙂 

The email was sent to eight students in the class, all of whom did reply, most of whom I have had to send similar emails to subsequently.  

Hi Ms Marshall 

Sorry about all that, I’ve tried clicking on the links on [the VLE] but they haven’t been working for whatever reason. Also I’m confused about the Macbeth Workbook, is that the writing booklet you gave us before closure? If not can you send it to me please? 

Thank you, 

Luke 

Hi Luke 

I will get the booklet for you today. I think most people seem to have printed it out and written in the booklet. That’s odd that the links don’t work.  

Thanks for getting back to me and, as I said, very glad you are ok! 

Luke received the Macbeth booklet but still has yet to send me any of his work on Macbeth. What this email chain did open up, however, was a bit of dialogue between Luke and me which allowed me to know how he was and to talk to him regularly. So, he didn’t get any more ‘chasing emails’. He joined in the Teams meetings we introduced so he has had some teaching on Macbeth, but only 3 hours in 9 weeks.  

So what had Luke been doing with his time? 

He wrote a poem, a book review and an article for the school magazine, which I edit, and he also spent time suggesting books I should read that he thought were important or that I would like. This is the first thing I’d like to talk about. I sent this list out to my class near the start of the school shutdown. I compiled it by asking them for suggestions and the list is created from those emails and I kept the recommendations in their own words because then it felt more communal and personal. People they knew had suggested the books, rather than just me. Accompanying the list was a little bit about what I was currently reading which Luke replied to – this was around a week after the above – with an emphatic response that prompted another chain of emails. 

Dear Ms Marshall, 

You should definitely read The Colour Purple! It’s a really good story about lesbians of colour. From sexism, to racism, to homophobia, this book covers a lot of topics and I feel like you’d really enjoy. Quick story: my mum had this on her reading list when she was at [the school he now attends**], but before she had the chance to read it, Margaret Thatcher pulled all books from schools that “promoted the homosexual lifestyle” and it simultaneously took the only book about people of colour from the reading list. 

I hope you enjoy the book, 

Luke 

Oh hello Luke! How nice to hear from you! I’m so glad to hear you enjoyed it and will get reading as soon as it arrives. I am currently reading another book you might enjoy (though it is a little more YA than The Colour Purple) and  you have probably come across it: it’s called Black Flamingo. It might seem a bit ‘nail on the head’  as recommendation when you read the blurb but Ms N. and I were reading it and thought it would be a great recommendation for year 10/11 students. Let’s just say Margaret Thatcher would definitely have pulled this book out of schools! 

All the best and glad you’re out there in the email ether! 

Ms Marshall 

Yes I’ve seen that book! It’s in the LGBT section in the Westfields Waterstones. I’m friendly with a few of the people that work there (because they’re lovely: if you’re ever in there ask for Alice or Sabrina*** as they manage the section, but all of them are wonderful) so they let me basically just sit on the floor and read: they don’t seem to be bothered by it – they’re actually more likely to offer me a chair! When this is all over, I’ll definitely sit down and read it.  

I have a couple of recommendations for you: What If It’s Us? by Becky Albertalli and Adam Silvera, The Miseducation of Cameron Post by Emily Danforth and the ongoing Heartstoppers series by Alice Oseman, which she updates on her Tumblr regularly (I know you don’t like Tumblr but the series is definitely worth it). 

When I recommended Dean Atta’s Black Flamingo I was apprehensive because I didn’t want to pigeonhole Luke and assume he would like the book simply because of its subject matter and the acronyms that might be used to describe him (LGBTQ+, BAME). I think though that for Luke being recommended this book actually opened a door. He’s always been very open with me and we’ve shared reading ideas before and he has sent me pieces of his writing, but the medium of email allowed him to open this up, send me a reading list of things that I might like but also that he thought it was important I read.  

I’ve never told Luke which way I vote, and this doesn’t need to be about that. But I do think it’s interesting that he shows himself to be someone who has grown up in a home that lived through Section 28 and opposed it. He also identifies me as someone who would be on his side of that debate (which I then suggest I am in response to his invocation of Thatcher). He’s right, I couldn’t have recommended him that book in my capacity as his English teacher during that period. The lockdown has been an era of booklists and mine is long. The Colour Purple is on my pile and the others on my long list of YA I’m trying to work through.  

Our conversation continues (I won’t include it all). This little bit below was the very next part. I think it’s clear that having shared the books, Luke wants to move the conversation on to share his own writing, rather than the writing of others.   

I’m working on a piece of writing at the moment to send to you. I’ll try to send some semi-regularly, but I seem to have less free time than when I was at school… it’s strange. I hope you enjoy them and you can expect the first one soon-ish. 

Looking forward to sending the writing, 

Luke 

Than [sic] you Luke that’s fantastic! I’m so pleased you have a friendly book shop- it’s so so important.  

I have 2 questions about sharing some of what you’ve share: 

Are you ok for me to share the book recommendations with a few others on a new list I’ll send out in a few weeks? And secondly, I use twitter quite a lot and I would love to tell the Waterstones Westfield how great they are without sharing your name but I won’t if you don’t want me to. 

Please do send me some of your work and, as always, if there’s any that would be [school magazine] friendly, let me know but otherwise I’m just happy to read it. 

Thanks for being in touch Luke it’s lovely to hear from you. 

Ms Marshall 

 

That would be wonderful on both accounts, although I am obligated to say that the Miseducation of Cameron Post has some adult themes and Heartstoppers is a comic. If it’s okay for me to recommend another book in prose by Alice Oseman, I would recommend Radio Silence: it’s truly wonderful.  

I’ll update you if I find anymore good books,  

Luke 

Oh keep the recommendations coming Luke! 

In this exchange we both show an awareness of the limitations of what is allowed to be shared in school even today, Section 28 or not, or what he might feel comfortable sharing with his peers. When I said [school magazine] friendly, I meant that I would want him to be comfortable sharing it in that form as he’s let me read lots of his work before and never let me put it in. His caveats are interesting too. The adult themes comment might show that despite the way things have moved on, a book on sexuality would be ok for a booklist sent to his classmates by me, but maybe not in the official school publication. His point about the comic book is, I suppose, that it might not be deemed challenging or part of a ‘reading’ list.   

But Luke did send me writing to put in the magazine this time:  

Hi, 

I wrote a 1103 word essay on Trigger Warnings and Safe Spaces in modern internet culture and if you could read it, it would mean a lot to me. Originally I meant it to be a short piece to put in the [school magazine], but I got a bit carried away. If you still wanted to put in an extract, I would very much appreciate it! 

Luke 

I’ve included the piece as a separate blog post which I think lots of people would benefit from reading. But what I am pleased by, having read the essay, is the email above. The request that I read it in its full form is something that would ‘mean a lot’ to him. As a teacher, especially as an English teacher, having a student want you to read their work is always good because it means it’s something they are proud of and want you to see. But this isn’t just that, it’s, I hope, an acknowledgement that this email chain, and my relationship with him, is safe, the thread of emails is an online ‘safe space’ that he is arguing for:   

‘…the idea that the world is unavoidably brutal and that people simply need to “stop being so sensitive” lends itself to a toxic mindset in which those who have suffered trauma need to change, rather than the environment they’re in. 

His essay made me realise that the work that we do in our classrooms is probably even more important than what goes on online in this regard. Now that our classrooms are virtual, are we, through what we send home, potentially having even less opportunity to do this? What are we doing to create safe online spaces? How do we ensure that our students don’t feel like they have to change themselves to fit in either in the real world classroom or the online one?  

When Luke realised I wanted to publish his work and also to write about it here, he sent more. He wrote the poem ‘We Are Human’ in response to the BLM protests. In the poem he firmly situates in solidarity with the movement though, as far as I am aware, has not suffered at the hands of the police. But his use of ‘we’ all the way through and in the title is powerful. As he says in his article, it isn’t about never arguing or disagreeing, but about showing support at the right times. I’ve heard him debate on a number of issues with other students in the class and he always has a nuanced perspective. I think it is interesting then that in this piece that is for publication and as a response to BLM he makes the choice to simply show he is there for his fellow humans and sees the affronts to their humanity as an affront to his own.  

There is a difference between Luke’s pieces that he knew would be read by lots of people, and the ones he thought would only be read by me (initially, he’s fully aware I’m publishing his words now). He himself acknowledges the need to caveat words and ideas for public consumption. In both cases in this thread of correspondence the process of editing yourself happens, reducing, to an extent the fullness of what could be said. Where one of these moments seems a shame because it has the potential to exclude the books he likes from a published list, the other is inclusive and empowering. Luke’s writing shows the sophistication with which young people edit, squish and squeeze themselves into different personas on and offline through the use of language.  

I actually cherish the opportunity I have had to correspond with Luke. In school, this kind of talk can’t always happen, not least because there are 30 students in his class. The writing process is also very different to face to face conversation. He and I have both had lots of time to think about what to say and how to say it and through that he has produced reems of writing (not all included here). Overall though, I am sorry I couldn’t see my class, but glad I got to know them in this alternative way and that some more expansive thinking was able to take place for both Luke and me.  

I do have some concrete takeaways from this in terms of what might be important in building strong relationships even if we’re still teaching online: 

  • This dialogue happened because I asked if the students who hadn’t engaged were ok and prioritised how I could help them over the consequences of not having completed tasks. 
  • It also happened because I am a reading enthusiast, I’ve made that clear to them over 4 years of teaching and telling them what I’m reading. 
  • I sent them heaps of my own recommendations and things I was reading including explicitly linking them to the Jhalak Prize for Fiction and a list of YA specifically by BIPOC writers. This lead to a few students, not just Luke, making suggestions about things I might like to read. Creating a safe space is a lot to do with what you signpost. 
  • I also think that using their own words and voices as a ‘reading list’ made a big difference to their continued suggestions (Luke isn’t the only one who kept talking). 
  • I want to be more wary of how I might be asking students to shift and perform and whether what I’m asking them to do is a positive or constructive code switch or something that they are having to do because they can’t be themselves.  

*Luke is a pseudonym.  

** bits in square brackets are to protect the school identity 

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