The first time I taught VALUES in a writing class, I told my students to go home and write down as many strong experiences as they could think of in their lives. Next to each, they were to write out a strong reversal that was closely related to each strongly positive or strongly negative experience and based on further experiences from their lives or from the lives of people they personally knew.
I provided several examples on the white board so they would be sure to understand, and we discussed those a bit. And I explained that the assignment was to help them identify material they could write about in the several types of essays they would be completing throughout the course of the class. They seemed to ‘get it.’
However, before the next class period, two unhappy students came to see me. They were having trouble finding values in their lives that they could reverse.
The first student, Jared, stood in front of my desk and said, ‘I don’t see what you mean by positive and negative values in my life. I guess I’ve got a stable but boring life,’ he laughed.
I laughed, too, and responded, ‘Well, how are your experiences, your relationships, at home? What are the values-really positive, really negative? Just so-so, nothing to brag about or complain about?’
‘Just so-so, I guess. We get along okay, actually. No real problems. Nothing really wonderful, either, I guess.’
I chuckled and said, ‘Okay, I know what you mean. What about your health? How’s that? Great shape, bad shape-what?’
Jared offered, ‘Well, my health’s okay, too, I guess.’ He paused. ‘There is one thing, though.’ He looked down at his feet. ‘I’ve got diabetes, but it’s under control. I eat right and take my insulin at the right times. No big deal.’
I smiled and replied, ‘I think you might have something to write about there, Jared. So how do you think most people look at or view or value diabetes, what are their overall expectations about diabetes-do they view it positively or negatively?’
He looked off into the distance, out the window, and said, ‘Actually, my friends kid me about all the great food I can’t eat any more, like hot fudge sundaes. But, you know what?’ Jared seemed a bit defensive, and he got a bit animated and energetic at this point. ‘Because I watch what I eat, I eat better than they do, and I take better care of myself because of my diabetes. In twenty years, I betcha I’ll be in much better shape than they’ll be in!’
‘Bingo! You’ve got it, Jared! While most people see diabetes as a very negative value and have negative expectations about it, you value it as an experience that makes you discipline yourself so that you take better care of your body, and you’ll be better off in the long run for it!’
‘Actually, now that I think about it, it’s paying off in the short-run, too, Mr. Drew. I’m already in better shape than my friends. They eat all kinds of junk food, and they stuff themselves when they shouldn’t.’
‘Okay, then! You’ve got your thesis for your first essay in our class, a cause-and-effect paper-now go write down more strong values with strong reverses!’ Grinning, Jared left.
The second student, Pamela, started off in the same negative way: ‘I guess I’ve just got a do-nothing life, Mr. Drew. I don’t know what to do with this assignment,’ she said in a monotone, looking at her feet.
‘Well, Pamela, as we showed on the board in class, just write down some positive things you feel strongly about and some negative things you feel strongly about. And then write down reverses next to them.’ I motioned to the chair beside my desk, and she sat down.
‘What positive things? Since my parents got divorced eight months ago, nothing’s been positive,’ she mumbled, dull-eyed, staring downward.
‘That truly is not a positive thing, Pamela,’ I gently sympathized, ‘and I’m sure sorry it happened to you and your family [uncomfortable pause] … but it may be something you could write about since you feel so strongly about it. For instance, what do you think most kids your age feel and think about divorce-what do they expect from it, positive things or negative things?’
‘Like me, they think it’s a bummer-and it really does suck,’ she said, and she seemed to reflect for a moment. ‘But I guess there IS a sort of silver lining to the whole thing. I get to see my dad more, y’know. He schedules time every week with me so he can come over and take me out and do things with me.’
‘I see. You’re referring to the saying that, Every dark cloud has a silver lining. Any other silver linings-good things that happened after the unhappy divorce that didn’t happen with your dad before the divorce, when he was living at home?’
‘Well, yeah. He takes me more places, and he buys me more stuff. Now that I think about it, he even gives me more money than he ever did before!’ Pamela was grinning faintly, now.
‘You’re on the right track, Pam. Now you’ve identified the positives about divorce-the reverse of the negative value expectations, that everybody sees divorce as just totally bad. As you said, there’s really a silver lining in it for you because you get to see your dad more, he takes you more places, he buys more things for you, and he even gives you more money than he ever gave you before the divorce. satta
‘Sounds like you’ve probably got lots of details to support your thesis that, Divorce isn’t so bad, after all-at least not in your experience. Now use that same method of looking for silver linings with some other negative values in your life, and you’ll have plenty of material for all the essays you have to write after your cause-and-effect paper on divorce.’
‘Thanks, Mr. Drew. I understand the assignment a lot better, now. See you in class!’ Pamela stood up from her chair and walked away, smiling.
After those two interviews, I wondered why they were able to ‘get it’ in class and ‘get it’ when talking with me, but not by themselves. Days later (I can be pretty slow sometimes), it finally struck me: In each case, something was handy-me!-to prompt them and keep them focused on the process and on the purpose.
The students just didn’t know how to look for the right patterns. They hadn’t really gotten the overall perspective, and they needed prompting to help them gather the strong values.