I hate sheet protectors. Those shiny, clear plastic sheaths have no place in my classroom. When my new ninth-graders hand in their summer reading logs each September, the first thing I do is remove and return all the sheet protectors. They make it impossible for me to maintain my neat stacks of student work. They don’t quite fit into the file folders I use to transport those stacks home to grade them. I have to remove them before I can write any feedback.
Most of all, I hate what sheet protectors represent. I want my students to understand that I care more about the quality of their work than its presentation. I want to disabuse them of the notion that being neat and tidy will earn them an A in high school. Their middle school teachers may have encouraged, recommended or even demanded sheet protectors, but not me. I tell them, “I am impressed by your thinking, your writing, your willingness to challenge yourselves, not by the sheet protectors.”
Later in the year, my ninth-grade English class was working on revising personal essays to discuss ideas they deeply believe in. Clarice had conferenced with me multiple times about how to improve her essay. Her central belief was, “I am beautiful.” As she revised, she dredged up some painful memories in order to provide the specific details and poignant anecdotes that would help illustrate this belief. Writing did not always come easily to Clarice, so I was pleased to see her putting so much effort into the difficult work of revising a personal essay.
At the end of class, Clarice asked, “Do you have one of those sheet protector thingies?” I told her no way. “Clarice, you know I don’t care about that stuff,” I repeated. “I don’t mind if your essay is a little crumpled as long as it’s good. And I’ve read yours, and it is!”
I saw Clarice in the hallway at the end of the day. Again she asked, “Miss, did you find me one of those sheet protectors?” Clarice seemed to have ignored my original message.
Later that night, I realized that Clarice was really proud of her essay. It was very personal. She had worked very hard on revising it. She wanted to protect it. I rummaged through my stuff at home until I found one crisp, crystal clear sheet protector.
The next morning, I placed it on Clarice’s desk. I was too late. Her essay was folded, crumpled, a little dingy. I apologized for being a little slow on the uptake and told her that I really appreciated the pride she took in her writing. She smoothed out her essay and slid it neatly into the sheet protector.
Clarice taught me to listen more carefully—not just to the words my students say but to the messages behind them. Clarice’s insistence on using a sheet protector was not just a peccadillo inherited from a former teacher; it was a way of showing pride in her work and protecting what was important.
This experience helped me to tune in to the subtle signals that other students were sending me. What does it mean that Penelope brings her copy of To Kill A Mockingbird to class every day but refuses to take it out of her backpack without a fight? Why does Xiumin, one of my brightest students, always take 10 minutes longer than other students to finish a vocabulary quiz? Why does Isaiah keep asking about Drama Club and then never show up? There are answers to these questions, but in order to hear them, I have to critically examine some of my own cultural assumptions about what it means to do well in school. Once I do this, I am able to listen in a different way, a powerful way that can pick up some of the quietest voices in my classroom.
Melville is high school English, Spanish and drama teacher in Pennsylvania.