Elias hated writing. Baggy t-shirts, messy hair, green eyes like crescent moons above his freckled cheeks; he was just the kind of kid you noticed. He loved nonfiction and could wax poetic on Paleolithic fossils and had a Ph.D. in Lego design. But he hated writing. I knew this because when the class rosters were posted the spring before, Elias’s mom came by to pick up her kindergartener from my class and said, “Elias isn’t like Gayle. He’s not meticulous and over-achieving like her.” She said this in a way that was different than the tone most parents take when comparing their children. She said it to cushion his landing into my classroom – to help me build a realistic expectation of him. I already liked him.
It’s reassuring to know a few faces and names on the first day of third grade. The first day of school is that day where kids and parents and teachers go to school with knots in their stomach. But I knew Elias and a few other older siblings of my kindergarten students the year before.
Knowing my students well is a non-negotiable for me as a teacher. I’ve read books that say: “Know ten things about every student, five of them being non-academic, by the third week of school.” Yeah. But personally, I’ve never really appreciated those jigsaw, find-someone-who social assignments. They suck the social right out of me. I get to know my students because I want to know them. I want to know these people I will be responsible for educating these next ten months.
It’s also true that there is really no distance that I won’t travel to help a child succeed. That’s why, when I look out on my classroom of students, I never really see a “class”… I see twenty-five individual minds and hearts.
As sure as the sky is blue, our yearly writing began with the personal narrative. This is painful. We may as well start with poetry. But not roses-are-red poetry. Vague, teenage angst poetry. The intention is the same: let’s dig around inside with a microscope and see how interesting we can make the minutia of our lives. Don’t get me wrong. Personal narrative is the most powerful genre. It’s the way we learn about ourselves by examining small parts of our own life. But working off that summer-brain takes time, and when students look inside themselves for a story, they often struggle to see one.
Elias dragged behind; while other students wrote about baby brothers and broken arms, he sat and scratched some words down, bored to tears. His writing was boring too, of course. Since I wrote that you’ll know that I’m also not the sort of sunshine-and-rainbows teacher that thinks praise and a sticker cures all. I actually kind of hate stickers. What a pitiful token for actual learning. It’s like – here, you just sorted new information into existing schema, and reformatted a minor misconception, then utilized this new information in a meaningful way – have a shiny smiley face.
But… I do believe in contests.
“Today, I would like to take a break from our personal narratives and give you the opportunity to write about something you know.” This is where the other half of students – the half that thrived with personal narrative – curl their shoulders forward. Even though I didn’t say it, they knew what I meant: research report. (I’m like these kids, actually. I can write about myself all day… but content knowledge evaporates into the furthest reaches of my brain at the least mention of expository.)
“You may write about any topic you choose. You may do additional research using texts from our library and the computer. But here’s the catch: You’re not writing me a report. You’re writing me a script.” Now all my students’ shoulders are slumping forward.
“I’m going to choose five scripts and those students will record a Super Short Science Show.” They viewed a short clip of Bill Nye, caught a little bit of my infectious excitement and went off to the classroom library or their table to write.
I skipped the part where I told you why I decided to hold an expository writing contest in the middle of a too-long personal narrative unit, but you probably already know. It was five weeks into the first quarter and Elias had As in every subject but writing, in which he had a low C.
“Elias is saying that he doesn’t like school. He just wants to stay home. I’m trying to get him into Harry Potter, since I know he needs to actually read fiction at some point, but he’s just not interested.” I really understood Elias’s mom for some reason. It was beyond obvious that Elias was exceedingly bright. The system wasn’t working for him, though. School quashed his spirit.
That’s when I acted on something that I had always known. If the system isn’t working, change the system. It started with the Super Short Science Show.
Elias actually didn’t even turn in a script, and I toiled away throughout the year making short productions of student writing. But other students bloomed.
He eventually caught the Harry Potter fever spreading like wildfire through third grade. And he came to love school again when I added student-run clubs and reading groups, held a week to celebrate our “Inner-Awesome” and learned that his voice and expertise were valued in those four walls.
When you are willing to change your methods for one child, you’ll soon see that many children thrive under those conditions as well. Not to be completely cliché and become the millionth person to compare teaching children to growing a garden, but you may have flowers that bloom just fine where you plant them, while others struggle along. Some seem wilted, so you change the conditions. They brighten up considerably and the others benefit as well from the more sheltered, edifying environment that you’ve provided. But no one looks at a garden and says: I grew those flowers. The flowers grew themselves. The gardener just played a part in providing the optimal conditions for their growth.
So, that’s my manifesto. As a teacher, I am responsible for providing the optimal conditions for student learning. I believe that I am charged with educating the whole child, since their social and emotional well-being are not isolated from their intellect. I also believe that no two students are the same, so while I may hold them to equally-high standards, the support and encouragement I provide to help them get there (or beyond) may look different for each child. I also believe that if I represent myself as the ultimate bearer of knowledge my students will never become viable, independent thinkers that learn from themselves, each other and the world around them. Many times, the best thing I can do as a teacher is set the conditions and step back, watching and waiting for growth.