Westward Movement

Sunday, December 18, 2011


Last week, as we prepared to go on a three week winter break, I finished our read-aloud novel (Sarny, the sequel to Nightjohn ... brilliant), and read a few stories from Chicken Soup for the Kid's Soul. My students love the series, and we generally follow a story with a wonderful discussion. The story I read them on Thursday was no exception. A young woman wrote of a period during her childhood when her mom lost her job, and she and her two girls (the author was the elder of the two) were homeless. Sometimes there was a cot available, sometimes they slept on the floor of a shelter, sometimes they slept on the street. 

My students were noticeably moved. I asked them how many of them knew someone who was or had been homeless, and there ensued a conversation about being thankful for a home, for nourishment, and for the important people in our lives. 

One of my students, C, has been the topic of earlier postings. C is a very bright, underperforming student. I fight to maintain a patient attitude with him. Oftentimes, C acts out, calls out, performs in ways that bring negative attention. On occasion, C shares such a unique perspective on a topic, and we are astonished. This was no exception.

C raised his hand toward the end of our conversation about homelessness. He shared that he, his mom and sister had lived in their car for several months when he was three. His mom had lost her job, and they had been evicted. Part of his story included a tenant in an apartment building finding a bottle from which C could drink. He was so appreciative of this act, and spoke for several minutes about being homeless and how thankful he was now that his mom had a job at a car wash, and how seriously she took her responsibilities. 

The conversation moved on, and as we were getting up to prepare for dismissal, C asked us if we'd keep what he'd told us sacred. He actually used the word. He said he wasn't embarrassed, but proud. However, he'd appreciate (again, his word) it if we'd keep the knowledge to ourselves. 

Here I am sharing his story. As I'm using only first initials, I think it's okay. 

In the spirit of the holiday season, I appreciate the gifts my students give me ... among them, the willingness to be open and honest, to be vulnerable, and to ask their friends to appreciate the courage it takes to share those personal stories.

Monday, December 12, 2011

McDonald's or a Blood Draw?

I've shared several of my students' essays (green journal essays, as they are written in a green composition book, due each Monday). This week's responses were priceless. The prompt asked the kids to share a bad experience. 

At my request, four of my students shared their work with their classmates this afternoon. T wrote about having blood drawn, and the difficulty the medical assistant had attempting to draw T's blood. My favorite part made me laugh out loud, and had the same effect on my students.

"When she (the medical assistant) put the needle in, she could not take the blood out. It was so painful. My mom told them to stop. They told my mom she should take me to the lavatory. Instead she took me to McDonald's." 

T laughed when I explained the difference between a lavatory and a laboratory. She's so quick to catch the joke. She commented without prompt from me that she probably could have found someone better to draw her blood at a lavatory than the clinic! 

J shared his experience finding that he has a nut allergy, and had to travel by ambulance to the emergency room. His experience prompted several questions, and brought out his EPI pen for a quick explanation. Hopefully there will never be a demonstration.

C, my brilliant young man with difficulty producing quality work in readable penmanship, received his first score of a three. For all you "old-school" folks, basically a strong B. C generally sees ones and twos on his work. I had read and scored his essay during lunch, and while the kids were reading silently this afternoon, called C over to share with him his score. His eyes widened, he pumped his fist into the air, and threw his arms around me. He uttered, "I finally did it!" I told him how proud I was, that I recognized how hard he'd worked to earn that three, and asked if he'd share his work with the class that afternoon. He allowed me to share with his classmates his struggle. (Not that they didn't already know, but we don't tend to talk in group about individual academic struggle). His bad experience involved scoring a goal for the other team during a soccer game. I don't know if C recognized this, but not only did he produce a quality piece of writing, he made himself quite vulnerable in an arena he prides himself in excelling. 

C, J, and T are writing stars today. E, one of the sweetest, gentlest boys I know, blew us all away with his essay today, and with his willingness to have his work read aloud. E put a twist on the prompt, writing about something positive that happened to him because of the help he offered those less fortunate. 

E wrote about giving money to the homeless when others walked or drove on by, paying no attention. He shared the story of giving $5 to a man sitting on the road and of collecting a $1 bill thrown at the man and handing it back to him. His paragraph ended with the statement, "He was happy."

E's next paragraph described helping more people out, followed by his dad taking him to the arcade for changing the world. He ended his essay with the following paragraph, continuing the tale of the man on the road:

"The first poor guy was so happy. When it was another Saturday I went to see him. He was happy to see me. I asked him, "Why are you so happy? He kept smiling and then he said, "You want to know? I got a job." And then he started to cry.

And so did I.

Sunday, December 11, 2011


I shared the following story with a friend the other day. She insisted I post, although the group of students in the story are now in their early twenties.

A coworker and dear friend, Lisa K., and I did an in-depth unit on WWII and the Holocaust. While these periods of history are not covered in the CA state standards, there are several literature selections focused on the people and events of the time. We read picture books and an amazing novel, Number the Stars. Our students were so engaged, and begged to learn everything possible about the subject. We were able to take our fourth and fifth graders to the Museum of Tolerance. Normally, fifth graders are the youngest students allowed on field trips to the museum. We were given special permission to bring our fourth graders, but the third graders were not allowed to accompany us. 

While there, the rest of our students commented that the third graders could have handled the experience with no problem. Because of all their prior experience with the subject, and the fact that with a multiage class we all learn together regardless of grade, our older kids knew their younger peers were as prepared as they to handle even the most difficult of subject matter. In fact, the docents leading us on our tour commented on how knowledgeable, focused and mature our students were.

As a culminating activity, Lisa's father-in-law, Mr. K, a concentration camp survivor, came to talk to our students. We spent time beforehand brainstorming questions for Mr. K, and talking about being a good listener, a compassionate group participant, and one who is patient while listening to an elder telling a poignant and difficult story. 

We gathered in one of our classrooms ... all 64 students ... sitting on the floor and in surrounding chairs while Mr. K shared his stories and answered questions. It was one of the most touching and beautiful moments of my teaching career. We had to stop the questions as we could tell that Mr. K was getting tired. Telling this particular story was beyond an emotional drain, yet he would have kept sharing as long as the kids would listen. And listen they did - without incident. They'd have been content to sit as long as  Mr. K was willing to be share. 

The next day, our students wrote thank you letters to Mr. K. They were beyond beautiful, written with honesty and integrity, and with the compassion befitting a much older person. Their understanding of what Mr. K had shared was evident. These eight, nine and ten year olds shared in their letters and in their words to their teachers how much this experience meant to them. For the remainder of their tenure in our classes, the study of this period of history was one of the most important experiences they'd had. The kindness with which our students treated one another was wonderful to see. Over the years, students from my class at that time have come to visit. They have not forgotten a single element from our unit of study. 

I wondered why telling this story means so much to me. I believe it's because the direction of education as we approach 2012 heads toward a score on a test. All the children in our classes that year demonstrated their ability to read, to write, to listen, to speak. The story I tell is what we should care about - compassion. 

Monday, December 5, 2011

Balls, balls, balls

My classroom is located on the second floor of an old building with bare floors and thin walls. The softest of steps resonate below. Chairs scrape ... the sound is similar to elephants stomping (not that I've experienced living with elephants, but you get the picture). To protect the ears of the young and the sanity of the old(er), our chairs wear tennis balls, cut to fit over the feet. As the year progresses, chairs lose their tennis balls. They are eventually replaced, though often not for several days or weeks.

Lisa is in the classroom next door to mine. Her situation is exactly the same. Several weeks ago, her students were particularly loud. She asked them to write letters of apology to the class below. They did. Sufficiently apologetic, her kids had several reasons for their noisiness that day. My favorite is in quotes below:

"I'm sorry we were so loud, Ms. M. It's because our chairs have no balls."

Just makes you want to wait an extra few days to replace those ... balls, doesn't it?