Wednesday, June 15, 2011

why we teach

Every year before fifth grade graduation I get together old pictures of my former first graders who are now getting ready to graduate from fifth grade. There is something both amusing and humbling about bringing a too-cool-for-school fifth grade boy a stack of pictures from when he was in first grade. Remember when I worried over his reading progress and his inability to sit on the carpet for more than five minutes?  Now he's a star reader and an excellent citizen.  I want to whisper to them all, I remember when you couldn't read, couldn't tie your shoe, and had no problem picking your nose in public. Good job with the growing up thing!  Of course, I write them each a letter and I try to make it a bit more elequent than that. I want them to know that I'm proud of them, and that they are important enough that teachers still think of them years later. They should know that they are loved and worthy of others paying attention to them in a way that encourages them to live up to that worthiness.

 I grew up in a small town and my mother was always coming back from the grocery store to inform me that she'd run into some former teacher I'd had who'd asked about me. In her next breath she'd tell me about the gossip she'd learned about one of my former peers who was finally out of rehab. It was a helpful message- people care about you enough to still think about you, but by the way, good thing you're making them proud because it would be a shame for the whole town to realize you've turned to drugs...
My kids don't live in a small town so I sometimes feel like we have to recreate that community in our school.

This year when I dropped off my letters and pictures in one class I mentioned to the teacher and the student that I remembered the student's first day of school when he didn't speak any English. The teacher smiled and said, "You know he wrote a story about that." I said I would love to see it while inwardly panicking. Please don't let me have had some terrible teacher moment that day that so traumatized the boy he needed to write about it years later...

It was nothing of the sort.  I had to try not to tear up while I read his amazingly well-written piece about his experience starting at a new school where he didn't speak the language. With a tone and author's voice beyond most fifth graders he takes the reader into his nervous thoughts that first morning when he was wondering how he would survive. In a mixture of English and well-placed Spanish words he describes his thoughts throughout the rest of the day, his fear at each new subject and his relief when he made it through each one before he began to panic about the next step. He writes about being saved by a basket of Spanish libros he could read, the relief of being able to write in Spanish, and how he appreciated having a peer translator in math to help him explain his thinking when he knew the right answer.

I'd love to print the story here for you but it's not my story to tell. It's so well crafted that I hope he'll submit it to some journals that publish student work. If he wants it on-line he'll share it himself. You'll have to take my word for it on how he perfectly describes the experience of an ESOL student's first day.

I made a copy of the story for myself. I want to be able to re-read it when I'm thinking of how to integrate students into the classroom, how to make the room welcoming, and more importantly, how small moments in a day can stay with a child forever. How little things we do, things we don't even think about because we're so busy trying to stay on top of paperwork and meetings, are truly significant to each child. So significant that the child will remember them years later. Our small actions, good or bad, can stay with our students forever. In kindergarten and first grade it's easy to think that they are so little that they'll recover from a bad day in school, or that they'll be flexible and simply jump into the routines easily. Realizing that five years later they will no longer be small children but fifth grade authors who are capable of looking back and articulating their experiences clearly is important. We're not just teaching children, we're teaching future adults who just happen to be children right now.*

To be honest I do not have much memory from his first day. I'm sure I was told about 20 minutes before the school day started that I was getting a new student, and it probably was not until I met him that I learned he did not speak English. This is common at our school and we usually expect that new students transferring in will be English-language learners. My class that year was an interesting bunch that kept me on my toes and I'm thankful that something went well enough that day that this little boy felt like he could survive the year. I'm more thankful and in awe that 5 years later he shared his story with me, a story that will stay with me forever, reminding me of the future adult inside each five year old while giving me insight into what it is like to start school when you do not speak the language.




*This is what my husband keeps reminding me of when I think of baby names. Whenever I propose something fabulous like Bunny he simply replies that we're not naming a baby, we're naming an adult who will happen to use the name as a baby. Then he makes me say the name like I'm answering the phone as president of a company. "Hello, Bunny Lipstick speaking" doesn't instill much confidence...

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

What a great post -- I think we can all forget how memorable our everyday actions can be on an adult or child who is facing a big moment in his/her life.

Also, very funny about the names -- using my husband's tests it would be "Justice Bunny Lipstick" or the Honorable Bunny Lipstick, Senator from Virginia. Not that he was thinking big or anything (our kids were not born here so President was out).

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