Sunday, May 20, 2012

You've Got Mail

With eight weeks left in the school year, I sat down to write letters to my students.

I wanted the letters to demonstrate to my students how much I respected them.  I wanted the letters to remind my students of times during the year where they had thrived, taken a risk, acted mature.  I wanted the letters to galvanize my students to try especially hard in the final two months of school.

The process was more difficult than I had originally calculated. 

Over my weeklong, spring break holiday, I thought back over seven months of stories.  The time when we discussed Joseph Kony for an entire class period, or when my students had a pencil-tapping competition in the cafeteria, or when we “mummified” students during a Halloween-themed game day, or when we discussed the secrets of Pascal’s Triangle.   

A few of the letters came quickly.  There were my star students, whose letters consisted of a list of praises – how well they worked with others, how they were always on task, how they were always looking for ways to help. 

But then there were the letters to my more challenging students.

It can be easy to type-cast difficult students – the troublemaker, the checked-out child, the girl with too much attitude.   Their disruptive behavior is loud and attention-getting – both in the classroom and in my memory.

But, thinking back over the year, I began to tease out for those students their moments of real maturity.
The time when Michael, who usually can’t sit without talking for more than five minutes, silently wrote a thoughtful two-page response to a story we read.

The time when Robert, usually checked out in math, sat up straight, raised his hand, answered questions, and smiled when he got long-division problems right.

The time when Alisha, after being sent out of the classroom four days in a row for disruptive behavior, came up to me at snack and told me she wanted to change, wanted to be superb in class, and then was.

The time when Daniel, who has a tendency to bully other students when he gets bored, worked with me to turn around his behavior by agreeing to work on extra math packets in the back of the classroom rather than distract other students.

In my letters, I recorded these and other moments of grace.

When class convened after spring break, I distributed these letters to the class. 

I passed out markers, envelopes and lined paper and asked them to write me letters in return.  The following thirty minutes were the most silent and most focused I have ever seen my students. 

There were no funny noises, no pencil-tapping, no absurd half-dance moves, no humming, no turning in seats to talk to friends. Sixteen heads bent over paper, and sixteen hands writing, pausing, and writing again. I pulled out my phone and filmed, attempting to capture the palpable concentration.  Not a single student noticed.

Late that same night I read each of their reply letters.  I admit that I did not remain dry-eyed.  My students wrote about times where they struggled in class, with a particular concept, with a friendship.  They wrote about times where they had tried harder and succeeded.

For me, the most poignant letters were from my most difficult students.  They might not be star students all the time, or even most of the time, but in reading their letters I was reminded of how much they want to succeed.

Emily's letter to me was bright with pink hearts and purple stars.  In a corner of a page, written in blue ballpoint pen and wreathed in smiley faces, I found the following: “Next thing you’ll know I’m in 7th grade all mature!” 

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