Friday, April 16, 2010

Professional Tears

Yesterday was one of the most powerful literacy experiences my 3rd grade students have ever had in school. It was the last day to discuss a really cool little book by John Reynolds Gardiner called Stone Fox.

Stone Fox by John Reynolds Gardiner: Book Cover

I can’t help but give away the story if I am going to tell this one. But if you like to read great elementary level fiction, go ahead and read it anyway. You’ll like how Gardiner gets you there…

Our student teacher, Kristin, is finishing up her time with us. Next year she’ll have a class of her own. And they’ll be lucky children indeed. But with only a week or so left, Kristin was reading the final chapter of a book they started together for literature study. When I came in, Kristin was reading the last chapter aloud. Every child was reading along in a quiet circle on the floor. Some were stretched out prone, others sat cross-legged. A few were on their backs. When I say quiet, you couldn’t hear a whisper in the room other than Kristin’s voice. It was magic. If you are a classroom teacher, you know that moments like these are rare. Precious.

When I entered Kristin was just getting to the climax. Little Willy and his faithful dog Searchlight are in a sled dog race. This is a race that will seal their fate. If they don’t win the prize money, the family farm will be lost. They are neck and neck with a mighty opponent, Stone Fox. Stone Fox is a stoic Indian who hasn’t said a word in the story so far but his presence is massive. He is legendary. He has never lost this race. Willie and Searchlight are giving him a real contest. Kristin’s voice was breathless with anticipation…

Searchlight was a hundred feet from the finish line when her heart burst. She died instantly. There was no suffering.

Kristin started to cry. As her tears fell she paused and caught her breath and read on…

It had started to snow – white snowflakes landed on Searchlight’s fur as she lay motionless on the ground.

It took a long time to read those last two or three pages. At one point I scooted over a box of tissues. Kristin paused, wiped, kept on reading. The children were absolutely glued to the text.

Stone Fox brought his sled to a stop alongside little Willie. He stood tall in the icy wind and looked down at the young challenger, and at the dog that lay limp in his arms.

Kristin apologized for her tears. Paused to catch her breath and gamely read on…

Little Willie squeezed Searchlight with all his might. “You did real good, girl. Real good. I’m real proud of you. You just rest now. Just rest.”

The children looked up at Kristin when she paused. They were patient, respectful, kind. They understood how she felt. Many of them were misting up as well. I know I was.

With the heel of his moccasin Stone Fox drew a long line in the snow. Then he walked back to his sled and pulled out his rifle… “Anyone crosses this line – I shoot.” And there wasn’t anyone who didn’t believe him. Stone Fox nodded to the boy. The town looked on in silence as little Willy, carrying Searchlight, walked the last ten feet and across the finish line.

There was a collective sigh as the book was finished. It was a satisfied sigh. A sigh of pleasure and a feeling of completion. Kristin asked an open-ended question to start the discussion. August was the first to respond. “Well, I really liked the book. It had a lot of feelings in it. It made me think of my great aunt from Charleston.” August started to cry then. “And I really miss her.” Her aunt passed away some months ago. August had missed a couple days of school to attend the funeral and to grieve with her family. We nodded in sympathy, remembering how sad she was. August buried her head in her hands and we could see her tears leaking out.

Next was Hayden. “Well, like August, I really liked the book too. It was really sad at the end and it had a lot of emotions in it just like August said. And it makes me think of my grandmothers who died before I was born.” Hayden started to tear up. “I never even got the chance to meet them.” He put his head down and put his hand over his eyes. His shoulders heaved as he cried silently.

We were all a little amazed. Others made personal connections about people who had passed on and their own sadness. We talked about the story too, but the personal connections were what really mattered in this conversation. There were few dry eyes in the room by the time we finished talking about Stone Fox. The thing is, I don’t think it was the story that made the difference. While Stone Fox is a masterpiece, there are lots of well written books for kids. It wasn’t the questions we asked or the written reflections the children did with each reading assignment. To my way of thinking, it was the talk.

I don’t think many children would have cried or made those personal connections if there wasn’t a lot of conversation around the story. Throughout their reading they spoke of writer’s craft, character development, of the setting and conflict. They covered lots of standards but they uncovered and celebrated a love of literature by being a close group of friends sharing a great book. That is great literacy instruction.

The added component was that the children saw and heard an adult cry about a book; an adult who they respect and care deeply about. If Kristin hadn’t put herself into the story, if she had read it in a bland non-affected way, those children would not have felt the magic of falling in love with the characters. They wouldn’t have felt the sadness at Searchlight’s passing, the compassion of little Willie hugging his best friend and understanding her sacrifice and that she just needed to rest.

At the point that I walked into the classroom, and the class was reading along with Kristin, no one was sounding out words. There were no comprehension issues. The class was way beyond merely understanding this story. They were feeling the joy and dread of the characters; they were experiencing the snow on their faces and the wind in their ears. There was no distance between the ink on the page and their imaginations. Simply, they were there in that story. They were reading.

It occurred to me that I rarely let myself cry in front of my students. Maybe it’s because I’m a guy and real men don’t cry. Maybe it does not seem “professional”. But my idea of professional changed yesterday when I saw how Kristin and the children felt about Stone Fox. If the children remember anything about that day, they will remember really connecting with that book and those characters. They’ll remember Kristin’s brave reading and the conversation that followed. They’ll remember how safe it was to speak about their emotions, and making personal connections to literature. They’ll remember professional tears.


Pat Mohr said...

I just sent this to my daughter to make sure my eight-year-old granddaughter has read this book. I heard about it years ago, but I've never read such a moving rendition of its impact as yours.

I'm an educator who works with standards and assessment. I've heard your name mentioned by other educators, Tim, as an example of a wonderful teacher. Now I know why. I still have tears in my eyes. Thank you!!

Kristin said...

Thanks for the post. I am glad that this is written down. I will always remember that time with the children. I believe that my career will have many professional tear moments. Thanks for your time and patience, thanks for being my mentor.


Judy T said...

Tim, as I have told you before while we were standing together at Food Not Bombs, I am so glad that I learned about this blog. Every time I read a post I laugh or I cry; I learn something or I am inspired to go explore and learn more. I marvel at your exquisite use of words to create a scene for us or to invoke a mood.

You make me remember why I loved to teach. It is the best job in the world. Those kids are so lucky to have you for their teacher and every aspiring young teacher should have you for a mentor or at least have your blog as required reading.

Jennifer Barnes said...

Well, if I have to hug these first graders good-bye in a couple of weeks, there is nowhere else I would rather them go... than to your classroom. Thanks for helping us remember why we teach.