A few times this week, as a teacher, I was living the dream. The dream being having all of the kids with me, everyone on the same page, interested, engaged, excited. I’d like to say that it happens all the time. I guess I’m confessing here that it doesn’t.
Most of the time in the classroom, at least for me, there are kids who are thinking of something else, talking quietly to another child, fooling with someone's hair or just going through the motions and not being fully present. You teachers, you know what I’m saying here. There are lots of times when I am teaching my heart out and it’s just not clicking for everyone.
I’m not one of those teachers who says, “If not for the kids this job would be awesome!” Not at all. It’s just par for the course. 22 little minds there with me, 22 different people living different lives. Of course I can’t expect everyone to be on board all of the time. That’s just the way it goes.
Occasionally, every single mind is directed in a positive way toward the teaching and learning. Last year, for example, we had a bunch of black swallowtail butterfly caterpillars happily munching away on some parsley in a large net container in our classroom. You could see them from the outside of the enclosure just fine. And lots of children spent time in the science area making observations and sketches of these little animals eating, pooping, molting – getting bigger. But I got this new device for the computer, a document camera that allows you to project books and pictures on a large screen in the front of the room. Experimentally, I got a 20 foot cord for it, and went fishing around in the butterfly container. WOW! We were looking at these tiny creatures, only a few millimeters long, just barely out of their eggs, eating parsley and inching their ways along stalks. It was pretty thrilling. It was one of those times when ALL of us were together.
Of course we got to watch the entire metamorphosis. We even watched as the wet, crumpled butterflies slid out of their chrysalises and hung upside down pumping fluid into their wings, waiting for the moment they could fly. The class watched at the open window as these beautiful animals took flight and headed out to mate and lay eggs of their own. It was magic, right? I mean we cheered as the first one flew past the window into the wild world on its own. We bore witness to its life in fast motion. It was like a miracle. But that’s different. And it had nothing to do with me really. We were witnessing the beauty of nature, being inspired by an event that many people never see in their lives. How could 22 minds NOT be connected to that, right?
There are small moments when it seems like everyone is with me. For example, I was tuning my guitar by ear. I needed silence to do this. Pretty much complete silence. Not exactly easy in a classroom of little kids. At least not in my classroom. I made the quiet sign, said I needed everyone to be silent so I could tune up so we could sing. The guitar was pretty well out of tune, so I had about 30 seconds or a minute of complete silence. I probably closed my eyes at some point to dial the strings in. “How do you do that?” someone asked when I finished. They had seen me do this all the time, but this little girl finally asked about the process.
I untuned the guitar and demonstrated. I told them that the room needed to be really quiet so that they could hear what was happening. I was tuning one string to another using the 5th and 7th fret harmonics. I pinged one string, then pinged its neighbor. As I tightened the string I was tuning, you could hear the notes coming together. When they are almost in tune there is this wavery sound that slows until the two notes become one. “Do that again!” the same little one said.
OK, that was 5 minutes. And again, there was sort of a gimmick, a shtick. It wasn’t something like… What are the 6 regions and 4 river systems of South Carolina? Both of these examples were pieces of real life.
But this week, as we were reading the book Shiloh, by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor, all of the children in the class were inside that story. This is our read-aloud chapter book, a book that some of our kids couldn’t read successfully on their own. For several it is a “someday book”. But as I read, their eyes were glued to the text, because every child had a copy in their hands. It is a story filled with moral dilemmas. The characters are complex. The decisions made by Marty, the young protagonist, to save his dog are difficult. And anything he chooses to do is both right and wrong. Should he lie to his parents and save this little dog? Should he tell the truth and risk the wrath of a violent and cruel neighbor? There is no “right answer”. At every little break in the story the kids sort of demanded to share out what they were thinking. Hands shot up at the end of every page. They turned and talked to their friends sitting or lying on the floor around them with such conviction and energy.
And I was just riding the rocket.
It took a while to get here, but these children are so hooked on story, so connected to well-crafted writing. This is one of those chapters in a teacher’s life that is completely gratifying. Sure, there are those who need extra help with reading strategies. Yes, children need to deepen their vocabularies, read for a variety of purposes, be able to pick out main ideas (and anticipate questions they will be asked by test writers on the high stakes tests in the spring). But now, a big part of my reading “instruction” is making sure they have the right books in their hands and giving them opportunities to share what they think about what they read. Now, a lot of how I can “teach reading” is making sure they have the time to read – and just getting out of their way.
Sure, we found a book that captivates everyone. But there are lots of books that can do that. Charlotte’s Web, Stone Fox, Sarah, Plain and Tall, The Prince of the Pond, Holes, The Music of Dolphins, they can all do it. It is the book – but it’s more than that. Together we have created an atmosphere of respect for the writer and the well-chosen words that draw us in. When I asked my kids a few weeks ago to describe what reading is, many of them said it is being inside the story with their characters. They are so far beyond describing the process as sounding out words. These children know what reading is. They’ve got the bug.
And I’ve got them right where I want them.