A Teacher’s Joy
I ran into a former student of mine tonight. He was a sweet little boy in my 5th grade classroom back in 2011. The mental image I have is of him sitting in the corner desk at the front of the room, bending over his notebook and scribbling away. Today he was being recognized by the school district for his artistic abilities–he made a sculpture of a lizard out of tree bark in the style of Picasso–and I would never have recognized him at all because he is now about three entire feet taller and about four times hairier than he was when I knew him, but there on his face were those same brown eyes, that same shy smile. He showed me his sculpture and then we talked about his current interests, what he’s been up to over these past few years, and his plans for the future. When I asked him if he participated in any sports, he said no. “I love to write instead.” I smiled at him then, my heart melting, and said jokingly that that was probably because he’d had such an amazing 5th grade writing teacher. Instead of laughing, he nodded and told me that he still had the journal he’d had in my class, along with all the little Post-It notes I had tucked into the pages with my comments.
I had to think for a second, not quite remembering what he was talking about, but then it all came back. I always had my students keep a daily journal. The instructions were to free write about the given topic, and then about whatever else they wanted to, for the entire 5-10 minutes of journal-writing time. The topics were random and non-academic sentence starters–I am most afraid of…, My favorite place in the world is…, Something I’m really good at is… etc.–and I also reminded them that their journals (along with every other form of communication) were subject to public scrutiny and could be used against them in a court of law. :o) I kept my own journal too. Every year I would start a new one so that I could write as they wrote. Every once in a while, if we had a few minutes to spare, I would call on a handful of volunteers to share one of their entries with the class, and about once a month we had journal-exchanges, during which they got to read each other’s journals, including mine.
When it was time to actually take a grade on their work, I would pack all the journals up in one of those fashionable plastic teacher carts and drag them home. I’d spend hours reading through them and leaving little Post-It notes here and there with comments like “Hey, me too!” or “Aww, I’m so sorry you had to go through that,” or “What? No way, cats are way better than dogs! Haha.” I didn’t grade the journals for spelling or grammar, only effort, and most kids really spilled a lot onto those pages, especially after they found out I actually read and responded to them.
My goal as a writing teacher was always to have my students leave my classroom not only better writers but with a stronger passion for writing–or at the very least with the knowledge that writing could actually be fun, empowering, and meaningful… and that they could do it. Every now and then I am reminded of the fact that, while I might not have been writing or publishing much during those 16 years I spent in the classroom, I was doing something even more important and which had a greater impact than any of my written words have had. I was laying foundations.