It’s been a solid decade since I taught freshmen, but those babyfaced, wide-eyed foundlings and I are on a long overdue reunion tour this year. Such youth. Such innocence. Such…incredible chaos. I’m straight up exhausted. It’s a late February tired in early October on this homefront and wow, do I feel a heck of a lot older than my (insert inaudible mumbling here) years.
But, I’ve got a contingency plan, my fellow workshop enthusiasts, and it goes a little something like this:
Keep at it.
Keep at it for the ones whose names you learned first, out of necessity to rein in their testing behaviors. Keep at it for the ones who just can’t seem to get their curiosity, listening ears, and class materials in the same place at the same time. Keep at it for the ones who have fought you on every book selection you’ve slid ninja-style before them without yet hearing the sweet click of a kid who is hooked on a great book. Keep at it for the ones glued to your book talk, but still “too cool” to ask the teacher about something to read. Keep at it for the long haul…we’ve only just begun.
Sometime a few months back, in the blissful noncombative expanse of summer, I must have had a premonition of the deep need I would have to hear these words and repeat, mantra-style, this cadence of pushing forward to what can and will be better because of my efforts.
I was putting a cover together for my writer’s notebook so I’d have something personal to show my students, my 9th graders especially when it came to creating a notebook that invites exploration. I had been cleaning out a closet in our office/playroom, sorting through mementos I was saving to document my daughter’s latest art projects, and I came across two seemingly disparate items that sparked a theme for my writer’s notebook, and my year.
The first was a collage that hung in my locker when I was in high school. A random conglomeration of magazine clippings that spoke to some of my extremely adolescent aspirations.
The other, a stack of unrelated photos from when my grandparents built their house in the early 1950’s. The tiny black and white photos cataloged the creation of a home that I would come to know as a place with countless memories, but in these photos, it was an unfinished, stark-looking shell.
The kitchen I would learn to bake in did not yet exist. The trees I would climb and swing from had not yet been planted. The four-lane highway that runs before it now, was then, just a dirt road.
But in those pictures, beyond the unfinished walls and barren yard was something even greater than it’s current state of general chaos – potential.
From those photos, I selected one and went on a mission to gather other illustrations of potential and growth. I added to my cover a picture from my wedding day, another of Ellie on one of her first days of daycare, a daily behavior chart from those same early days of “school,” and a sample of her earliest “stories.”
Together, these pieces helped me share with my students a purposeful personalization of my notebook, and shed light on part of my goal-setting process for the school year:
Overcome the fear (The freshmen are coming! The freshmen are coming!) and keep at it. Push forward through what’s hardest. Look for signposts of small successes along the way. Always travel in packs – collaborate, seek feedback, lean on others for support (Huge shout-out here to my fellow English 9 support team who have kept me afloat these first few weeks). And these pieces of advice are as true for the educators, as they are for our students who are just gaining their footing as readers and writers.
So, as my freshmen file in today, I will look past my tired and the somewhat frustrated, and instead, remind myself of the big goal I set for myself and their potential for growth. I will look to the young scholar I have had to speak to in the hallway on more than one occasion already about his disruptive behaviors sidelining the entire class. I will look to the young woman who rarely even makes it to class, and I’ll capture each time I see her as an opportunity to try and get her to come back. I will look to the socially awkward young man whose first speech of the year suggested he likes online video games to make friends so he can avoid people judging what he looks like in person. And for each of them, and all the rest, I will focus on what my conversations with them one on one can accomplish. Conferring is where the magic really happens, and if you’re too tired or overwhelmed to talk with kids, as I have sometimes already felt this year, then it’s time to reprioritize. Quickly.
It’s for those students who have admitted they haven’t completed any books since about the 5th grade. It’s for those students who say they love to write, but never want to share that writing with the group. It’s for the students who loved reading at one point and somehow that love was stomped out of their lives. It’s for the compliant ones, almost most of all, who need a spark instead of a dying fire to light their way back to the beauty of being readers and writers.
It’s because they can grow, they need to grow, and so do I, that I do this work every day. And though that road sometimes seems very long, often thankless, and sometimes overwhelming to the point of mental breakdown, it’s where this work will take us that’s important. So…I’ll keep at it.