- 4 field trips (Bluff Dwellers Cave, Harry Truman Presidential Museum, Crystal Bridges, and George Washington Carver)
- 3 virtual field trips (Wind Cave, Monticello, and Mount Vernon)
- 2 traveling trunks (Oklahoma City Memorial and Museum of American Independence)
- 1 student teacher (Mrs. Friend)
- Standardized testing
- Honor rolls
- School attendance
- Multiplication scores
So even if some numbers are fun to think about and spin around on long sticks, let us instead think about our greatest achievements. Yes, we learned a great deal about George Washington and the American Revolution, but even that is not what I'm talking about. You see, I pour my heart into teaching my students how to be better citizens. I work very hard to help them improve their relationship skills. I want them not only to be employable, but to be the kinds of people others like to be around. I want them to greet others with a smile and great eye contact and offer a firm handshake, and I want them to be able to carry on a conversation.
But somewhere in the shuffle, much of that was lost, this year. I don't know if it is because I was not in the classroom for much of the first semester to allow our student teacher enough space to make the class her own, or if perhaps the chemical make up of the individuals in the class just did not mix well. In all honesty, I was often at a loss. Certain individuals seemed to naturally or conditionally dislike others - based on nothing I could see - perhaps coming to me with a history of extreme dislike for certain other individuals. Others always seemed to want to police their peers, telling them what to do and how to do it, nitpicking at every little infraction. Then there were the typical problems most would identify as girl drama - the inability for one person to have more than one friend at a time ("If you're friends with her, you can't be friends with me.").
It's always frustrating for me, as the regular classroom teacher, because even when things are hunky-dory in the confines of Room 404, they often run awry when I take students to extracurricular classes, or when they are at lunch or recess. This year, certain students couldn't seem to catch a break when out from under my supervision. Whether that means I am more patient than other supervisors, that I ignore issues that I should pay more attention to, or that other teachers are less tolerant or have insufficient classroom management skills, I do not know, but I suspect a combination of these and a few other excuses is the reason. I had more teachers bringing students to me, this year, more students getting referrals from other teachers, and more teachers putting consequences in place for my kids than ever before. If what I was nurturing in my own classroom was not extending beyond our four walls, was I really teaching?
Then there were the other interruptions to our learning - those involuntary disasters that occur from time to time in our lives. A student on his way to a skiing trip in Colorado over Christmas Break with his parents and older brother experienced a horrific car accident on the ice. He and his parents were critically injured and are still dealing with surgeries and checkups. His brother lost his life. That news carried into our classroom when kids realized their peer might have to learn to walk all over again. The news hit hard, but in those early moments, I saw that they did have the ability to be compassionate and empathetic.
Another boy lost his uncle to gang-related murder - not something we like to admit happens in our city. He, too, would go through some emotional struggles. Then a grandmother of one of our girls was hospitalized after a car accident in a neighboring town, thankfully being discharged soon after.
There was one thing after another, and my students were hurting for answers. At the ages of nine and ten, very few of us had to deal with any of these tragedies. We may have lost grandparents or had to make trips to the emergency room after losing an argument with our bicycles, but these situations were different, and they were right on top of each other. My students now needed three things: they needed to be nicer to other people, they needed to be less self-centered, and they needed resilience. Knowing how selfish they could be, they needed to be taught to think more about other people and focus their reactions on compassion for others instead of always trying to be first or throwing their classmates under the bus.
Those things can be nurtured, but first I needed to break through.
I have dealt with tragedies and disasters in the past. After 29 years, I knew I had it in me to handle these situations as well. I usually tackle the problems with openness and honesty, but this year would be slightly different. My students were not able to handle issues with as much discretion as classes had in the past.
I choose books to read aloud in class based on multiple criteria:
- As I am one of a handful of men in elementary school, I know students have not been exposed to as many books from a man's perspective. Most of the books I read aloud have male main characters. Read in a male voice, these books are compelling and provocative.
- I want to select books that are well-written - not just books that interest kids based on their crude language or low-brow humor.
- I choose books that I can read aloud. Many well-written page-turners do not lend themselves to my voice and cadence, and I have to be careful or I stumble over the words.
- The books I read aloud are often about characters who change over the course of the reading. In a couple of cases, the characters are downright mean and ugly in the beginning until they encounter situations that help them change over time. Those changes are not easy or instant.
- Finally, the stories I read are about survival. There is a central theme to my read-aloud selections - that no matter what blockades the world throws into our paths, there is a way to overcome. It's hardly ever easy when you're going through it, but after an uphill climb, eventually, you can rise above the clouds to get a better view.
Hatchet by Gary Paulsen: Brian crash lands an airplane in the Canadian wilderness and must survive on his own for months.
Holes by Louis Sachar: Stanley is falsely accused of a crime and must face tough conditions in a juvenile corrections facility
Touching Spirit Bear by Ben Mikaelsen: Cole is banished to an Alaskan island after beating a weaker classmate, causing brain damage.
There's a Boy in the Girls' Bathroom by Louis Sachar: Bradley meets a counselor who is finally able to help him come to grips with who he can be.
where he is mistreated and struggles to communicate.
I read Crumbling Spirit, my first book, which relates a fictionalized version of my own experience during the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. Crumbling Spirit is told by a fourth grade girl in the form journaling the things she witnesses after her mother and brother are victims of the terrorist act. In the book, we are made to understand that there is a difference between being a victim and becoming a survivor instead.
In Chippin Cleats, Devon has a decidedly misguided and violent world view. Growing up in St. Louis, Devon thinks the world is full of hatred and gang killing. When his best friend is dies of a gunshot wound, Devon's struggling-to-keep-her-head-above-water mother moves the two to a small town in Oklahoma where Devon finally accepts a hand up.
In Out of the Wind, I relate the story of the 2011 EF5 tornado that rampaged across Joplin, Missouri, but the story is not about the tornado; it is about our reactions to the storm. While one of the main characters loses her faith, another is strengthened. We encounter many people in the story, and we quickly understand that our positive attitudes can always help us keep moving forward.
While all of these books preach grit and survival, it is this last one, with its fictionalized presentation of real people in our city, that best connects with students. When I can tell the story of a high school graduate who has a four percent chance of living and show the class how his resolve to keep taking one more step forward, I can help them understand that survival is really possible.
Perhaps, finally, I have broken through their personal bubbles. Maybe, I have been able to pierce their self-centered natures. Is is possible that they can now apply the concepts of resilience, grit, and perseverance to their own lives. They can experience the worst of tragedies - car accidents, murders, divorces, abuse, etc. - but those tragedies of life do not have to define our futures; yes, they become a part of us, but they do not, will not, must not be allowed to weaken us in the long run. Yes, they hurt, they slow us down, and they put us facedown into the dirt, but they can not keep us there without our permission.
On the last day of school, students made speeches to their peers. They cried and hugged each other, not wanting to let go. The clung to one another, because, even though we still had our moments of frustration with each other, we are a family.