March 17, 2015

In Defense of Sad Books

This week is my Spring Break. Of course, I have many projects waiting to be accomplished, but no motivation to do them. I am, however, spending a lot of time reading. Does anyone else ever get upset about how little time the average adult gets to spend reading? I have to literally force myself to stop working/worrying about work/zoning out in front of the tv throughout the week and go to bed early enough to read. And it really doesn't happen as often as it should. I was one of those kids who loved reading growing it makes sense that I seek it out at least a little as an adult. 
What about our kids we have today who we practically have to beg to read a chapter book to the end? My guess is they grow up to be those adults we all know who never pick up a book. They don't make the time to read to their children. And the cycle continues. And future teachers will still be writing blog posts like this one...but, I digress.

I just finished reading The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate. I know...I'm late to the party with this one. I've been hearing about it for a very long time. But, you know. Life. I didn't get around to reading it until last week. (A sweet student bought it for me from the book fair!)
Oh my gosh, this book! If you've read it, you get it. The book is just magical. Do you remember the first time you read, or heard, Charlotte's Web? This will make you feel a lot like that. What makes it especially good, and what I'm convinced makes all good books good, is it has elements of tragedy and sadness followed by real hope.
I mean, why do we still talk about Charlotte's Web? Because Charlotte taught us what it means to be a great friend. And then she died. Yes, death in a kid's book. I had never felt sad about someone or something dying before Charlotte. But I can assure you I learned from it. 
Finishing this book made me wonder why I love that so much. What in our nature makes us hold the books that make us cry closest to our hearts? For example: if Dumbledore dies in the 6th Harry Potter book, why is that my favorite? And then I read Katherine Applegate's Newbery Award acceptance speech in the back of the book. 
She talks about how a book store had contacted her about an elementary school visit she was preparing to do. A mom was concerned that The One and Only Ivan would make the kids at the school feel sad. Applegate points out that, yes, the book will make your children feel sad. This is a good thing. 
Our students are dealing with sad things all of the time. And our grown-up job, as teachers, parents, care-givers, is to give them the tools to cope with this sadness. Nothing is better for that than a good story. How many of you know a student who cannot afford breakfast? Or has a broken home? Or has lost a family member? Or even a pet? I was 23 when we had to put our cat down. We had gotten her when I was 6. That same year I read Each Little Bird that Sings by Deborah Wiles for a children's lit class. I won't spoil anything for you if you've never read it...but that book holds some major therapy for anyone grieving the loss of anyone. And it really helped me. I let my 4th graders borrow it every time one of them loses a family member or pet. 
I think where I want this post to get to is here: Life can be sad, but you have to keep hope. Children's authors have written hundreds of beautiful stories where sad things happen but the characters keep going. Adults don't always process sad events the same way that kids do. A talking animal may be the exact medium that a child needs to cope. 
I have watched our school librarian pull way too many books off of the shelves this year. Almost always at the request of an adult who hasn't read the book. But what are we afraid of kids being exposed to? A character who makes a poor choice but learns a lesson? Evil existing but being conquered by good? 
Our job is to create lifelong readers. This is most likely to happen when children have actual free choice of what they are reading. This includes sad books. Books where characters die, parents get divorced, people don't have enough money to pay bills, people leave and don't come back, etc. 
Books that mirror real life.

March 4, 2015

I feel like Miss Trunchbull: A Teacher's Confession

When a teacher says, "It was just one of those days...", only other teachers can actually understand what that means. And today was one of those days.

Do you remember the movie Matilda? Do you remember sweet Miss Honey? She was the beautiful, unendingly compassionate teacher who could see Matilda for the marvel that she was, and believed that her life was remarkable, despite what her family constantly told her.

This is who every girl who studies to be an elementary school teacher decides, before she ever gets her own classroom, who she is going to be. I always knew that my students would see me as their own Miss Honey. 

And then there was Miss Trunchbull. The evil, child-hating headmaster of Matilda's school. She locked children up in the scary "Choky" room, and made that chubby boy eat all of that chocolate cake in what is still one of the most disturbing movie scenes I think I have ever seen.

This is who I feel like most of the time. I like to think I'm not alone, but maybe I am.

One of the harshest realities that I have had to face in my 1.5 years of having a classroom all by myself is that not every child actually wants a Miss Honey. They don't all trust me right away. I teach 4th grade, and some of my kiddos don't have a very consistent home life. My super-sweet, I-think-you-all-are-unique-snowflakes approach the first few weeks of school is probably nauseating to those students.

Not every student needs a Miss Honey. Some parents are busy, and aren't around to lead or mold their children. Some parents are unsure of how to balance having a good relationship with their child and demanding respect. It falls on my shoulders sometimes to teach kids (in 4th grade) how to share, apologize, empathize (the hardest one). Sticky-sweet teaching doesn't do children like that much good when put into practice.

Today, I got so frustrated with a student that I said something that embarrassed him in front of the class. I was reprimanding him for a careless error that ended up harming another student, and in my correction I started to feel angry. He seemed so...apathetic that he had hurt this girl. I let my shortcomings come to the surface, and I yelled. And I could tell it embarrassed him.

Please tell me I'm not the only one who has ever done that. 

I apologized to the student, because it's also important to me that my students see what a true, sincere apology looks like...and that sometimes in life you have to apologize to people who make mistakes. Because the way you respond to others' mistakes says a lot about who you are, and I did not respond in a way that I was proud of.

Approximately 25 minutes later, I had pulled two different students to a reading group, and as I was sending them back to their seats, I said something like, "Oh, I just love having you two in a group!" One of the boys turned back to me, looked me dead in the eye, and said "We love you, Miss Hannah". 

That was when I really felt like Miss Trunchbull. These kids love me. Even when I lose my cool. And my actions should show exactly how much I love them. 

I know comparing myself to a child-absuing character is a little child loved Miss Trunchbull. But a coworker ( a new 5th grade teacher who has my group from last first group ever), said to me a few weeks ago, "I just want to be Miss Honey...but they make me Miss Trunchbull", and it was the most perfect comparison. And today was just one of those days.