A few weeks ago, before the ground was covered in ice and snow, we made our grande entrance into the world, for another family walk. We took the “long” loop around the neighborhood, Rose and Adi opting to cuddle under a blanket in the double stroller and Wren braved the cold on her scooter. As Wren and I pulled ahead from my husband pushing the stroller, she began to complain about all of the bumps and cracks in the sidewalks. “You could write a letter to the mayor,” I told her. “Maybe she doesn’t know what a problem the sidewalks are here.”
Wren stopped scooting and looked at me with a puzzled look on her face. “I can’t write to the mayor,” she said.
“Of course you can,” I told her. “Aren’t you writing about your opinions at school right now?”
“Yes,” she replied. “But we just write in our notebooks.”
“Writing isn’t meant to live in your notebook,” I explained as I began to see her wheels turning. “You think about who might be able to help you solve your problem and then you write to them. You can let them know what you see and any possible solutions you might have.”
“Can I start writing when we get home?” Wren asked.
I could tell that this moment unlocked something in Wren. It was like a lightbulb went off for her, she realized that her words could make change and she was excited.
Last week, our schools welcomed our students back full time. We had previously been in a hybrid model since September. It was like a relaunch, a new first day of school. I still spend my mornings teaching first grade distance learners, but in the afternoon, I get to return to my role as literacy coach. With the relaunch of school, I also had to relaunch a new schedule.
On my first day pushing into full classes of students, I’ll admit, it was a little anti-climatic. By the time I got into rooms, the excitement of being all together had worn off. Kids sat behind their desks, behind their plexiglass, behind their masks looking kind of dazed and tired. There was no gathering on the rug, there was no room for moving anywhere. It was clear that we have some work to do to rebuild school stamina.
I went home kind of glum. School seemed to be missing something…
The next day, when pushing into a third grade class, in the middle of writing persuasive speeches about problems they see in the world, I was still thinking about what was missing. I read, over kids’ shoulders, speech after speech about smoking and littering. “How come they’re all writing about the same topics?” I asked the teacher.
She said they had trouble coming up with ideas, so many students used the examples she had provided.
“Can I try something for the share?” I asked.
As the kids found a good stopping place in their writing that day, I told them the story of Wren riding her scooter and then writing her letter to the mayor. I asked the students if they saw any problems in our school. in their communities, or even in their homes that they might be able to write or talk to someone about. One by one, their hands shot up. They talked about big things like global warming, local things like trash on the beaches, and personal things like bullies on the bus and problems with siblings. Their voices rose with emotion as they shared ideas, began debating, and added on to each other’s thinking. I was filled with hope, that these conversations would spark energy and purpose into their writing.
I left school that day, thinking about these kids and those moments during writing workshop. This Haim Ginott quote, shared with me early on in my school career, came to mind:
I’ve come to a frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element in the classroom. It’s my personal approach that creates the climate. It’s my daily mood that makes the weather. As a teacher, I possess a tremendous power to make a child’s life miserable or joyous. I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration. I can humiliate or heal. In all situations, it is my response that decides whether a crisis will be escalated or de-escalated and a child humanized or dehumanized.
It has taken a lot to rally every afternoon, to enter classrooms with such visible reminders of all the ways school has changed. It would be easy to list all of the reasons why my teaching can’t be great or why kids can’t learn. But this moment in third grade reminded me that, while things have changed, there can still be joy and purpose. School can still be a great place. It may take a little extra work on our part, as educators, to rally our students- but they deserve to be rallied. We owe it to them and in return, I believe we will find their energy and our groove in this strange place we call school.