I was reading a one-page article this morning where Brad Meltzer (famous mystery/thriller writer) saluted and thanked his ninth grade English teacher (Parade/Washington Post 9/30/12). He was honoring this teacher because she believed in him. She saw the potential in him for writing and made sure she set high expectations for him. Notice in the quote below that Meltzer is not thanking her for teaching him a particular skill or strategy. He’s thanking her for acknowledging, supporting, and encouraging him.
“The teacher who changed my life didn’t do it by encouraging her students to stand on their desks, like John Keating in Dead Poets Society. Or by toting a baseball bat through the halls, like Principal Clark in Lean on Me. She did it in a much simpler way: by telling me I was good at something.”
This short tribute got me thinking about how all teachers can make a difference in children’s lives not only by seeing the sparks in those students who have special talents, but also by believing and supporting all students. We need to accept their approximations as they learn and grow as readers and writers. We have to acknowledge growth and effort and not just high scores and accuracy. We need to be sending messages to students, like Peter Johnston tells us in Opening Minds.… messages that say, “learning takes time and effort, so trying hard is valued” and “the more you learn the smarter you become” and “collaboration is important and success requires it.”
I am reminded this morning of Patricia Polacco’s stories of her struggles in school learning to read and write. You are probably all familiar with her book Thank You, Mr. Falker, but if you haven’t seen the continuation of her learning journey in The Junkyard Wonders, you should take a look. In this book she has moved to a new school in Michigan. Though she used to be considered “a dumb kid” in her old school, she hoped that she wouldn’t be labeled in her new school now that she had learned to read a bit. But much to her dismay, she gets placed in a special class with other students of varying disabilities. The teacher, Mrs. Peterson, define genius in a new way and as the story goes on, all the students learn to believe in themselves. Don’t miss the epilogue where Polacco tells you about what became of those students in that class.
How are you showing that you are believing in your students this school year? Do you only praise and value the ones who come to you already reading and writing? Or are you looking for the sparks, the tiny gems in their writing, the baby steps, the growth that a struggling reader might be showing you?