It’s Not Always Like This

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Classical music fills our space. Heads are bent down. Pencils are scritching. The occasional hushed voice rises slightly out of the background as students share or confer, informally, with one another.

My head picks up for one of these exchanges, and I watch as one student advises another on how to structure his essay. I return to my writing. In my peripheral, I sense that the student nearest me is watching me. He shuffles his pages. He writes. He looks up. He begins to ask a question. Stops himself. Talks to himself. Tells himself he needs to change something in his writing. Keeps writing.

Another student approaches. Waits. Maintains a respectful distance. I look up. He asks a question about his work. It is specific, and targeted, and mostly he wants a sounding board for the decision he has already made as a writer. He returns to his writing. I return to mine.

Forty blissful minutes pass, and I need to stop us.

I’m sorry to interrupt, I say in almost a whisper.

No! some say. Others groan. My students actually groan. Don’t make us stop.

This was beautiful, I tell them. Let’s do it again tomorrow.

It’s the end of the day?? one student exclaims.

It is, I say.

This is one of those moments that fills my heart. A moment that speaks to what’s been created here. A moment that will propel me to return, engage, dig deeper. It is a magic, affirming, bonding, heartwarming moment that makes me come back for more, even when more is daunting, and less-than-fun.

After, we clean up and are sitting in our group meeting area, a student wants to know, Are you actually writing an essay, too?

I am.

Why?

Because I am a writer like you are, and because I learn about writing when I write.

What did you write about last year [for this unit]?

The same thing.

Laundry?! A few chuckle. I smile at their amusement.

Why? one girl asks.

Because I’m not writing it the same way and I wanted to explore the topic in a new way.

Huh.

Will you share your essay with us? another child asks.

Of course, just like I shared my planning pages before we started drafting today.

We shift gears to our read aloud, and we are ready to share words. This space has been primed for the love of words. I model it. My students mimic it, and before long, they model it, for each other, and for me.

But the important thing here is– It doesn’t always look like this.

“Tomorrow” looked different. We did not recreate the magic of the prior day. There was a different energy in our space. Students took a little longer to settle into their writing. And, just when you could feel a taste of the magic, and a tiny hum of productivity was beginning, the phone rang. And then, the principal stopped in. Students were writing, but it was a distracted space, and our stamina was cut short.

As a teacher, I am afflicted by the what-I-didn’t-do, what-didn’t-go-well-today disease. It is a terrible affliction that has, at different stages of my teaching career, threatened to derail me. Am I cut out for this? Am I any good at this? Other teachers surely know more, are better at this than I am. These are the voices that ruin teachers, and stunt our growth. It happens to our students, too. Negative head chatter is trouble.

So here’s what I’ve been doing, especially this year, thanks to a bit of prior experience, and some positive voices, like that of Lisa Eickholdt who wrote the wonderful Learning from Classmates: Using Students’ Writing as Mentor Texts. This year, I’ve made a commitment to look for the exemplars in our work- my students’ work, and my own. No day is perfect. Sometimes it looks downright awful. But, if you stop to look through a different lens, you catch magic. That magic happens because of the oh-so-ordinary moments that happen every day in a classroom. They happen when the teacher models passion for learning, and students are encouraged to explore their passions, and when the teacher is a student and the students are teachers.

Some days are grizzly. But, they are also filled with magic, and I am convinced that when we focus on the magic, rather than the grizzly, we feed our hearts and minds, generating the kind of fuel that brings us back the next day and helps us find the joy in what we do.

Think about it. What makes you want to come back to school the next day? The fact that some students bombed the latest district assessment, or the fact that a student who didn’t want to share her writing discovered that her poem had something to teach others, and now refers to it in other writing lessons by saying, “Just like the poem I wrote that had a repeating pattern.”

I know for me, that the latter is what gets me to bound out of bed the next day. I also know that it is not always where I focus my attention. But, the student who develops confidence with a piece of shared writing is the very most important kind of magic. And it’s oh-so-small-and-ordinary in the time it takes within a day of moments.

The difference that comes from focusing on this moment is the difference between a student, and a teacher, being valued for the ordinary, and oh-so-important work that goes on every day in our classrooms. It’s the magical moments that get me out of bed, and leave me smiling at the end of each day.

There’s a lot of noise in education. It can derail even the best of teachers. It can make us doubt ourselves. It can suck the joy straight out of our classrooms. I’ve learned that I get to choose. With all my might, I am working hard to focus my lens on the tiny bits of magic that are sprinkled throughout the day. It’s these moments I want to model, so it’s what I want most to examine, appreciate, and replicate. When things aren’t going well, it’s the magic moments I’m working to return to. It’s what I try to achieve. So I choose the magic lens. How about you?