“Let yourself be drawn by the pull of what you love. It will not lead you astray.” -Rumi
The summer months, for me, are full of energy and drive. During these weeks away from school, away from the minutiae that often dominates education, I recharge and regroup for another year of helping develop the reading and writing lives of young people. Preparing for another year is exciting and overwhelming. I, like many educators, spend hours thinking about the upcoming year, agonizing over the best ways to motivate and encourage students. I have just a few days of summer break left, and as I contemplate the mentor texts, book talks, and quick writes I want to use and discuss, I know that I am preparing lessons for students I don’t yet know. Each year, my classroom comes to life with the beautiful chatter of adolescents. Some are excited about the prospect of a new year, some are shaking off the frustrations of the last one. I realize that these kids may arrive in my classroom with challenges I may not understand and issues that I may spend a year trying to solve. On the other hand, they may be delighted about another year of language arts. Regardless of their attitudes toward my subject area or the circumstances that may have impeded their academic journeys, one thing is for certain: I will love them.
I have faith that every student in my classroom will succeed. Without a doubt, these young people are equipped with the ability to write with vigor and read with passion. Loving my students means overlooking the attitudes they may arrive with and working hard to reverse the negative feelings they might have about my content area. Part of this profession involves a commitment to the resistant students, the ones who have fallen out of love with learning and are satisfied just to endure class. When I think about resistant students, I immediately think of Robbie, a student who came into my class last year, hair swept across his eyes, uninterested in school and above all else, uninterested in reading. I know because he told me.
The explanation I gave him about independent reading in my classroom was a waste of time, an expectation that he had no intention of meeting. Regardless of the titles I handed to him and the recommendations I gave, he was not compelled to read beyond the school day. During independent reading time, he would stare into the distance, and I knew he was miles away from class. Eventually, I learned that before he had moved to our school district, a close friend of his had committed suicide. For him, school was a hideous reminder of his friend’s death, and in response, he resisted anything academic. Beneath the caustic comments he would utter and the baggy clothes that shrouded his thin body, there was a child whom I was responsible for. During a quick write one day, in response to photographs from WWI, I noticed him writing feverishly for the allotted two-three minutes. When I read his entry later, his clarity and knowledge about military history astounded me, and when I approached him with a preview stack, he selected Unlikely Hero, the story of a Jewish soldier in Hitler’s army. Although Robbie still refused to read outside of school, and even though I wished he would read voluminously, he read and loved it. The expectation was of less concern than helping Robbie find a book he would enjoy, so I pushed the expectation aside. I don’t regret it.
I also think about Annie, a student whose fiery eyes and anger told the story of intense heartache. She despised writing, and when I encouraged her to join the rest of the class during our writing workshop, she took it as a mere suggestion instead of a requirement. Things changed, though, during a study of memoir. She chose to write about the death of her father, a man who had provided stability, and in his absence, she was suffering under the inattentive care of her mother. She cried while she wrote and even asked to change the subject of her memoir twice, but in the end, she crafted a beautiful portrait of her father. Her story resonated with me, and afterward, when the narrative had spilled onto the page and was no longer trapped inside her, she was a different person. In a note to me, she mentioned that no one had ever asked her to write about something so personal, but she was glad she did. I was, too.
Not all students are resistant, though. Anna, for example, came to my class hating to read, but by the end of the year, her reading list contained over thirty books. John started reading because of the expectation in my classroom, but discovered he loved books written in verse. And Rebeca’s voracious reading habit, one that was only improved in my room, put my reading rate to shame. Their book love was only magnified with time and space to read. All of these students have one thing in common. I accepted each of them without question. I gave them space to find books they would fall in love with, topics they could develop through writing, and time to talk about both. I worry every year about the messages I send to students. Kids are smart, more intuitive than we give them credit for being, and it is often the implications that send the strongest messages. When we say we love our students, it means showing them through our remarks, the things we advocate, and the assignments we ask them to complete. Our actions tell our philosophies better than our words do. Worksheets and chapter quizzes do not engender a love of reading, and when they are utilized, students are disengaged. Loving them means participating in the activities of real readers and writers. It means giving them the power to choose and allowing them a chance to discover themselves through reading and writing.
I know that the children I teach this year will arrive with unique stories, quirks, and needs. And because I love this profession and the students I teach, I will do everything in my power to make this a memorable and worthwhile school year.
Future students, I promise that I will value you as people and respect the differences that you bring to the classroom. I will listen to your stories, cheer your successes, and encourage you during your failures. I will advocate for practices that will increase your potential and denounce programs that are destructive. I will help you develop a reading life, even if you aren’t sure you’ll enjoy books, because I know that they have a magical quality that you will love. I will give you a chance to write about the things that matter to you because that is where the most potent writing emerges. Above all else, I want you to read and write with joy. I will do all of this because I love each of you. I promise to teach you from the depths of my heart and give you reasons to fall in love with reading and writing. I will also love you regardless of your abilities, your weaknesses, or your strengths.
Because in the end, love is all that matters.