If we don’t ask, we won’t know.

Every year, I start with an activity that will allow me to get to know my students on a personal level. It introduces me to their interests and the ways in which they define themselves. In addition to the in class activity, I ask parents to write me “In a Million Words or Less…” a letter describing their children: their likes and dislikes, their strengths and weaknesses. Anything they think will help me teach their child. I learn lots of amazing and beautiful things about their children. I also learn about some heartbreaking and devastating things they have experienced, things no child should ever have to deal with. Those letters are kept in the strictest of confidence, but they help me better understand what weighs on them when they walk through the door. It helps me build and show empathy and understanding in way that their in class activities don’t. Their parents often bare their darkest secrets and greatest triumphs, because these are the things that will help me really know their children. With this knowledge comes great responsibility, to acknowledge and act in a way that shows compassion to every single child. Yet, this time, the letters aren’t what got me.

The in class activities at the start of each year usually offer a glimpse into the children’s surface interests – sports, academics, free time activities, pets. Last year, it was the banner flags. I asked students to decorate them with symbols or words that defined who they were. I got lots of pictures of soccer balls, musical instruments and dogs. Nothing much that was substantial. This year, I had students brainstorm six word memoirs to sum up their life and write them on printed “book spines”. They were going to be displayed in the hall. These were meant to offer me a glimpse into the whole child, although, I still got a lot of sports related memoirs. All still  valid. After all, this is who they are and how they define themselves at this moment in their lives.

Due to my injury and the subsequent inability to catch up, I only just got around to actually reading their six word memoirs and haven’t displayed them yet. My original intention was to make “book shelves” to house all their book spines and show us as pieces of a whole. I’ve been gluing them on, reading each one as go. Some had names, some didn’t. Some made my giggle and some made me think. Then, I came across this one…

Parents FightMy heart sank.

There was a child, in one of my classes, who wants to be heard. Who feels like they need to escape their home life. Who is hurting. They didn’t put their name on it. Maybe they didn’t want to be known. I have no way of knowing which kid it is, but it served as a beautiful reminder for me. I need to remember the baggage they carry and the experiences they bring into the classroom. Despite their smiles and laughter, some of them are hurting and need empathy. It was reminder to nurture them every day. It was a reminder to bring light into the classroom, to show patience and kindness. It was a reminder that every child needs love and that school can also be an escape, a safe place. And it provided an opportunity for me to examine the ways I am succeeding and where I have room for improvement. I’ll never know which child wrote this memoir. I only hope that I have shown him/her some compassion this year and that it has been enough to let them know they are loved.

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