Something magical happened in my classroom this week.
It's a memory I will wrap carefully in tissue and ribbon, and store in the recesses of my brain to be opened and relived whenever I need a little teacher boost. A package of sunshine and hope for those dark days we all experience as teachers.
I've mentioned before, I work in a Title 1 school. 50% of our students are on the Federal Free and Reduced Lunch program. I see the impacts of poverty, drugs, and homelessness daily. I make my classroom a safe place where the focus is on learning and taking care of each other. I give students the opportunity to submerge themselves in reading and writing. To share their words with others and escape the chaos that is sometimes their homelife.
And this week, I saw it pay off.
I purchased 5 Nooks for my classroom with money from our PTG. They are the very cheapest model – black and white, no games, no internet, just the capacity to download books. I found a series of stories for kids based on the Minecraft game – a big hit in any fourth grade classroom at the moment. The stories were $2.99 each and I knew exactly who to share them with.
Brian* was immediately hooked. Here was a student who had not been able to find that 'just right book' in my classroom – whenever we met to conference, he was reading a different book, and skipping over sections so he could say he'd finished and move on to something else. Brian seemed to have trouble with focus and, despite his ability, wasn't making the progress I expected. He became somewhat of a puzzle for me. How could I help this child reach his potential and show him that books were meant to be savored and enjoyed?
The answer was The Herobrine Rises. Knowing Brian was interested in Minecraft, I asked him to read the story for me and help me decide whether the series was something other students would enjoy. He took his role seriously, and finished the story in two days, immediately coming to ask me if we could purchase the next one. Worried, that this was just another ‘skim job’ I sat down and asked him to tell me about the book. Brian gave me a blow by blow of the story line, and answered my questions about the story with detail and enthusiasm. He was hooked 🙂 Three other students close by, heard us talking and requested to read the story. Pretty soon we had a Minecraft Book club going.
Over the next three weeks, Brian came to me every couple of days, asking if I would purchase the next story in the series. Then, just three days ago, he came to me with a look of despair on his face. “Mrs. Hurlburt, I’m almost done with book 7 and it’s the last one. What am I going to do when it’s over?” You know that feeling – when something you love is ending – that was all over Brian’s face. How could I keep this child, who had finally found his place in the pages of a book, from losing that momentum? What could we do to acknowledge the work that he had done and the connection he had made to these stories? “Will there be more?” he asked. And that’s when I knew. He needed to go to the source. I did a quick web search and discovered the author’s website and email address. I asked Brian to sit down with another student who was enjoying the stories and write a letter to the author. They quickly drafted a note which included their passion for the stories, their questions about the next series, and even a suggestion for a storyline. I watched them type their letter on my laptop and send it off – along with my sincere hope that this author would find the time to respond within the next couple of weeks.
I sent the class to lunch and sat down to go through my email. Not 10 minutes later, there was a reply from author Steve DeWinter. He had written the ‘perfect’ letter to my students – grateful, encouraging and full of hope. He gave them the title of his new series, and told them their idea for his next Minecraft story was a good one. As the boys returned from lunch, we read the email together, and then to the whole class. The look of joy on Brian’s face was priceless. He knew an AUTHOR. His connection to reading and writing was complete. He was hooked. An immediate flurry of letters to ‘my favorite author’ began, as students were desperate to repeat Brian’s experience. And he couldn’t have been more proud.
I will be forever grateful to Steve DeWinter, who took the time to respond to my students and may never know the lasting impact he had on Brian. You see, as he sat in my classroom that day, Brian’s mother was in jail on drug charges. He doesn’t have a home and they have been depending on the friends and relatives to take them in. He sleeps on a different couch every night. I think they may have been living in a van at one point. Brian comes to Homework Club after school, not because he needs help with his homework, but because I feed him snacks. Brian’s life outside of our school walls is chaotic, frightening, and messy.
No child needed the escape of a good book more than Brian. Steve DeWinter gave him that and so much more.
Something magical happened in my classroom this week….and I will never forget it.
*Brian’s name has been changed to protect his privacy
Image from http://www.lightbliss.com