Don’t Be Afraid to Start Over

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This week my students and I are having a well deserved Spring Break. When we return to school, we will have a short 7 weeks together, and then the year is over. I’m resisting that urge to squeeze as much as I can into that short time, and instead I’m focusing on what I think is most important.

We still have one novel left to share, and it’s my favorite, Esperanza Rising. Every year, my students leave telling me they loved Esperanza the most – they even come back to my current fourth graders and tell them how much they will enjoy it – which is why I will squeeze it in, even though we are fast running out of time. This coming of age story filled with love, loss, pain and triumph is the perfect vehicle for discussing so many aspects of literature and life. Despite the fact that this book is set in California in the Great Depression era, there are still so many ways my students today will relate to her situation. My Spanish speaking students love seeing their language and culture explored in the pages of the novel. We will all laugh and cry together as Esperanza undergoes the transformation from indulged child to empathetic, wise, young woman at the tender age of 12. Sadly, I know more than a few of my students will relate to Esperanza as she struggles with issues of poverty and is forced to become ‘the responsible one’ well before her time.

But the reason I truly adore this novel and continue to teach it every year is because of the underlying theme – “Don’t be Afraid to Start Over.” If I could leave my students with only one message to carry with them as they move on in life, it would be this one.

“Kids are so resilient” was a phrase I heard often around the hospital wards we frequented with my daughter when she was younger. And it’s true. I was always astounded by the strength and optimism I saw there. I can say the same about the Kindergarten classes I taught and even the first grade children I see in my hallway now. But something happens between 1st and 4th grade. Kids start to worry about taking risks. They want to get the ‘right answer’. They are afraid of making mistakes. Somewhere along the way in their educational journey our children’s optimism is defeated. Maybe it’s ‘the tests’, maybe it’s poor teaching, maybe it’s pressure from home, or maybe it’s a combination of all of the above.

But I want my students to be resilient. I want my students to know that making mistakes is part of life. That the reason we are who we are is because sometimes we’ve made the wrong choices. Life and learning are always about starting over. About trying again, about seeing opportunities to learn from our mistakes, and about knowing that we are more than one test result.

Next Tuesday we will be back at school and I cannot wait to introduce Esperanza to my students. We will talk about mountains and valleys, love and loss and not being afraid to start over.

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“Authentic Learning”

I’m tagging on to Ruth Ayers Celebration Writing, although I know it was supposed to be up yesterday!

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We have been working on a unit for Opinion Writing in my classroom over the last couple of weeks. I’ve been feeling more than a little frustrated, wondering if my students would ever ‘get it’. The strong thesis statement backed up by logical reasons, the engaging hook, the neatly formed paragraphs, the sound conclusion – and don’t forget citing evidence from the articles we read! It’s overwhelming what I want these 9 and 10 year olds to do and I admit I was feeling a little disheartened by the task.

But then, during my Daily 5 workshop time, two boys approached me with that ‘look’ on their faces – that look that means “we know we’re not supposed to interrupt you Mrs. Hurlburt, but we have something really important to share”. I can never turn them away when they look at me that way 🙂 With words bubbling over and an enthusiasm 10 year old boys don’t usually like to show when it comes to reading and writing; this is what I was told:

“Mrs. Hurlburt, Ethan and I were just talking about what we thought was better, the PS3 or XBox console.”
– I admit I may have those console names wrong – and at this point I was ready to jump in with – “and what does this have to do with reading???!!” – but I held my breath and I’m glad I did, because this is what came next:

“And then we both said at the same time ‘OPINION WRITING!’ So we both want to write an opinion essay on which one we think is best – is that OK with you?”

Is that OK with me??? Do you know how hard it was not to burst into song/tears/shouts of joy right then and there?! It was one of those moments where I took a deep breath, smiled my biggest smile and said “Boys, I think that’s a great idea” while secretly high-fiving myself all over the room.

This, my friends, is what makes my day/month/year as a teacher. When my students see a way to apply something they have learned in class to their own lives – well isn’t that the ultimate definition of “Authentic Learning”? It truly was a celebratory moment.

Later that week, I did a 4th Grade Feedback Survey with my students (I got this idea from the fabulous Mr. Jones. You can access my version here if you’d like to try it with your class). And here is one of the responses I received to the question “What project, experience or lesson did you most enjoy this year?”

‘I loved the opinion writing it was my favorite I liked it so much I actually started to do one with ethan’

Wow.

We still have a ways to go with our opinion writing. We will have a benchmark test at the end of April. But I will carry those words with me for much longer. I know that at least two of my students discovered that writing has purpose and power. They know they can use their words to convince others, to create change and to make their mark – even if they don’t have the perfect ‘hook’.