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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