CC: Parents

I am wide awake at 1:30 a.m., concerned that two of my students will not have a nonfiction selection for today’s class. All the other seventh graders had their books yesterday, actually giving me a “real” view of the covers before scurrying to hide behind their avatars.

I quickly send emails to the my two “not yets” and cc the parents, letting them know that their child’s selection is readily available on Kindle (Amazon’s ubiquity comes at a price, I know, but damn…) and that I am concerned because…yesterday.

It’s now 3:30, and I receive this in my school inbox:

Hi Ms. Emerson, No she didn’t get her book. I unfortunately did not see your email and she never told me that she needed It until last night. I was ready to run to Barnes & Noble’s at 6:30 last night when she told me unfortunately they do not have it in stock. I will look for it today or order it, however I was able to download the first 52 pages online. I hope that will suffice for today’s class. Donna

I flash back to my mother, a stay-at-home conductor or our six-piece often cacophonous orchestra, and the numerous times she had an “I need brownies for our class party,” “When?” “Tomorrow” moment. Her ability to improvise: to mend costumes, to find just the right replacement for the perfect blouse that one of us had to wear. “Did you put it down the laundry chute?” “Oops, it’s still bunched on the floor of my closet.” Oh, my mom, if only I could’ve marveled then as I do now that she’s gone.

To that point, students of mine, we couldn’t do this without your parents. We are so lucky to have them! I have always regarded this learning journey I take with middle schoolers-on-loan as a team effort; never has it been more true than during this time, when 3500 miles separate me from them. So, Donna, I thank you—and I only hope your seventh-grade daughter shares the same gratitude.

The Twice-Lived Life

“It is with a heavy heart that I share…” When an email subject line begins this way and comes from my principal, I steel myself before I open it. Yesterday was no different. Even though I no longer reside in the community where I taught for 26 years, I am still deeply a member of the community because I am teaching the students who do still live there.

Usually these missives contain news of a parent of one of my colleague’s death—and by no means do I minimize that loss—but when the death is a student’s, I am devastated. This is not the way life is supposed to go. No matter who the child, the loss is personal and universal. I have lost students before; it never gets easier. All that hopefulness…

A student from the Class of 2016, the ’15-’16 school year, whom I remember vividly, you know how some of them are, sending sparks of light into the world, a center-stage smiler, Olivia, is gone—suddenly. I sit in shock letting it sink in, all those damn questions about why, and why, and why. No. Answers.

As the day unfolds, I open another email, the one for the Slice of Life Challenge. Oh, my gosh, in all the activity lately, I’ve forgotten to register. Halfway through there is a question about having our students participate, and now that I’ve come out of retirement and have “my” students, I realize I want to resuscitate my former Edublog. I want my students to challenge themselves as “Slicers” and blog for an audience of their peers.

I open my that dormant space, not remembering the last class to truly engage with this writing medium and scan. Turns out the last class to blog from our class blog hub was 2015-16—Olivia’s class. And there’s “Olivia’s Blog” listed in the roll. And Olivia, a part of her that I was lucky to know, lives there:

“After researching and accomplishing all different kinds of unique bracelets, I have learned more about the techniques, strategy’s, and overall how to make certain intricate bracelets. So far I learned the…

  • fishtail
  • chevron
  • striped
  • heart

and there’s more to come but will be done after the project is over. ” This from her post at the end of her 20% Time Project.

And this:”Out of all the categories on the checklist, one of the highest points I exceeded above is persistence. I kept at the bracelets even when I messed up.”

As I read through the posts tracking our year together, I relive our relationship. It is a bittersweet journey, but writing, writing allows that. Olivia will always be alive on these pages. For that I’m grateful. 

(Thanks to the late Donald Murray for this title.)

Equal Time for Awesome!

I touted the joys of sixth grade last week, but I have to give eighth graders a doff of my cap today. Thanks, kids.

There are only two of them; that alone puts them under scrutiny in a way that would never happen were we in a “real” classroom. I think about that every time we meet, how annoying it must sometimes be for them to see perky me first thing in their morning. (In pre-Covid school, predictably that first block was always a challenge with ubiquitous big yawns and glassy stares.) Truthfully adolescents often would rather hide than be noticed. There is no escape in this set-up, but I digress.

Cue the Global Read-Aloud Kahoot. A wonderful, generous STEM teacher from Canada, set up a global Kahoot. Do you Kahoot? I never had. At the end of a section, as I understood the directions he sent to everyone wishing to participate, he would send a quiz for the kids to take regarding the most basic novel aspects. They’d play; teachers would send results; qualifying students would make the “Global Leaderboard.” Sounds like a manageable plan.

I’m a Quizlet aficionado, so I was game, but I enlisted my dynamic eighth grade duo for a test run before the “youngers.” We got to the site together. We signed in successfully. I started the game, so far so good, right? But I forgot to share my screen. I had also muted my audio because the Kahoot opening music is fall-on-your-sword inspiring. There I am in my little bubble, playing the game, while my students did….What exactly? Their scores were mounting as I watched. Tral-la-la…

I found out after I finished and returned to our “room” that they’d not seen the game but played charades and waited for me to return. I couldn’t hear them, couldn’t see them —while I remained ensnared in my own little world. Upshot? Disaster or Success? Copious laughter for us all in the early a.m.

What did we learn today? So much about letting go and the power of making a fool of oneself and being able to roll with it. Maybe I’m finally growing up.

Thanks, eighth graders. You are Leaderboard material as far as I can tell.

The Magic of a Happy Ending

The last class of my day is always a sixth grade. Whether a member of the “blue” cohort or the “gold”—colors representing the school and the way 100% virtual students and “school-in-person” students achieve parity in time spent with a teacher—ending with the youngest kids is wonderful. I invariably walk away smiling, soothed by their relative innocence and their acceptance of effort on my part even if it doesn’t guarantee real success in teaching outcomes. They are forgiving.

Today we began class with one of those “babies” (keep in mind, eighth and seventh graders precede them) explaining to her peers how last Friday when she “stayed after” in our Google Meet, “Ms. Emerson and I talked about having a mini-virtual Halloween Parade on the 29th,” our last online meet before this revered holiday.

In the community where I teach, as in much of the Northeast, Halloween is second only to Christmas. The all-community parade is a sacred institution and FUN! In the past, people have lined the streets, adults, children, teens—this event brings out the spirits in the even the most jaded. So when this pre-teen suggests that we wear our costumes on that day and parade around our Meet space, wherever that may be, I am 100% on board. The small things are large in this Covid-world; joy must be cultivated!

Her peers are excited, eager to join in. Google Meet has met its match! We start our class there and end it here:

We are reading Prairie Lotus for the Global Read-Aloud. We have just completed Chapter 6. If you’re participating, then you know that in this chapter the main character Hanna is struggling with prejudice and feeling “other” as a “half-half,” half Chinese, half white. She has pleaded to attend school, but it has not been the dream-come-true she’d envisioned. It’s 1880 in a newly settled town in the South Dakota territory.

Her teacher, Miss Walters, sees the suspicion of her students as they regard Hanna. She tells each of them they will address the entire class answering this question: Where did you come from before you wound up here, in LaForge? The names of places mount on the chalkboard. It turns out that everyone is from somewhere else; they are all newcomers. And Hanna, as the only one from California, who has eaten many oranges, not just for Christmas or a party, suddenly becomes the vaunted one. She realizes this:

“As Hanna listened to her classmates, she glanced occasionally at Miss Walters. She made them—she made us see that we all came from somewhere else.”

(Park, Linda Sue. Prairie Lotus (p. 65). HMH Books. Kindle Edition.)

After we finish the chapter, I give the kids several minutes to work on a novel tracker, to make brief annotations and give a chapter title where Park has only numbered. We come together and share. Then I say, “I made a text-to-text connection. Do you remember when we read ‘Eleven’ a couple weeks ago and the birthday girl was humiliated? I know it’s because I am a teacher, and we focus on what matters to us in a first reading, but I keep thinking about how different these two teachers are, how lucky Hanna is to have Miss Walters rather than that other one.”

The kids are agreeing. Then I say, “I want to always be Miss Walters, kind and perceptive, and open-minded.”

One of my students says, “Ms. Emerson, you’ll never be the mean one!” Oh, in these hard times, I can only hope that’s true.

I end by saying that we all have bad days, but together we will sort it out. We will be forgiving. That shared belief as we say goodbye, smiles all around, makes me thankful for my sixth grade finale.

One Perfect Paragraph

The power of anecdotes, that’s the writing mini-lesson coming up this week. Oh, I’m a fan of that short, pointed “storylet” that packs a punch when done well. It’s useful in argument as elaboration for a claim, voice-full for an informational text, and the substance of great economic poetry. We’re starting a personal writing project now that our most basic procedural routines have been established—I know, I know, maintaining routines is eternal, but I’m optimistic—so, the anecdote…

While we’ve got our goals, and our shared learning objectives as per Kahn Academy’s SMART introduction, and Fisher, Frey, and Hattie’s The Distance Learning Playbook, we have yet to peer confer about our “pieces.” At an inspiring webinar on digital literacy offered by my alma mater Rutgers University Graduate School of Education, Dr. Boling discussed a simple acronym she espouses for peer interactions around writing: PQP; Praise,Question,Polish. Simple is my mantra, and this works for me! But we need a text to work with, another pair of p’s: practice paragraph. Hence: the anecdote.

I am using Meg Medina’s short story, “Sol Painting, Inc.” from the wonderful collection, Flying Lessons,” loaded with anecdotal examples, for the introduction to noticing and naming. Medina’s story is particularly great because she uses the Tell-Show combo with such great skill. But I always try to do, and share, Gallagher and Kittle as my guides, whatever my students are doing. All this professional preamble for my anecdote, and here it is.

“Just yesterday as I was collecting the mail from the box, mostly junk, I caught sight of a real letter. Its putty-colored envelope had a New Orleans return address, one I know well, my son’s. A thrill pulsed through my fingers, but I waited until I was inside to open it, anticipation building. The envelope lay heavy in my hands, the handwriting on its face my son’s. I turned it over, gently opened the flap and lifted out a simple, classy card. It was an “official invitation” to his wedding, the small his-and-her-immediate-family-only event that had to replace the celebration that they had  originally planned. He had drawn two boxes, one “yes,” the other “heck [hell] yes” and beneath those the date and time. Then he added the line with the address of the Airbnb he and his bride-to-be had found in the woods, where the ceremony will take place on a deck surrounded by tall trees. They will be married at 1865 JOY ROAD. Tears. That’s exactly what I wish for them, a road filled with joy.”