MONDAY, AUGUST 15, 2011Letters to Mrs. D.I ask my students on the first day of school to write me a letter. Not only does it set the tone for what English/Language Arts is all about, but I've learned it's the only time all year a junior high student will be completely honest.
Step one. Tell me about yourself, I say.
This is where I learn who loves football, who just moved to town, who has gone to five different schools, who has three brothers and two sisters, who has pets, who plays the ukelele. They are surprisingly candid: I have two parents but both of them hate me. They are resigned to circumstances: I'm from a broken home, and all I can say is that I've survived it.
Step two. What do you love and what do you hate about Language Arts? And don't hold back, I tell them.
The responses are varied: I love L.A.! It's my favorite class! It's easy for me because I already speak the language (there is always, always, at least one who says that). I love to read books, but I hate to read any book a teacher assigns. I hate all books except one, and our school library doesn't carry it. I love to write stories. I hate to write essays. I don't hate hate L.A. I like writing essays because for some reason I'm good at it and always get an A. One student tells me: Last year I completely screwed around in your class, but this year I'm making a fresh start. It's a new me. Another writes: Yours is my fave class!!! But why do you assign SO MUCH HOMEWORK? A third tries this reverse bribe: I'll turn in all my homework if you make that bean dip again! A new student writes: I can't tell yet if I like you. (Fair enough.)
Step three. And now, I say, set three goals for yourself this school year:
It's shocking how many of them plan to be valedictorian (37), to get an A in Language Arts, to get no grade lower than a B in every subject. Some are more practical: I just want to pass. I just want to graduate. I'm just going to try to stay out of trouble.
One of the eighth grade boys lurks near my desk at the beginning of lunch. I'm trying to answer an email that needs just the right wording.
"So, you like to write?" he asks me.
"I love it," I tell him.
"What have you written?"
And for some reason, I tell him what I haven't even told my colleagues. "Well, um. I wrote a novel last year, and actually... well, I'm hoping that it gets published within the next year." My heart beats a little faster, saying that.
He nods, shaking his head so that the hair hanging in his eyes is somewhat dispersed. "Cool. That's cool."
"What about you. Do you like to write?" I ask him.
"Yeah," he shrugs. "So far I've written five novels and seventeen short stories."
"Oh. Well, that's great," I say. I wonder what my paltry one-as-yet-unpublished novel sounds like to him.
He shrugs again and wanders off, throwing these words over his shoulder: "I'm going to write a lot more this year, though."
Sometimes teaching makes me smile.
Paula Treick DeBoard