A few weeks ago my working life did a literal 180. I went from being a full time literacy specialist at one school to a full time first grade teacher at another. I volunteered to temporarily fill in as a long term sub when the previously-hired substitute wasn’t able to teach anymore. My reasons for volunteering? (1) I didn’t want it to impact anyone else at my school – it was easiest if it was me who went, (2) getting my hands dirty actually teaching during this pandemic would give me valuable insight that would only help me collaborate with and support the teachers I work with when I get back to my normal position, and (3) teaching first grade for a longer period of time would only make me a better literacy specialist – first grade is one of the most important years of a child’s literacy development.
It flipped me on my head. I went from stability, happiness, and comfort at work to chaos, unpredictability, and exhaustion. I inherited a class of 13 in-person firsties and 6 at-home firsties in community crisis. I spent most of my first day preventing physicality, redirecting unkind comments and behaviors, and mediating peer-to-peer conflicts. I went home that night and had the most panic attacks in 12 hours I’ve ever had in my life. I spent my entire night and next morning hysterically crying and vomiting from the stress of having to step foot back in that classroom. I was broken. The kids seemed broken too. And it certainly wasn’t anything like what I had thought I signed up for. How on earth had these kids survived in an environment like this for the six weeks they’d already been in school? How on earth have the kids learning at home kept it together having to observe this as spectators through a computer screen, while they wait to virtually never make it through a single lesson in peace? How on earth did the previous long term substitute come to work every day? And HOW ON EARTH was I even going to begin making a difference for these kids? Five plus weeks wasn’t nearly enough time for this community to heal. But after several more agonizing days, I made one single commitment: to show up. To let the academics go (for now) and focus on this classroom’s (and each individual’s in it) mental health, safety, and well being.
And I’m here to share with you what my rainbow after the rain has been.
I turned to interactive writing and shared reading as my saving grace. My hope when I had no hope at all. Here’s how it goes: each week we made a class book. Old school class book – like the kind where the teacher models with a student sharing the pen and then each kid in the class gets to do a page, and we collect all the pages and put them together into a book. Then we made copies of the book, one for each kid, so everyone has one in their book box and we can read it together as a class over and over again. The literacy skills this enforces are endless: interactive writing promotes concepts about print, idea generation, sentence construction, conventions, spelling phonetically, and learning sight words (to name a few). Shared reading of the books we make helps us practice 1:1 correspondence, reading sight words, text directionality, and most importantly builds our confidence as readers – even my one student who was a non reader can read these books because we’ve practiced it so many times again and again.
While the literacy skills are endless, the social-emotional work these class books targeted was LIFE SAVING.
The first class book we made was all about our emotional health. How do each of us want to feel this year? Sophie wants to feel safe because the virus is scary. Ethan wants to feel happy because he hasn’t felt happy at school in a long time. Grace wants to feel calm because the classroom has been anything but calm. Every time our class was in crisis, or we had friends not getting along, or we had friends making poor learning or friendship choices, we went back to that book. “Hey Susan, go get your book. Look at how Joe wants to feel this year. What can we do to help him feel that way right now?”
The second class book (and the ones thereafter) was all about getting to know each other as people. We did one (in the video above) about things we like in fall. Through that book we learned that there are a few friends in our class who don’t celebrate Halloween, a friend who had never seen the leaves change before. I realized that these kids had no motivation to be an active, respectful, and responsible member of a classroom community because they didn’t even really know, and I mean really know, anyone in that class. They were classmates, and were slowly working on becoming friends, becoming teammates, becoming family.
I did a post a little while back about not losing sight of the teaching practices we know are best practices just because of this pandemic. And a little after that post I watched the closing address at this fall’s TC Saturday Reunion by Lucy Calkins, in which her message was to just show up. Just show up. (If you haven’t watched it, even if you aren’t a fan of TC, give it a watch – the message is powerful and brought me to tears.) It’s like everything that has gone through my reflective teacher brain this fall has brought me to this moment.
And you know what? Our days were still long and our days were still hard. Like really hard. I sacrificed LOTS of time with my own kids and my own family (like all teachers always do!) so that I could make sure I could continue to show up for these kids. If they’ve ever needed anyone to just show up, it was then. And most likely now that these five plus weeks are up, I’ll slowly turn into a blip in their radar. They’ll grow up probably not ever remembering that time their class was in crisis, that time their teacher changed more times than they could count. I’ll slowly become “Mrs. Who?” but that’s ok, my job was to just show up. And not give up.
So we kept writing and we kept reading. Not just me…them too. We all showed up, we all learned, and we all grew. It wasn’t perfect, but it was worth it. And in 2020, that’s what matters. ❤️