Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Good Things Come in Threes

Throughout our journey we have learned a lot about the adolescent psyche, including:

1 - the magic of positive peer pressure
Headed to the Boston Premiere!
2 - the power of the tease
3 - the importance of belonging
4 - the honor behind a name

You've heard us wax poetic about the first three, so that means it's high time we give due diligence to #4.

There's just something about a name; they have an almost mystical power.  To name a thing is to make it real, to lend it legitimacy.  And, lame as this may sound, kids like names.  The first two years of All In!, we were called all sorts of things.  The Hunger Games club, The School-Wide Read, The Hobbit book club, that thing Ms. O'Leary and that other lady do after school.  Then we picked a name.  Whoo boy!  Stand back!        

That's right.  Identify behaviors you like, slap a snazzy label on it, use it repeatedly, and watch it spread like wildfire.  The kids used the name and it made us real.  A sweet 7th grader passing her reaping whispered, "I got it?  I'm All In?"  An exuberant 6th grader shouted to the secretary, "Do you know what today is?  Today is All In!"  

Year three was the first year for another name as well.  We're not quite sure where we heard the term "Three-Peat" first…most likely it was a sports reference and since the CRL are admitted word nerds, it's not surprising that it stuck.  

Because our middle school consists of three grades and this was our third annual All In!, these eighth graders held a special place in our collective CRL heart. They had borne witness to literary shenanigans each and every year of their middle school careers and we were eager to discover just how many kids belonged to our trifecta. So one Saturday morning in January, we sat in front of three years' worth of reaping slips. We cross-referenced attendance sheets, checked names, and then checked again. As we wrote each name in a notebook, we could hardly contain our squees:

"Oh my gosh, he's one!"

"The Elizabeths!"

Right in front of our eyes the list came together, and we were overwhelmed. It was not the first time we looked at each other and said, "We do good things."

Our very first class of "Three-Peats"
There they were. Twenty-two of them. Eleven boys and eleven girls. Their educational needs ran the gamut: honors-bound, Special Ed, regular ed, 504, sub-separate.  They were athletes, mathletes, theater kids, and writers. They were honor roll students and struggling readers. They were members of the 6 Pillar Society and self-proclaimed "loners." Our three-peats.

They were the ones who said "Yes" when two teachers threw together a school-wide reading initiative during their sixth grade year, and blindly followed the CRL to destinations unknown. 
They were the ones who said "Yes" to reading THE HOBBIT in seventh grade.
And they were the ones who decided going All In! was cool enough for an eighth-grader.

Though 890 readers have followed, these kids were the very first to go All In!  They were brave. They allowed themselves to get excited about a book. They loved out loud. They taught us more about what motivates children to read than our combined two decades in the classroom.  And, at the risk of sounding overly emotional, they made us make sense.

Love out loud. And on a bus.
Reactions to the "Three-Peat" honor were just as unique as the children themselves, ranging from Mariah's "My mom is so excited for me!  We were jumping around and screaming last night!" to Luke's "I just did it all three years because I thought the books looked interesting." to Jake.  A child who, in 6th grade, had moved across the country and landed in CRL territory. He had always been an enthusiastic participant and plain 'ole good kid, but we never realized what this social outlet meant for him until recently. One day this spring, he handed us each a cupcake, took a breath, and said, "You have no idea what you've done for me. I guess good things were meant to happen."

Though we had discussed (at length) possible ways to honor these superlative teens, we had our secret hopes set on one thing; and, in an eleventh-hour miracle, our movie insider came through (again!) with tickets to the Boston premiere.

Now, how best to reveal the news?  Let's think...
We love spectacle.
We love surprises.
We love honoring our kids.

We quickly decided that an assembly was the way to go.  Balloons, posters, and flashy music aside, it was very important to us that those students receive recognition in front of the other participants. Bank on that positive peer pressure! We wanted the auditorium filled with students thinking, "I want to be up there next year."

And it worked.

After the assembly, Erin returned to her 7th-grade Wilson literacy class, which consists of children who require specialized instruction in reading and writing. As one young lady got up to retrieve her notebook she said, "I'm going to be a Three-Peat next year, which is so weird because I don't even like reading…"

March 18, 2014 was the US premiere of Divergent. Our generous principal paid for a coach bus to drive our cherubs into Boston to see the movie the night before the rest of America would be able to.   
That magical night out was our way of thanking them. We sat there grinning like idiots, hearing nothing but adolescent giggles, incessant chatter, "Is this Boston?" inquiries, and shrieks of "There's a bathroom on the bus!" We live-Tweeted the affair and found it amusing that, due to the time difference, we were *technically* seeing the movie before Shailene Woodley and Theo James. Joined by several staff members and Three-Peat parents, our evening was as fabulous as the honorees themselves, and well worth the sleep-deprived haze we all experienced when we tried to function the next morning.  

Standing at the helm of our swanky bus the night of the premiere, we took a moment with our DIVERGENT t-shirt-clad darlings. We would never have had the same success if not for our superlative eighth grade leaders.  We got teary and admitted that teachers often have the same fears as students: What if this doesn't work?  What if they don't like me? The energy and enthusiasm these kids brought made our jobs easy and ridiculously enjoyable. They made it worth every single second of confusion, panic, and late-night planning. Because they bought in, the rest of the school went All In! We were truly blessed with a phenomenal group of young people who trusted us and made this program exist.

Cheers to the Three-Peats.

We love you.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

A work of heart

Warning: this post is about love.

I'm not talking about feeling passionate about my profession or developing a meaningful relationship with my students.  I am talking about plain and simple love.  See, I am a girl who loves freely and easily.  I'm a Polly Anna, a glass half full kind of person.  An optimist.  That means, typically, over the course of the year, I learn to appreciate all of my students, and feel sincere affection for most.  And there are a handful every year that I really and truly love.

This is uncomfortable stuff.  This is the kind of thing that raises eyebrows and leads to awkward conversations about professional boundaries.  I hope you'll trust me enough to understand what I mean.  I love these darlings like a mother.  I feel compelled to nurture them, I feel proud of their successes and ache with their struggles.  I feel more than just a general sense of concern.  I worry about them when they aren't with me.

I'm sure I'm not alone in loving my students, but here's the thing.  I'm not supposed to say it.  Teachers, especially teachers of older students, are not supposed to use the "L" word.  We are not supposed to touch students.  Hugs are verboten; even high fives are suspect. I should, for my own job security and need to C my own A, not acknowledge in any way that I feel emotion...even one I consider to be a completely human and 100% normal.  This is hard for me.  I've been a nurturer all my life - I parented my friends in high school and college until I had children of my own.  I can sense what a person needs - whether it's affirmation, tough love, or a turkey sandwich.  So when you put 85 kids in my room, it's like taking a compulsive gambler to a casino but telling them not to place a bet.  It's HARD.  But, as is the case in so many aspects of our job, teachers are held to a higher standard than other people.  While I understand the stakes and respect the circumstances that gave rise to the hands-off rules, I must be honest and admit that it's difficult.  But I do it.  I force myself to go against my instincts, rein myself in, and keep my cherubs, literally and figuratively, at arms length.   

Never is this ban on affection more difficult than at the end of the year.   Kids cry and the mom in me would love to wrap them up and stroke their hair while I reassure them that they're going to be just fine.  Instead, I hand them tissues.  They want to hug goodbye.  The mom in me would love to give big bear hugs.  Instead, I offer an exploding fist pump.  Is it the same?  No.  Is it enough?  I honestly don't know.  However,  I recently discovered a lovely little outlet that both gives the kids what they need and allows me to feel more honest in the way I'm interacting with my darlings: The Yearbook.

For years, my go-to strategy was to draw devil horns, mustache and goatee on my own picture.  I started adding a signature when kids got sent to the office for being disrespectful.  (That was a fun conversation. "No, Paul.  Tucker didn't do anything wrong.  I drew that. ...  Yes, the hairy mole, too.")  But that was back in the days when it was still okay to lay a gentle hand on an unfocused child's shoulder as a way to redirect them.  This was back in the days when I gave and received daily hugs and I didn't feel the emotional void that I do now.  So now, my yearbooks messages are significantly more personal. 

Please don't misunderstand:  I haven't given up on the devil horns completely.  There are still a good handful of kids for whom it would be almost insulting if I *didn't* deface my picture.  They LOVE devil Cotillo.  And I certainly don't mean to imply that all of my yearbook messages now are inspirational missives that will lead the US to victory in the next Olympics.  Quite a  few boys in my B period this year got "You were a pain in the butt in class.  Don't ever visit me.  EVER.  jk.  not really."  But I have decided that these yearbooks are too good of an opportunity to simply let them slip by with a playful scribble.  If I'm going to inspire my kids to love out loud, then I best lead by example.

This year, when our 8th graders were herded into a courtyard and set free to graze and sign yearbooks, I made a deliberate decision and wrote about the uncomfortable stuff.

I told a few that they are beautiful and begged them to believe me.
I told some they were smarter than they let on and begged them to stop hiding it.
I told a handful that I hope my children would grow up to be like them.
I wrote that I admired their courage, compassion, friendships, independence, insight, sense of humor, effort, and growth.

Most of my inscriptions ended with a drawn heart.  Some ended with the word "love."  In the books of three students I went all out and wrote the words "I love you."  

There is a very real possibility that I'll never know what impact those words have on my kids.  Maybe they don't need it as much as I sense they do.  But then again, maybe it really helps.  I can, however, share this wonderfully timed story.

I began writing this post on a Tuesday night.  It began as a jumble of unrelated thoughts about the end of the school year and somehow I found myself writing about the "L" word.  I left it unfinished and sent Erin a text to let her know that it was "more a brain dump than anything."

The next morning I took my son to swimming lessons at the YMCA.  (Living in the town where you teach is not for the faint of heart.  I once had a former student sell me a pregnancy test at CVS...no lie. But there are moments that make it all worth while.  This is absolutely one of them.)  So I'm sitting on the bleachers next to the humid indoor pool, wiping sweat from under my glasses, when I hear a voice ask, "Are you crying?"  It's Mia, a girl I taught six years ago.  She was my student "back in the day," and that girl loved to hug.  I will never forget how she would barrel into me.  I swear she got a running start.  When Mia hugged, she hugged HARD.  Just writing it makes me smile.  How could anyone be in a bad mood after one of Mia's hugs?!  But I digress... 20-something-year-old Mia stood before me that Wednesday morning, and she's no longer a bubbly 7th grader.  Instead I found my self chatting with a very confident, well spoken young lady who plans to work in the field of music therapy.  We spoke briefly, she caught me up on her life and I told her how proud I was of all she was accomplishing.  We hugged.  

As Mia bounced away from me, she threw a casual "love you!" over her shoulder.  I called back, "love you, too!"  She turned around, walking backwards so she could see me, and said, "I know."