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Last night on Facebook I was friended by several former students from my very first class. I’ve been friends with former students since I joined Facebook several years ago, but there was something special about these three reconnection stories and how they came together for me. Reflecting about their stories over the course of the evening and into today, I was reminded of three very important rules that I strive to live by in my teaching.
The first request came from Suzie. “Ms. R?” she had written in the message. My maiden name, Roksvaag, is a mouthful, so my NYC students all called me “Ms. R.” I quickly accepted the request and began reconnecting with her through chat. Suzie was in my very first class of 7th graders at the Clinton School for Writers and Artists, a public middle school in Manhattan. Suzie shared that she just graduated from Syracuse and that today would be the first day of her first “real” job in the fashion industry. Suzie grew up in Chinatown and I’m pretty sure her parents speak little to no English. I couldn’t help but smile, my face beaming, as I typed away my congratulations to her on my laptop. She chatted away about funny memories from our days together at Clinton and said that she loved my class because she knew that I really cared. This morning while getting my kids off to camp, I thought of Suzie, and how excited and nervous she must feel heading off to her first day. I hope that she finds her profession as rewarding as I find mine.
Reminder #1 – Make sure I show my students I care about them, and then show them again and again and again. Students need to know that I’m on their side. It’s important that I show, not tell. This is a classic writing workshop lesson for elementary and middle school writers. We teach and model the act of describing something in writing (the show) as opposed to just saying it (the tell). I can show my students I care in a zillion different ways, from asking questions about their lives, to supporting them as leaders in our school community, and being patient and forgiving when they’re restless or tired. I must always keep caring at the center of my relationships with students.
Next came the friend request from Marvin. Marvin came to us as a 7th grader reading like a 3rd grader. He was a sweet, kind boy from the Bronx. Marvin had a host of learning issues. You could tell just by talking to him that he had something going on. We were pretty sure that he had been exposed to drugs in utero. Many teachers at Clinton, myself included, spent lunch periods with Marvin helping him to catch up, study and complete homework. Despite this extra help, we were all pretty worried about his chances for making it through high school. Last nig ht via Facebook, I learned that he is now a criminal justice major working towards his masters in criminology. Tearing up, I immediately shared the news on Twitter using the hashtag #schooldidagoodthing, created by Nicholas Provenzano (@thenerdyteacher). You can read more about the idea behind the #schooldidagoodthing hashtag at his blog. The news that Marvin was not just alive but actually thriving gave me the satisfaction only a teacher who has experienced this kind of news can feel.
Reminder #2 – Never give up on a student. Ever. If Marvin can make it, any kid might make it. I’m not saying they all will, but we never know, and therefore we must try.
Then came a friend request from Robby. I remember Robby as an enthusiastic learner who loved to share his opinions and debate. Turns out Bobby has just completed active duty in the Israeli Army and is heading back at the end of the summer for college (he gets free tuition because of his service). Oh, and he still loves to share his opinions and debate! As you will see in our conversation, Robby was in my class when we got the news on September 11th, 2011. This my 4th day of teaching (ever) and has shaped every day since. See our Facebook conversation below:
Reminder #3 – Don’t be afraid to teach students about how messy and complicated life (and therefore history) really is. Present this as fact and design my lessons so that students can play in the mud, develop their own opinions and search for their own hard truths. No one ever fell in love with history by reading a textbook or taking a multiple choice test.
I am forever grateful to my former students for reaching out to me on Facebook and for reminding me about what’s important.
* I changed my former students’ names changed to protect their privacy