Ending Well

My year with the “amazing eighth-graders” is ending.

I started calling them that when I watched them on Colonial Day in the fall, a day when they connected on their own the chaos in Lord of the Flies with the disorganization and failing social structure happening in the woods as they tried to establish colonies, elect leaders, and set up life in their “new world.”

Their history teacher Heidi Wilbrandt had developed this cool project, and I had hoped they might draw some conclusions. Never did we suspect how well it would all play out during the course of the day in the woods behind our school.

“Where’s the conch,” yelled one girl, who realized no one was listening to her.

“You attacked me,” whispered another, when he thought I hadn’t noticed.

From there, we moved to A Tale of Two Cities and a study in history class of power and factions. Their videos and slide shows explaining how power can corrupt told tales of sadness, revenge, hate, and oppression in clear, vivid ways.

During our study of The Renaissance Period, they performed Romeo and Juliet, memorizing lines, some swinging swords, others parading delicately around the room in long velvet dresses.

“Can I be Romeo today?” asked the stone-faced boy who usually prefers to be part of the furniture.

During the spring, our study of how we are affected by society moved to how we can effect change. After reading To Kill a Mockingbird and studying social injustice, the kids collaborated with Turnberry School in Ontario. They first created research documents using Google Docs and then skyped with each other as they tried to filter and organize their information to create Voice Threads on their topics.

“What do you think is the best way to organize?” I overheard a young man who usually prefers to work alone, talking to his partner.

“Can we skype with them out of school, too?” asked another, who never stops talking, even when she needs to.

They struggled to continue the project when I disappeared from school for two weeks when my father died. But Heather Durnin, my new friend and collaborating teacher in Canada, took the lead, skyping into my classes to help guide them and later creating templates for our kids to use online.

“I liked this project. I learned a lot about water issues and homelessness from other people’s voice threads!” wrote one of the girls on the final thread.

In history class, they moved to action. Last week, a group went to the river and cleaned up. Some made videos to promote their cause and published them online. Another brought in a speaker from an NGO  to talk to the class.

“Did you and Ms. Wilbrandt plan this?” they asked, and we smiled.

I am not only ending this year, I am ending my 30-year run as a teacher. So, inspired by this, I wanted to ask myself, did I end well?

What mattered most?

Some leaped, some perfected, some risked. Yet, some still yawned, forgot assignments, and complained when I pushed them to think.

But–and this is huge– they stopped asking “what did I get on this,” often not noticing that I wasn’t “grading” everything.

During our recent discussion of independent social justice books, they made powerful connections with each other and previous books we had studied. And at the end of the day, after wrestling with good and evil, prejudice and injustice, no one seemed worried about what I was “assessing.”

Did I end well? Was I the teacher I wanted to be?

Yes and no. I’m never satisfied unless I get 100% –ironic isn’t it? Because I never do.

I always end the year wanting a “do-over” so I can get it right. That’s probably not going to happen for me, as I am moving on to other exciting possibilities. But I will hold this class up as the impetus to change the game of school. They deserve our best.

So I end the year, satisfied. These students made me laugh and cry. They made me stuff a cupcake in my mouth in one bite! They taught me about stretchy animal bracelets, and how well etherpad worked for our evening review sessions. They introduced me to their favorite books. They sent me touching notes after my dad died, and time and again they have made me so very proud to be their teacher.

I learned letting go and being flexible helps kids think for themselves. I learned sharing and reflecting helps me know more about my students than any test can. I learned a middle school crisis on one day sometimes disappears the next. And sometimes it doesn’t.

I learned I care less about “preparing” them for something in the future than I do about helping them discover an interest, a strength, and a love of learning.

Not bad. Not bad at all.

image: Uploaded on May 31, 2006
by Jeff Kubina

7 comments

  1. Congratulations on your retirement. What you’ve done will never end…you’ve changed lives in ways your students don’t even realize yet. Enjoy the new possibilities in your life!

  2. I need something insprital to read during lunch ;).
    You not only endded as a great teacher, but learning something and dare i say “being the student of your students”.. we can learn so much from the least expected places.

    I know they will remember you as well as you will remember them.

    Congrats on a great year.. thou you will always be a teacher to someone.. inculding a one year old i know of.

  3. You sound like one of those teachers that every student remembers as “the best teacher ever” at their 50th reunion. I’m sorry to hear of the loss of your father.

  4. Susan, what a beautiful entry. I hope you’ll share this with your students and their families. You’ve given these 8th graders the gift of your best self and they will carry that with them forever, even when they don’t know it.

    I’m looking forward to following you in your new adventure!

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