My favorite part of last week was a completely unplanned activity.
A spontaneous way for my son and I to spend a part of our afternoon.
My twelve-year-old son, a week away from entering the 7th grade, allowed me to paint his hands and feet.
The last time we made his hand and footprints was two years ago. I’ve asked on-and-off during these past two years, and Ryan usually declines.
But this particular afternoon he agreed.
And I was delighted.
I’ve been painting Ryan’s hands and feet since he was a baby. I used to press his little palm into a large ink pad and that’s how he would “sign” greeting cards for family members.
And don’t forget, I’m a former teacher. I loved painting my students’ hands for all sorts of fun activities. Hands make great leaves for flowers, reindeer antlers, and turkeys! (My first year of teaching, another kindergarten teacher shared with me a valuable tip – add some dish soap to the paint. It makes it so much easier for kids to clean their hands and for the paint to come out of any clothes it may accidentally get on.)
Others might see our painting time as a rather simple activity, but it felt magical.
I was in awe.
I marveled at the size of Ryan’s hands and feet. The way the human body just knows how to do things – like grow. Bones and skin and muscles. It’s amazing.
The world outside our home is scary right now. But for those precious moments when we sat on the floor making handprints and footprints, everything felt perfect.
One of the first books my son and I read this year was Who Was Mister Rogers? We read it over the course of several nights at bedtime. Ryan didn’t know much about Mister Rogers. And, I think Mister Rogers only made his way onto Ryan’s radar because of the recent Tom Hanks movie. (We haven’t seen the movie, just the posters and billboards advertising it.)
Because Ryan is a big Tom Hanks fan, due to movies like Toy Story 1-4, Apollo 13, and the documentary film Magnificent Desolation, Ryan became curious to learn more about Mister Rogers.
I grew up watching Mister Rogers. But I didn’t realize what an impact Mister Rogers had on me until Ryan and I read this introductory biography.
Now, I can acknowledge just how much of my teaching style was influenced by Mister Rogers.
I always told my kids I loved them. (I referred to my students as “my kids”.)
I told my kids they were special.
And each year, I acknowledged every student in my class with a customized achievement certificate. Because let’s be honest, not all kids are going to be strong mathematicians or excellent spellers. But every child has a special skill, quality, talent that deserves to be recognized.
I recognized my kids for their neat penmanship, for reading aloud in a clear voice, for being a responsible line leader.
As Ryan and I read, “Mister Rogers taught kids an important lesson, that everyone is special in their own way.”
Mainly, all the “extras.” The out-of-the-box, beyond-the-textbook things we used to do.
Like the way we celebrated Thanksgiving.
When I taught kindergarten, our class always hosted a multicultural feast. Hot dogs, turkey, spaghetti, sushi, mashed potatoes, empanadas – they all made their way to our feast. We made placemats and table centerpieces, and lined up our desks in long rows.
When I taught fourth and fifth grade, we still celebrated with a feast. But, for a few years, I did something extra.
I wrote each of my students a short letter about why I was thankful for each of them.
As a teacher, it’s so easy to get caught up in what went wrong, and easy to overlook when things are going smoothly.
But, it’s just as important to pay attention to those moments.
I don’t know if my students remember those letters, but I do.
Here are a few passages from the notes I wrote over the years. And maybe they will serve as inspiration to you. Make sure the people in your life know why you are thankful for them.
I am thankful for your participation. You are always eager to read aloud, answer questions, and share from your journal each morning.
I am thankful for your attentive listening. During lessons and discussions, I notice how closely you listen. I don’t have to worry that you’re not paying attention.
I am thankful for your positive attitude. You come to school each morning with a smile and a good mood. I really appreciate that.
I am thankful for your sense of humor. Your comments often make me smile, and sometimes laugh out loud. And there are days when we all really need to laugh. So thank you for that.
I am thankful for you taking responsibility for your actions. Even when you have chatted or done something you weren’t supposed to, you are quick to apologize and get right back to work. I appreciate that.
I am thankful for your positive attitude. You never give up. You are always trying to do better and learn more. I noticed that fractions were a bit tricky for you at first, but you kept practicing, and they got easier. You did it! I hope you know I’m proud of you for sticking with it.
I am thankful for your smile. You greet me each morning with a smile, you smile at me throughout the day during our lessons, and end the day with a smile. Your smile means a lot to me. Thank you!
I am thankful for your kindness. You are a good friend to your classmates. You offer to help them when they are having difficulties with a certain lesson, like the fractions and decimals we were doing. It was very generous of you to give up a recess to stay inside and help a friend with math.
I am thankful for all your computer help. You are our class computer expert. You help your classmates when they are having trouble with the computer. And you’ve helped me with the blue computer when it wasn’t printing. You are my computer hero!
I am thankful for the way you help your classmates. You are a fast and accurate mathematician. I really appreciate the way you walk around our classroom to offer assistance to your classmates who are still working on their math assignment.
I am thankful for your hugs. I love hugs, and it’s such a nice treat to receive one of your hugs. Sometimes you surprise me and all of a sudden I just have two arms wrapped around me! I hope you know how much your hugs mean to me!
Though I left my teaching career five years ago, there are still many aspects of teaching I really miss.There’s a special sort of magic that happens when you connect with a child, and that’s why I still enjoy reading about teachers who love teaching.
Recently I read Phillip Done’s memoir Close Encounters of the Third-Grade Kind – Thoughts on Teacherhood, and I’d like to share with you some of the passages that stood out for me.
“What exactly is a teacher anyway?A lot of different things.Teachers are like puppeteers.We keep the show in motion.When we help children discover abilities that they don’t know they have, we are like talent scouts.When we herd kids off the play structure at the end of recess, we are like shepherds.Teachers are like farmers.We sow the seeds – not too close together or they’ll talk too much.We check on them every day and monitor their progress.We think about our crop all the time.When we see growth – we get excited.”
“Teachers are word warriors.All day long we explain, correct, examine, define, recite, check, decipher, sound out, spell, clap, sing, clarify, write, and act out words.We teach spelling words and history words and science words and geography words.We teach describing words and compound words.We teach synonyms and antonyms and homonyms, too.”
“Teachers try everything short of back handsprings to get their students to quiet down and pay attention.We flick off the lights, clap patterns, hold up fingers and wait, change the level of our voices, count up to three, count down from five, set timers, brush wind chimes, shake shakers, bribe kids with free play, and seat the boys next to the girls.”
“I was in Teacher Mode.It turns on automatically whenever children are near and goes into overdrive when it senses busy streets, mud, gum, or bloody noses.”
“Of course nothing has changed like technology.A bug was something you brought in from recess to show the teacher.A desktop was something you scraped dried Elmer’s glue off with your teacher scissors.Hard drives were on Monday mornings.Viruses kept you home from school.And cursors were sent to the principal’s office.”
Now it’s your turn, dear readers.Feel free to share any school memories or teacher anecdotes of your own in the comments section below.
School started yesterday, which means this will be Ryan’s last year at his elementary school and then it’s off to middle-school.
But I don’t want to rush ahead.We have 180 days of fifth grade to experience first.And like in years past, I’d like to share with you memories of my own fifth grade year.(To remind you, you can click here to read about my fourth grade experiences and click here to read about my life in third grade).
I had the same teacher for fourth, fifth, and sixth grades.Ryan has had a new teacher each year.My elementary school went up to sixth grade, so unlike Ryan, at this stage I wasn’t yet looking ahead to middle school.
Unlike Ryan’s school, my elementary school didn’t have a physical education teacher.When I was in elementary school, our classroom teachers took their classes out for P.E. once in a while, usually on Fridays, and usually as a reward for good behavior.We didn’t train and practice for this physical fitness test.
Luckily, Ryan’s school has a group of physical education coaches.They have been training for this test since kindergarten, slowly building up the endurance needed to run a mile.
And when it comes time for this test, I’ll give Ryan the same words of encouragement I always give him for any test: Do your best.
Because really, no matter what grade you’re in, no matter what you’re being tested on, that’s the only thing you can do.
My son has about a month-and-a-half left of fourth grade.So if it hasn’t happened by now, I doubt it will happen at all.
And by “it,” I mean learning to write in cursive.
When I taught fourth grade, my students had already learned the basics of cursive the year before in third grade.We continued to practice, because practice makes better, and I did require some of their assignments to be completed in cursive writing.
Last year, my son didn’t learn cursive writing in third grade.So during last year’s summer vacation, I spent time with my son, teaching him how to write his first name in cursive.He writes it beautifully.
But we still have the rest of his name to learn, the rest of the alphabet to practice.That will happen during this year’s summer vacation.
Click here to read an essay I wrote several years ago for MomsLA.com titled “The Value of Teaching Cursive.”