I was very idealistic when I got my first teaching job at the Little Falls Middle School. I taught Language Arts and Reading to sixth graders. I remember saying, “I will stay after school, come in early, evenings and weekends—anything to be able to help kids learn to read!” I also remember the more ‘seasoned’ teachers rolling their eyes at me, yet that didn’t curb my enthusiasm.
Having between 135-150 students per day, all on a variety of reading levels, interests, strengths and weaknesses, curbed my enthusiasm just a bit. In my minds-eye I can see myself sitting at my desk long after the students had left, trying to think up ways to make the out-dated Houghton-Mifflin reading series we were using more interesting. No extra time, no extra help, no extra resources, just make the ‘magic’ happen.
During my third year I was blessed, and many teachers would say cursed, with the opportunity to work with a group of students who were far beyond the basal level materials we were using. They were the ‘TAG’ –talented and gifted students- and no one really wanted to differentiate the curriculum for them, it was simply too much work. I can still see Sarah B.’s face as she looked me right in the eye and said, ‘Do teachers really think that I am stupid enough to zip through this worksheet, just to be given another? I figured out long ago that if I don’t do the first, the teacher will think that I ‘can’t’, and will give me less work.” I went home that day and threw out all of my planned lessons for them. I rethought what I would do for these students, and how we would do it together. Many of them were leagues smarter than me, but I knew that I could guide them to learning new things, in new ways.
I turned to literature—not the basal reading books, but really well done literature from all genres. I remembered how literature had changed my life when I was bored with whatever was being ‘taught’~ whether it was spelling or math; I had a book in my lap. My mother was outraged when Sister M. called and told her that I had to stop reading in class. I knew then that I had an ally in pursuing any book that I wanted to read.
In literature I found for my students a wealth of ideas from poetry to historical fiction, to biography, to technical writing. We found things to read, reflect on, write about, and act out. At the end of that year I recall Sarah B. saying, ‘Ugh! Mrs. S., I hate it when you make me think!” Success!
I continued to struggle to stay ahead of (and often didn’t!) and challenge my ‘TAG’ students throughout my career. I realized early on that ALL students are talented and gifted, just in different ways, and all students deserve to have thought put into what and how they are being taught, all deserve a differentiated curriculum. Literature, and their love of learning– and all students have that– kept me motivated for nearly 30 years.
What do I miss most about being a teacher in Morrison County? The students and the literature, and that they made ME ‘think’!
Date of Essay: October 24, 2011