Dear Fifth-Grade Teacher, 

I know we haven’t met. In fact, we won’t learn your name till the end of the summer, and even then, chances are I won’t know who you are. However, as my daughter’s teacher for the next school year, there are some things I’d like you to know.

My daughter was never one of those children who cried on their first day of school, not even in the early years when she was dropped off at Pre-K. She’s always been eager to learn, eager to play, and eager to please. Every day when I would pick her up and ask her how her day was, she would tell me, Great! Amazing! Awesome!

Even if she couldn’t articulate why, her enthusiasm spoke for itself.

This last year, however, things changed. Many a day I would hear her describe school as boring. While she still never complained about going, come morning, it was a little tougher to get her out of bed.

On the return from Spring Break, a glorious two-week reprieve from school, we sat in the car at 7 am outside in the parking lot as I prepared to drop her off.

“Are you excited to go back?” I asked. “To see your friends?”

“I’m excited to see my friends,” she said, “but not to go back.”

“Why not?” I asked. “I thought you loved school.”

“I used to, but now all we do is test.”

Oh, Fifth-Grade Teacher, I watched as she walked away with her backpack slung over her shoulder and my heart sank.

Believe me when I say that I don’t blame her fourth-grade teacher. I blame the system. It’s a system that I know needs to be changed, and as an educator myself, I also know that in many ways, we are powerless to change it.

Still, there is hope, and that hope lies with the teachers who decide, every day, to teach students, not standards. Teachers who focus on creating relationships, who really get to know their kids, and who use that knowledge to make them love learning.

So, as you tackle the enormous task of taking on another class of students this next school year, these are the things I want you to know about my daughter:

Should there ever be a thunderstorm, you will find us sitting on the front porch to watch the sky; she’s been known to bring in facts about lightning that she’s researched and written down to share with the class. This is a girl who talks of one day becoming a meteorologist (that is, if she doesn’t become a veterinarian or a preschool teacher or an artist who lives on a farm). Her dreams stretch wider than the horizon, and I want nothing more than for her to continue dreaming.

When given the chance, my daughter still creates things out of Play-Doh and when she gets a Lego set, she doesn’t stop building till it is complete. She won’t let me sell her Lincoln Logs at a yard sale either, and it’s not uncommon for her to bring home treasures she’s found on the ground—a broken pen or scrap of metal—for what purpose, I’m not sure, but she collects them all the same.

I want you to know that she is good at math, but she doesn’t think she enjoys it. She’s been given packet after packet and she has told me, that when she has one, she stares at the clock and wishes time would speed up so she can go to lunch. Yet when she and her sister organized their Beanie Boos alphabetically by name, they created a graph of the data, and from her time spent in the kitchen with me, she understands fractions and units of measure, and she can tell you firsthand what happens to a sticky toffee cake when you mistake a tsp of baking soda for a TBSP.

If you take my daughter to the swing set, I know she could learn physics. If you allow her to build a bird house, she will learn about angles, but if you put another worksheet in front of her, I fear she could lose math forever.

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My daughter will tell you that she doesn’t like reading, but when a graphic novel is placed in her hands, she will devour it in one day, yet from the time she was little, she’s preferred non-fiction. Many a night we sat on her bed reading What Do You Do With a Tail Like This? As the child of an English teacher, my daughter will never want for books. Still, when I’ve tried to read the classics with her, beloved titles from my own childhood like Where the Red Fern Grows, we both gave up, and we only made it through the first of Harry Potter.

When my daughter began school, she was eager to learn about bones and bugs, and over the years, we’ve watched every nature documentary available on Netflix. When she asks a question we don’t know the answer to, like what makes a cat purr, we look it up. When we’ve had nothing but clear Nevadan skies, she searches for lightning storms on YouTube.

You see, in this world of technology, there’s another thing we will never want for, so it’s no wonder why she tires of writing her spelling words in ABC order week after week.

The other evening, we sat on the back deck and I asked her, “If you could learn about anything you wanted in the fifth grade, what would you want to study?”

I’d just finished reading What School Could Be by Ted Dintersmith, a book I believe every teacher should read.

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{via Goodreads}

She thought seriously about my question for a few minutes before she answered.

“Animals,” she finally said. “Like the human body, only animal bodies.”

We talked at length about which animals she’d study and what she hoped to learn before she asked, “Wait. Do you know who my fifth-grade teacher is going to be?”

I didn’t.

“So how do you know I am getting to learn about whatever I want?”

I spoke honestly. “I don’t.”

“So that’s not what I’m doing next year?”

Disappointment shadowed her face. “Oh man, you had me all excited.”

This. This is what I want you to know.  

There are a hundred embers burning in my child. I’m trusting you to kindle them. Ignite her imagination. Watch as they turn into sparks that jump into flames. Make school a place where she can be on fire.

Between the tests, between the things we cannot change, make sure there’s enough oxygen to keep them aglow. Do whatever it takes to not let them die.

My daughter is counting on you.

We all are.

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Taking Matters Into Our Own Hands

In Oklahoma, a third-grade teacher by the name of Teresa Danks stood at a highway intersection panhandling for money to buy school supplies for her class.

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{via mediaweb.fox23.com]

Not long before I heard about Danks, my friend and I had joked about doing the same thing. We envisioned our colleagues uniting–holding signs and strumming guitars–as we found a creative way to raise money for things like paper, printer ink, and toner for the copy machine.

While Oklahoma ranks 49th out of 50 states in terms of teacher pay, Nevada is 49th out of 50 in both education and per-pupil spending, so I understand the frustration that drove Danks to wave that sign at passing motorists.

Here in Northern Nevada, the economy is on the rise, although our schools face a 13-million-dollar budget shortfall. Despite whisperings of teacher layoffs, early retirement incentives, and increased class sizes, the district is still looking for ways to make ends meet.

In the week before the school year began, custodians wheeled additional desks and chairs into my room to accommodate the bodies that would soon sit there. In my classes of honors freshmen, there are 38 eager adolescents. There are 38 students raising their hands. There are 38 kids who have questions they’d like answered. Thirty-eight of them are trying to share their writing or present to the class, and there simply isn’t enough time.

The day I looked at my rosters and saw 38, tears of frustration pooled in my eyes. For me to lose composure at my workplace is rare, but in that moment, behind my back, I felt the ropes tighten around my wrists.

Yet this is just one of the struggles I’ll face this year. Like every year though, I will do my best.

I will sit for hours on a weekend grading essays. I will meet with students before school and at lunch to give them the one-on-one attention they cannot get during class. I will answer their questions via email and text throughout the evening as I cook dinner for my family and make sure my own children get their homework done. I will find innovative ways to arrange my desks so that we can get up and move around without tripping over backpacks and books.

I will give my all till I am completely depleted.

I will vent to colleagues and I will vent to my husband. I will sit in meetings where the mission of “every name and face to graduation” is spouted, and then I will walk back into a room filled with 38 names and 38 faces and I will try to develop relationships and build rapport with all 38. Every day, each time the bell rings, I will do that again for another 38, and another, and another.

The contradictions in education are exasperating. We want students to achieve, but we limit available resources. Despite endless research supporting the correlation between smaller class size and student success, we continue to pour pupils into desks. We are expected to be twenty-first century teachers, yet it is suggested we reach into our own pockets to buy bulbs for projectors or audio equipment that might enable our students to listen to a TedTalk or take part in a Skype session with a guest speaker.

Come May, my wrists will be rubbed raw.

Here is where I could talk about teacher burnout. I could share with you the statistics on how eight percent of teachers walk away from the profession every year, and how hundreds of thousands more aren’t even pursuing it to begin with. Even though I know why they are leaving, and even though I don’t blame them when they do, even though I see how other career paths would be more desirable, I have never regretted my decision to spend my days in a classroom.

Much like Danks though, I have been driven to a place I never thought I would go. I am panhandling for my classroom. Rather than on the side of the road, I have taken to the internet, to DonorsChoose.org.

donorsThrough DonorsChoose, I am asking for contributions towards books for my students. My project, if met, would allow me to place high-interest texts of both fiction and non-fiction into the hands of all 38 students in both of my honors classes. Books that deal with issues like the cultural and social impact of technology on the adolescent psyche, mental health, racism, the immigrant experience, and the achievement gap. Books that they can relate to that will help them to build empathy for others and to make sense of their world.

Because, let’s face it: often our world doesn’t make sense. When I look at education in this country, it most certainly doesn’t make sense. But at the end of the day, I can complain about it, or I can work towards a solution.

DonorsChoose is my attempt at a solution. It won’t change the number of students in my classroom nor will it affect the district’s budget, but what it will do is allow me to wiggle my wrists ever so little, to help this teacher to burn on rather than burn out.

To contribute to my project, visit DonorsChoose.org

 

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