Week 4: Being Amazing and Brilliant – Part 2

The American flag flies on 9/11 in front of our home.

It is hard to believe, but I am seventeen days into the school year with 155 remaining. Mind you, I am not counting them, but rather working to make them count. In my last post, I referenced Mawi’s Unstoppable Blog: A blog for unstoppable educators & anyone who wants to be inspired. I had stumbled across his post and shared it with my students last Friday – over a week ago. Over the course of the week, I have reflected back to that moment in class when I challenged my seventh graders to be amazing and brilliant. At the same time, I challenged myself to do the same.

Each day in Language Arts class, we begin with an entry in our Writer’s Notebook. Each student has one, including me. I try to journal, too. Sometimes I journal in the morning class, sometimes in the afternoon class, and occasionally, like I did Friday, I journal in both. Friday’s Writer’s Notebook entry was ‘Free Write Friday’ where students are challenged to write until they are asked to stop. Some students struggle with this and write very little and are stuck, while others write nonsense stories, and some students look back at the last Free Write and continue a story they began. One of the reasons I journal is to model. Students learn so much from what I do as a teacher in their own writing. I have shared with them that I blogged this summer and I have shared comments I have left on other when the bloggers have responded to me. It shows a purpose for my writing and it shows them that when we write we are thinking and reacting. I have yet to share the blog, Making the Days Count, with them. It will happen soon enough, though I am still wrestling with my students having full access to all that I have written. Even though I am open on many issues, especially my struggles as an adolescent, I am struggling with this one. I will share my writing; I am just not sure if it will be through Makingthedayscount.com, Microsoft Word, or paper.

This week was busy. It was a five-day week, the first of four straight five-day weeks. I prefer five-day weeks, they go much faster and student attendance is higher. When we have short weeks with a Monday or Friday off, parents often leave early or return late to take advantage of long weekend for a short vacation. Summer vacation is enough time for me, though a few years ago William missed two days for a once in lifetime trip to see the U.S.S. Hornet with Grandpa Weaver. I missed a half of teaching and full in-service day but, the trip was worth it and I would do it again, in a heartbeat. We are still working on review and getting back in the groove in Language Arts with mini-lessons on traits of writing and developing classroom habits for our young learners. Overall, they are doing very well and adapting to seventh grade quite well.

In class Tuesday, we read “Seventh Grade” by Gary Soto. It is a short story about Victor and his first day of seventh grade. He has a crush on Teresa and they are in French class together. The teacher asks if anyone can speak French and Victor raises his hand hoping to impress Teresa. He cannot speak French and his attempt is pretty sad. However, I do not think I could have done any better. The teacher moves on and does not let the class know Victor is posing and continues teaching. At the end of class Victor leaves quickly only to return for his forgotten math book, when he runs into Teresa who tells him his French is good and asks him if he can help her in French. He realizes the teacher is cool and his hopes of getting to know Teresa are going to work out. The story ends with the statement; ‘He was going to like seventh grade.’ Growing up is not easy and far more difficult today than it was thirty-six years ago when I was in seventh grade.

Since 1974, much has changed in our world: time moves seemingly faster and there are far more distractions than there were then. Though discovering girls is still part of the experience: for me it was Lisa Holzaple and while she may have known who I was, I did not stand a chance! Even, if I had been able to impress her with my knowledge, it would not have worked. In seventh grade, I was a mess. Sixth grade had been a struggle with homework completion and failing or coming close to failing a few classes. School was not my only struggle in the middle years, home was a challenge as well. My parents would separate and divorce my seventh grade year. Dad would move to Saudi Arabia and we three boys would learn to fend for ourselves with the help of my mom who worked full-time. When I look back on the time, I do not know how we all survived the next few years, but we did.
All of which bring me to Wednesday and Wednesday’s LA class. President Obama had made a speech to school, children the day before and we decided to watch the speech and write a journal reaction to it Wednesday. President Obama and I share some remarkable similarities. We are about the same age – he is three months and six days older. We have been married about the same time; we married on Saturday 10/5, he married 52 weeks after Beth and I did, on Saturday, 10/4. Our children are close in age, though he has two girls and Beth and I have a boy and girl. We are both immigrants to Chicago and both of us have lived overseas. And finally, we both come from broken homes. Politically though, we could not be further apart. I am very conservative and he is not.

When he announced plans to address schoolchildren last year a few parents bristled that he was brainwashing our students and politicizing the classroom; the truth is our classrooms are already politicized. We were not able to watch the speech live last year or this year as it was broadcast at a time when my students are in PE, sewing or classes other than mine. In 2009, administrators gave parents the option to opt out of watching the president’s speech and one of my students opted out. I had to come up with an alternate activity and he really missed an opportunity to hear the president speak about growing up and challenging students to take charge of their education. Last year as I listened, he sounded like my dad or mom, or how I might sound to my students or my kids. He spoke about challenges we face and how important getting a quality education is today. Far more important today than it was when I was floundering through middle school and then high school.

In 2010, administrators gave parents the option to excuse the children from watching the speech, though none did. We planned to watch the speech and then react in our journals. I had watched and read the speech before class and I was prepared. When the speech began, I encouraged the students to take notes during the speech. I sat down at a student desk and the speech began, while the president spoke, I modeled active listening skills and took notes. At the end of the speech, we reacted to the prompt: Yesterday, we read Gary Soto’s “Seventh Grade” about Victor and his first day of school. At the end of the story, Soto writes, “He was going to like seventh grade” meaning Victor was going to enjoy his seventh grade year. As you watch and listen to President Obama’s speech to schoolchildren across America, what advice do you think the president is giving to schoolchildren? Why do you think the he spoke to schoolchildren and what is the theme of his speech?

One of the greatest parts of being a seventh grade teacher is it gives me time to work on my story, the one I am writing – me. I am in constant improvement and it gives me a chance to re-live and re-do seventh grade every year. As I sat, listened and scribbled notes I thought of the theme. It was how important hard work and perseverance are to success. I have mentioned hard work before in the blog when referring to William – swimming the mile and running cross-country. I reacted in my Writer’s Notebook taking two pages of notes and writing a two-page response in the morning class. In the afternoon, I heard a part I had overlooked in the morning. The student body president introduced him and in her short introduction, she said ‘as I prepared to introduce the president, I thought of how lucky I was and then I realized luck had no part in it. I am here, before you, today because of hard work.. .’ In his speech, the president would refer to luck and hard work and many other themes. However, the most important theme was in today’s world students need to work hard and stay focused on getting an education. I have yet to read their entries for Wednesday, I will later. We discussed the speech and many picked out the theme and several wrote similar entries I their notebooks. It was a good moment and I felt Amazing and Brilliant, even though it was not my speech. Educationally, in this instance the president are in the same room. Hard work beats talent every day.

I have embedded the president’s speech below. Please take the time to watch it – it is only twenty-one minutes and you can fast forward or stop if you wish. Much of what he has to say is similar to the advice any parent, teacher, coach, or other caring adult might say to a child about the importance of education. It is worth twenty-one minutes.

During’ Free Write Friday,’ I reflected back to the president’s speech. I felt I had had moments of being Amazing and Brilliant during the week. The president’s speech and the discussion afterwards were just one way I made the day count. So far, I have had seventeen days and all of them have counted. I have five more fresh days coming at me next week. Are the days coming at me or am I coming at them? Can I keep up the pace and make these five days be a difference for my students? I am planning on it. Making the Days Count, one day at a time.

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