by Stephanie Mew
Early Sunday morning, I woke to the familiar ping indicating a text message. Written in capital letters it read, “WE MADE THE PAPER TODAY!”
“Really?” I replied with a smiling emoji.
“Yes! And three of our students made it too!” my co-teacher answered attaching the news article.
While reading the essays written by my fourth graders, I cried. Not fully understanding the feelings behind the tears, my reaction had definitely caught my attention. A few days later, the “aha” came from the editor’s feedback and comments.
She wrote, “…we ran the three (essays) for their inspirational vibe that might spur on other youngsters...words hold beauty, strength and open life’s possibilities; and the excitement that everyday is a surprise filled with wonder and learning.”
Of course! I was responding to the “vibe” - the energy that exudes from their heartfelt words. I could feel their gratitude through their simple words and clear message that without friends, family, and school, life would be poor. But with these cherished people, and the opportunity to learn, their lives are expansive and full. The young writers understood that life is generous and that they are rich in so many ways.
The students’ inspired commentaries expressed their sincere love. This is what I felt when I read their essays for the first time in their journals, again in their drafts, in the Sunday paper and every time since then. The inspired words from a child are like no other. The innocence, the untainted love for family and friends, the recognition of all that is being done for them to succeed, and the honest and genuine gratitude expressed are truly tear-worthy.
The Road Less Traveled
To reach this perspective of appreciation, the students took a road less traveled in the classroom. It is a path that I often take when I reflect deeply, and look for inspiration, solutions or answers to a question. At the end of the path, I arrive at a destination or conclusion that is sourced from love. This practice is one of the roots of education.
Educere - Root of Education
Educere, the Latin root of education means to bring forth from within. This origin reminds me to see each child as “whole” rather than someone who is lacking. Their latent talents and voice are drawn out by helping them to recognize, develop, use and share their gifts for a fulfilling purpose.
As a teacher, one of my favorite activities is when students present a report or perform a skit. Personalities shine, interests are revealed, and nervousness is shown as I gain a glimpse of their authentic selves. I also treasure the moments when a heart to heart discussion occurs and the students’ compassion, insight, hopefulness, resiliency and depth are uncovered. The young travelers already have many experiences, loves, dislikes, hurts, triumphs, regrets, opinions, gratitudes, dreams, insights and solutions, and I am grateful to be in a position that helps them develop their self-awareness to find their voice. A recent writing project on thankfulness confirmed the belief that beauty lies within and that my role as a teacher is to assist them in drawing out their inner knowing and encourage their self-expression. The conclusion of the thankfulness project illuminated the benefits of educating children in a way that empowers them to observe, reflect, and share what is in their heart.
Drawing out the students’ insights and voices occurred in three gradual steps: 1) sitting silently and practicing mindfulness, 2) engaging in reflective activities, and 3) bringing voice to their insights. These exercises can be used for many purposes and situations.
At the start of the school day, we sit silently and focus on our breath, heart and love. This five minute exercise provides the opportunity to calm the mind and connect our thoughts and actions to the heart. Through the practice of quieting our mind a sense of well-being and connectedness to self and others is created. With this consistent daily practice the class has shifted to becoming mindful and reflective.
Reflective activities encourage students to look inside themselves, ponder and draw out their insights, ideas, thoughts and opinions. For three weeks, we wrote a daily gratitude list which contained seven things or people that they were thankful for. This activity encouraged the children to become aware of and appreciate all that is being done for their benefit, growth and enjoyment. The ultimate goal was to inspire a feeling of abundance, thankfulness and generosity in turn. The students cultivated the feeling of gratitude and accumulated a variety of lists.
Bringing Voice to Their Insights
Once the students chose their topic, they sat silently in a quiet place. With soft music in the background, the students focused on their heart and gratitude for that person(s) or idea. With a few guiding questions, they uncovered the reasons for their thankfulness, what life would be like without that person(s), a message that they would like to convey to the world, and any thoughts or insights that surface. The young writers then poured their hearts out on paper.
Technology can play a significant role in helping students share their voice. The “voice typing” tool removes several barriers to writing. The speech-to-text function allows them to have their unique style where their personality shines unencumbered by the fear of spelling or writing skill. Also, writing and editing skills are strengthened as students are eager to perfect their authentic message.
A Joyful Moment - Becoming Published Writers
The fourth graders found their voice and it was heard across the state. After reading their essays in the Sunday paper, I began texting parents about their child’s achievement and posting the essays on social media. It was well received with instant feedback of likes, hearts, thumbs up and retweets. The next day, there were smiles and acknowledgements from co-workers who read the article. Copies of the article were left in my inbox with handwritten notes in the margins, “Good job. Keep up the good work.” In class, one of the student authors told the story of her mother’s surprise to see her daughter’s name in the byline. We displayed the newspaper on the classroom wall. This time it had a special significance. The authors were our friends! The students exposed their hearts to a large audience and it was acknowledged that it had made a difference.
Two Roads Diverge
In education as in life, we often encounter two or more roads before us. Many approaches, tools and best practices are at the hand of the teacher. I will take a cue from my students and remember this experience when faced with choosing how to educate. Knowing that the path of reflection and mindfulness will lead me to insights and solutions derived from the heart, this will be my preferred path. By sharing my thoughts, dreams, concerns, inspirations and gratitude, I hope to also spur on others to consider the powerful and beautiful possibilities when we are mindful and reflective and teach students these valuable skills. Robert Frost’s poignant poem continues to echo in my heart.
“…Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.”