Dear S, (Student Letter #8)

To help me be more critical and mindful of the bonds I’m forging in and out of the classroom, I write anonymous letters to some of my current and former students. This is the eighth post in the series.

Dear S,

It’s been a while. Hope you’re doing well. We haven’t spoken in over five years and I’m not sure you even remember me. Maybe you do. We interacted a lot. You were in my Algebra 2 class. I think you were in both of my robotics electives, too. In fact, for two years, you were one of the leaders of the robotics club. The truth is, you knew more about robotics than me. And you were definitely more passionate about it.

While you may not remember me, I remember you. What I remember most about you is that you were one of the first students in my career who challenged me. Not in a bad or rude way, but in a way that made me question myself and my motives. It’s not like you pointed any of your words or actions directly at me. No, you were just insanely curious about the world and what you could do to better it. If anything, you were looking past me. Way past me. I saw the classroom, grades, lesson plans. You saw the world.

You were someone whose love of reading and books. (Looking back, I’m smile when I think how horrible you were about renewing your library books.) You read things that I would have never thought of picking up. Your interests were vast and varied. Somehow you were able to see the interconnectedness of it all.

What I really appreciated about you, S, was how your reading compelled you to seek out knowledge from those around you, like me. Now I never had any answers to your insistent questions, but you still sought them from me. I realized this back then and I realize it again right now: your questions uplifted me. They nagged at me that I should be doing more. Like I said before, you challenged me. You were assertive, creative, and chased down ideas with passion. You set your sails and harnessed the wind. I floated through my days and prayed I would reach the shore.

Though I was much taller than you, I often felt small whenever we spoke. Not all the time, just sometimes, like whenever your environmental and moral consciousness revealed itself to me. You had grand ideas. Most teenagers do (albeit about things not much bigger than themselves), and this was not shocking to me, but yours were far more grounded and tamed. For instance, while we were learning right triangle trig, your mind was focused on developing an app to help the homeless folks you walk past each morning on your way to school. While I was teaching the class about function transformations, you were rethinking our school’s recycling program. And while all the other students were worried about passing exams, you organized a hackathon at our school.

Sharing these moments with you helped me see that students are much bigger than the chairs and desks they inhabit. Their hearts and minds have ambitions that go far beyond my curriculum. Thank you for pursuing answers to your questions with me, although I probably did more to distract you from finding them than I did in helping you. Thank you for the inspiration.

For what it’s worth, I wonder how you’re faring these days. In the middle of dual pandemics, what are you thinking about? What are your passions? Where are you?

I wonder.


Remembering,
Mr. P

P.S. Thanks for all of your creative closings to your emails and Friday Letters. All these years later, I’m just now learning to appreciate these valedictions as a means of creative expression in ending a written correspondence. As the writer, they seem to leave a good taste in my mouth after I hit send…and I can only hope they do the same for the reader. All yours about cat advocacy still make me smile.

Write me a letter

I need to improve how I get to know my students at the beginning of the school year.

I already knew that I was weak on this front, but when Sara VanDerWerf detailed launching tasks by creating context that honors students, it really inspired me to get the ball rolling.

I already have a couple of routines that allow me to connect with my students. Namely, personal notes, Friday letters, and end of year letters that I open at the start of the next school year. But what I’m missing is something substantial at the start of the year that will help me design the class around my students (that’s not content-based).

So this year, during the first week of school, I’m going to have students write me a letter. It can be handwritten or an email and serves as an opportunity for students to personally communicate whatever it is about themselves that they think I should know. I may provide prompts for those that need guidance, but I want the letter to be somewhat open-ended. I want them to tell me what they feel is important. Some prompts I’m thinking of are:

  • What’s something about yourself that I wouldn’t know by looking at you?
  • What’s your family’s background? Do you speak any languages other than English?
  • Who do you live with? Do you have any siblings?
  • In all of your years of school, who is/was your favorite teacher? Why?
  • Who is/was your least favorite? Why?
  • Was mathematics invented or discovered? Why do you think that? (Thanks Elizabeth.)
  • If you had to be any number, which one would you be? Why? (Thanks Matt.)

What’s more, over the course of the first few weeks of school, I’ll write every student a detailed letter in reply. This way they can get to know me on a more personal level as well. It’s a significant time committment, but one that I feel will be worth it in the long run.

Speaking of Sara, she also wrote about how she uses name tents during the first week of school, which I hope to adopt this year. This is a crafty, yet simple, way of not only learning student names, but also learning all that is behind those names.

 

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Starting the year with letters

  

Last year I really started getting into writing more with my students. (This probably started because of my first year of blogging.) Specifically, I did Friday letters and notes that I wrote students while they took exams. I also had my students write themselves a letter mid-year that I held onto and gave back to them at the end of the school year. 

To culminate all this writing, on the last day of school I had each student write me a letter that I didn’t open until the first day of classes this year. I asked them to give me some inspiration for the new school as well as simply capturing the moment at the end of a long, hard-fought school year. I locked the letters away for the summer.

When I opened my closet a few weeks ago upon my return to school, the letters were staring directly at me. I strategically placed them in front of all my crap so I wouldn’t forget. 

What I read convinced me that I have to do this again in June. Some letters provided fresh perspective and advice of how to teach more effectively. There was some really good advice, like being tougher and expecting more. Others served as reminders as to exactly why I became a teacher. I was informed by one kid that I was head and shoulders their favorite teacher of all time. Others proved more serious, like the one that shared insight into the world of living with divorced parents. 

  
They were heartfelt, real, and unadulterated. The letters allowed me to reconnect, at least in spirit, with those kids and all we experienced in room 516. I learned a lot too. They were exactly what I needed to start the year. 
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