Monday, February 24, 2014

Hard Questions, Easy Answers

As teachers, we spend a lot of time trying to explain why things are the way they are or were the way they were.  Sometimes we do a pretty good job; other times, we come up short, often because WE don’t even fully understand.  Just recently, a student picked up the latest book from the I Survived series and asked me out of the blue, “What is a Nazi, anyway?  A coworker walked in my classroom as I was stumbling over an explanation and as our eyes met, we both shrugged a little, as if to say, “How do you explain something so unthinkable?

Then there are those times when the students don’t even need to ask, or they answer each other’s questions before you even have the chance, because what makes no sense to you actually does make sense to them.   As grown-ups, we can’t help but over-analyze, over-think, and over-feel every situation.   We think we should know it all, be able to fix it, and what we can’t fix upsets us, so we don’t want to think about it at all.  With kids, it’s different.  They want to break apart every situation not because they think they can fix it but because they want to understand it.  They truly believe there must be a reasonable explanation for everything.

Twice in the past few days I’ve been struck and amazed by the perspective of my fourth graders.  Two separate situations, both of which would’ve left me speechless, never even required my assistance thanks to the wisdom of these ten-year-olds.  The first happened last Friday.  We were watching a video about Ruby Bridges, the first black child to attend an all-white school in the South in the early 1960s.  Each morning, as she walked into school, she faced protestors yelling and threatening her.  My students were mesmerized, wide-eyed and disgusted at the way this child was treated.  The actress in the movie asked her mother, “When will they stop?” and no sooner were the words out of her mouth than one of my boys said, “When the Lord gets in their hearts, they will!

He looked back toward me as soon as the words were out of his mouth, wondering if he’d crossed the line, I’m sure.  I just smiled knowingly and gave a little nod of agreement, which put a big grin on his face, and he turned back to the screen.  I wasn’t the only person in the room to agree with him; a few other students nodded or murmured a “yeah.”  It was a heartening scene to me, to put it mildly; one of those moments when I knew I was exactly where God wanted me to be. 

It’s amazing to me how often God makes His presence known in a place where He is welcomed, privately even if not publicly.  This morning, the very next school day, our morning announcements had an addition: a moment of silence for a local middle school boy who passed away over the weekend after a long illness.  I knew my students would have questions and I answered them the best I could, again stumbling over words and ready to quickly move on to math, where I actually DO have the all the answers. 

As I turned to make the transition, one of my students who ALWAYS has one more thing to say, blurted out, “Mrs. Jones?” I impatiently said, “Yes?” still hoping to change the subject, as he stopped me dead in his tracks with his statement, “At least he’s in a better place now.  As I quietly nodded, put in my place for sure, the little girl beside him put the icing on the cake with simply two words to end his sentence: “…with Jesus.”  They both nodded, and I smiled, knowing WE were with Jesus too, in a different way, in that very moment, and pretty sure that He was smiling too.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Recommended by Mrs. Jones

I love to read.  I’m not just saying that because I’m a teacher and I have to.  I can’t remember a time in my life when I didn’t crave a good chapter book.  I read every single Babysitter’s Club book before I was even allowed to babysit.   My reading tastes have certainly evolved over the years, but lately it’s come full circle in that I have found myself reading young adult and children’s literature in my spare time, not just on “school” time.

Don’t get me wrong: I still love a good Kristin Hannah, Nicholas Sparks, or Jodi Picoult read.  But more and more I’ve found myself feeling like every novel I read, I’ve read before.  There are only so many ways to twist a plot in contemporary adult fiction.  With children’s literature, it’s different.  It’s less predictable, more magical, funnier, and more endearing. When I’m reading a book through the eyes of a child, I see things differently and feel them more deeply (maybe it’s the teacher in me).  I always learn something new.  The more children’s literature I read, the more I want to read.

There are SO many choices out there for kids to read nowadays, and I think that’s awesome; there is truly something for everyone.  But at times among the library shelves filled with so many choices (think everything from Diary of a Wimpy Kid to Captain Underpants to my students’ current favorite, My Big Fat Zombie Golfish- not kidding…look it up!) I have found that my students rarely read a quality, timeless, classic novel.  For that reason, at the end of each school year, I require that they complete a book report project on a Newbery Medal Winner or Newbery Honor Book.  (If you don’t know, the Newbery Medal is awarded to the author of “the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children” yearly.)

I have a large boxful of Newbery books in my classroom and I’m sure they are all worthy of this honor; just think how many books they had to beat out that year to win that shiny seal on the cover!  I wish I had time to read and savor each and every one of them.  But too often, when a student asks me if the one they are about to pick is good, I’ve had to admit I haven’t read that particular book.  It seemed pretty excusable back when I was still a “new” teacher, but the more time that passes, the more ashamed I am to come up as less than the expert.

For this reason, I challenged myself a few months ago to start reading the Newbery Medal Winner and Newbery Honor Winner books each year, and hopefully work myself backwards if I can get ahead.  Unfortunately, I just finished the 2013 winners about the time the 2014 winners were announced, so I haven’t made any headway yet, but I am excited that I just completed the last 2013 winner.  It’s at least a start!  Instead of downloading the Newbery winners on my Kindle, which has been my reading habit in recent years, I’ve been paying the extra few dollars for the hardcover editions (it helps that my husband and I have Amazon Prime and use the heck out of it – the UPS man probably hates us!).  I set up a little section in my classroom called, “Recommended by Mrs. Jones” and have these books, along with a few others that I’ve read and enjoyed, displayed with special “checkout” cards like an old-fashioned library.  This display has created some excitement throughout the year; when I “recommend” and add a new book, the kids all fight over it. 

This was definitely the case when I added the last 2013 winner to my display this week.  I read this one last on purpose: it’s entitled Bomb and subtitled The Race to Build – and Steal – the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon.  Everything about this book screams “boy!” and my boys were all over it.  For that same reason, I procrastinated.  In fact, I almost made Brent read it instead and planned to make a new section called, “Recommended by Mr. Jones!” in my classroom.  But I’m so glad I didn’t!  Surprisingly, I really liked it and I learned a lot.  It was an enjoyable and educational read and it reminded me why I’m doing this in the first place: these books don’t just win by coincidence!  They’re masterful, insightful, and well worth the read.

Maybe you aren’t interested in reading ALL the Newbery Winners and Newbery Honor Books, like I am, or maybe you don’t have time, like I barely do.  But I would challenge you to read one of these at least once in a while.  If you’re like me, and you’ve loved to read as long as you can remember, it will remind you why you loved reading in the first place.  Children’s literature is unpredictable and magical.  You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll learn something new.  And maybe, like me, it’ll leave you wanting more.

If you’re looking for a place to start, here’s a list of the 2013 Newbery Winner and Honor books, in my order of recommendation with a 10 word or less review of each:

1.    The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate (2013 Winner)
I’m a sucker for a good animal book.  Bless.
2.  Bomb: The Race to Build – and Steal – the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon by Steve Sheinkin (Honor)
Who knew nonfiction could win?  But it’s a page-turner!
3.  Three Times Lucky by Sheila Turnage (Honor)
Such interesting characters!  Made me want to meet them somehow.
4. Splendors and Glooms by Laura Amy Schlitz (Honor)
Brilliantly creepy, but somewhat hard to stick with (for me).

Now it’s time for me to start in on the 2014 winners! But for now, I’m mostly just anxiously awaiting the next time “The Atomic Bomb” is a category on Jeopardy so I can kick Mr. Jones’ butt…he hasn’t read Bomb yet. :)