|One of my classes with the mystery books they were reading.|
A few weeks ago I was at a graduation party when a friend of my sister-in-law, came up to talk to us. She’d been a high school English teacher for years and now that she’s retired from that position, she’s teaching English and writing to adult students in a vocational school. We started talking about the problem with writing today. Teachers are complaining that teaching to the test is eliminating time needed to teach writing. Now it’s mostly filling in the blanks. We’ve both read research that writing with a pen or pencil works to stimulate the brain more than typing something into a computer. She also mentioned one teacher, who was required to teach using a computer with the students all on their individual lap tops – gifts from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation perhaps. The teacher was frustrated because she could not stand in front of the classroom reading the students faces to know who understands what she’s covering and who doesn’t. We both agreed that the push for more and more tests is not only frustrating for teachers, but also hurting the students. Much as I loved teaching, excessive testing is one of the reasons I’m glad I’m not teaching anymore.
Sounding like an old foggie, saying back in the day when I was teaching, at least until the last two years when we consolidated into a large school and started changing classes, I was in a small school with only two third grade teachers and we were self-contained. Yes, I taught my students what they needed at that grade level, but I had the freedom to use my imagination to make the subjects fun and interesting. Much of that was done through reading and writing. I gave each student a note book for a journal the first day, and every day after lunch, recess, and listening to a chapter from the book I read at that time, they wrote the date in their journal and started with Dear Mrs. Alden. Sometimes I gave them a prompt and sometimes it was free writing. Every evening I read those journals and replied to what they wrote. I also had an early morning book, a mid-morning book going along with one of the themes we were covering after our sustained silent reading time and I had sets of easy chapter books on the themes we were studying so we could sit in a circle and take turns reading a chapter each day. The MagicTree House series was very popular as was The Time Warp Trio series.
|Xyl measuring his worm in one of the activities with worms.|
They wrote stories; about the earthworms they studied, for instance, but the ones that continued with one character all year were Rocky stories. I brought in a rock that sort of had a face on it enhanced with a black marker where the eye would be. Telling one of my fabrications, I told them I’d heard a voice the night before and looked around until a rock announced it was him. From then on they wrote stories about Rocky in dinosaur time, Rocky in caveman times, with the Egyptians, and in the Middle-Ages. He came over on the Mayflower and eventually came to Hiram, Ohio on a covered wagon.
They wrote poetry and plays, too. They acted out the plays and were so funny. They also wrote research papers. I had three sets of encyclopedias and I went to libraries and brought in piles of books including many of my own on the subject we were studying; Dinosaurs, Insects, arachnids, Ancient Egypt, the Middle-Ages, biographies of famous people, Native Americans, etc. Believe me, writing research papers in third grade was a big challenge for them as well as for me. They also made projects to go along with the paper; posters, dioramas, etc. Some parents weren’t very happy with me, usually when their kid didn’t tell them about it until the night before it was due, but most supported what I was doing.
Probably the most challenging and fun writing project was what turned into a book for me. I'd heard about a writing prompt in a summer class I’d taken about bringing in a suitcase filled with stuff and have the students write about the kind of person who would have those things in it. It was geared for upper elementary or middle school. It was a one day writing lesson that I extended it to an eight month writing project.
On the day I brought in an old suitcase filled with odds and ends of clothes, books, etc. I told the students I’d found it on my back steps. They were excited. In small groups of four they came up to examine what was in there. Since I had a Sherlock Holmes Detective Club in which they read third grade level mysteries with a partner and in their detective notebooks were to write down clues, etc., they got magnifying glasses and checked things out. Then we discussed what they’d learned from what was in the suitcase. They were curious about a feather and also a lottery ticket. They read a letter to Alice (written in pencil so I erased my name and put in Alice) from her niece, Emily.
Since they figured out the woman must be named Alice, I told them I’d put an ad in the lost and found column in my newspaper. We got three letters (thanks to a friend, a cousin and a sister), but only one could be the owner – Alice Van Brocken. After the suitcase had been returned to her, she wrote them a thank you note and said she was heading for Columbus, Ohio on the trail of two jewel thieves she’d witnessed using a falcon to fly into a window and steal a diamond necklace in Cleveland. Since she was older, the police didn’t believe her so she was going to bring them to justice herself.
|Students displaying some of the things in the suitcase.|
The students wrote back to her telling them about themselves and giving her advice. This started in October and continued through the school year. Alice got into all sorts of dangerous situations starting with being mugged by the two thieves and locked in a warehouse for three weeks with the falcon and three huge cartons of canned spinach and a can opener. When the thieves took the falcon, she knew they wouldn’t be back and managed to escape through a vent, found a clue and headed for Boston.
Alice traveled around the country getting into dangerous situations. She knew karate and that helped her sometimes. The kids sent her letters (supposedly to a neighbor who forwarded them) and those letters were precious and funny. (Excerpt from one: I imagine you’re sort of like my grandma; nice, giving, friendly and old, but don’t have a lot of old problems like having too much gas.) They worried about her and gave her advice and some even suggested she give it up and come home. Thanks to family and friends scattered all over the country, Alice sent them letters telling about her escapades and narrow escapes and these letters came postmarked and unopened so they never seemed to doubt that Alice wasn’t real after the letter from Columbus, Ohio came. They followed her on the map and guessed which state she’d be in next.
The last week of school, there was a knock on the door and I told Brandon to open it. He did and stepped back and said, “Oh, my God! It’s Alice!” And in swooped Alice dressed in a full cotton skirt and wearing a sun hat. I told my sister – more than twenty years younger than Alice – that they’d want to see some karate and she was to tell them she’d injured her back in the process of capturing the thieves at the Space Needle in Seattle. She told me not to worry about it, but when one little boy asked, she went into a lengthy spiel about how it was a discipline and not done for entertainment. Then all of a sudden she let out a shout that sounded like a karate shout and kicked out to the side at the same time she moved her arms in what looked like a karate chop. The full skirt hid that it wasn’t a full karate kick. That day the kids didn’t want to go out for last recess before the buses came. They all lined up to get her autograph instead.
Okay, I lied to these kids, but I gave them something exciting to think about and they learned to write letters. I did this twice; seven years apart when I knew there weren’t any younger siblings of the first group. I saved their letters and Alice’s and narrowing it down to six boys and six girls and changing the names slightly, I wrote The Sherlock Holmes Detective Club. I had specific students in mind from my second group and mostly used their letters, but if they were absent that day or didn’t write much, I’d substitute one from the earlier class. I corrected spelling and grammar, but other than that, their letters are as they wrote them. I also used one of my students, a girl who continued to write to me until her senior year in high school, as a narrator for each of the student chapters. I gave her Rocky when I retired. When I met her a few weeks ago, she told me she’d taken him to Vassar with her and kept on her dresser there.
H.L. Mencken said, “The best teacher of children, in brief, is one who is essentially childlike.” I’m not sure I’ve ever completely grown out of childhood, and it’s why I chose elementary education over high school or college. Maybe that’s why my students and I had so much fun.
Do you think I was right to lie to my students for the whole year?
Have you ever kept the truth from a child?