From Survival to Joy by Abby Hanlon
My first teaching job was in an elementary school in West Harlem with over 1,100 students. It was a designated “failing school,” which is why I was assigned to teach there as part of the New York City Teaching Fellows Program. Instead of a regular classroom teacher, I eagerly signed up for “writing teacher,” personally interpreting it to mean “creative writing teacher.” Since the school only had one gym and music teacher, and no art or science, the kids got stuck with another period of reading, writing or math when the teacher was on her break.
I didn’t know until the first day of school that I would be teaching kindergarten through sixth grade including special education and bilingual classes. After every eight weeks, I would be given 12 new classes. I had no idea what kids were capable of at each grade level. I was given no curriculum, not a single book, supply, or sheet of paper. I was not allowed to use the photocopy machine.
So before school started, I bought the latest progressive literature on how to teach writing to elementary school students and mapped out a vague curriculum. I read about how to inspire children to become writers by teaching them to live “the writerly life,” by encouraging them to record their observations of the world around them and their thoughts in their “writer’s notebook.” The teacher, (the model of the “writerly life,” who often shares her own writing with the class) guides the “writer’s workshop” where the students are free to explore a topic and genre of their choice, “sitting comfortably anywhere of their choosing…”
The first week of school was full of new experiences. There was a second grader who yelled “Shut up!” every time I tried to speak. An entire third grade class ran out of the classroom as I was introducing myself. Kids threw chairs, they stabbed each other with pencils, banged their heads on desks, wrote on the blackboards. There were lots of fights. When it was the younger kids, I tried to break up the fight myself. I held one kid back, whoever looked easier to hold. I could feel their little second grade hearts beating mightily against their sweaty T- shirts. They were breathless, covered in tears and huge red splotches.
I quickly discovered that keeping the kids safe was the main issue here. Other than that, nobody cared what I did. But I cared. So, I threw away my traveling poster of “Writing Workshop Rules,” and left my heavy bag of “mentor texts” at home. Instead I turned to my favorite picture books from childhood.
I had about 10 picture books that were literally my survival. For example, I knew I could read any first or second grade class Ira Sleeps Over and the kids wouldn’t even breathe, hushed by the sheer suspense of that teddy bear. Where the Wild Things Are was another book I read over and over again all year. I had my own beat-up copy from childhood. Imagine the awe when you read Where the Wild Things Are to a class where not one kid has heard it before? A good book could get the kids talking — Why did he say he would eat his mother up? Why would Max want to go home when he was king?
My other treasure was my oversized copy of the original Curious George. The kindergarteners would clap like crazy for George. On the first page of the book, George is happy in the jungle, and on the last page, he is happy at the zoo… but where do you think he is happier, I would ask them.
I read Miss Nelson Is Missing so many times that year that confused kids called me Miss Nelson. A good book could get kids writing… where is Miss Nelson? The kids had wild and extremely inappropriate ideas about these possibilities. And the epic real-life stories that kids wrote about their bad days after reading about Alexander’s, made Alexander look like a whiny little wuss. Tar Beach, about a girl who flies over Harlem on a hot summer night, sparked our adventures in flight – fantasy got them writing. Except when we read the autobiography of Ruby Bridges and the fifth graders were so roused that they wrote letters to Bridges begging her to come to our school.
I had a special education class of fifth and sixth grade boys who I made comic books with, until I read them Crow Boy. After that, all they wanted me to do was teach them the Japanese alphabet – so that’s what we did.
I had a lot of failure that year, especially with the older grades. There are memories that still haunt me. But when I look back on that year, I see how reading and writing with 1,100 kids shaped my career. Because the honest truth is, before that year, I had no idea that stories could bring such huge joy.
Abby Hanlon taught first grade in the New York public school system. Inspired by her students’ storytelling and drawings, Abby began to write her own stories for children. Her first book was Ralph Tells a Story followed by the Dory Fantasmagory books. She lives in Brooklyn, New York, with her husband and their two children. You can find her online at http://www.abbyhanlon.com.
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