Summer is shrugging off the school year stress like a cardigan that is no longer necessary.
Summer is trading in my work bags full of lessons, papers, and memos for beach bags full of superhero towels, sunscreen, and flip flops.
Summer is nights on the screened in porch and books just for fun, quiet except for the hum of the ceiling fan.
Summer is pool passes and camp schedules, library visits and play dates.
Summer is our backyard swing and sitting with my two children, talking about nothing...and everything.
Summer is blowing bubbles and sidewalk chalk, fireflies and fireworks.
Summer is a late dinner on the water, fancy drinks, no regrets.
Summer is peaches and cherries, watermelon and pineapples.
Summer is the smell of barbecues and red, white, and blue dresses, flags waving.
Summer is freedom.
Summer is renewal.
Summer is here!
Tuesday, June 21, 2016
Goodbyes hang in the air when it's the last week of school. The rip of tape being pulled from the wall echoes as pictures and displays come down, revealing bare walls. Notebooks are stuffed in backpacks, unused workbooks are debated- should they be sent home or thrown out? All the places where students' names hung, showing their partnerships, or their writing, or their class jobs- all of these are taken down. No more names now.
Some of the children are like puppies inside a gate, just waiting for the lock to be opened and to run with the freedom of summer. Not all children. Some feel a sadness and worry that school is ending, the structure, the stability, the knowledge that breakfast and lunch appear each day.
We bring to a conclusion a year full of learning. Sometimes with a test and not much else. Sometimes with a celebration, bagels and books and numbers held high showing how much reading happened.
When it's the last week of school, it's your last time to live in that classroom as a community. They will go to different classes for fourth grade and will not be together, in this way, under these conditions. I want them to know they were appreciated, known. I want them to know I believe in them and wish them success and happiness. Goodbyes are hard.
I write them a last letter, to place inside their Summer Writing Notebook. I share the lessons we learned from our read alouds, from characters like Ivan (The One and Only Ivan), Ally (Fish in a Tree), and Melody (Out of My Mind).
I think of all the ways I could have done better, all the things I need to improve. I tell myself I taught with my full heart and tried my best, but I know my best can always be better. Summer is the opportunity to read more and learn more, think more and plan to improve. But for now, I sort my books, file the paperwork, seal the report cards, and close the door on another year of being a teacher.
Monday, June 13, 2016
On the darkest days, the hardest days, I pick up a book and I read aloud to students. My third grade students, restless with thoughts of summer, quieted as I began to read aloud. I've been reading Sharon Draper's Out of My Mind, a book that puts you right into the shoes of nonverbal Melody, an 11 year old with cerebral palsy. It is a book you should read, if you haven't already, and I don't want to spoil anything for you. I'll just say this was the part where there was a terrible injustice done to Melody. The air was thick with emotion. My voice wavered as I read the words. They were quiet. Then they were angry and outraged for Melody, right along with me.
These are the moments. When you get a room full of eight and nine year olds to ache with caring about a character who is very different from them. When they see we are all the same on the inside, despite any outward differences. When they forget that Melody drools and can't talk and kicks her legs out in excitement, because they've heard her voice, her thoughts, her heart. When you see the "other" and the otherness fades away because you know we are all just people, doing the best we can.
In the wake of yet another horrific mass shooting, this time aimed at a specific community, I can't think of any reading strategy more important than this, than this communal sharing of a character's struggle, building empathy through story. We nurture readers, not to have them check off levels along their journey, but to have them take in other perspectives, to question and grow ideas, to become a more knowledgeable person, and in my opinion, to become a better person. Reading makes you better. It makes your heart larger and fuller, more capacious, as Kate DiCamillo might say.
And maybe, because you know Melody's story, you won't point, or stare, or laugh at a person who is differently abled. Maybe you won't say insulting words to a person who chooses differently from you, whether in politics, in religion, or in love.
I don't have any answers about how to stop these horrific tragedies, like Sandy Hook, like Orlando- these times when innocent people are gunned down in movie theaters and night clubs and first grade classrooms. Honestly, I am terrified by it, and at the same time almost numb. Helpless, too. I sign petitions, I make phone calls to representatives, but there is this pervasive feeling that nothing will ever change. History keeps repeating itself again and again and nothing changes.
Yet. There is quiet in a third grade classroom, as students take in and feel the pain of a character in a book. Will this change their hearts? Will these times of reading together, of connecting around story, make them kinder people? I read aloud powerful stories because it is the stone I can throw in the water, and pray that ripples of understanding will come. It is the seed I can plant, with the hope of a patient gardener, that something beautiful will grow in time.
On the darkest days, the hardest days, I pick up a book and I read aloud to students.
Monday, June 6, 2016
Letter to my first kindergarten class, upon their high school graduation
We first met each other in 2003, when you were 4 and 5 years old and I was 24. Your first official year in school was my third year of teaching and my first year as a kindergarten teacher. You were so little, full of energy, and eager to learn. The letter people were friends in our room, including Mr. B with his "beautiful buttons" and Mr. M with his "munching mouth." We celebrated the wedding of Mr. Q and Ms. U in style and you even brought in quarters as wedding gifts! We had teddy bear tea parties and ate green eggs and ham. We built blocks, painted, and danced. Olivia, the pig, traveled home with you for the weekends. We sang "What a Wonderful World" in June before you moved onto first grade.
It's been quite some time since I've seen most of you! I hope your journey through the years as a student has been rewarding and I hope you are just as curious and enthusiastic about life as you were back in 2003.
Much has changed for me since you were my students. I'm not Miss Neagle anymore- I'm Mrs. Sokolowski and have been since 2009. I have two children- Alex, who is starting kindergarten in September and Megan who wishes she was! She is three and likes to do everything her big brother does. I taught kindergarten until June 2014 and I've been teaching third grade for two years now. While I loved kindergarten for a long time, the move to third grade has been very renewing and I'm really enjoying teaching these students.
As you leave Farmingdale High School and start the next chapter in your life story, I hope you know I'm proud to have been your kindergarten teacher. What I've always wanted for you is that you know you are a person of value, that you treat other people with kindness and respect, that you read to enrich your life and become more knowledgeable and that you write to express your ideas and your heart. I hope you follow your passion and do what you love. I hope you dream big and see nothing but possibilities in front of you. I hope you still believe, that even on the worst days, it really is "a wonderful world."
I would love to hear from you and learn about your next steps after high school. I am wishing you luck and love always.
Miss Neagle (Mrs. Sokolowski)