May Madness: The Real Brackets That Count

If you're anything like me, May has you a little frazzled.  My bedroom has clothes strewn about; my office has books and papers piled in precarious stacks; my kitchen counters have seen cleaner days; and it's possible that my hair looks like I forgot to brush it.  While March holds the end of basketball season and an intense focus on brackets of all sorts--from teams to poetry to books, it's May Madness that really hits me.

May is the time of the year when the end is coming and teachers worry they haven't read, written, spoken, listened, commented, nudged, encouraged, impacted, inspired, enlightened, you name it, enough. But this May, I propose that instead of being stressed and overwhelmed, we follow the March Madness elimination idea and pare down to only what's essential--the best things to help our students on their journeys to being life-long readers, writers, thinkers and most of all, engaged human beings with strong voices who are helping make our world a better place.

As I wade through the assessments, speeches, assemblies, activities, photos, picnics, field trips and other things that occupy the last month of school, I realize that I have one small world that I'm in charge of:  my class time in my classroom.  And while there are a few things that I have to do, I actually do get to control how we spend our final days together.  Here are my top three priorities as we end our year together:

1.  books
2.  writing
3.  connections

Let's begin with books.  Like me, you probably have spent a school year matching books with students, creating readers where previously there might have been fake readers, kids who said they hated reading, or kids who had never had the chance to choose books before.  In your classroom, they learned to explore, to choose, to listen to the voice inside them telling them which books were right for them and which were not.  You've taught them how to taste books, to keep lists, to read with deep engagement, and allow book love to gently peek its head out, like a frightened groundhog that is unsure whether or not it really should come out.  In your safe room, it's been out and about, strutting around happily.

As I end my year, I need to do everything I can to help kids see that being a reader is a life-event not a Ms. Hagen's class event.  As we all get ready to head our separate ways, I want the last thing my class thinks about books to be future thoughts, not just sweet memories.  In my classes, we'll talk about our plans for growing Project LIT Battle, our branch of the Project LIT Community book clubs.  We'll talk about meeting at the library two evenings in the summer for "re-dos" of our favorite book clubs with Dear Martin by Nic Stone and Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds.  We'll talk about the new books being revealed as next year's choices.

I'll also keep the door open for all the kids who will be back in my high school next year.  I'll remind them to stop by and check out books if they need them, to drop by and chat about what they're reading and to give me book recommendations, and to stop in if they ever need a recommendation for something to read.  I'll be waiting with open arms.  And based on past years, they will come, tentatively at first, not sure it's really OK, and the confidently striding in to borrow a small stack or to sneak into a quiet corner to read during study hall.

My goal is to keep books and reading a part of my students' lives long after they leave me.  So anything I can do to give suggestions for getting books, and reading books, and keeping our book relationship going, I'll do.

This year we've kept a Writer's Notebook all year long.  We've written a lot of things in there--lists, free writes, poems, and lots of writing about books.  It's sometimes been a place to reflect on our learning, our lives and sometimes our dreams and futures.  My hope is that students have come to see a notebook as a safe place to explore ideas, to play, and to dump thoughts that need examining.  And, my hope is that this is another tool they'll take with them, maybe not this particular notebook (although I'll encourage it), but the idea of writing as a tool for exploration, a place to privately examine thoughts and figure stuff out.

If our year ends with no writing in our notebooks because we're too busy doing other activities, this idea that writing is a life-long endeavor threatens to be lost.  So, just like I'll encourage summer reading and beyond, I'll encourage my students to keep writing, to use their notebooks for real purposes, whether to explore a problem in their lives, to reflect on a book, or to just creatively play with words.

We wander through the pages of our notebooks rereading past entries, noting how we've grown and changed across the year.  As we do this I'll keep pointing out the power of writing as a life tool, noting how it helped us sort out our thinking, to deepen our ideas, to get rid of the things we found out didn't work.  And, hopefully, even if this notebook goes home and under a bed, the idea that writing is a life-long human tool will stick with them.

The final piece that I'm focusing on until the end of the year is to keep the relationships that have been established this year strong.  It's too easy to see teaching as a cycle with a begining, a middle and an end, to see that our job is to build relationships in the beginning, nurture them all year, and then say good-bye at the end.  While it's true that kids will move on to other classes and grades and will grow and change, I want them to know that relationships with humans might have waves of closeness and waves of distance, but that my relationship with them doesn't end.  They became someone I care about this year, but that won't ever go away.  I was happy to start knowing them this year, but I'll be be just as happy to see them if they stop by in the future. Just because they're not in my class anymore, doesn't mean they don't matter to me.  I want them to know that they're stuck with me caring.  I can't turn that off just because the school year ends.

Some of my students have busy, exciting summers planned.  They've already told me about camps and travel and jobs.  They can't wait for the last day.  Others are just the opposite.  They face summers of uncertainty, summers with long days on their own, with meals that can be intermittent, and houses that are not cool enough. The end of the school year is tough when summer looks sad and lonely.  It can cause many of our students to act out in ways they haven't done all year long, to sever ties with us so that leaving doesn't hurt quite so much.

As the adults in our students' world, it's our job to recognize the pain many of our kids experience as they get ready to leave us, to not just celebrate those kids that give us hugs the last day, but to notice those who have gone quiet, have begun to scowl, are ready with harsh words.  We have the power to be that adult who gives a child hope that they can make it, that summer will be OK and that coming back to school next fall means someone is waiting with a smile.


So, on these last days of May, my shirt might not be ironed and I may have some extra shadows under my eyes, but here's what I know will be done right.  My students will leave our classroom armed with three life tools that I hope will mean a lot:  books, writing, and a strong relationship with an adult who cares.  While March Madness is a distant memory, let's transform this May Madness into something that lasts long after the school year ends. 

Happy Mother's Day Everyone!


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