When I entered the teaching profession, I often heard this advice — “sometimes you just have to close your door and teach.” It was almost always uttered in conversations surrounding standardized testing or the collection of data, and it was always said in hushed tones.
It’s tempting… it’s tempting to just close my door and teach. To pretend that the data doesn’t have to be collected, or that I’m not responsible for it.
But it does and I am. That’s not changing.
What is changing is me; how I teach when I find those moments where I can, when I need, to depart from the plan. What is changing is what I do with that precious time I have with my students.
It all hit me when I opened my Scholastic box (you know the one — red, white, and full of joy) a few weeks ago. One of my bonus books was The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate. I recognized it because a blogging buddy of mine (Rachel from Mrs. O Knows) had blogged about it during our Virginia is for Book Lovers Blog Hop.
I took it out, read the back, and thought about my journey as a reader. The one I wrote about so passionately just a few days prior. I had said of that journey:
“And yet again, Mrs. Butkus changed that. The Giver changed my life. Her handing me that book is such a large part of why I became a teacher. I’ve read that book DOZENS of times. I’ve given it as a gift to every adolescent child in my life. I’ve given it as a gift to adults that need to be book lovers, too.
Each time I read it, I think of Mrs. Butkus. How she knew, just knew, I needed it.”
I knew instantly, my kids needed this. And so did I. I needed to know that somehow I’d leave my mark on their hearts the way Mrs. Butkus did on mine. I needed to know that they would remember something important, something beautiful, something incredible about their time in second grade.
And so each day, for twenty minutes, we sat together. We sat together and we read Ivan’s story.
I wasn’t sure how my kids would respond. I wasn’t sure they’d sit through twenty minutes of reading without pictures. I wasn’t sure they’d understand all of the nuances.
But they did. They didn’t just sit through it — they connected. They grew.
Before I knew it, twenty minutes would become thirty. One day we skipped guided reading altogether and read for an hour.
And all the while, tempted to close my door, I didn’t. I kept it open.
I shared what we were doing with others. I implored them — you have to read this book. Read it with your kids! Come read with us! I got some strange looks, because of course, reading for an hour from a 300 page chapter book wasn’t on the plans.
But it was important. It was necessary. It was life-changing. For them and for me.
By mid-book we had cried together, laughed together, and gotten angry together. At one pivotal moment in Ivan my kids asked to write sympathy cards for the characters. Their words of hope and connection and love were beyond all understanding for me as a teacher. Reluctant writers poured their hearts out onto the page along with a few tears. Never had I seen them take something so seriously or participate so fully.
Until the end.
One day last week we read Ivan for 30 minutes before dismissal. There were 15 pages left when the announcement to pack-up was made. My kids were panicked — they wanted to stay and finish. They desperately wanted to know how Ivan’s life would end up. They begged to stay afterschool but reluctantly trudged home.
I sat quietly in my classroom that afternoon, thinking of what to do. Do I throw out the lesson plans the rest of the week, shut my door, and teach about this text? I’m supposed to be doing x, y, and z from our reading unit. I’m supposed to be teaching letter-writing and compound words and giving three tests.
I looked at a note one of my kiddos had left me — “what’s next?” it read.
The next morning I opened my door.
During math we sat together, like we’d done every day for the previous weeks, and we finished Ivan. Tears in our eyes, shaky voices, we finished. One of my sweethearts raised their hand — “what’s next?” he said.
I paused, and said, “What’s next?” right back.
|I made this during a workshop I went to on Saturday.
We were asked to illustrate & write about a recent moment that impacted us.
Suddenly a thousand little second grade voices chimed in — let’s research the real Ivan… can I go and check out gorilla books? I want to learn to draw Ivan… let’s have a party to celebrate him… Can I write a sequel?
Yes. Yes. Yes. YES.
We did all of those things.
|Some of fictional Ivan’s favorites and a few of the real Ivan’s favorites.
We ate them while we watched a documentary on apes.
|The One and Only Ivan, The One and Only Me.|
I threw out the lesson plans, opened my door as wide as it could go, and I taught. I invited everyone in to experience the joy and love of learning that was happening in Room 108. This special, amazing thing that you can’t bottle, you can’t replicate — it just is for however long you can keep it.
When we sat down and talked about Ivan later that day, we talked about why we loved it. Then we drew him as a part of an art installation we’re making to convince others to read it. Three things happened that blessed me immeasurably as a teacher.
- Ivan was declared to be “inspirational” because, as one little girl put it, “he made you really think about your attitude and outlook on life, and by the end of the book… well, you change. Not just him… you too.”
- A character’s death (I won’t spoil it for you) was declared to be a favorite part, and when I challenged the student on why death would ever be someone’s favorite, she said — “because it made me feel. No book has ever done that.”
- And when another student lamented that their drawing was terrible, a classmate — unprompted leaned over and said, “just believe in yourself and what you’re doing will turn out just fine. Believe, like Ivan.”
Open the door. Open the door and teach.
Find a week, a day, an hour, a minute and don’t worry about the data or the lesson plans or the pacing guide. Don’t worry about thematic math centers or whether your anchor charts are just so. Let your students decide what’s important — “what’s next?” — what’s authentic.
Find that moment where you are sitting with them on the carpet and they are breathing life into themselves as readers, writers, and mathematicians… where they’re breathing life into your teaching. Don’t get lost in the reports, the grades, the pressure.
Open the door.
If only for an hour… open the door.