Sentimental in September

I am September’s sentimental fool. The smell of promise, that a new year holds, wafts to me mixed with the smell of floor wax and wood and paper as I open my classroom door for the first time. It is quiet and all is peaceful. I know this won’t last long. But, in a way, what others might consider strange, I can’t wait for the noisy, productive hum to fill the room. Putting out pencils and erasers floods the room with familiar smells Pink Pearl and Ticonderoga – the smells of school years past. This process feels ceremonial to me. Getting new supplies out is the first thing I do, it whispers of promise and renewal. As I add the fresh pink writing notebooks to the stacks on these desks, I can’t help but wonder. What thoughts will feel these pages? What ideas and opinions will they share with me? What insights will they contain? Creating bulletin boards that will exhibit the work my students will be so proud of and making the room feel welcoming is like setting the stage for the next ten months of work and play.

Now, I know this sounds very naive and very sappy. But, like Anne in Anne of Avonlea, who starts the year desiring to be that loving, wise teacher who wants to encourage her students and influence them for good later realizes – teaching is a lot of hard work. Days don’t go as planned. Students do leave you feeling frustrated or worried. Marking, planning, managing, and inspiring makes you tired. But, there are moments of joy and excitement.

There are celebrations of hard-won victories and triumphs. There are days when you feel loved and respected. There days when you feel the opposite. That is the teaching life. Ups and downs fueled by passion and coffee. I wonder how much coffee Anne drank? Actually, two of the fictional teachers I try the most to emulate are Miss Stacey and Anne from L.M. Montgomery’s series Anne of Green Gables. That sentimental feeling I get in September, I can trace back to with them as a young girl who knew she wanted to be a teacher.

It isn’t just the preparation of my classroom that has me looking back nostalgically. The week before school starts and in particular the first day of school is more like New Year’s Eve to me than the real New Year’s. I look back over last year and think about what my successes were as a teacher. What did I do that I am proud of? What did I do that the students loved and enjoyed? What was hard for them but got them to see just how much the could do? It is also the time I take to reflect on what I can do better. What didn’t work? What made the days seem longer and less productive? What needs can I meet better? What do I need to learn? Again, I know this seems very sappy teacher but reflecting is something teachers do a lot of because it is part of what we are and what we do. Reflecting helps us learn about ourselves and students.

It was deciding on which novel I wanted to read to my class first that had me thinking about last year and the year before. The 2017 school year, I started with Holes by Louis Sachar. The kids loved it and it’s a great book for September. There is humour, growth mind set, and a little bit of intrigue. I love the effect the my, “Excuse me -” can create throughout the year after having read that book. The downside of this choice is that most of my students have seen the movie. Yes, the book is better. But, if you already know the plot twist, the story looses something in the reading. So, even though my class loved it, it wouldn’t as work well for 2018’s class.

In the summer of 2018, I read Fish in a Tree by Lynda Mullaly Hunt. The book’s premise, “Everybody is smart in different ways. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its life believing it is stupid” became a core value for my class that year. This impactful story was one that all of my students could relate to on some level and were able to share insights on in their journals. It helped all of us to develop a sense of empathy for all the different learners that were in our classroom in the safe environment of a narrative. We loved this book and it is one of my all time favourites for school. But, do I want to read it again this September when there are so many possibilities?

During the school year, we have the chance to read many books. I average at least one book a month. But, the first book holds a special place in our year. It sets our stage, brings a tone, and begins the creation of our shared language of experiences. Together we build connections, have inside jokes, and tackle some big (sometimes personal) issues through the safety of a shared book. So, I want to be sure I’ve got it just right. The Imagination Soup website has a list of Grade 6 book choices that sound interesting. Here are the ones contending in my mind for the opening slot.

Okay, for Now by Gary D. Schmidt

This is one of the BEST books I’ve ever read! Doug is a boy who can’t read well, has no friends, and lives in abject poverty with an abusive dad and older Vietnam vet brother. What saves Doug is a connection to a kind librarian who shows Doug the bird paintings of Audubon, helping him see the world differently and discover his place in it. Transformative!(From Imagination Soup)

Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus by Dusti Bowling

Aven Green makes up creative stories for why she doesn’t have any arms. Especially now in Arizona where her parents are the new managers a rundown theme park. She befriends a boy at school who, like her, feels different and isolated from the other kids. His name is Connor and he has Tourette Syndrome. Together he, another new friend named Zion, and Aven investigate a storage shed at the theme park which leads them to Aven’s biological past. This story is about restorative friendship, facing your fears, and discovering your true potential. What’s more, the physical and mental diversity is shown with strength and compassion. (From Imagination Soup )

The Unteachables by Gordon Kormon

The Unteachables are a wayward medley of characters: Parker the dyslexic farm boy; Aldo, who is perpetually angry; Elaine (rhymes with pain); Barnstorm the jock; Rahim the sleep-deprived artist; and Mateo, lost in fantasy worlds. Plus Kiana, who is just in town visiting her dad and isn’t even registered with the school. Not to mention their teacher, Mr. Ribbit — er, Mr. Kermit — who remains in disgrace after a 25-year-old cheating scandal and is just killing time, doing crossword puzzles and waiting to take early retirement at the end of the year. Are they really incorrigible, or is it possible they are just misunderstood? This unlikely group of heroes is about to find out for themselves. (From Scholastic Canada)

So, how will I choose? I might spend the better part of the first day with them. Get to know them a little bit, do some fun things together, and then decide based on my observations. Alternatively, I’ll read the synopsis on the back and have them vote which they love to do. Or, it may be just a gut instinct, a feeling I get about which book will suit the group of students sitting in front of me. Whichever book I choose will become part of us as a class and all of us individually in different ways. I am looking forward to opening a new year and a new book this week and seeing where it leads us. Anne Shirley would probably remind me that, “There is always another bend in the road.” Well, I can’t wait to turn the corner.