Several years ago, I stumbled across high school teacher Jim Burke’s blog and a post titled Teaching at the 18-Yard Line. Jim describes an exercise in visualization about the future he has done with his high school students. Two years ago I decided to use his idea as a jumping-off point for an activity I do with my fifth graders. It has become my favorite day of the school year.
I teach in a building adjacent to our high school. In the last week of school I pick a sunny day and head down to the football field with my students. We walk out and stand on the line at the end zone. I stand in the middle of the line and explain to the kids that in front of us are 100 yards. If they are more than blessed, that could be the number of years in their lives. Then we begin walking.
As we reach the five-yard line, we pause. I ask them to remember kindergarten. What type of student were they then? Who were their friends? What was their favorite thing to do? We continue reflecting until we reach eleven years old—fifth grade. We stop here and think about their year. Then we move on.
As we move forward, we switch over to my life. I walk with them, stop at sixteen, and tell them about learning to drive. Eighteen—graduation. I couldn’t wait to leave my home, and I was sure my parents were just clueless. (We learn in later yards/years how wrong I was.) I walk by the years of my life—meeting Chris, deciding to be a teacher, graduating from college, getting married, first jobs, having Luke and Liam, and losing my grandparents.
This year we will stop on the thirty-nine-yard line. I will look ahead and talk about what I envision for myself before I’ve finished “walking” my football field. Then I will ask them to run back to the eleven-yard line. I will stay on the thirty-nine-yard line.
From here I ask them what they want their future to be and to look at the yards from them to me. There are twenty-eight years between us. I will explain to them that their choices determine what happens and what their “stories” will be when they reach the thirty-nine-yard line and beyond. We will talk about mistakes, getting back on track, and more. Then I will pass out paper and envelopes.
Years ago I used to have my students write letters to themselves as seniors. What I found was that this too much for them—trying to imagine what their lives would be like in seven years was a daunting task. What I do now is ask them to write a letter to the person they will be in three months.
My fifth graders are getting ready to transition to middle school. They leave my building in just a few days. Middle school seems to be a time to figure out who you are and who you want to be. I ask them during these last days of school to start to think about that. As I pass out the paper, I ask them to think about next year. What do they need to be successful? What do they want to change about themselves? What lessons have they learned this year that they want to be sure they haven’t forgotten after the long days of summer? And then, they write.
I walk around the field and watch. Honestly, I often wipe away a few tears. They are so earnest as they write, pouring their thoughts down on the page. Several kids need another sheet as their letters stretch on to a second page. When everyone finishes, they fold their letter, put it in an envelope, address it to themselves, and seal it. I will not read these letters—they aren’t for me, and the purpose is not assessment. I promise I will mail them to each student during the first week of August, just two and a half months away.
Last year I pulled these letters out toward the end of July. I added a note on the back of each one before mailing—just a quick note to say hello, I hoped the summer was wonderful, I hoped they read, and to wish them well. It was a great time for me to reflect on that group before meeting my new students and starting a new year.
Living in a small town has many benefits, but seeing your former students is high on the list. After mailing the letters last August, I ran into some of my students at the pool. We hugged and reminisced about the year. They told me how excited they were when their letters arrived. Recently, several students wrote to me during Teacher Appreciation Week. Most of these letters mentioned the football field writing—how it was their favorite day of the year. I marveled that one year later, they still remembered. Such a simple activity, but such a powerful one. I’m excited to head out to the field with this year’s students in just a few days.