When Rosie was in third grade, she brought a suitcase to school. It was an old-fashioned, hard black case with brown triangle patches on the corners. The stitching had unfurled. Most significantly, there was a combination lock on the top. It sat at the foot of her desk, pressing against her legs all day long. At the end of the day, she picked it up and carried it with her. The next day it returned. All year, Rosie schlepped her suitcase to school.
I asked her teacher, “What’s going on with the suitcase?”
“I don’t know,” she said. “She just started bringing it with her one day and hasn’t stopped.”
“I don’t want to know,” the teacher said with enough finality that I knew not to push the conversation any further.
I wish I had asked Rosie what was in her suitcase.
Rosie’s life was not rosy. She was near the end of a long line of siblings. Her parents alternated between being out of work and being in jail.
I watched Rosie’s suitcase as the seasons changed outside the third-grade classroom window. I wondered about the things she carried. Was it filled with her favorite possessions—maybe a tattered baby doll or a box of beads? Or was the suitcase filled with more practical things necessary for a quick getaway—a threadbare sweatshirt and a toothbrush? What was Rosie scared of that propelled her to carry that battered suitcase to and from school every single day?
Wisps of a long-forgotten war story swung through my mind. “They carried all they could bear, and then some, including a silent awe for the terrible power of the things they carried,” wrote Tim O’Brien.
Rosie was fighting a war, even though I didn’t want to see it. We’ve always known that some kids show up in our classrooms fighting hard battles. In the original schoolhouses of the 13 colonies, students came from hard places. Families lost parents to the harsh winters and siblings to sickness. Students were hungry or without shoes.
Hard battles are not new to schools, but the landscape of the battlefields is changing. The wars students are fighting have evolved. Family disruptions, addictions, anxiety, and oppression are reaching new heights.
Ignoring the advancement of these battles will not make us more effective teachers. Life for the children filling our classrooms is not the same as it was a few years ago. They are wounded warriors. They need much more than academic success when they enter our school doors.
Social-Emotional Benefits of Three Common Literacy Practices
It is common to find read-aloud time in most classrooms because of the clear benefits in developing literacy skills. Read-aloud time also develops social and emotional skills. Reading aloud allows for bonds to form between the caregiver and child. This is comforting for children who come from homes where reading aloud occurs, and provides a necessary experience for children who don’t. When we are intentional about the book selection, we can tap the power of stories for teaching truths about perseverance, kindness, and other social skills. It is worth the effort to make this practice as warm and calm as possible.
Conferring with Students
Conferences provide an opportunity for students to have your whole attention. We listen intently to students to differentiate instruction and meet them at their points of need. At the same time, we send a message that the child is heard and is valuable. You may be the only person to make eye contact with a child and spend time listening to them wholeheartedly. When we make time to confer, we are meeting children’s emotional needs.
Share sessions help build a community of readers and writers, as well as provide an opportunity for collaboration and learning from peers. During share sessions, students experience the way their words affect others. They receive genuine responses through laughter or tears and questions or comments. It is important to know that your words can affect others. Also, share sessions give students the experience of allowing their thinking to change. When they experience a change in perspective, they are one step closer to a growth mindset.
Some needs, like Rosie’s, are overwhelming and almost too much to handle. If we pause too long and think too much, the stories our students are living will make us angry, make us sad, or make us a lot of both. When we’re angry and we’re sad, it can be hard to feel like we can have a positive effect on the battles our students are facing.
Just because we feel it, that doesn’t make it true. Teachers matter more in the lives of students today than at any other time in history. It’s helpful to remember that the things we do to ensure academic success can also help students overcome dark places.