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Teachable moment: A roomful of fourth-grade writers

Sam Cook

DULUTH — They came filing in, led by their teachers, class by class. Fourth-graders. Three classes. About 90 students in all.

They filed into the library at Lester Park Elementary School at midday on a Monday. The teachers had them sit on the carpeted floor, smaller students in front, bigger ones in back.

They've been working on writing, one of their teachers had told me, especially writing about their personal experiences.

"Talk to them about writing what you know," the teacher had said.

I was sitting on the edge of a table up front, all those fresh young faces looking up at me. They reminded me of baby birds in a nest, all waiting for me to deliver them some tasty morsel.

The kids settled in. Their teachers sat in the periphery. One of them introduced me, and off we went for more than an hour.

I almost got choked up looking out at the kids, with their open, expectant gazes. I speak to classes on a semi-regular basis, usually at high schools or colleges. Every time, I come away feeling a sense of awe about teachers and what they do.

Most of us work hard. We clock in and go at it, pecking keyboards, patching streets, designing websites. But most of us don't walk into a room with 25 or 30 little souls hungry for learning every morning.

I told the kids a little about my job. Then I read them a story I'd written long ago, about my son squirting me with a stream of warm urine during a middle-of-the-night diaper changing. I had them.

I told them we all have stories to tell, that writing is just another way to tell stories. I read them another story, about the time my canoe drifted away from shore on a cold spring day when my 6-year-old and I were camping up north. They hung right with me as I worked through that dilemma in the story.

Hands shot up.

"Do you think your son was scared?"

"Do you like writing stories of things that happened or making up things?"

"How long does it take you to write a story?"

They never stopped asking questions. Some began to tell me their own stories.

"One day, I told my dad I wanted to race him on my bike..."

"One time, we were camped out, and we heard wolves really close..."

And I thought, this must be why teachers teach — to witness young minds coming alive, to see neurons firing in those growing brains. To think, yes, they're getting it. Or at least she is, or he is. And maybe most of them.

That is a pretty heady feeling.

You try to reach all of them, the quiet ones and the eager ones and the one who might not have had enough breakfast and the one who's prone to causing trouble at recess. You take them where they are and try to bring them along.

That day, I felt something else that most teachers must feel: You may never know how much difference you're making in the life of any specific child. That kid may grow up and someday realize that, yes, it was Miss Smith, my fifth-grade teacher. She's the one who made me love books. Or math. Or science. Or even writing.

Certainly, I don't expect my class visits to lodge in any child's gray matter for long. But I'm happy to take my turn — as are many of my colleagues at the newspaper — and perhaps make some small contribution to the education of a child.

I walked out of there after my hour or so, feeling simultaneously energized and a bit drained. I came away feeling the same way about teachers that I do every time I do a touch-and-go in a classroom: How in the world do they do that all day?

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