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If She Only Knew Me by Jeff Gray and Heather Thomas
“If she only knew that I had to watch my little brother last night while mom was at the park with her friends, she wouldn’t have punished me for not getting my homework done.”
I read aloud this book in my classroom on the first day of school - every year for the past few years or so, since I discovered it. I can always tell the kids who know exactly how the little boy feels on this page – the one who has been sentenced to stand in the corner of the classroom with his face to the wall, for his transgression. I watch their faces dip just a bit lower when he talks about taking that extra box of cereal at breakfast, because he didn’t get anything to eat for dinner the night before.
And I see the spark of fight in their eyes at the end of the book when he talks about all the things he does know in his neighborhood – the kinds of things that his teacher doesn’t appreciate – like which Laundromat to go to so that your clothes don’t get stolen.
I hand out an index card to each student at the end of the read aloud. I say, “What is it that you wish I knew about you? You don’t have to write anything that is uncomfortable for you – you can tell me something you are good at. Sometimes teachers don’t always see what their students’ interests are here at school. You can tell me something you think I need to know – something that is difficult for you. You can also tell me about something that you are really interested in learning about. It’s your choice – tell me what you need to tell me.”
I collect the cards, face down, when they are finished. And I save reading them for the end of the day – when my classroom is quiet. I read them when everyone else has gone, and when I won’t be disturbed. I want to give their words honor. I have watched them struggle and labor to write them, hands cupped around the edges - brows furrowed as pencils move stiltedly over the lines. I feel as though they deserve at least that much in return.
And I read them with reverence - If you only knew . . . I just love basketball . . . my baby brother almost died . . . I really want to learn about Egypt . . . my parents got divorced and I miss my dad . . . It’s hard for me to concentrate at school . . . I love Math . . . Math is hard for me . . . My mom has cancer and I am afraid . . .
I have to remind myself that they are only ten years old. They are only ten years old, yet some of them carry the weight of the world on their shoulders. What I know now will forever change the way I teach. That book will always be a part of every first day, because it must be. I am wondering at all that I was completely unaware of, before I had the impetus to ask. I pray for grace for my ignorance before I found this book – for all I didn’t know.