Myakka City School was (and still is) as far out in the country as possible in Manatee County, the last Manatee County School before crossing into DeSoto County. On August 24, 1981 I began my teaching career in its high-ceilinged, wooden floored classroom with huge windows that could be opened whenever fresh air was needed. Barely 22 years old, I was scared to death and can still remember what I wore, only because my fashion choices at that period of my life were fairly (and boringly) consistent. Head-to-toe prep. Kelly green Izod dress, Kelly green Lands End espadrilles, Kelly green bow earrings, and a gold add-a-bead necklace. I had identical outfits in every prep color - hot pink, baby pink, butter yellow. Shudder. A few months into the school year Joy, a third-grader from a family of cattle ranchers, shared, "Miss Roberts, I didn't know there were that many different colored shoes in the whole wide world. Why do you need that many colors of shoes?" As for the students, their first day attire consisted of cowboy shirts with pearly buttons, Levis, Wranglers, cut-offed-at-the-knee shorts, new (or scuffed) sneakers, and broken in cowboy boots.
Working with those students and the others that followed brought out the best and worst of me. At my best I listened and adjusted instruction based on their needs and gave space for them to teach me. At my worst, and I have many cringe worthy memories, I taught by the book, told them "just do the work" or discounted their insights. Fortunately I soon realized that mindless worksheets and sometimes boring basal readers would be the death of us all so asked my principal (dear, guitar playing Tom Redmond) for permission to try some new things. To his credit he said yes with the caveat that "by golly, they better be able to read at the end of the year."
With timely wisdom from Dr. Wendy Kasten, Ken and Yetta Goodman, and Dr. Marge Roberts (my major professor, my graduate school mentors, and my educator extraordinaire mom respectively), I began to read and study and plan instruction that included tons of reading and writing for choice; applicable, real-life math lessons; and, when I moved from third grade to kindergarten, developmentally appropriate reading and writing for young students just beginning their literacy journey. The students planted vegetable gardens as part of their science lessons, wrote countless stories and researched topics of their choosing to include in research writing, practiced math by measuring the area of the classroom floor so the correct sized rug could be purchased, and raised money and planned a budget for a donation to protect the Florida panther. Together we read books and talked about how books can speak differently to different people. Together we wrote stories as well as informational text, learning all about the demise of the aforementioned Florida panther in order to write to convince local businesses to donate funds. We cooked and learned fractions by cutting recipes in half or doubling them.
I was welcomed as their assistant 4-H leader (I was even given a heifer calf by a student. Dawn--the heifer, not the student--was never sold to the local butcher and she died of old age after gifting me with two calves over the years.) Family's hosted me for dinners in their homes. I became part of the community through their generous hospitality.
But lest I make it sound like perfection, I add that I made many mistakes and at times knew so little. Did every student become as strong and as confident a reader and writer as I would have hoped? No. I failed many. I didn't build relationships when I should have, I wasn't as open to new research on phonics instruction as I should have been, instruction that could have made a difference with students having a variety of learning needs. I didn't always reflect on my teaching as critically as I should have. On bad days I yelled at students. I didn't ask them to forgive me when forgiveness was more than I deserved for calling out students in front of their peers, thinking that "tough love" would positively impact a negative behavior. I truly shudder at some of my poor teacher choices, especially during those early years. However, as Grace would have it, I hear from students who are now in their forties and have children, careers, and lives of their own. In more times than not, we made each other better.
One especially treasured memory happened during a shared reading experience. Before inferencing, predicting, and foreshadowing were viewed as tested-state-standards assessed through the use of arbitrary and controlled texts rather than as applied strategies all good readers use to inform and entertain, I witnessed my students “get it” it through listening, discussing and reflecting as they daily engaged with real books. "Old Yeller" was our read-aloud one hot spring, shared every day after recess when the kids were hot and sweaty and tired. As we neared the end of the book, the students listened wide-eyed as it became obvious that Travis, the protagonist, would soon face the decision to put his dear Old Yeller down. After the rabid wolf injures Old Yeller, Travis brags on how the faithful dog defended the family, to which Travis' father responds:
It was a good thing for us, Son; but it wasn't good for Old Yeller.
At that point Mojo Jones, a feisty 3rd grader rarely seen without his cowboy hat, jumped up, knocking over his chair as he shouted, "You just stop reading now. He ain't gonna shoot Old Yeller. No ma'am, Miss Roberts, he ain't!" and then melted into big fat snot tears. Mojo didn't need a comprehension question to describe what he knew; he knew exactly where the author was going. He inferred correctly and it was a profound moment for he, his peers, and for me. I still remember gathering as class to discuss that harrowing scene and sharing how it had deeply affected us all.
After 8 years teaching at Myakka, I moved to the Micronesian arpeggio of Papua New Guinea (PNG) in 1988. As a 30yo single woman, a decided it was time to see the world so I accepted a position as a first and second grade teacher at Aiyura Primary School operated by the Summer Institute of Linguistics. (Side note - I didn't stay single long, marrying Devan 5 months after my arrival. Another story for another time.) My students--Korean, Australian, Kenyan, Swiss, New Guinean, German, French, British, and American-gifted me with a global perspective. Most were emerging or non-English speakers in an English curriculum school so our ELL support was simply full inclusion, allowing students to write in their native languages with English thrown in as they learned . . . and learn they did, much faster than me. During that time I conducted a research study for the International Reading Association (now ILA), co-authored with Dr. Kasten, on teaching young students to read through their own writing, making connections between orthography and morphology and phonology. The implications of that research helped me see that my students brought so much to the learning table that many educators could easily dismiss.
More than professional growth, my eyes were opened to the fact that my home country is one piece of the world, not the biggest (or worst) nor the most important nor the one with all the answers, but a piece of the whole. Valuing all cultures in a setting of inclusion and celebration, I began to appreciate that one could be patriotic while also being global.
My students in PNG were also with me every step of my first pregnancy. They oohhed and aahhed as my belly grew larger and larger. We talked about how to care for babies and I still have the "Tips for Moms and Dads" book they crafted. ("ALWAYS change those nappies as soon as it's stinky and Mr. Veatch needs to learn too because there are TONs of nappies to change," wrote one student, an experienced older sibling.) I taught up until the day before I went into labor so the students were literally with me from beginning to end. After our son's birth and too-soon death, those young students were also some of my greatest sources of comfort. When I was able to visit them weeks after his funeral (a service all of my students attended as we were a small expat community), they didn't offer platitudes or feel-good optimism. They were sad and confused, just as I was sad and confused. They cried and told me how sorry they were. They sometimes just patted my arm or drew me pretty pictures. What wisdom and grace they shared.
We left PNG, and I temporarily left the classroom, in 1991, as I spent the next 8 years caring for Sam, Nathan, and Jack (our sons) at our new home in Kenya. Teaching, however, soon called me back. As a kindergarten teacher at the International School of Kenya (ISK), I again had the world's citizens as my teachers. Israeli, Kenyan, German, Swiss, Danish, Dutch, American, Canadian, Korean, Chinese, Saudi Arabian, British, Nigerian . . . these children and their families taught me about life. Non-English speakers were speaking fluent English by December through play and talk and practice. Much to my chagrin, my southern vernacular was also at times passed on. During one student-parent conference (the students led their own conferences with my support), the Danish Ambassador was thanking me for his son's rapid acquisition of English then gave me a puzzling look as he asked, "But please. What is this word 'y'all'? We do not have an equivalent word in Danish. What does this 'y'all' mean?" (This word continues to be a staple of my speaking and writing vocabulary.)
On September 11, 2001, ISK was hosting its fall Open House. Eight hours ahead of Eastern Standard Time, it was evening in Kenya when the attack occurred in the US. We had gathered to start the new school year and the visiting parents included the Saudi Ambassador and his wife as well as the head of security for El Al, Israel’s national airline, and her husband. As news trickled in, I watched as the Ambassador's wife approached the Israeli family, tears streaming, and said, "I know your people have experienced this as well. I am deeply sorry. This is not who we are." That moment of grace broke the silence and helped us grieve together in spite of religious and cultural differences.
Since leaving the classroom in 2007 I have worked in a variety of educational capacities, including state agencies and as a school district administrator. Most recently I've had the great honor of working with Collaborative Classroom, a non-profit literacy organization that has allowed me the joy of ending my career by partnering with teachers and leaders as they embrace curriculum that harks back to my educational roots. Reading and writing instruction is built upon strong foundational literacy skills providing students exposure to a wide range of diverse and inclusive texts during daily, instructionally sound opportunities to read, write, and think around books and topics that speak to their uniqueness. Space for disagreement, conversation, and civil discourse is encouraged and supported, all while learning and growing to be the critical thinkers our country so desperately needs. It has been an honor to end my career with an organization such as this.
And that's it - a lifetime in education reduced to a few short paragraphs. As of 5:00 September 30, 2020, I am officially retired.** Thirty-nine years ago I stepped into my first classroom and now, in what feels like barely a blink, I sit here looking back. To the hundreds of students I had the honor of teaching, and to the countless educators with whom I've had the honor of learning from and working with, thank you. You made me better. It has been a wild and glorious ride and I have no doubt it was what I was called to do.
**Retirement = traveling and being with my husband (who will teach until they force him out), playing with my grandson, writing that book, growing bigger zinnias, cooking delicious meals, walking countless miles, and sometimes doing absolutely nothing at all.
Myakka City School - 1988