Date: July 2018
Author of Post: Kym Harjes-Velez @KymHarjes
Title of Post: Giving & Receiving…My Journey in Teaching
The actions of giving and receiving are ones that were modeled for me early in life. I was blessed with a family who understood the importance of these traits and was given opportunities to both give and receive during the course of my childhood. Whether it happened during the holidays through gift exchange, or in church as I placed my coins in the basket being passed from person to person, I grew up thinking I knew all there was to know about what it meant to be both a giver and a receiver. Naturally, I was wrong…there was a deeper meaning waiting just around the corner.
In 1995, as a senior at the University of Delaware, I was welcomed into the first of two student teaching placements. The second graders in the classroom I joined were from a wide variety of socioeconomic backgrounds. One little boy caught my eye and attention quickly. For the sake of this retelling, I’ll refer to him as Adam. In stature and weight, Adam was small for second grade. His personality, however, was anything but small. He was a mover and shaker, exuded enthusiasm and was a striving reader who longed to pick up a book and read it like the classmates around him. He was often pulled from the classroom and provided with instruction in the area of reading by well-meaning and well-trained teachers, but I could see his discomfort and wanted to get to know him and offer supports in other ways. Whenever there was a moment, I’d strike up conversations, find out his interests and hoped to discover a bit more about his curiosities and strengths. During this time I found out that Adam lived with his grandparents. He had several siblings, many of whom were younger. He often went to bed without a full meal in his belly and depended on the free breakfast and lunch provided by the school. He didn’t have access to a phone at home. He didn’t have access to books.
On the last day of my six-week placement, I struggled to find the right words to say to Adam. With the support of my cooperating teacher and several college friends, I’d helped set up a food & book closet at the school, but this didn’t feel like enough. I wanted to give Adam something more. I wanted to give him words of wisdom. I wanted to give him more chances to see himself as a reader. As it turned out, Adam had his own plans about giving that day.
As I packed my bag and began collecting the odds and ends of my time in the classroom, I felt a little tug on my arm. I turned around to find Adam standing before me with his hands behind his back. I saw the usual light in his eyes and an enormous grin on his face. “What is it Adam? What do you have behind your back?” I inquired. His smile grew as he said, “I have something for you.” “Something for me?” I asked in surprise. Adam took his hands from behind his back and revealed what had been held tightly in his palms just moments before. I found myself looking at a small toy dump truck. It was no more than an inch in length, was missing a wheel or two and had a good portion of its yellow paint scratched off. There was a small wind up crank on its side which Adam quickly let me know was broken. He grinned at me as he offered me the truck. “Oh Adam,” I said, “This is so kind, but I can’t take this from you.” Without a moment’s breath in between and with his same sweet grin, Adam’s next words taught me a lesson I still to this day carry in my heart. “Oh Miss Fischer,” he said, “You’re not taking it from me. I’m giving it to you.” In that moment with open ears and a humbled heart I learned a deeper lesson about the connection between students and teachers and giving and receiving than I’d ever known before. I opened my hand and Adam dropped the toy dump truck into it, gave me a quick hug and ran off to be with friends as I whispered a shaky but heartfelt thank you.
Nearly twenty three years have passed since that experience with Adam, but I can bring to mind the details of it in a moment’s notice. Recently, while participating in a Book Camp PD discussion, around Stephanie Harvey and Annie Ward’s book From Striving to Thriving, I was reminded again of its early impact on me. Part I of the book encourages teachers to trust their striving readers and “have kids teach [us] something.” Adam, a long-ago striving reader, certainly taught me an incredible lesson that day.
As teachers we have the complex task of knowing our students and believing that each, whether striving or thriving, has the innate ability to learn, grow and achieve. As Stephanie Harvey and Annie Ward so thoughtfully tell us in From Striving to Thriving, we must work to “table the labels, cultivate curiosity, ensure access to and choice of quality books, book-match relentlessly, teach thinking-intensive reading, assess readers in the round and advocate tirelessly.” Teaching is no small task and certainly not for the faint of heart. It takes grit, determination, intelligence, flexibility, empathy and joy. Mixed into all of that is the need to be open to what each student has the power to give and teach us. Donald H. Graves, a long time educator, researcher and author was known to say, “Teachers are the chief learners in the classroom.” Thanks to Adam, I know this is true.
In September I’ll be starting my twenty-third year of teaching in an elementary school. It is the very same elementary school I was hired in when I graduated from the University of Delaware in the spring of 1996. I currently teach second grade and am amazed and hopeful to consider that Adam is now a thriving thirty-year-old man. Although I am unsure of his whereabouts, I am sure of the lesson on giving and receiving he taught me so many years ago. The toy dump truck, still broken and scratched, is a daily reminder of that lesson. It sits proudly in my top desk drawer and has remained a constant for me in every classroom I’ve taught in. Much like Stephanie Harvey and Annie Ward’s book From Striving to Thriving, I know the significance of giving and receiving in the classroom and am grateful to be on both sides of it. Thank you Adam.