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Sandy Harthan

© 2000

Rhetorical Questions

“Where do babies come from?”

From that first introductory question, I knew that JT, a precocious, emotional 10-year old would be the barometer of my classroom this year. He was like a defective faucet, running alternately hot and cold, the words constantly dripping from his mouth. He had an unruly crop of straw-colored hair that refused to lay flat, despite his daily or hourly trips to the bathroom to dunk his head. He could not seem to tame it any more than he could tame his temper.

“JT, why aren’t you working?” I asked him one day during math. The rest of the class was working on some math games in groups of two or three. JT sat sulking at his desk, arms crossed, head down. He looked up at me, his lazy eye adding to his expression of defiance.

“Brad and Alan aren’t working with me. They say I’m cheatin’, so I’m not gonna be friends with them anymore. If they don’t wanna be friends, then I’m gonna make them my enemies.”

“JT, you still have to do your math,” I replied as calmly as I could. “Sitting here doing nothing isn’t a choice right now.”

“Well, I can’t do it by myself, so I’m not gonna do it! I’m just gonna sit here!” he barked back.

“OK, JT, how about if I do the game with you?” I replied. “Deal the cards.”

“You don’t have to,” he said, still stubbornly resting his chin on his arms.

“I want to, JT, so mix up the cards.” Once he saw that I wouldn’t leave until he played with me, a miraculous transformation take place. He went from stubbornly pouting and refusing to work to pleasantly playing the math game with me, smiling and talking as if nothing had happened.

The following morning, the students were working on their writing and reading assignments. I was going around the room, talking to them about what assignments they were missing.

“JT, I’m missing your sheets from your science experiment we did yesterday,” I calmly stated. I did not expect the volcanic eruption that took place next.

“I’m 100% positive that I turned it in!!!” he exploded back, tears running down his cheeks like molten lava.

“Let’s look in your desk; maybe it’s still there,” I answered, trying to calm the storm.

But the storm just got worse. He proceeded to stomp off, loudly announcing to everyone that “I turned that in!” He refused to move on or work on something else, and blocked out everything that I tried to say to him. I finally called the principal, knowing that she had three years of dealing with him. While he was down in the office, out of sheer curiosity, I opened his desk. The science paper was right there, on top, in plain sight.

There are moments in everyone’s teaching career when you rethink everything you thought you knew about teaching, and there are students who teach you more than any college course. This was the year when I would be the student, and JT would be my teacher. My assignment was to try to figure out how to help him out and keep my sanity at the same time.

I worked very hard to catch JT doing something good. Just like the squeaky wheel that always gets the oil, it was much easier to notice him when he was being his rambunctious self.

One week, JT came to school with a cast on his right hand. “JT, what happened?” I asked.

“A weight fell on it, and it’s the hand I write with, so I won’t be able to do much schoolwork,” he retorted.

“I’ll have someone help you out JT,” I stated. “Just do the best you can.”

But JT hadn’t heard me; he was already off having people sign his cast.That day in math, we were creating multiple towers. The students had a number to count by, like 23, and had to write down all the multiples for that number on a 5-foot strip of adding tape.

“JT, would you work with Joshua? He doesn’t have a partner,” I asked politely. Joshua was probably my lowest math student. He never got an assignment done without myself or another student there to guide him; he’d sit and draw cartoons all day if you’d let him. I thought I’d give JT a chance to work with him.

I left them alone for awhile and quietly observed while I circulated around the class. JT was patiently working with Joshua, teaching him to think of what the next number might be, helping him to figure it out without telling him the answer. I was impressed. He seemed to be having much more success with this student that I usually did. Watching him teach told me much more about what he knew than any written assignment. I couldn’t help but wonder what amazing things he could do if he was this focused all the time.

I went over and quietly whispered, “Thanks JT. You’re doing a great job. I really appreciate you helping out Joshua.”

He just smiled. “Thanks.”

Another time, my students were doing presentations of their projects for literature circles. By the time it was JT’s turn to share, the class was getting restless. I watched to see how JT would handle their inattention.

He waited quietly for the room to calm down. He spoke clearly and audibly. He did not clown around at all. He answered questions confidently. Although his project was not the best in the class, he had a natural way of speaking in front of them. Again, I was impressed.

“JT, thank you. You did a really nice job on your presentation.”

Later that week, I called his mother after he punched another student on the playground. I also told her about the literature presentation.

“Yeah, he told me about that,” she said. “He was so excited that you thought he did a good job on his report. It really meant a lot to him.”

Aha, I thought. Maybe he listens more than I know.

I’d like to say that I succeeded with JT, but there were still three bad days for every good, and more conflicts than I could count. He was a puzzle I couldn’t seem to solve; I just kept trying to put in a piece at a time, with the help of the principal and school psychologist.

On the last day of school, however, I thought about this student who knew how to push all my buttons, who had his own strategies for math, who always participated in science discussion, and who was either loved or hated by his classmates. I went up to him at the fifth grade graduation.

“You know, JT, I do like you, even though we’ve had our problems,” I said, putting my hand on his shoulder.

“I know, Miss Johnson. You were a good teacher. I like you too.”

And then he was gone, taking off with his parents. I turned around saw his report card on top of his desk. He had forgotten to take it.

How to Teach Writing

How do you teach kids about writing?
It’s really not hard; it can be exciting.
If you love to write, and are willing to share,
The students will know that you really care.
So here are my steps, as plain as can be.
Teaching kids to write is as easy as A, B, C.

First step: read, read, and read some more.
If you can’t read, your writing will surely be poor.
Reading teaches words, and what makes a good tale.
These things keep your writing from getting stale.
Next, do some brainstorming; put down your thoughts.
Just get some ideas; don’t worry about plots.
It always helps to write what you know.
And remember, don’t just tell- show!
Once you have an idea, start to write.
Don’t worry if all of the words are spelled right.
Just keep on writing; rough drafts can be sloppy,
Since you’ll be making another copy.
Take that rough draft, and check it well.
Does it make sense? Is it easy to tell?
Does it have a beginning, middle, and end?
Would you want that main character as a friend?
Check your spelling, punctuation, and capital letters.
Then revise your work to make it better.
Read again, and have a friend read it, too.
Find other changes that you could do.
Make sure there’s dialogue; have your characters speak.
Add details, like bumpy rock and the mallard’s beak.
Don’t start all of your sentences with the same word.
Add similes, like “as small as a hummingbird.”
Where and when does the story take place?
Did you tell about the main character’s face?
Last thing’s your final copy; be neat.
Share your work when it is complete.
You’re an author now, and there’s much to be done.
You’ll write mysteries, poems- go on now, have fun!

Sandy Harthan was a 2000 Selective fellow; she teaches 4th and 5th graders at Lakeaires Elementary School in White Bear Lake. Her favorite children's book is The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Her claim to fame is that she had a time machine in her classroom.