This post is written by member Caroline Brewer.
I was thinking a National Day on Writing project would be a fun and highly effective way for students to improve as readers and writers and identify as capable learners. I was thinking the day would give our school the opportunity to sow a seed of extravagant potential for each student.
In the fall of 2016, I was the Reading Resource Teacher for Concord Elementary, a PreK—sixth grade school of 400 students in District Heights, MD, just across the DC border. I proposed we recognize the National Day on Writing with thank-yous—to President and Mrs. Obama.
I would instruct my 250 once-a-week reading class students and asked the other teachers to work with students I didn’t teach to contribute letters. I assembled YouTube videos on the Obamas, handouts listing their accomplishments and facts about the presidency, large news photos of the First Couple, and two children’s books about the president.
Teachers were enthusiastic. Students exhaled happiness. “Will he really read our letters?” “Will they write us back?” “Ooooh, I want them to come to our school!”
I distributed an outline of a thank-you letter to students and shared my sample letter, which included the fact that I celebrated the night Obama won by partying in the streets. Some of the kids appropriated that story for their letters—temporarily, of course! Other students were not so ambitious. They stopped cold. Complained. Talked out of turn. Threw paper wads. When the classes were over, I had mostly bits and pieces of correspondence from the upper grades. The lower grades finished their brilliant class letters in one session.
Second and third drafts dribbled in over the next month.
WHAT was I thinking?
We lost time, momentum, and organization to heretofore precious weekday breaks. I misplaced some drafts. I had never handled that many student papers at once. And why paper? Some computers were in a lab not yet operational. Others were on a cart shared by as many as three classrooms. And when we tried computers, I discovered most students had never used one to write. Microsoft Word became a black hole.
WHAT was I thinking?
The winter break was near. The Obamas would be leaving office soon. Students inquired daily whether their heartfelt messages were en route to the First Family. I felt like I was walking in quicksand. Classroom teachers, beautiful as they all were, came to the rescue.
January 9, I mailed the Obamas a school-wide batch of thoughtful, silly, and sentimental expressions.
“I want to thank you for making speeches telling people to be brothers and sisters, to be friends and help each other.”
“Can you stop the bad people from hurting people?”
“I hope you eat spaghetti.”
I prayed students would receive a reply.
Meantime, it dawned on me that since the National Day on Writing, students who had refused to write—including those designated for SPED services—were making their pencils, pens, and words move with authority and poignancy. They volunteered to read works aloud. They crawled out of Word’s black hole and learned to compose with the darn thing. By January, every student I taught was much more comfortable writing. Not one rejected it.
“Thank you for all of the justice and hope.”
“I loved the wonderful days of you being president.”
“When you move, I want to see your new house. If you invite me, can I bring my mother and my family with me? I want to come. I really want to come.”
“Thank you for my toys… Thank you for my teachers.”
“Can you buy me a puppy?”
WHAT was I thinking now?
I’d promised the students we could make a book out of their charming expressions of gratitude. We’d need $8,000 to cover design and printing costs so all students could receive free copies. Since we were a Title I school, we couldn’t ask the parents for help, and the PTA had recently lost its president.
Adjoa Burrowes, illustrator of twelve children’s books and author of three, and a phenomenal literacy and art teacher and graphic designer, answered our book designer prayer. Alicia Lazaris, the sixth-grade language arts teacher, graciously said yes to our need for a school-based coordinator.
By mid-May, Adjoa was ready for me to proof the book we titled, For the Obamas: A Big Book of Thank Yous. About ten pages in, it occurred to me that I had never proofed a book with 200-some letters. School would be out in three weeks and we needed at least ten days for our printer to print and deliver the copies. Doubts started crawling over me like an army of red ants.
We worked six to eight hours a night. We knew the book could be that seed of infinite potential that would inspire students to accomplish what we couldn’t imagine. We had to keep going. So we took deep breaths, said our prayers, and worked.
We delivered the precious Big Book of Thank Yous to Concord the day before the last day of school.
We learned just weeks ago that President Obama had written the students, thanking them for their letters. His letter is in the latest edition of our big book of gratitude. And so is our deepest appreciation to him and Concord’s new principal, Dr. Dana Doggett, for being on the planting team of the National Day on Writing, that precious seed of both extravagant and infinite potential.
The National Day on Writing bore delicious fruit. It was my joy to have labored with our teachers and students to help sow it. How can you use the National Day on Writing to sow seeds of success?
Believe in your teachers and students—and magic.
Applaud every little progressive step students take.
Ask for help.
Bend, shake, rattle, and roll.
Laugh, and keep going.