Unbelievably, we're already in the middle of this school year. Life has been more hectic than usual for me, and I realize as I watch my ninth-graders moving into the classroom that I still don't know them very well. Surveying them, I feel an unexpected pang of homesickness for last year; I still miss Corey, Andy, and Ethan, Rachel, Jadey and Marie. And I ask myself the same question I ask every year; will I ever be able to love this group like I loved my last?
So I finally, belatedly begin the little practice that I know will help me love these kids as my own - home notes. I pull out my notepad and concentrate on the good things I see in these students.
Morgan interests me. His friends are pretty rough, but he asks perceptive questions. Charlie's the class clown and hides his writing ability; Trisha didn't want to sit in front, but is now a leader in discussion. Which of these shall get the first note home? Not that it matters. By the end of the school year, I will send home with every one of my students a note praising them.
We've known for a long time, thanks to psychologist Abraham Maslow, that humans truly need praise and acceptance for emotional health. Teenagers especially need this, despite their faades of not caring what adults think of them.
That was my original reason three years ago for assigning myself the daunting task of sending a note home with every student. Not just a little filled-in "good job" note, but an actual letter, on pretty stationery, addressed to his or her parents but left unsealed so that the kids could sneak a peek.
What I say in these home notes is always a specific observation - "Stacy really motivated her group to do well on our last unit," or "Jared turns in his outside reading log every week; he obviously cares about his work." As I watch my students, even the difficult ones, their good qualities are not hard to find. I wait for the troublemaker to have a good day or the shy student to shine so that I can be sincere in the letter of praise.
Of course, I have some catching up to do, but I can usually write a note for every student with just one or two letters a day. And the reaction always makes my effort worth it.
As I quietly place the home note on a desk and say, "Here; this is for your parents," my student looks alarmed and asks, "Why? What did I do?" It's unfortunate that we teachers sometimes contact parents only when Amy is being a little stinker or Scott is failing.
My excellent students will agonize over the contents, because they would never read mail addressed to someone else. Conscientious Heidi sat uncomfortably for an entire class period with the note in the precise place where I'd left it on her desk. As the bell rang, she brought it to me and asked tentatively, "May I read this?" I hugged her shoulders and said, "Of course; that's why I've left it unsealed. Thanks for your good work." She relaxed and broke into a 100-watt smile of relief. And I realized I'd never seen Heidi smile, since for her, school was serious business.
Obviously, parents love the notes. I live in a town small enough for me to know many of the residents, so it's not unusual for a parent to grab me in the grocery store or post office to thank me. Or my students will say, "My mom was so happy to get your note she took me shopping." Happy, surprised parents was a result I'd hoped for.
More important than that, however, is how home notes have affected my students. I don't know whether it is the praise itself or just knowing they're being observed and will get a note, but apathetic students will try harder, quiet students will sometimes stay after class to talk, and serious students like Heidi will often relax a bit and take more risks.
I've been surprised at how important sincere praise is even to "cool" ninth-graders. After noticing what I was doing, football player Cody would ask me every day, "Where is my note?" I assured him he had one coming, but since he was a handful, we had to wait a bit for a note with something good to say.
Most surprising and unforeseen, however, is how the notes have changed me. The more I look for the good, the more I see it. Knowing I'll be writing a note home encourages me to focus on each student, to see who my students really are and what's important to them. And I grow to love them, which is why I'm not too worried about this year with a crop of new students. I should've begun home notes sooner, but it won't be long before I'm grateful for this new group to praise and love.
*Sharon Hamatake Ellsworth teaches English at Grantsville Middle School in Utah.
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