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2012 Winter Essay Contest Winner - Teacher

2nd Place Winner
Melodee Harman,
Redwood Middle School,
Thousand Oaks, CA



"Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!" commanded President Reagan to the leader of a nation Americans had slowly grown to tolerate and even understand. As a teacher, I have had the privilege of tearing down walls between my beliefs, expectations and biases and those of my middle school English students. The reason we recognize and honor Reagan today is because he stood for reconciliation. He inspired us to tear down the things that divide our cultures and our lives. When the walls fall down, new growth can happen. Success will happen when kids are empowered to see beyond their walls, erected by society in the name of achievement.


Many students are separated from engaging learning by walls of poverty, distrust, lack of connection and failure. The walls could have been built by a teacher's discouraging word, a failed test, or an unstable and damaging home situation. Let's face it, some students are downright angry. Unfortunately, as long as the walls of hurt are in place, we, as teachers, are powerless. Middle school can be a time of estrangement, misunderstanding and low motivation. It can be a time of rejection, insecurity and failure. Middle-schoolers wander campuses all over America wondering if their parents love them, if their teachers believe in them, if their friends want them, and if they even know who they are. What I have found to be true above anything else in my teaching experience is that kids need to be valued, to be accepted, and to feel they have the power to make a difference. I want my students to know that the moment they set foot in my classroom, they are intensely valued. The words that they share are accepted, and the potential that they possess can change history; not only in our classroom, but in our school, and in our world!


I have been both dumbfounded and shocked by the grief and troubles of young teenagers lives often confounded by being dumped into a completely foreign culture, with very few resources, language barriers and emotional pain that is weighing them down. Too often their walls are reinforced by their own lack of connection or repeated failure in school. To address these needs, I try to reach out to the heart of my students before making them jump through my academic hoops. I try to greet them with a smile. A smile can go a long way. The days I stop to ask about how they are feeling, what they did over the weekend, and what they dream about, they seem fired up and ready to learn. Ironically, the five to ten minutes that some would count as wasted learning time is not wasted at all. In fact, those valuable connections never fail to catapult my classes into deeper learning experiences.


As we answer journal prompts, I try to build bridges to their pain by sharing my own personal struggles. I am a product of a dysfunctional family with abuse, illness and emotional stress. When I ask my students to write personal narratives, I share mine first. When I encourage them to make connections to the literary characters we study, I make those connections to them first. I would say my motto is "Do as I do, feel as I feel, and allow the abilities you possess to be a healing force in the world." I hand them a book to read and then share how various novels I have read have changed my life. I try to help them sense the loss that could potentially be theirs resulting from the lack of reading. Attempting to create a certain sense of power in my students' lives, I talk about other students like them who made intense differences in the lives of others. These are examples of students who discovered the secret to this power which is to grow your mind...and write to change it!


I have a low performing student in my class this year who struggles to stay organized and pass her classes.  I hounded her for weeks to complete a missed assignment I had assigned to my students: to write a letter to me about herself.  In writing this, she wrote one of the most profound statements I have ever seen come from this particular assignment.  She wrote, "I never really knew myself until I wrote this letter."  From a thirteen year old girl, the profundity of this statement is clear.  Our pens have the power to shape us and to express the essence of who we are deep inside. I posted this statement anonymously on the wall front and center in my classroom and posed the question: "How badly do you want to know yourself?" I celebrated her victory of breaking through in her writing.


A second student of mine was discussing her experience with a Mexican earthquake when she casually mentioned that she was standing by the "well" when it happened. "The well?" I exclaimed in shock. Here in front of me was an obvious wall. Here she is in a modern classroom having just moved here from a town that was without running water! How can I begin to teach her grammar, without first understanding the complexity of her life's experiences? I set to work immediately trying to tear down this wall. I gave her a book which I signed with a personal letter letting her know how proud I was of her for overcoming such tremendous obstacles. She read it faster than any book ever "assigned" to her. Why? She owned it. Students must "own" their learning. They must see that it affects their lives personally. Learning is the key to opening the door to accomplishment and pride in any field students choose. Not only that, but they cannot, and will not get there without being able to read and write well. Not just well, but impressively! They need to know this.


In place of walls, I offer myself to take part in bridge building. Learning from my students is a personal goal to bridge building. I remind myself that I have not arrived; there is always more of the world that is yet untapped. I try to tap into my students personal experiences to broaden my own understanding. One of the most intensely profound of these student revelations was when a twelve year old boy in one of my classes came up to share his personal narrative of how he received the bullet scar by his right eye after watching his father getting shot to death in El Salvador! My heart wept for him. The class was still. Did you say, "Shot to death?" An intense connection was sparked between him and me, as well as within our class as a whole. Soon after, he expressed his feeling of safety in our class by bringing a picture of himself as a three year old smiling proudly sitting atop his deceased father's lap. One connection led to another and when later in the year, another member of his class lost a brother in an auto accident, I directed him straight to his classmate. "You have the power to help him," I said. "You share his pain. Now go. You can comfort him better than I can. It's your turn." And he did. He listened and counseled and hung his arm around his classmate as the tears came. He felt empowered to build a bridge because his walls were down. True learning takes place when nothing stands in the way.


How do I motivate my students? I care. There is no class, no degree, no textbook that will ever be able to teach us how to care. It is that simple. Yet, still, the walls go up in classrooms all over America. When I ask students why they stopped doing homework, why they gave up on themselves, their answers can be summed up in a simple statement whether actual or imagined, "Mrs. Harman, nobody cared!"


I care and then I pray. I may not always understand, but I'll try. I want to inject success into my students hearts. I want them to recognize their potential in making the world a better place. And so in honoring Mr. Reagan, in tearing down the greater wall that fateful day in Berlin, I will train my mind to seek out walls every day in my classroom; walls that inhibit learning and that inhibit realized potential and dreams. I pledge to be a bridge builder not an academic factory dictator. In my classroom, my ultimate goal is to teach my students to believe in themselves, to teach them to know they are capable of changing the world and Mr. Reagan, I WILL "tear down those walls!"'