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2012 Winter Essay Contest Winner - Teacher

3rd Place Winner
Mona Panchal
Teacher: Ms. Jessica Peterson
Cayucos Elementary School
Morro Bay, CA



The tree's roots reached below the earth's surface to students' souls. It was easy for the roots to keep growing; however, they quickly ran into each other. As they intermingled, the writers and texts came together to create their own poem that sang with so much harmony the earth could not suppress its melodic voice. However, the roots sat and waited.


One day the sun came out looking to share her experiences. Listening carefully, she allowed the poem's soul-drenching music, interwoven with students' silent cries of "You've got to help me!" to envelop her. Seeing the mound of dirt with its frayed top, the sun radiated, "Why do you stay below the ground? Come forth and shout your ideas. Stand at the precipice of life's beginning and shout, ‘I believe!'"


The roots' cries informed that they were waiting for someone to tell them how to get out.


The sun seeped through with the following words: "You know how to get out. It's in your poem; it's in your soul; it's in your very being."

The tree's foundation was stronger than ever, but what sprouted from its strength of words and ideas were branches that reached into where only the soul could feel, and on the branches grew beautiful flowers; none were the same, but they all had a purpose, an idea, their own poem.


One flower reflected, "I've been set free! I have the power to give substance to my writing and to give voice to my soul. I am a writer, not because I write, but because what I write comes alive!"


Some may thank God for the sun. But it's not about the sun; it is about the roots' ideas buried deep beneath the surface.


As an educator; it is always about the students. My students shape me into the teacher and person I am. I would feel like an appendage had been severed from my body if I did not have students to call my own. This became a living nightmare as I modeled a lesson in my colleague's class. I looked out over the sea of lost faces of unfamiliar students with whom I had not built relationships, and I felt no connections; there was not a silent voice crying within me to get it right for them like it cries for my students. This sea of turmoil was juxtaposed by the calm rhythmic waves of my students at the back of the room, students with whom I had built relationships and for whom my heart stirred.


Relationships are sewn together as intricate patterns in a handmade quilt, with students being the thread that binds each experience into the quilt. Educators should listen and observe students' actions, writings, readings, discussions, and their quests for knowledge, in order to understand the constant need to add to the quilt new pieces that form an intricate pattern or that are rejected because they only patch the delicate design. Students' silent cries, woven intermittently within the quilt, implore teachers to challenge students to create and develop authentic and meaningful responses in an environment where students are free to take risks. Educators should be motivated by one overarching question: Will this help my students learn?


Once relationships are rooted, the first square in the quilt frames teachers who weave in and out with students as learner and facilitator. Instead of standards, textbooks, or personal preferences dictating what is taught, learning should be an active process based on students' individual needs. These discoveries mold strategies into bridges between choices in students' learning.


Once students make choices, a teacher must empower them through gradual release of responsibility to internalize and verbalize their learning goals and take charge of their own learning. Students must develop their own voice in unique ideas instead of relying on the teacher for "right" answers. They have to learn meaning is discovered when the text and reader come together to create a poem, a new meaning.


In the center of the quilt's design is students' innate quest for knowledge. Humans are born curious, but answers do not come vicariously. Instead, knowledge is internalized through discoveries, uses, and experiences that build character and citizenship. Moral responsibility is not developed through meaningless facts. Educators must become learners and engage students through example. Only when students demonstrate character and citizenship through personal experiences can moral responsibility be measured. Citizenship and character cannot be assessed by a formal test at the end of instruction. As learners, educators should provide students with authentic experiences that promote character and citizenship.


The next square of the quilt frames a window of experience of an instructional leader. When I step back and look into my classroom, I experience some unpleasantness as I realize that students do not need more strategies as much as they need what is essential. It is easy to close my classroom doors and never give a thought to what is going on outside of them. But, classrooms should not be defined by four brick walls. Teachers have a professional responsibility to expand our classrooms to include every aspect of education that affects students' successes. Being an effective educator means being a proactive instructional leader.


I am constantly reminded of Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird. After her second-grade teacher chastises her for being able to read, she says reading is like breathing because she cannot remember learning how to do it; it has always been a part of her life. Scout's reaction to her teacher's comments is a kaleidoscope into the teaching profession. As educators, we have the power to show students the world in the most beautiful colors and to help them develop all of the possibilities these colors create. Through the other end of the kaleidoscope is the most breathtaking painting that I have ever seen; however, I am taken aback that the form, structure, hues, and tints are not the same throughout the painting. While some areas are bright and vibrant, some look like watermarks. It is my goal to make the watermarks as exuberating as the most vibrant colors.


Scout reminds me of a story that I share with my students. It is about a little boy who draws a flower on his first day of kindergarten, and his flower is different from the other children's flowers. When the little boy goes to the first grade, once again he draws a flower, but this time it is a red rose, just like the teacher taught the entire class to draw. In second grade, all of the students draw yellow daisies, and the teacher is proud of herself for teaching them so well. By the time the little boy gets to third grade and the teacher tells the class to draw flowers, he just sits there. When the teacher asks what he is doing, he replies, "You said we were going to draw flowers, so I'm waiting on you to show me how to draw one." The teacher smiles, "I cannot teach you how to draw a flower, because a flower represents what is inside of you. We are all different on the inside, and so our flowers must be different." This is the essence of teaching, to allow students to draw their own flowers instead of trying to fit students into preset molds. We must simply be a guide that helps students make discoveries that will enrich their understanding of themselves in relation to the rest of the world. Sure, I would love for my students to appreciate Shakespeare or be passionate about southern literature, but if they leave my class with the ability to think for themselves, then I have achieved my goal. Like Scout's teacher in To Kill a Mockingbird, we can try to make our students fit into our predetermined mindsets, or we can be the kind of teacher Scout desperately needed, one who identifies students' strengths and uses them to address their weaknesses through meaningful, ongoing assessments.


In conclusion, teachers have the most precious gift to give students-an education. Once it is unwrapped, education is the only thing that cannot be taken away. We have seen instances in history where people have questioned their faith, nationality, and other beliefs because of another group's actions, but never has anyone taken away another person's education. They may have prevented them from using it, but once it is embedded in one's mind it is permanent. This is the power that every educator has, a power that should not be taken for granted, but one that should be given as a gift to every student.


When students find their voices, write their own poems, and no longer need a teacher's guidance, we need to simply pull the quilt closer around us to be reminded that the world is warmer and safer because of our students' contributions.