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Saturday, May 12, 2012

An Open Letter to This Years's 6th Grade

Dear LaSalle's 6th Graders,

(I'm writing this to you now, because as most of you know that I'll probably be an emotional mess [read 'a big baby'] on the last day of school and will probably not be able to get out even a "goodbye" after the graduation ceremony. So here is what I would tell you if I could. Here you go)

There's a scene in a  movie that was made way before you were born (1989), 'When Harry Met Sally", when the wife of one of the main characters (Harry played by Billy Crystal) drops him off  and before she's even out of sight he says to her "I miss you already, I miss you already." As I write this letter with 10 instructional days left and while I watch you wearily take yet another standardized test in the computer lab, I know how Harry felt.

I didn't really know what to expect when I decided to make the change from a 1st grade class I taught last year, to the 6th grade of Room 216 this year. From the time I started moving in to the school, beginning with the summer custodial crew, I was being warned about "this incoming group of 6th graders." I have to be honest, I didn't really listen. I didn't need to know other people's ideas about you.

I was fortunate enough to talk one on one with John Maxwell once after his speech in which he said, "People do not care how much you know until they know how much you care." You should know by now that I do.

Turns out that there was nothing to worry about anyway. You have amazed me. You inspire me. I want to thank you for helping me become a better teacher. You won't get the benefit of my learnings, but next year class will thank you for what you have taught me. I will be a better teacher because of you. You have allowed me to mistakes,  accepted my apologies as I have accepted yours, and we've all moved forward together.

It has been a really interesting journey as I have gotten to know you all. You are all so very different, but have so many things in common. I'll thank once again, those of you who guessed my age as 20-ish during the "Nine Answers about Mr Johnson" scavenger hunt at the beginning of the year, but it has been a LOT longer than 15 years since I was in 6th grade. It's tough being twelve-ish isn't it?

Some things to consider as you move on:
  • Live your life with some regret. That's probably exactly opposite of what you will hear rich people or celebrities will tell you, but don't be afraid to look backwards and realize that you could have done some things better. Mistakes and the learning they provide you, make you who you are, but don't be so selfish or keep your world prism so small that you plow through life without realizing you're capable of more than you can possibly know.
  • Be humble. Barry Sanders never spiked the ball (Google him). "If and when you get into the end zone, act like you have been there a thousand times before" - The Tragically Hip. My only sports analogy and lyric quotation in this post are here to try and say that you should always be proud of what you accomplish, but realize that there will always be someone better, faster, prettier, stronger, or smarter than you. Be happy and proud of what you accomplish. Don't compare yourself to others. Be the best at what and who you are.
  • Take risks. Not the kind of risks that diminish your spirit, your sense of self or physically hurt you or others, but risks that help you grow and prosper. "Ships are safe in the harbor, but that's not what ships are built for." - Grace Murray Hopper
  • There is tremendous pain in the world, but also tremendous good.  It is easy to see the pain in the world and think that we cannot attain more, but we are all capable of great compassion and love. There are plenty of examples of hope and kindness, you just might have to look harder and remember longer. If you figure out a way to remember the compliments more than criticism, give me a call someday and tell me the secret.
  • Your friends today don't have to last you a lifetime. We all change and everyone have different paths we have to follow. Follow yours.Realize that the people in your life today don't have a ticket to ride along forever. Value and appreciate your time that you have together, but when you have reached the natural end of the friendship. Move along with grace.
  • Figure out who you are before you attach your identity to someone else.
  • Be kind, not mean.The boy or girl you're mad at because their holding someone else's hand or you heard that they said something bad about you, won't even remember your name in three years. They will however, remember the mean things that come from you if you take that path. Erase Meanness and replace it with kindness.
  • Practice my "Grandma Rule" PLEASE! If you wouldn't say it, show it, or write it to Grandma, don't type it, text it, post it, or take a photo of it. Be aware that YOU control your digital footprint and that it is forever. Make it a positive one.
  • Read a relevant book every six months. Not one assigned by a teacher, you'll get enough of those anyway. Read a book that interests you. A book that has made a difference in the world or tells you about someone who has lived an interesting life. I stole this advice from the head of the National Science Foundation who advised it at my college graduation and I have tried to heed it every year since. While I'm at it, write! Blog, journal, keep a notebook of your thoughts, whatever. Writing can unlock life. Choose great words. Get better at writing by doing. Reading good writers makes you a better writer. Read. Write.
  • Wear funny hats. Run for no reason at all, like a kindergartner. Laugh. Travel. Explore. Move out of your current zip code someday. Draw with chalk on the sidewalk. Do some of the things that the old people you know did, but don't want you to know about. Be careful. Be good to one another.
I hope that you realize the best that fortune can bring. I hope that I get a glimpse of what you will become someday. Thank you for spending the last ten months with me. I have learned more from you than you have from me. I miss you already.

All my best,

Mr Johnson
6th Grade 2011-2012
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Wednesday, May 9, 2012


My principal started the unfortunate habit of announcing how many days are left in the school year every time she has the mic or spoken to a large group since the 3rd quarter award assembly. It's okay of course, she's not really telling the kids anything that they don't really know. The students have been watching the calendar pretty closely since we got back from Spring Break. The unfortunate part of the amplified countdowns came when she got to "13 days left". I wasn't prepared to hear that number out loud.

For some time now, I had been working towards the end of the year. Not looking forward to the end of the year, but working on tasks like signing up for testing & end of year assessments, IEP renewal meetings, student slotting, student recognition preparation, textbook return signup, etc. The to-do list isn't getting any shorter, but the timeline for getting things accomplished is narrowing. The stress and pressure really feels like the holidays, without the joy.

I've felt the kids pulling away for a little while now, although nothing major. I think they're really enjoying what they're working on. We've got some nice language arts projects, no tests scheduled in math (I think we've had enough tests, thank you), and the science investigations are engaging and really quite fun. However, subtle signs of their 'checking out' have been popping up with greater frequency and volume. A little slower making transitions, a little louder in the hall, a little more chatty in class, a little less focused. I understand those feelings, but I'm not ready to let them go yet.

I'm not ready to start disconnecting myself from the kids that I have spent the last 10 months with. Last night I finished my year end hand-written letters, 72 in all, to my 6th Graders. I wanted to tell them what they have meant to me and what I have learned about them during our school year together. Some of the letters were hard to write, because with a few, I just wasn't the right 6th grade teacher for them. I never quite connected as solidly as I would preferred. I failed to motivate or inspire some. For those students, maybe especially for those kids,  my hope for their future is high. I told them that I hope they can find someone who can 'unlock' or connect with them, so that they can realize their potential, and that "I believed in them." 

The letters that were easy to write were to the kids that I have grown to know very well. It was easy to share some memories and tell them that, "you have greatness inside you, work hard to bring it out." Some of them will be memorable for quite a while and I wanted to thank them.

These darn kids reach into your heart and grab a piece of it without you really knowing it. Until they start letting go. My natural inclination, when coming to the natural end of something is to start putting some distance between myself and whatever will be ending. That's easy to do with projects, not so easy to do with people.
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