In fourth grade, our teacher, Mrs. Hall, introduced the class to a book series that let the reader choose his or her own adventure. I was instantly captivated by the idea that a story could careen off in many different directions and I could experience them all in one book by making different choices. My friend Julie was equally enamored with the books and in no time, we had moved on from reading the books to writing our own adventures. We often spent less time actually writing the stories and more time debating the plausibility of a character suddenly jumping from an airplane when moments before she was running through a rainforest.
Although our stories didn’t make much sense, we took our work seriously. This was in large part to Mrs. Hall, who let us read the stories aloud to the class. We weren’t the only ones enjoying the spotlight that year. Allison Barr regularly went in front of the class to pluck out tunes on the guitar she was learning to play. Mark Robinson created a game with baseball cards that we looked forward to playing on days when his mom drove him to school along with the five binders that held his collection. Mike Mosier was fascinated with all things Civil War-related and liked to wear his stovetop hat as he updated us on the state of the union. Kerry Nihan recited poetry; Holly Creagan explained why the Chicago Bears were superior to the Green Bay Packers; Brett Askegard talked about snakes and sometimes lizards.
These moments when my classmates took the floor were not in response to a project that Mrs. Hall had assigned or a request she had made of us. What Mrs. Hall did was something rare and wonderful—she gave us the space to be ourselves.
It started one afternoon with a question, “Is anyone working on anything they want to share with the class?” We sat silently because it was such an unusual question for a teacher to ask. It didn’t have a right or wrong answer. It didn’t relate to any particular subject. In fact, it didn’t seem to be school-related at all. Then Jenny Meyer raised her hand. She told us her parents had given her permission to redo her bedroom and she had been considering different ways to arrange the furniture and decorate it. “Would you like to share your ideas with us?” Mrs. Hall asked. The next thing we knew, Jenny was at the chalkboard drawing three different versions of her dream bedroom and we were giving her feedback. After our foray into interior decorating, Mark mentioned he was creating a game using baseball cards and asked if he could bring in his cards. And so it began.
Even as children, we recognized how unusual it was to use class time to share our interests and the thoughts that were preoccupying our fourth grade minds. We experienced it as something both magical and mundane. Of course, Holly wanted to talk about the Bear’s performance on Sunday, everyone in her family was a super fan. At the same time, no other teacher had ever yielded the floor to let a kid give a play-by-play of a football game.
Last year when I came to Ellis, I was in a meeting where I heard Ms. Finley say that we want Ellis students to bring their whole selves to school. She was speaking specifically about all aspects of a person’s identity. For young children, in the early stages of developing their sense of self, it’s essential they feel seen, heard, and taken seriously. It’s something we excel at at Ellis. We know our students because in a myriad of different ways we give them the space and time to show themselves. Whether students are sharing a favorite memory by writing a small moment story, making a podcast about why they loved dressing up like Gooney Bird Greene, or sharing with their team a photograph that depicts a proud moment, students are expressing themselves and learning about each other. Mrs. Hall would approve.