In A Million Words Or Less…

There are very few things I did in my first year of teaching that I continue to do today.

Ask any veteran teacher. The first year is survival. Thankful to have a shiny new job, wide-eyed and just starting out, we rookies learned routines, deciphered curriculum, wrote late-night lesson plans, navigated new hallways, memorized acronyms, and treaded the proverbial waters of education. Frantically and relentlessly.

Remembering back to the days when spelling tests and whole class novels were expectations of the curriculum, overhead projectors were THE technology standard, and students each had a desk with a nametag on top and a tornado of papers inside, I cringe to think of myself as a teacher in those early years. But we are meant to evolve, as teachers, as humans. When we learn more, we do better. When the excuses for “the way we’ve always done it” become crushed under mountains of research that support something more effective, we take that new path. We appreciate the teacher we were, but look forward to the teacher we can become.

There is one thing, however, I have done every year on the first day of school, from my very first year of teaching until now. It continues to prove to me that it is one of the most robust and authentic ways to get to know my students. It is…The Million Words letter.

On the first day of school, students take home an assignment from me to give to their parents/guardians at home. It contains a brief letter on a mostly blank piece of paper and it reads:

It’s the beginning of an exciting school year in third grade! You can help me be the best teacher I can be for your child if you share with me. So…

In a million words or less, please tell me about your child.

Besides my signature, the rest of the paper remains empty, wide open for a response. There are no extra prompts, explanations, or requirements. Like a blank canvas, it invites parents to fill up the space with a colorful and layered picture of their child. I receive handwritten notes, typed pages, photographs, and timelines.

I have read parents’…
detailed observations
hopes and dreams
unfiltered love
anxious worries
confessions

They are…
proud
thoughtful
grateful
awed
hopeful
honest

They tell stories of…
community
family
love
divorce
talent
difference
potential
loss
resilience

When I sit down to read through these pages, I often tear up or feel my breath catch in my throat. The adults who love and care for my students pour their hearts out onto the page, many with refreshing honesty and fierce love. They entrust me with personal stories. The Million Words letter gives a welcoming invitation to share and a sweeping space to lay out all of the complicated and wonderful facets of their children.

At the beginning of the school year I inherit files and documents, cumulative folders and data sheets, running recs and district testing results. But nothing gives me a truer, more meaningful picture of who a child really is than this letter. When parents are empowered to tell the story of this human being they know by heart, and when teachers take the time to read and listen to these stories, students go from a name on an attendance sheet or a statistic on a data wall, to a multi-dimensional individual. I learn about the children who ride the city bus for an hour each morning to get to school. The dearly missed grandparent who recently passed away. The newly blended families. I learn about the yellow belt test in tae kwon do. The weekly visits to the library. The Diwali celebrations at the temple. Students emerge as athletes and artists. Siblings and scientists. Introverts and innovators.

There are very few things I did in my first year of teaching that I continue to do today, but reaching out to say to parents, “tell me the story of your child”, with a mostly blank piece of paper and an open ear was, and always will be, a good decision.

 

*(To be clear, The Million Words letter is not my original idea, but whoever inspired me to do it definitely deserves an extra doughnut for Friday staff treats. Please be inspired to do the same and use this idea now, the beginning of next school year, or whenever you want to know more about your students’ stories.)

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