Written by Sylvia Denice
My first year teaching was filled with an abundance of blessings I carry with me even still today. Frankly, the bulk of the blessings surfaced from the abundance of mistakes I made. Don’t be misled–I have not stopped making mistakes. They just look much different in year three versus year one.
My favorite lesson I taught my first year teaching, maybe even to date, was a writing lesson on perspective. I gathered a bag of twenty-one shoes, one for each of my students, and brought them to school. The class sat in a circle as each student pulled a shoe from the bag. The assignment was simple and mostly parameterless: Tell the story of the shoe in your hand. My fifth graders rushed back to their seats and feverishly wrote about the experiences of the shoes. The room was silent, aside from the scribbling sound of pencil lead. It was the most engaged I had ever seen them.
High heels endured a rough day at the office, only to be kicked off at the door once they arrived home at night. Tennis shoes carried a marathoner across 26.2 miles of hard pavement to the finish line. Snow boots dashed through a wintery Indiana evening after an intense day of learning at school. Sandals were sprinkled with sand and salt water along the shore of a beachy sunset. Slippers lounged on the couch in front of a televised football game with a bag of potato chips for a lazy Sunday afternoon.
When we reached the “Share” component of the Writer’s Workshop lesson, students were eager to expose the stories of their shoes. A few were hesitant, wanting to run their work by me before sharing; some of their shoes had endured trying times. The advice to “walk in someone else’s shoes” took on a new, tangible meaning that day in my classroom. Perspective, sympathy, and understanding were celebrated in an environment where prior, they had undeniably been lacking.
When I write, I am reminded of the Writer’s Workshop lesson on perspective that brought empathy to my fifth-grade classroom. Today, I write to offer others opportunities to try on my shoes: to feel beneath their feet the soles that have carried me from the onset of my education in suburban Chicago to the bulk of my schooling in northeast Indiana to my higher education and teaching experiences in central Indiana, and any diverged paths I have taken along the way. I am not you, and you are not me, and this will always be true. But, when I write, maybe someone else can see, feel, learn, or connect with something new. I write for this sense of unity in diversity.
In the same vein, I write in the interest of others’ shoes. Writing has allowed me opportunities to try on shoes of wearers varying in age, race, ethnicity, zip code, religion, socio-economic status, education, culture, family structure, and general life experience. I write because it makes me a stronger educator, opening doors to learn, share, and grow beyond the limitations of my personal experiences. I am challenged to step out of my role as a fourth-grade classroom teacher and into the roles of student, parent, caregiver, counselor, administrator, politician, other teachers, and even people seemingly disconnected from education. When I write, my work as a teacher becomes connected, relatable, purposeful, and relevant. For me as a writer, writing is all about perspective. It is my form of advocacy for oneness in this beautifully diverse world of education.