My seventh graders were in the process of researching information about Jackie Robinson in order to create an expository essay. Together, we were reading the book, 42 is Not Just a Number, by Doreen Rappaport.
In the first chapter, the author writes of how Robinson's family did not have much money when he was a child. Some nights they had bread soaked in milk or water with sugar. I explained to my class that my family had often eaten some very limited meals as well, but as kids, we didn't know that we lacked money.
I have always believed in the power of storytelling in a classroom. Equally important to me is sharing about my own life so that my students can see that I am indeed a “real” person and not just a teacher who gives them writing prompts each week. They know that I haven’t always been Mr. Ramsey, that I was once “Little Timmy” who drove his parents crazy on a daily basis.
I don’t believe that teachers need to “bare their souls” and share every detail of their lives. But I do know that there is great value and relationship building when students can relate to their teacher as another living, feeling human being. My students alternate between narrative essays, expository essays, and persuasive essays roughly every two weeks. By the end of the year, they have written several of each genre.
During those weeks, we also focus on several mini-lessons revolving around language, vocabulary, and technique. For this time around, I wanted the kids to start thinking about how to infuse their voice into their work.
The first chapters of Rappaport’s book describe Jackie Robinson’s lean childhood. Many of my children have similar lives as they are living in a low-income neighborhood with many odds stacked against them. I decided to have them write a quick personal narrative comparing their own childhood to that of Jackie Robinson.
The expository piece could wait a few days…
I searched for a piece to share with my classes that contained examples of voice. I was having a difficult time finding one that I thought would spark their imaginations. So, I wrote my own.
My students know that I am a writer. They think that it is pretty cool that I’ve had some of my work published. The poster from my book signing at Barnes and Noble a year ago is prominently displayed next to my desk. They clamor to borrow the Chicken Soup for the Soul books containing my stories.
To get my essay done the night before my kids began their own, I called my mother and started grilling her for details. How did she possibly manage seven kids and keep us from driving her and each other crazy? How did she possibly manage to feed all of those kids on a limited budget? How did she know that the dishes she made from scratch would turn out as great as I remembered them?
I did my research.
The next day, I shared my story, “Dinner for Nine,” with each class. Putting one’s own work out there for others to critique can be frightening, even for this old teacher. But I realize that most of the kids share that same feeling. Perhaps, I reasoned, my sharing may encourage them to share as well or at least to emulate what they see from my work into their own writing.
We talked about "voice" in the words we read and the words we write. I explained that they should look for examples of realistic descriptions, humor, even sarcasm. The students were pretty good at citing evidence of excerpts in my essay that they considered good examples of voice.
"Does the paper sound like me talking to you?" I asked. The kids nodded their heads. They know my sarcasm well...
My fear of presenting was washed away, my confidence bolstered in every class, as the students laughed in all the parts I had intended laughter and as they applauded at the end.
The objectives for the lesson were achieved. The students connected my story to the story of the minimal meals of Jackie Robinson’s youth. The students connected the poverty of the Robinsons and the Ramseys (and possibly their own). They evaluated a piece of writing and identified examples of voice.
One of my most behaviorally-challenged boys stated at the end of my reading, “You know, your mom knew how to mix things together, and she always mixed in a little love too. Right?”
Here is the essay I shared with the kids:
Growing up, we didn’t have much money. But my parents always made me and my four sisters and two brothers believe that we had more than enough.
As a kid, I never questioned how much my father’s paycheck brought to his pocket. I just knew that there was a roof over my head, food on the table, and clean clothes for me to wear. Sometimes those clothes were hand-me-downs from other military families, and sometimes those clothes were subsequently handed down to my younger brother and then later to my youngest brother.
My Mom knew how to cook from scratch. She could quickly and expertly whip up a meal for nine in less than a half-hour. As time stretched out between paychecks, she had to be quite creative in her recipe development.
As a kid, we never knew she was just winging it some nights. We were happy to have something warm to eat and sometimes, even enough for seconds.
Mom knew how to mix a few basic ingredients together to create an inexpensive, yet healthy meal for us all. We didn’t know the cost or the nutritional benefits. We just knew it all tasted good.
One of her delicacies was creamed eggs on toast. Mom could do magic with just a loaf of bread, a dozen eggs, a few cups of milk, a few cups of flour, and a stick of butter.
She started by placing the eggs in a big pot of water. Once they were hardboiled, she had my older sister slice them all down into small pieces. She gave me – the oldest boy – the job of toasting all 24 slices of bread – two at a time in the Sunbeam toaster on the counter. It took nearly thirty minutes to cook the whole loaf, which pleased my mother because, for thirty minutes, she didn’t have to listen to me picking on my younger siblings.
While her eldest servant children were working, Mom melted a stick of butter in another large pot on the stove. Then she added a little flour to make the liquid somewhat thick. She added a little milk and a little more flour - a little milk, a little flour, a little milk, a little flour – until she had the creaminess she wanted. No need for measuring cups or measuring spoons. That was not how the master worked. Her recipes were always “a little of this, a little of that, taste it and see if it’s okay…”
Once the flour/milk concoction was ready, she dumped in the sliced eggs, thus freeing my big sister to set the table. (I was still watching the two-slotted Sunbeam and waiting for the Jack-in-the-box bread to pop up).
If there was leftover ham from the night before, or the night before that, she might chop it up and drop it into the mixture as well. Added protein, she’d say. Then she waited and stared, along with her eldest son, at the bright orange coils baking the last portions of the loaf.
For less than a few dollars, she had created what we felt was a feast.
Finally, we all crowded around the small table in the kitchen. Inevitably, one of us would knock over his or her glass of milk. It happened every meal. We all would then throw our napkins in the direction of the flood and my mother would try her best to keep it from flowing over to the floor. My sister would be summoned to get new napkins for everyone.
We said grace. Then Mom asked each of us, one at a time, to pass our plate to her. She placed one or two pieces of toast in the middle and then scooped a large spoonful of the piping hot creamed eggs onto each slice.
Mom looked at me. “Cut your brother’s food into small bites so he won’t choke,” she ordered. I did as I was told. I wanted the kid to live so I could aggravate him another day. Also, I wanted to be eligible for seconds.
We ate…and the house was quiet…no sibling rivalry, no bickering, no complaining.
We ate…and Mom smiled.
Copyright, Tim Ramsey, 2019.