Lessons Learned

Lately, if you’re like me, you’ve been to a graduation or two. Tears are shed, smiles are beamed, awards received and teachers sigh a bittersweet sigh of relief.

This post isn’t about a small business but it is surely about a labor of love.

Matthew Tuttle’s been teaching for five years. He came from New York to do his student teaching and decided to stay. Tuttle is now a fifth grade teacher at Morris Jeff Community School. Recently, he shared a post and I wanted to share it here.

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“Despite all appearances to the contrary, today was the best day of my teaching career. Here's why:

I end every year by reading ‘The Westing Game’ — Ellen Raskin's 1978 jigsaw mystery about the suspicious murder of a local businessman (It's great– you should read it.) It's a fun read because the kids get super into the clues, it's challenging but not too challenging, and it also teaches them other things (like what a transistor radio is, or what words were considered acceptable in 1978 and most definitely aren't acceptable today.)

Today we read this passage from the book, a dialogue between a judge, a surgical intern, and a teenager who developed a degenerative neurological disorder that caused him to have to use a wheelchair:

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‘You’re looking well, Chris.’
‘The m-medicine helped a lot.’
‘It’s a big step forward,” the intern said. Wrong word, the kid may never leave that wheelchair.

And so I asked the class why the intern would feel bad about using the phrase ‘a big step forward’ when referring to a character who uses a wheelchair. What started as a simple check for comprehension turned into much more than that — it was suddenly a conversation with a letter to Mrs. Perkins, the principal of Morris Jeff Community School.

‘Dear Mrs. Perkins,

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As an inclusive school, teachers, students and I feel like everyone should be included. In the book, "The Westing Game" we have noticed that one of the characters uses a wheelchair and other characters felt embarrassed after using words like “step up,” “step back,” and “walk away.”

One of our classmates/friends uses a wheelchair. Sometimes during morning meeting they say,  "Stand for the pledge." We as a class and others feel like this is a problem due to some students who are wheelchair bound but who can definitely participate during the pledge in other ways.

We are asking that during morning meeting and other assemblies (like honor roll) we use more inclusive language. For example "prepare for the pledge."

Signed, [every student in Mr. Tuttle's class], Donnica Strawder, Matthew Tuttle’

I brought five students, including the writer of the letter, to the main office who nervously read the letter to Mrs. Perkins. In response, Mrs. Perkins said they would immediately change the policy, and then she praised my students for their attention to the way the words we use matter.

The students returned to the classroom, shared the news with the class who cheered and I congratulated them on their new roles as ‘advocates.’

The student who drafted the letter asked for a break to calm down. For a little while he sat in the corner on a beanbag, and I noticed he was breathing a bit heavily and looked overwhelmed. I asked him what was going on.

He looked at me and all he said was, ‘I changed something at my school: I didn't know I could do that.’

This is why inclusion matters. This is why diversity matters. I am so proud to work at Morris Jeff Community School and love being inspired by such a passionate and alert student body.”

School’s out for summer but lessons such as these can go on throughout the year if, like Tuttle, we only listen and continue to honor the power of words.



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