During a spring storm, a group of fourth-graders are considering how their lives will change in the future. I’ve asked them to think about anything that might be different for them tomorrow, or even 30 years down the road. A bunch of hands go up, and the first student I call on looks out the window, and says, "The drought will end." The next boy says, "Grandpa will give me the ranch."
Like a lot of people I work with at South
Routt Elementary in Yampa, Colo., these children live close to the
land. They’re growing up with the weight of a ranching ethic;
they know more than I ever will about cattle, hay and weather.
My job is to teach them how to write. I try to get them
to feel, analyze and communicate. I try to get them to think
lyrically. I believe it’s an important job. Some of the
parents in our tiny district worry about the limited number of
programs an elementary school with just 172 students can provide.
The principal and superintendent worry about disappearing funds and
Next year, the sixth grade, which
used to be part of the middle school in the next town over, will be
moving into our building. Our district is losing one of only four
administrators, as well as two teaching positions. We all worry
about the budget, and about what is best for our kids.
I teach poetry, lessons on "writerly" voice, figurative language,
sentence fluency. One girl writes about her ranch, where there is
"a sweet smell of fresh stacked hay" and "where hills and fields
are covered in hungry cows." She tells how the piglet thinks
he’s a dog. Another girl writes, "I dream of snowflakes being
worlds we don’t know about." A boy writes, "I think of my
hands being as swift as the wind."
Sometimes when the
children read what they’ve written, I feel jealous. They are
so sure about the earth and the elements, so naturally devoted to
observation. I want to be able to speak as intelligently about the
makings of a good laying hen as Sarajane Rossi does.
can’t say that every child in my school is salt of the earth.
Our little town is situated just off a state highway between two of
the biggest ski resorts in Colorado. There is a large ranching
community; there are also students whose parents work for the
railroad or in construction, or who drive every day to work service
jobs in the neighboring resorts. But the size of the district draws
the students together. On average, two-thirds of the children who
start kindergarten in a class of 25 will graduate from high school
with the same classmates, 13 years later.
10-year-olds read their work aloud, troubles, faults and fears
vault onto the page. Children listen, and nod; they identify with
having a dog die, or a parent leaving home, with having no
breakfast in the house, and a hay crop that fails because of no
Will these same students do well on a high-stakes
standardized test? In the process of expressing themselves, will
they remember how to punctuate correctly? Probably; our little
school scores better than average on Colorado’s test. Most of
our kids will be deemed "proficient."
But trying to
measure their capacity for compassion or knowledge is like trying
to lasso a thunderstorm or put a yardstick against the sky. Writing
about twilight in town where he lives, a third-grade boy says,
"Above Blue Star Hill, the white from the snow on the Flattop
Mountains hits the pinks of the sunset that make it look so
beautiful. I look up at the sky and see the tiny bit of fading blue
retiring from a busy day. I see the crescent moon just coming up
from the other side of the world."
Sometimes, when the
students read, I stop worrying for a while and just listen. The
kids make me imagine a season without drought. They make me imagine
what kind of readers, writers and thinkers they could be, given a
few school years with full funding for programs and enough staff.
But even with budget cuts, they’ll go on expressing
gratitude and awe about their mountain home. I love the way they
look getting on the school bus at the end of the day — some
in hip-huggers and platform sandals, some in Carhartts and cowboy
hats — chucking one another on the shoulders, talking about
what happens when it rains.