Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

The Year's Toughest Lesson Is Learning How to Say Goodbye at the Close of the 'Neediest Year,' Third-Graders Tally Triumphs Great and Small

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

The Year's Toughest Lesson Is Learning How to Say Goodbye at the Close of the 'Neediest Year,' Third-Graders Tally Triumphs Great and Small

Article excerpt

One by one they shuffle up to the lunchroom stage to get their certificates of accomplishment. Susan Pulford honors her third-graders for reading, math, good citizenship, and even just for showing up.

The flimsy certificates, stamped with golden stickers, delight them. Each tries to collect the award with as much decorum as an eight-year-old can muster. But the slips of paper will never adequately honor the great and small academic wonders that happened every day in Ms. Pulford's room here at John Jacob Astor Elementary.

It was in this room that Erik Hill stood before classmates and read a book by himself for the first time. In this room, Melvina Nelson - easily provoked to anger - developed self-confidence and a sense of humor. Here, Tory Ward went from a bright but undistinguished student to one who scored her class's highest marks on achievement tests. Pulford had no grand speech prepared as she spoke to her class for the last time. After 27 years of teaching, she knew such a talk would be lost on her pupils. So in the weeks before that final day, she occasionally told her students how proud she was of them. "OK guys, before you leave I want you to know that you worked really hard this year," she says, straining to be heard over the growing din. "And I want you to try to do some reading. You read some good books in here and there are other good books at the library." And then the relationship is severed, just as unceremoniously as it began. The school bell rings loudly, dismissing the class for the last time. When school began last September, Pulford was handed 26 of the neediest kids she had ever taught. Four of her students had severe learning disabilities. Others came from unstable homes where they received little or no guidance from their parents. How could they absorb her lessons, she wondered, when so many of their families were unraveling at home? A welcoming classroom As she has done in previous years, Pulford worked to make school safe, fun, and stable. She made sure that when the children came to school, she was always there to teach them. In this benchmark year, when standardized tests are administered, Pulford found she had too little time to teach them all they needed to know. "In a lot of ways I think I overtaught them," she says, laughing. "But it won't hurt them." Indeed it won't. Pulford's students received the second-highest marks in reading in the school district. Despite their short history with formal schooling, her students are savvy about teachers. They can tell when a teacher cares about her students and when a teacher would rather be somewhere else. Pulford is strict but not mean. She's "cool," they say, because she injects humor into almost everything she does. "You can just tell she's taught for a long time," says Tory Ward, speaking with wide eyes and a bright smile. …

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