Opinion: Student essays stir and inspire

Hundreds of parents, grandparents, educators and students gathered on the Minnesota State Capitol steps last week, not to protest but to praise.

They were honoring about 50 students, ages 5–18, whose essays were selected as the best from more than 2,000 submitted. Asked to describe their “best day” in school, young people offered sometimes surprising, sometimes stirring responses.

The grand prize winner took a different approach than virtually all the other writers. Kayton McKern, a ninth-grader from Riverway Learning Community in Minnesota City (near Winona), wrote, “I haven’t had my best day yet! My best day will be when I graduate.”

McKern explained: “I will have finished something, something important … I can finally take that step into adulthood. … It is also a step closer to the job I want to have as an adult. I want to go to college to be a special education teacher.”

Many of the youngsters agreed with McKern’s words about the importance of, and gratitude toward, a teacher.

Morgan, an 11th-grader at Elk River’s Spectrum High School who won third place in the high school division of the contest, described how an English teacher assigned her to work with the “one person I refused to work with. … Great. We sat, staring at each other and we finally figured something out.” Gradually they became best friends.

Nichole from Rochester Off Campus school recalled that her best day “was when I met and started talking to the teacher that helped me through my rough times … She is the teacher that I call my 2nd Mom, because she is the one I can go to for anything I need help with in my life.”

Zaman from Eagle Ridge Academy in Eden Prairie praised teachers for working with students to arrange a “Disney Day.” Students and faculty dressed like their favorite Disney character. Zaman praised a teacher who “wore the exact same jacket, tie, glasses and tennis ball walker” as the character “Mr. Fredrickson,” from the animated Disney film, “Up.”

Students praised teachers for helping them climb Bear Bluff Mountain, taking them to talk to nursing home residents, encouraging them to enter and win poetry, athletic and science contests, and working with them to gather and deliver materials to a Ronald McDonald House.

One persistent theme was the importance of “first days” in school. Tom from New Heights in Stillwater wrote about the importance of students who “came up to me, asking my name and being nice. I was so surprised because my previous first days have been terrible.”

Last week was both National Teacher Appreciation week and National Charter Public School Week. Grand prize winner McKern is among the more than 35,000 Minnesota students attending Minnesota charter public schools. This was the sixth Minnesota charter school writing contest sponsored by the Center for School Change, where I work.

TCF Bank gave each winner a cash card. With parent permission, we will post winning essays and students’ pictures on our Web site.

Some of McKern’s concluding words explained her career choice. “When I’m having a bad day, and my teacher helps me through it, I hope that I can be that person for someone, someday.” — Joe Nathan

(Editor’s note: Nathan, a former public school teacher and administrator, directs the Center for School Change at Macalester College. He welcomes reactions, jnathan@macalester.edu.)

 

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