Sunday, February 6, 2011

52 Books in 52 Weeks - Week 6 - Elaine's Circle

This marks the sixth week of 52 Books in 52 Weeks.  Some of the books that I mentioned that I've been reading aloud to the girls I'm still working Carry On, Mr. Bowditch.  It's not Sophia's favorite book (though it is a well-written account of Nathaniel Bowditch's nine-years of indentured servitude and his experience of being a captain of his own ship as an adult).  I also am continuing to read Gentle Ben, and hope to finish it this week (just finished reading it on Sunday afternoon!).

If these were the only books that I was reading outloud and personally, they would have been done a long time ago.  However, they are only some of the many books that I read to the girls.  In fact, I'm looking at a stack of books at least a foot high that need to go back to the library (these are ones that I've read aloud to the girls during the past couple of days).  Sophia also reads or listens to books on tape above and beyond what is required for her homeschooling curriculum.

While returning books to the library this past week and checking out new ones, I came across Elaine's Circle by Bob Katz which was in the education/homeschooling section. 

The description on the back of the book says, "Elaine Moore, a veteran teacher in Eagle River, Alaska, is a firm believer that the classroom is, first and foremost, a community--and that learning is best when shared in a circle of peers. When one of her students, ten-year-old Seamus Farrell, is diagnosed with terminal brain cancer, Elaine, her students, and her innovative methods of teaching are put to their most severe test.

"Elaine's Circle is a heart-wrenching look at the remarkable achievements of a dedicated teacher and a group of children who take he at her word when she tells them, 'Learning is not just something we do in school.  It so something we do until the day we die.'"

The first chapter immediately drew me in as the author described Elaine's voice:  "When she first trained to become a schoolteacher, Elaine Moore was warned that her voice would be her one big liability."

A couple pages later, after describing her voice, the author said that Elaine "...wanted her students to have an abiding respect for learning - and an appreciation for words was fundamental to this goal .... Soft words spoken slowly, woven into stories and conversation, and dispensed with affection - that was Elaine Moore's art."

She "loved to tell stories to her kids...mostly just tales drawn from her own experience."  The children were captivated by her stories - like ones involving a mean teacher she had when she was a girl in a one-room farm community schoolhouse or the German prisoners of war housed on her farm.

Elaine's "unflagging optimism" showed itself in her "belief that bad things often yielded unexpected good."  Yet, this belief was challenged initially when she had to share some difficult news with her students only a couple days before Christmas break - when everyone was so cheerful.

She received a call from a parent of one of her students (Seamus Farrell) who she had found the "most challenging, and interesting, to teach." 

Seamus wasn't an efficient or fast learner.  He could read, but wasn't overly zealous about assignments.  He was confused, at times, over math concepts.  As the book said, "There was never any doubt that he was bright.  Indeed Elaine operated on the assumption that most kids are innately bright.  The only questions were:  Could she find a way to effectively teach him?  Could she succeed well enough to allow him to succeed?  That's how she viewed her mission."

The news she received from Susan Farrell (Seamus' mother) was sobering:  Seamus had a brain tumor and was going in for surgery immediately.  Seamus wanted his mother to tell Elaine and the rest of the students about the surgery since he cared so much about his classmates and teacher.

This didn't surprise Elaine because she did a lot to foster a sense of community and belonging within her classroom.  One way she did this was through "Circle Time."  She explained that "a circle has no beginning and no end.  Native American groups recognize the power of the circle.  It is a universal symbol of wholeness.  The circle exists throughout our world in many manifestations, if we only know where to look."

One of things that Elaine did with her class each holiday season was contact the Salvation Army in Anchorage (Alaska) and ask them to assign to her class a family in need.  Each child was to donate $5 to help the family.  The catch was that they couldn't get the money from their parents or from their piggy banks.  Instead, they had to earn it.  So, the children each did different chores to earn the money (e.g., shovel a neighbor's driveway, stack firewood, clean out a garage). 

The children also decorated cards that would be included with the gifts that went to the family in need.  After they were done, she told her class, "You've given your time and effort to help someone in need. You've made our circle larger."


That gives a glimpse into the first 40 pages of this 219-page book.  I have a feeling that this will be one of those books that I won't want to put down and will keep reading.  Already, Elaine's philosophy and method of teaching is one that I can identify with (even though I homeschool both my daughters). 

Perhaps I feel drawn to this book this week because of meeting on Tuesday that I had with the special education team at the local elementary school.  I had asked that Olivia be assessed since she is struggling with reading and math. 

The special education team invited me to come in and talk with them about Olivia; show samples of her work; and describe some of the learning and sensory challenges she's experiencing - it was clear that an assessment process would need to begin soon.  Hopefully, this will help identify areas of learning that she's struggling with...and to help her reach her full potential.

The other aspect that I like about this book and Elaine's philosophy is the emphasis on giving of oneself and making a difference in the world - within one's family, locally, state-wide, nationally, or globally.  There's so many ways to impact others.  Elaine's Circle, I'm sure, will clearly demonstrate that and be a source of inspiration.  This may give me some ideas for the 52 Weeks of Giving project that the girls and I are doing this year.


Lisa @ Two Bears Farm said...

This sounds really interesting. I'm a huge reader, but I haven't read this one. The Literacy Volunteers had their big yearly sell this weekend and now I'm overwhelmed with books to read! I brought home a huge bag. So exciting ;-)

Sparklee said...

Wow, sounds like a very engaging book--I don't think I would be able to put it down, either!

We really enjoy our family read-alouds. Sometimes it goes pretty slow, because the kids want to interrupt and add their own predictions or comments. But I don't mind because then I know they're listening!

Natalie/Woolhalla said...

It sounds like quite a moving read... I am moved just reading your review of it so far! Thank you for sharing :o)