Today marks the end of Teacher Appreciation week, which is celebrated the first full week in May every year in the United States. During this week it is customary for students and parents alike to show their appreciation for teachers by writing them notes of personal gratitude or bringing in flowers or other small tokens throughout the week to make teachers feel…well, appreciated. As an ESL teacher, my students are often not the types to honor this tradition, as it is not customary in their culture; they are newcomers to American traditions and holidays; and their families often do not have the financial means to purchase gifts for their child’s teachers. I am certainly not offended by their non-participation and do not expect to be rewarded with presents for merely providing my students with the education they deserve. Imagine my surprise when I was rewarded with more gifts and notes of appreciation this week than I have ever received in my teaching career. The reason for this occurrence…Tolkien.
Many of my “little dwarves”, as I affectionately call them, brought in special gifts for me to include flowers, unique treasures from their native countries, and handwritten notes letting me know what an impact Teaching Tolkien is having on their lives. With their permission, I asked some of them if it would be okay to share some of their words with our readers. Kili provided me with an adorable handmade card, which she signed with her dwarf name, and a beautiful scarf from her country, Somalia. She addressed it to Gandalf and wrote, “Thank you for all the adventures we went on. I enjoyed seeing all sorts of creatures. I really enjoy all the people that are on the adventure with us-Fili, Oin, Gloin, Thorin, Dwalin, Balin, Bifur, Bofur, Bombur, Ori, Nori, and Dori. You guys are like Middle-Earth family to me! I’ve never had this much fun in school. Thank you and I hope you carry on the tradition. Love, Kili–P.S.-I hope you like the scarf! The Elven Queen (really my mom) helped me make it and hopefully it glows.” Then on the outside of the card she wrote, “You Rock Gandalf” and drew a picture of his wizard’s staff with the quotes ‘you shall not pass’ and from the Fellowship film adaptation, ‘I’m not trying to hurt you, I’m trying to help you’, which Gandalf earnestly says to Bilbo. I was incredibly touched by her gesture and amazed at how in-character she has become. I think she truly believes she is Kili!
Ori also provided me with a sweet note embellished with some of his unique artwork. Some of his comments were of a more personal nature, but it was obvious by his remarks that Tolkien’s influence has strengthened our teacher-student working relationship. He thanked me for taking him to see the play The Hobbit last weekend. After many gushing compliments, he wrote, “you always give us reader parties and special field trips and I believe that we will be finished with Lord of the Rings before summer vacation.” He also finished drawing a special picture for me that I had seen him working on earlier in the week. It appeared to be of a wizard when I initially saw it, and I assumed he was drawing a picture of Gandalf. When he presented me with it, he had written the caption “Gandalf’s Wife” and had added a lot more of the color pink to his original sketch.
I believe the real reason for my students’ more outward signs of appreciation towards me this year is the fact that they see we are all in this project as equal partners with different responsibilities. My responsibility to them is to honor their thoughts, views, and perspectives through the integrity of this blog. Their responsiblity to Tolkien, myself, and each other is to come to class each day prepared to read and glean from the text what meanings they are able to perceive. We are all responsible to one another for creating a class which will encourage honest and open reactions to what we read, in a safe, non-judgemental environment.
I have always defined “responsibility” as making the choice to do something without someone telling you. Through modeling of this behavior, teachers can often influence students to let wise choices guide their flight. Since Tolkien crept into their lives, I have noticed my students becoming more responsible. At the end of class each day, they now voluntarily restore everything in our classroom to its rightful place so we are ready for the next day’s class. Every day Bilbo and Dwalin ensure that all seven classroom copies of Lord of the Rings are properly marked with our Hobbit bookmarks and placed in our Hobbit bag. Students who are also trying to juggle preparing for standardized tests with their reading, independently work on practice tests, score them and report back their results without disrupting the rest of the class. I no longer have to distribute their steno pads and encourage written responses. They now quietly get up and retrieve them of their own volition when they feel the compulsion to respond to something we’ve read, in both written and illustrated formats. These are all responsibilities I would not have thought them capable of when we started school back in September. It amazes me how far they have come in the short course of a school year.
In these small ways, they are showing their appreciation for me, by demonstrating their independent spirits which have truly taken flight in the last few months. My students have grown by leaps and bounds on so many levels since we all received the Tolkien touch last fall. Much as the Fellowship had to carry on without Gandalf, I truly believe my students could carry on without me. Though I’m not planning to test this theory, I’m confident that if my students were left unattended in my classroom for the entire class period, they would not trash the room as many kids would do. I am sure Bilbo or Kili, my natural-born leaders, would have them all sitting in a circle, taking turns reading and proceeding on through the book, just as if I were there to guide them.
Oin interrupted our reading today after listening to a passage describing the beauty of Lothlorien. Thinking he was going to make an off-task comment that was going to delay our reading progress, I was hesitant to call on him. He raised his hand and said, “Ms. Rodgers, I have something to say.” “Yes, Oin? What is it,” I asked. “That part you just read, that was a lot of description”, he firmly declared. The fact that Oin was able to appreciate Tolkien’s very detailed descriptions is not an expected response for this child. Oin is often the type of student most teachers assume is never listening. In fact, when he made this comment he wasn’t supposed to be listening. I had asked him to finish a test he needed to make-up, but somehow Tolkien got through.
While I appreciate all of my students’ kind gestures this week, I think they have already given me the greatest gift by receiving my gift to them. As an English teacher, my greatest joy is giving them the same love of literature that I have. These 13 “little dwarves” will be Tolkien fans for life. As we were reading today, I came across a speech Galadriel makes that can be used to illustrate the importance of books in one’s life, “may it be a light to you in dark places, when all other lights go out.” My students may not know what light and dark events the future will hold for them, but I hope they will always treasure books and the many lessons they have learned to appreciate from Tolkien.