Commencement Speech by Burgess LePage
The following speech was given by Burgess LePage, an eighth grade English language arts teacher at STRIVE preparatory schools in Denver, Co. No doubt this brave speech will inspire you as much as it did me, and most importantly, her students.
Good afternoon scholars, staff, and families. I am enormously grateful for the opportunity to speak with all of you today. Thank you, Class of 2021, for this chance.
As your writing teacher, when we started heading into the last few days of school, I began to think a lot about all of your stories. Since sixth grade, that’s what we’ve done together in my class- shared our stories. You shared your stories with me, I shared my stories with you, and you shared your stories with each other. Just last night I was finishing up reading your personal essays, and at the end of reading all of them, I felt upset. Your stories told me that so many of you have faced incredibly tough situations in your short lives. And the weight of all of those stories was a lot for me to bear. This is what it means to be a Writing teacher.
When I try to explain to people what it is like to teach Writing to middle schoolers, I often mention a book that you all read in 7th grade, The Giver. As you may remember, The Giver takes place in a dystopian future, one where all the inhabitants of the rebuilt world can no longer feel pain. All the pain is remembered by one only man, whose job it is to hold the memories. The book tells the story of The Giver releasing all his memories, both painful and joyous, to Jonas, the protagonist. Jonas, a boy who before meeting The Giver had never felt pain, asks about the life he is about to lead, holding all these memories. The Giver explains to him, “The worst part of holding the memories is not the pain. It’s the loneliness of it. Memories need to be shared.”
Today it’s my turn to share a memory with all of you.
A few months ago in class, I alluded to a story that had deeply affected me, one that also involved all of you in a way. All that most of you know about this story is the title that I gave it, “Do They Even Try?” Up until now, I’ve kept that story to myself, and I’ve been lonely with it. Waiting for the time when I felt ready to share it. Today, I feel ready to release this memory.
I was sitting on the porch of my beach house in Maine, the sun shining in my face and sparkling off the water. All around me, adults were engaged in conversations about the past. My dad had invited some of his friends who had all worked together as camp counselors when he was a young boy to come together for a reunion. Many of these people had not seen one another for quite some time, and so it was a very happy occasion. In particular, my dad was very eager to introduce me to a woman he had worked with at the camp and her husband. This couple lived in Denver, and so he thought that perhaps I could make a new connection that I could bring back with me after this summer break.
We got to chatting, and soon, as most adult conversations do, they were asking me about what I do for work in Denver.
I told them that I was a teacher, and they were impressed. I told them I taught middle school and they were even more impressed. As you all know well, middle school kids can be kind of tough sometimes.
“Where is the school located?” the husband asked me, genuinely curious.
I began by explaining the location of our first campus, Federal, where I started working with STRIVE. From there I would have talked about how our Federal campus had been successful enough that we had replicated around the city, and of course would have mentioned how beautiful the Lake campus is and how much I love my students and what I do. That’s what usually happens in these types of conversations.
But not on this day. Here’s how it really went:
“Federal and Jewell is where our first campus is located,” I began, smiling at the couple with a dutiful politeness. “And then—“ I began, but stopped as I saw the look on this man’s face, a look of astonishment and… I think I’d call it, pity.
“Wow,” he said to follow up his look. And then, he asked the question that will forever haunt me. “Do they even TRY?”
For a split second, I was very, very confused. All I had said so far were two street names, streets that cross one another. Federal and Jewell. So who was the “they” he was talking about? Certainly not the streets. Streets can’t TRY. And then, the truly horrible realization of what he meant passed through my brain in a tornado of uncontrollable rage.
He was talking about you. This man had lived in Denver for all his life, so he knew well the streets and the neighborhoods. And from just the mention of this part of town, he judged an entire group of students—Federal, Westwood, Highland, and Lake. After knowing where the school was located, he wondered if students like this would try.
Now, I can’t say out loud all the things that I wish I could have said in response to that question. Words like “racist” and “elitist” and “ignorant” flew around in my head, accompanied by many words that would earn me a demerit if I said them aloud here. I was so angry that I am positive I was sweating. Do they even try? Do they even try? Do they even TRY?
Luckily for the husband, for my family, and probably for me, I didn’t have to answer his question. I think I tried to give him the benefit of the doubt and whispered, “What do you mean?”, holding back tears. And then the rest is honestly a blur. I know that whatever he said next confirmed all my suspicions. I just don’t remember anymore because there are parts of this memory I’ve chosen to forget.
But here’s what I won’t forget. The luck that saved me from tearing this man apart came to me in the form of a person: my mother. You’ve all met my mother before, twice actually. She came and visited when you were sixth graders, with Nana, and then she came again this year with my father. My mom must have heard the conversation, watched my anger flood into my face, and known that I wouldn’t be able to get out of this one with any dignity.
She swooped gently into the conversation, graceful as always. “Actually,” she said, “they are the hardest working students I’ve met in my entire life.”
I was proud of my mother then. Proud that she’d defend me. Proud of her extreme grace with this horrible man. Proud that she saw all of you for who you truly are.
And she’s right, my mother. You are all incredibly hard-working people. Sure, there have been some bumps in the road with lower-than-we-wanted GPAs or crazy 7th grade drama, but you have always found a way to bounce back from those unstable times. Equally true is that you all continue to try when things get hard. You work to find solutions. You practice until it’s as close to perfect as it will get. You teach other people what it means to try.
And, as I’ve read from your stories, you also know that it’s not always easy to try. When you try, you put yourself out there to be vulnerable, to be judged, to fail.
But you must try.
Try to get grades in High School that will give you limitless options. Try to meet new people that challenge you and also accept you. Try to change the statistics of what it means to be a college graduate in this country.
I have an incredible amount of faith in all of you, and although many of you might think it’s funny to hear this, I am so glad that you are leaving.
You are finally ready to take the next step towards your futures, and the world is one step closer to having you take it by storm. So get outta here, keep trying, and please, come back to share your new memories with all of us.
No More "I'm Done"
No More "I'm Done!" demonstrates how to create a more productive, engaging, and rewarding writer's workshop. Jennifer guides teachers from creating a supportive classroom environment through establishing effective routines; shows teachers how to set up a writer's workshop; and provides an entire year of developmentally appropriate mini-lessons that build confidence and, ultimately, independence. Through her years of teaching and consulting, Jennifer has heard all the tough questions about working with primary writers: How do I get my students to sustain for a full writing period? What do I do about the student who can’’t choose a topic? What about the student who writes about the same thing every day? She answers these questions and many more in the final chapter of the book.
Practical, insightful, and, most importantly, effective, No More "I'm Done!" will help primary teachers create a classroom full of writers who possess the skills to succeed in later grades and beyond. As Jennifer says, "You'll know you've succeeded when you have a few available moments and your kids shout, 'Can we write?' And you say, yes."
"If you are looking for ways to successfully implement a daily writer's workshop in your classroom, you will find that Jacobson's years of experience as a writing teacher and her admirable willingness to share the details of her accumulated learning about best classroom practices have combined to make this a book that is nothing short of an intense professional development package."
– Education Review
To preview the entire text on line, visit Stenhouse Publishers.
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For use with Grades 2–4.
Graphic Organizers & Mini-Lessons: 20 Graphic Organizers With Mini-Lessons to Help Boost Students’ Word Power to Become Better Readers and Writers
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For use with Grades 2–4.
Graphic Organizers & Mini-Lessons: 20 Graphic Organizers With Mini-Lessons to Help Students Respond Meaningfully to Any Fiction Book and Build Key Comprehension Skills
Help students build reading comprehension skills with 20 engaging graphic organizers! They’ll predict, make connections, identify story elements, and more. Interactive mini-lessons introduce each organizer; then photocopy for flexible use such as homework, class work, group work, and assessment. A great way to make learning visible and memorable!
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Graphic Organizers & Mini-Lessons: 20 Graphic Organizers With Mini-Lessons to Help Students Brainstorm, Organize Ideas, Draft, Revise, and Edit
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For use with Grades 2–4.
Designed for flexible use, these 25 graphic organizers for the overhead boost key reading and writing skills. First, use the transparency for a whole-group lesson; then provide students with the reproducible version for independent use. Great for trait-based writing, responding to fiction and nonfiction, making connections to text, building vocabulary, and more.
For use with Grades 2–6.
Overhead Teaching Kit
12 Transparencies, Reproducibles, and Fun, Interactive Lessons for Teaching Essential Reading Skills
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1999. Scholastic Books.
50 Great Templates to Help Kids Get More out of Reading, Writing, Social Studies, and More.
A treasure trove of templates that will be a valuable addition to your professional resources.
What to Expect and How to Help
1998-2000, Simon & Schuster
A series of books, co-authored with Dottie Raymer and Nancy Richard. The series is a tremendous resource for parents who want to be involved and learn more about their child’s education. Educators will look to this series as a guideline for the benchmarks and learning outcomes that parents will be assessing.
Runes for the Creative Journey
1997. Simon & Schuster.
Developed in cooperation with Emily Herman, Jennifer Jacobson has brought readers (writers and all others who wish to develop their own creativity) an exciting new perspective on the creative process. The offering features a delightful, one-of-a-kind book and kit which utilizes "runes" based on ancient divining stones. The book offers an innovative way to keep the creative process moving smoothly — from beginning a project to presenting it to the public.
Book and 10 stones in a cloth bag.