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The Art of Miss Chew and gratitude for our own teachers.

This was going to be a special read-aloud for me. It was the first time that I was sharing one of my favourite children’s book authors with this group of students.

An author-illustrator, Patricia Polacco writes and illustrates her own books.

Her work deeply resounds with me, as it would with any educator.

I love how she draws from her own life, many of her picture books are autobiographical. While telling stories of very strong, resilient child heroes, she also features the most wonderful adult characters. Her adult characters are genuine, strong and supportive characters who deeply care for the children and gently guide them through their struggles, leaving a strong influence on them.

Although I knew that this story would touch my students, I was surprised at the unusual silence as I read.

I did brief the children that I would be reading straight through and that they should stop me for any clarifications or questions they may have.

I read this with 2 different groups and neither group did.

I chose to read ‘The Art of Miss Chew’, the story of the influence Polacco’s art teacher Miss Chew, along with her 6th Grade teacher Mr. Donovan had on her life.

Young Trisha struggles in school. While she can read, she is slower than her peers, resulting in her failing timed tests. Confident that Trisha knows her matter, her teacher Mr. Donovan realises that all she needs is more time and soon Trisha manages to pass her tests. What Mr. Donovan also sees is Trisha’s talent for art. Since the elementary school only offers ‘art on a cart’, once a week, he connects Trisha with the high school art teacher who has a special program for talented students. Recognising, Trisha’s artistic talent, Miss Chew accepts her at her special art class, not only guiding her in art, but also being her champion.

When Mr.Donovan’s father passes away, a substitute teacher does not believe that Trisha needs extra time, and when Trisha fails her tests, she threatens to stop her art classes. Miss Chew realises that Trisha sees "negative space" and is able to read only by picturing the pattern of each word within that space. She champions Trisha’s cause, contacting a reading specialist and bringing together all the adults who have a say in Trisha’s life, the teacher, parent, principle, the reading specialist, the substitute teacher...highlighting how it ‘takes a village’.

Encouraging Trisha’s art, she invites her to participate in the high school art show, where she paints a picture of Mr. D’s recently deceased ‘Pa’, leaving him speechless. This moment, Polacco describes as ”...a present. It turned out to be the defining moment in my young life. I was set on course to be an artist - it could be no other way. Thanks to the art of the amazing Miss Chew.”

“ ….remember this ancient Chinese proverb: Yesterday is history. Tomorrow, a mystery. Today...a gift- that is why it is called ‘the present.’ “

At the end of the story, a few children had moist eyes, deeply moved, others exclaimed about just how special it was, and a few connected personally with the story.

Unusually, there were not many questions when the the children were invited to think about teachers or people who had made an impact on their lives in different ways. It could be a teacher from school, a teacher who taught them when they were younger, someone who teaches them at their after-school classes or anyone whose teaching and guidance they were grateful for.

They seemed to know exactly who meant the most to them and why.

Each child then wrote a letter to the teacher they chose. They were free to share it with the group or not. Most reflected that their letters were very personal and some expressed that they would share them with their teachers. One boy insisted that his father has been his greatest teacher and wrote a letter to him.

What I hoped to do with this exercise is to not only help children see that there are many people who guide us along our path and to reflect on just how much they mean to them, but to also realise that there are many adults who have their back and that they can look to them when they are unsure about the next step.

I share below two of the letters that came my way, from children who were comfortable to have their letters shared. In the interest of privacy, I have hidden their names.

A beautiful, heartwarming story of a child who is guided by the adults around her to reach her full potential.

A tribute to teachers everywhere, as Teachers Day in India approaches this Sunday, 5th September.

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