My favorite and most rewarding group of students graduated last spring. They just finished their first year of college. Their first year of COLLEGE. When they came to me, they were itty bitty baby freshmen and I watched them grow into sophomores and juniors and then seniors. Then they were itty bitty baby COLLEGE freshmen. Now they're not itty bitty at all anymore.
I still keep in touch with these wonderful kids and many them will remember our time in the classroom together because of their red balloon award.
It's no secret to anyone who knows me. My favorite book is The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros, and when we read this book together the symbol of the red balloon came to represent the hidden strength within each and everyone of us. As our last day together approached, I began to feel so privileged to have been their teacher, to have witnessed a wonderful growth and transformation within so many of these students. So I did what any sane teacher would have done. I printed out over 100 cards with a floating red balloon and hand-wrote a note to each and every kid. I told each student what I appreciated about him or her and what made each one so special. The last day of class was dedicated to the First Annual Red Balloon Awards.
After resisting the urge to blast Nena's "99 Luftballoons," I called each student up--one by one. It was important to me that every kid have his moment. I presented their award by reading it aloud and the whole class clapped. The best part is that the commentary just sort of naturally opened and after I read their award the whole class chimed in and acknowledged, encouraged, and built one another up.
It wasn't mere sentiment. It was real, and it was probably the best moment of my teaching career. At the end, one student--Miguel--said that there was one more Red Balloon award to give out. Those amazing kids turned the tables on me and told me why they valued me as their teacher. It was a real-life Mr. Holland moment.
I don't think that you can duplicate this, but my encouragement to you is to take the time to build a community of readers and writers who listen to one another and build one another up. My little red balloons have all floated away, but we will always share a common experience.