Jonathan Neal: My Top Ten Most Joyful Memories Of Teaching Elementary School In Los Alamos

Jonathan Neal and his third grade students memorized the Gettysburg Address. Courtesy photo

EDUCATION News:

  • Jonathan Neal, a third-grade teacher at Barranca Mesa Elementary School, just completed his fifth year teaching. In this feature he describes his ten most joyful moments he has experienced while teaching in Los Alamos.

Dear Los Alamos and Barranca Mesa Community,

The past five years serving as a teacher at Barranca Mesa Elementary School have provided me with some of the most magical, memorable, sweet, and fulfilling experiences I’ve ever had.

I have decided to move on to the next chapter of my life. It has been a genuine honor to serve such a wonderful community as an educator. Thank you for your support, kindness, and love.  
To say goodbye, as a love letter to this community, I’d like to share with you all some of my favorite experiences I have had as a teacher that have meant the most to me during my time here.

The students that I have had the joy to teach for the last five years will live in my heart forever. I will never forget them. They made this time in my life extraordinary. Jonathan Neal

#10 – Within a month of New Mexico’s 2012 centennial, our class was honored to receive an invitation from Gov. Susana Martinez to meet with her at her office at the Roundhouse in Santa Fe. Dressed up in our Sunday best, our class and six parents excitedly rode down to the Capitol in a school bus,

to meet our state’s governor (when I had informed the class about the invitation, the kids screamed with excitement). We made our way to the lobby of the Governor’s office on the fourth floor, and waited a few minutes with big smiles on our faces. Our thrill was punctured like a balloon, however, when an aide to the governor came out to the lobby to inform me that they were very sorry, but they had to cancel our appointment. I passed the news along to the class, which was understandably crestfallen.

This was a turning point for the day. At first I was considering having the class walk away and visit the Plaza, which has much historical value. But after huddling with the parents who were with us, we decided that we were not going to let our governor cancel our meeting, and we were going to find her and firmly request that she uphold her commitment and meet with us. We managed to get the governor’s receptionist (who seemed upset that we were cancelled) to give us an idea of her schedule for the rest of the day.  We learned that she had a press conference in the Rotunda of the Capitol that afternoon, and we all — the students, parents, and myself — made a pact that we were going to go there and try to get her to take a photo with us. This was the only opportunity that we would have to implement our plan, as the press conference was happening just a few minutes before we had to get back on the bus and head back to Los Alamos.

We went to the Rotunda for the press conference that afternoon after a great tour of the capitol by then-Rep. Jim Hall. The Governor was getting ready to take part in the press conference, when my wonderful student, Cippie Martinez, approached her. As I watched the interaction, the Governor politely said, “Hi, I’m Governor Martinez, what are you doing here?” Cippie took my breath away with her response: “Well, we were going to meet with you, but you cancelled on us,” she said matter-of-factly. The Governor appeared genuinely surprised and regretful about this, but she didn’t make any immediate move to remedy the situation.

So when the press conference got started, several of our parents came up to her, and made a respectful, yet firm, request that she come to the side of the Rotunda, meet our class, and take her photo with us, reminding her that we missed a day of school to come down and meet her, and that our bus was leaving in a few minutes. Without hesitating, she agreed — she left the press conference, came over to us, signed some autographs, talked with a few students, and took a class picture with us. I had a big smile on my face as I thanked her for her time — a big smile that she returned to me. Then she went back to her press conference, as my students had big grins on their faces.

Once we got back to school, our class had a wonderful discussion about several important life lessons from our day — about never giving up, and always showing persistence, even when it deals with the most powerful political figure in our state.

I, and my students, will never forget that, at the end of our day, we achieved our goal — through these virtues of persistence and not giving up, we transformed what could have been a big disappointment of a day into a joyous victory of a field trip that we will always remember.  

#9 – TRUE GRIT — While teaching third grade, I received a scary email in the evening from a mother. The parent told me that her daughter, Katie Osburn, was in the emergency room. The girl had been playing Little League baseball, and, while at bat, had been hit in the face by a wild pitch, suffering a concussion and a broken nose.  For most kids, this would be a completely appropriate opportunity to take a couple of days off to recover. But not for this kid. In my class, I always challenged my students to strive for perfect attendance, which I view as a tremendous accomplishment that a kid can be proud of.  

The next morning, a couple hours after school started, I once again had my breath taken away when Katie and her mother walked in my classroom — her face black and blue. The kid was so devoted to the goal that she had set at the beginning of year for perfect attendance, that she refused to stay home.

This was an awe-inspiring display of toughness and true grit, in addition to persistently adhering to one’s goals.  She didn’t care about her extremely painful injuries or that it looked like she had been in a fight.

Katie just wanted to come to school, and was not going to take no for an answer.  

It’s hard to express what an inspirational moment this was for me as a teacher, as she walked into my classroom with me completely unprepared and with my jaw dropped on the floor. This display of bravery will stay with me forever.

On the last day of school, I was never more proud to hang a perfect attendance medal on any student as I was for Katie.

One of the books Neal shared with his students. Courtesy photo
 

#8 — THE LAND OF IMAGINATION — Some of my most tender and priceless memories from my elementary school days are listening to my teacher read classic children’s novels to the class — turning on the movie screen of my imagination and being transported to magical, faraway lands. That’s why readaloud time is so important to me as a teacher.  After lunch, my students pile onto our reading carpet, and I whisk my students into the wonderful land of imagination.  I love reading classic books to my students, such as “A Wrinkle In Time,” “Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH,” “Where the Red Fern Grows,” and “Summer of the Monkeys” (every year, my students vote for “Summer of the Monkeys” as the favorite book we read throughout the year).

I know that students love this time, because every day, former students of mine from years past choose to leave the cafeteria during their lunch period and join my class to take part in readaloud time again (while eating their lunch) — to hear me once again read the same books that they enjoyed hearing me read in years past, when they were younger. It is so fulfilling to see former students give up their lunchtime to join my class during readaloud time — when they don’t have to.

But the most rewarding and wonderful part of readaloud time is when parents tell me that, at the beginning of the year, their child had little interest in reading, but at the end of the year, they are addicted to books. This type of input by a parent is such a fulfilling and memorable moment. That means that, due in part to the joy of books that readaloud time instills, their life has been changed forever.

Class snake! Courtesy photo
 

#7 – OUR BELOVED CLASS SNAKES — My classes have been enriched by having a class snake as a pet for four out of my five years as a teacher. Our snakes, first Drakon and then Firestar (both named by my students), are corn snakes, which are known as one of the most docile of all snake species. But they aren’t diminutive — they were both over four feet long (longer than some of my students were tall), and very colorful, affectionate, and cuddly.

Having snakes in my classes has several benefits. First of all, they are a wonderful positive reinforcement tool. My students love holding the class snake, and have an ever-present smile on their face and are laughing as the snake slithers around their arms. So I use the prospect of holding the snake as a method to bring out the best in my students, promising that if they display excellence, they can have a few minutes of “Snakey Time,” where students get to hold the snake. They also have a year-long, hands-on educational experience that enhances their understanding about animals, reptiles, and snakes in particular.

Finally, I believe that 100% of my students have left my class with no snake phobia. When I was in third grade, our class snake engendered in me a lifelong love of snakes, and completely eliminated any fear of snakes that I may have had.  

In conclusion, having a snake in class is supremely joyous, and a wonderful educational and motivational tool. It’s another way to get kids to come to school every day.

[Note: students are only allowed to handle our snakes with written permission from parents, and only if they abide by strict procedures, including students’ washing their hands and forearms with soap before and after they handled the snake. Neither of our snakes ever bit any human or caused any health problems for anyone]

Learning math. Courtesy photo

#6 — MULTIPLICATION AND DIVISION — One of the most exciting aspects of third grade is learning multiplication and division, and mastering the multiplication table.

It cannot be overstated how much of a quantum leap forward in students’ education learning these skills is. Through second grade, most students’ upper limit of mathematical understanding is addition and subtraction.  Multiplication is, obviously, the next dimension to math — one which students tend to embrace with delight and exhilaration once they understand the concept.  

While teaching the concept of multiplication and division is a blast, it is also very fun to help students memorize their math facts. Our Parent-Teacher Organization funds flash cards to each of my students each year, and we heavily drill multiplication facts in class. I also encourage students to work at home with their parents with the flash cards, which many students and parents view as a memorable bonding experience (as it was for myself as a third-grader).

Finally, our class has weekly timed tests in which students have to fill out a blank, scrambled multiplication table (with 100 blanks to fill in). Once students can fill out these tables in 5-10 minutes, it is an absolute pleasure to see the astounded look in students’ faces as they finish the test, run up to me wide-eyed, hand me the test and exclaim, “Mr. Neal, I did it in seven minutes!” It’s especially wonderful when they accompany this with jumping up and down and a high five.

Learning multiplication and division is a huge turning point in students’ academic lives — it’s an empowering skill that also leads to in increase in confidence for those who might not have liked math before third grade. And it’s a joyful moment for myself as a teacher to see them master it.

#5 — TRANSATLANTIC SPELLING BEE — The spelling bee is a big deal for lots of kids and parents, especially when I explain to students that they only have to win four consecutive spelling bees (class, school, district, and state) to qualify for the national spelling bee and be on ESPN to perform on the world stage!  

While teaching 4th grade, as I was organizing my class spelling bee, I was informed by one of my students, Sruthi Garimella, that she would be unable to participate because she would be in Paris with her parents (who were attending  a professional conference) during the class spelling bee. She was extremely disappointed that she would not be able to participate. I was also disappointed. I knew the educational value of a trip to Paris was massive, but I surely wanted her to participate.

Then it occurred to me — just because she was in Paris didn’t mean that she couldn’t participate! I decided to set up a transatlantic spelling bee to enable Sruthi to join in the competition. So on the morning of the class spelling bee (at 8:25 a.m. Los Alamos time/4:25 p.m. Paris time) Sruthi and our class linked through FaceTime. Sruthi’s face was projected onto our large SmartBoard via a projector attached to my iPad, enabling her to appear alongside the other competitors, who stood in a line on either side of the smart board as long as they were still competing.

A student held my iPad throughout the competition and pointed it at each student who was spelling, and the camera on the iPad would broadcast the competition in the classroom.  This way, Sruthi could watch each of the students in the class compete.

When it was Sruthi’s turn, I spoke into the iPad to give her each word as she eagerly listened. My iPad was plugged into speakers, so that all of the students in the class could hear her spell from 5,000 miles away, as well as watch her on the SmartBoard.

In the end, Sruthi placed in the top four of the class, qualifying her to advance to the school’s spelling bee. She also holds the distinction of being the only student in the history of the Los Alamos Public Schools to qualify for a school spelling bee while on a different continent!

This was such an exciting and fulfilling day, that some residents dubbed it a “Miracle of Technology.”

#4 — GETTYSBURG CHALLENGE — It is an honor to teach students about one of my heroes, Abraham Lincoln, and to have them appreciate his monumental accomplishments — saving the union and ending slavery — from extremely hardscrabble beginnings.  One year, I decided to raise the bar and challenge them to do something which would permanently connect them with Lincoln — recite the Gettysburg Address in front of their class and their parents (which would be broadcast on Los Alamos public access cable). Carol Clark of The Daily Post provided a wonderful writeup of this event:

Students in Jonathan Neal’s third grade class at Barranca Elementary School in Los Alamos spent the last several weeks memorizing the Gettysburg Address in honor of President’s Day.

Neal issued the challenge to his students, promising that he, too, would memorize and recite the famous address in the classroom in front of their parents.

“As long as I can remember I have been impressed by Abraham Lincoln … his humble beginnings living in a house with a dirt floor to what he went on to achieve,” Neal said. “I want the children to understand the importance of this as well.”

One by one Neal’s students recited the Gettysburg Address as their parents and classmates watched and applauded Friday afternoon at the school. Neal was the last to take the microphone and when he completed the address, the room broke into applause for him.

Neal is in his fourth year teaching at Barranca, which is his first teaching job, he said.

“I live in Jemez Springs and after I issued the challenge to my students, I began practicing the Gettysburg Address on my way to and from school each day,” he said.

Neal thanked his students and their parents for participating in Friday’s event and said that through this challenge, the students will always remember the Gettysburg Address and how their parents helped them memorize it.

I made this assignment voluntary — no student would be required to recite the Gettysburg Address. Myself reciting it in front of the class and parents was one of the most nerve-wracking moments of my teaching career — I had never memorized it before. Feeling this fear caused me to fill with respect and admiration for those students who took the voluntary challenge and were likely feeling the same nervousness. Kay Loy, Lyas Eidenbenz, Anika Lovato, Isaiah Jones, Matthew Novell, Emily McLaughlin, and Josiah Fresquez: it was a joy to watch your courage and dedication as you channeled our 16th president. You amazed me and made me proud. You and I will never forget it!

Picnic on the lawn. Courtesy photo
 

#3 — PICNIC LUNCHES AND CLASSROOM LUNCHES — On most days I extend an invitation to the entire class to have lunch with me. If it is warm outside, we’ll have a picnic lunch, and if it’s chilly we’ll have a classroom lunch. These are a joyful part of my day.

These lunches are wonderful because they allow me to relax and shed a bit of my teacher role, enjoy the company of my students, and bask in the laughter of the children (and laugh quite a bit myself). I think the students also enjoy a respite from the cafeteria, which can be loud and chaotic.

For picnic lunches, we all love the stunning beauty that our lovely campus on Barranca Mesa affords. We bring a few blankets out to our school’s vast green field, with a panoramic view of canyons, mesas, mountains, and Santa Fe, and relax and eat our lunch together, before we chase one another around the field or tell jokes.

For classroom lunches, I turn on the SmartBoard and we all eat lunch as silly video entertainment is played. We’ll play “Looney Tunes,” “Pink Panther,” silly cat and dog videos, or “Good Mythical Morning.” Nobody has to watch these, but usually there is tremendous laughter emanating from our classroom throughout the lunch period.

As a teacher, there is so much pressure to teach all of the curriculum and push the class to keep moving forward.  Similarly, there is also tremendous pressure on the students. However, our class lunches are so special because they allow us both —teacher and students —  to dispense with the pressure.  I can just be myself and get to hang out with the kids, and vice-versa. These lunches are a fantastic bonding experience, and so joyful.

Jonathan Neal and his dad at Fenway Park. Neal holds a sign thanking his students for the trip. Courtesy photo
 

#2 — KIND AND THOUGHTFUL PARENTS — Los Alamos teachers are blessed to have many kind and supportive parents as partners throughout the school year. One joyful example of this comes from the last day of school one year, a day that is very emotional for any teacher.  On that day, through my tear-stained eyes, I watched as a large group of students approached me, and one girl in this group handed me a card, insisting that I open it at that moment. I did, and out of it I pulled $200 in cash. The student informed me that this amount was collected from the parents of my class to send me to Fenway Park in Boston with my father to see a Red Sox game.  

I’ve been a Red Sox fan since I was 7 years old (which the class knew), and my dad has lived in Boston since I was little. I was thrilled, since Fenway Park is one of my favorite places in the world.

Later that summer, I went to Boston and took my dad to Fenway, the real happiest place on earth. It turned out to be a stunning game, which was won on a walk-off home run by Mike Napoli of the Red Sox in the tenth inning. As Napoli rounded the bases and I screamed and jumped up and down for joy with the other fans at that ancient ballpark, I was overcome with gratitude that that unforgettable moment was made possible by the wonderful and generous families of my students 2,000 miles away in Los Alamos. It was one of the greatest baseball games I have ever seen in my life, and I will never forget that Los Alamos parents made it possible.

[Note the sign I am holding below, thanking the “Wolves” — the name of my third class]

#1 — JOYFUL MORNINGS — Every day, my class has a morning routine that starts our day with joy. First of all, I always make it a point to shake every student’s hand every morning as they enter the classroom, look them in the eye, smile, say their name, and wish them a good morning.

Once the students are all seated, I take a page out of the playbook of Harry Wong, a prominent author of books on teacher effectiveness. He wrote that the best teacher he ever had made him feel like he could be anything he wanted to be. So, for five years, my students chant the mantra “I can be anything I want to be” in unison to start the day. After that, I call on a student at random to inform the class what he or she will be when they grow up; where they are going to college, and what they want to major in. Finally, each day I call on a student at random to tell us what he or she is grateful for in their life.

When our morning routine is finished, it’s my hope that each kid is energized, positive, focused on their goals, thankful, joyful, and, after repeating our mantra, believes in the vast potential he or she has in life.

I can be anything I want to be
I can be anything I want to be
I can be anything I want to be….

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