I have always believed that great literature, whether intended for adults or children, has the potential to change lives. This past month I have had the honor of witnessing that kind of power as a story unfolded right in my classroom. The story was inspired by another story that came from a lovely picture book written by my favorite author, Patricia Polacco.
A few weeks ago I learned about a special little boy, JL, who at just 6 years of age was facing a very scary, horrible medical condition involving a brain tumor. Like hundreds of others in our community, I wanted to support this brave young boy. CK, a colleague’s son, was busy making and selling braided “JL bracelets” for his buddy. Several thousand bracelets have been sold in the past month. I eagerly ordered 20 of them for my class.
I decided to approach the tough subject of serious illness with my first graders by reading them the book The Lemonade Club by Patricia Polacco. This poignant story is based on Polacco’s daughter, Traci, and how, as a fifth grader, she supported her best friend and her favorite teacher who were both dealing with cancer. The three became known as the “Lemonade Club,” whose motto was always “When life hands you lemons, make lemonade.” After sharing Polacco’s uplifting tale of courage and friendship, I told my students about JL, along with the inspiring story of CK and his bracelet project. Proving that the best and most memorable teaching moments come straight from the kids, one of my neediest students literally jumped out of his seat and suggested that we hold a “lemonade stand” at our school to make more money to help JL and his family. The class erupted with cheers of enthusiasm for this idea.
I had to quickly and gently explain that this was a big idea and that as much as I loved it, we would need to talk to the principal to see if it would be okay to do. My little project coordinator (an EBD student who lost his mother one year ago) volunteered to present his idea to the principal. I chose another student to accompany him and a third student to videotape the meeting with my iPad™. Next I explained that when you want to meet with someone about an important idea, it is a good idea to schedule an appointment so we called the secretary and set up the meeting. The principal had no idea why this trio needed to see her on such short notice, nor did she know she would be videotaped. In preparation for the meeting, I asked my class to think about the kinds of questions we would need to be able to answer if we were going to convince her that the Lemonade Stand project was worthy of her support. We talked about the details that would answer the “what, where, why, when, and how” questions for a few minutes before sending our class representatives down the hall.
Just five minutes later they returned with huge smiles and even more enthusiasm… the principal said “YES!” and they had the video to prove it. The show of support from our school leader couldn’t have been scripted any better than the beautiful way she reacted to the proposal put before her. With this important endorsement taken care of, the kids sprang into action with the most important “authentic writing” project ever. The project coordinator who typically scoffed at any writing work spent the next hour making one of many beautiful posters to advertise the lemonade stand. We made sure each poster addressed all the essential details surrounding the project. I typed up a letter to parents explaining the project and asking for their support. Within days, half of the parents had responded, offering to donate cups, lemonade, bags of ice, and volunteer time on the day of the big event, May 4, 2012.
Students chose and signed up for jobs, as lemonade makers or servers, money collectors, photographers, and clean-up crew. We also created a flyer to send home with the nearly 400 students at our school, asking them to bring a dime to buy a glass of “ice-cold, refreshing, sweet, and delightful lemonade.” Students in other classes started bringing their coins to school several days ahead of time. A buzz was building… everyone was eager to show their support for a little boy who was facing an increasingly tough time.
As I added up the dimes in my head I realized that our efforts might bring in just $40, and that was based on every single student and adult in the school contributing the asking price of ten cents per glass of lemonade. I hoped the students wouldn’t be too disappointed. A week before the big day, a wonderful paraprofessional stopped by our classroom to tell me she would be gone on the day of the Lemonade Stand but she wanted to make a donation so she handed me a one dollar bill. The very next day, our project coordinator brought in a huge container filled with all sorts of change and announced he was donating all of it to JL This little guy (as mentioned earlier, a very needy EBD student) was a pro at avoiding academic tasks. However, that morning he set out to do some serious money counting. With a week to go before the big day, we already had more than $25 in our money jar.
On the morning of the Lemonade Stand, eager customers were stopping by to ask about when the Lemonade Stand would be visiting their area of the school. Kindergarten playground supervisors dropped off enough money to buy a glass of lemonade for every student in their charge. Several teachers reported receiving donations from parents that would cover their entire class. The excitement in Room 135 was nearing fever pitch. I heard one optimistic little girl proclaim “this is going to be the best day ever.” After we made our lemon yellow “lemon headbands” groups of students assisted me with the making of more than 25 gallons of lemonade. At 1:00 our show hit the road with the help of some great volunteers and it was a non-stop lemonade frenzy for the next two hours. We paused for a few minutes to be interviewed by the local TV station. We served every student and just about every adult in the building. Some of our customers (more supportive parents) even took time away from work to stop in and show their support. Nearly every customer paid more than our asking price of ten cents per glass. Our school custodian left us speechless when he paid $50 for his glass. When the last glasses of lemonade were served to the thirsty Lemonade Stand workers, we raised our glasses in a toast to honor our friend Jaeger. We had collected an impressive $346. What a memorable lesson my incredible students learned and taught others… in the words of Patricia Polacco, “When life hands you lemons, make lemonade.”
We will continue to cheer on our courageous buddy Jaeger and hope that life will soon be sweet for this young boy who has become a hero to so many.
Maurna Rome teaches first grade in Albert Lea, Minnesota. She has more than 20 years of experience as an educator, a masters degree in literacy and an Education Specialist degree in administrative leadership. She is currently completing National Board Certification.
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