Connie Grayson’s Cancer Battle Becomes a Teachable Moment

By Kate Anslinger

Connie Grayson, fourth grade teacher at the Cummings School, is proof that an imprint can be left on students. So much so that when she was in the midst of her fight against cancer in 2014, the first class that she ever taught in 1981, gathered together and presented her with some art tools to help her focus on something she loved while undergoing treatment.

She is a perfect example of someone who loves her job and is more than dedicated to her students. Grayson has taken her struggle with cancer and turned it into a positive, by using creativity to teach her students about an illness that can be conquered. “It’s all about the children,” Grayson said when she was initially asked to be interviewed.

You like to engage students with different learning activities. What are some examples of these activities? My classroom has a classroom bank. The students earn play money for finishing work, doing their homework or doing their assigned classroom weekly job. With the money they earn the students can spend it on something at the Friday store or can buy something at the classroom holiday or end of the year fairs. This classroom banking system allows the students to learn about economics and finances in a fun hands-on approach.

Who is your role model? My role model is my parents. They loved spending time with me and my four siblings. We always felt safe, loved and respected. They instilled in all of us the need to always give back to the community and to people who are less fortunate than us.

You overcame cancer last year. Did your students play a role in helping with the fight? How did they inspire you? Last September I was diagnosed with lymphoma. My class both present and past, the 21st Century Afterschool program, the Cummings School family, the Winthrop community and my family all played an important role in my recovery. In my classroom we watched movies, read books and had classroom discussions about cancer and the cure for cancer. We had a cancer meter in my class that would start at 12 and would go down to 1 when my energy level was decreasing. My class knew as the meter decreased I was starting to feel the effect of the chemo. They would come together and assist me more in the class. They knew when the meter read 1 it would mean I might be out for a couple of days to get my energy back again so the meter could once again rise to 12. I facetimed my class as I was going through chemo so they would have an understanding of what chemo was like. I told them about how chemo makes a patient lose their hair and explained to them that I would be wearing a wig (which was very important to them). When they were ready and when my chemo was over I would take off my wig. The whole school helped me with the fight by hanging lime green (the color symbolizing  lymphoma) ribbons around the school and selling lime green bracelets that read, “we wear because we care,” a saying that the students came up with. The bracelet sales were donated to Dana Farber. The day I found out I was in remission, the whole school celebrated over a loud speaker announcement by Mr. Heraty.

On a field day in June my class and I decided it would be the right time that I took off my wig and we would march proudly down to the field with our lime green baseball caps knowing we had fought cancer and cancer had lost.

The end of the school year did not end this journey with cancer. Through a 21st Century service learning grant and a partnership with Dana Farber the summer campers of 21st Century and the 21st Century afterschool program decided to help others who are battling cancer. They have made a Powerpoint presentation about cancer to share with others, are writing a book to explain about cancer to youngsters going through it, made a mural which is currently hanging at the Cummings School but will be hung at Dana Farber, are making another mural which also will be hung in the children’s room at Dana Farber, making two treasure chests which will be made by the school custodian, painted by the students and then will be filled with teddy bears and toys for young patients going through cancer treatments at Dana Farber and then they will be running a fundraiser in December to raise money to buy these items for the treasure chest.

Bullying is unfortunately a problem in our school systems. You developed the Social Skills Curriculum that helps students pick up on non-verbal cues. Do you think this helps students feel more empathetic toward one another, thus helping solve some bullying problems?

As the students in my classroom enter my class they are surrounded by all the characters of Winnie the Pooh. On the first day of school, I tell them about how unique and special all the characters are in the Hundred Acre Woods. They all have their strengths and weaknesses.

Piglet is shy and nervous

Eeyore is slow and worries

Owl is very smart

Tigger is energetic, has a hard time sitting still

Rabbit is the hardworker, needs everything a certain way

Pooh is a good friend but gets into trouble a lot and needs help from others

In my class we compare ourselves to them and I make them realize we need to help

each other because we are all different and each have our own strength and

weaknesses.  In my class the students know there are no stupid questions or no

stupid answers. We are here to help each other out and must stand together to make

sure no one hurts our “room 226 family”. In my class I include many lessons on

empathy towards all students. We join in with the Spread the Word to End the Word

Campaign, Light it Up Blue campaign and take the bullying pledge. As adults we

need to teach students empathy and make them understand that words hurt.

You are known for your honesty with children in the classroom. In fact, you asked your students if they preferred you wear a wig when you were going through chemo. Do you feel like honesty in the classroom builds trust and helps the learning process?

Honesty definitely builds trust in the classroom. Students need to feel safe in order to grow as a student. I told my students how difficult it was to lose my hair and to take my wig off. My students made me feel so special the day I took my wig off by giving me thumbs up and telling me I looked so beautiful. They made me feel

beautiful inside and out. Acceptance and positive words made me keep my wig off

and hold my head up high from that day forward. Accepting a student’s strengths

and weaknesses, through positive words and actions are how I teach and will

Teacher Connie Grayson, back row, center, hams it up with some of her students at the Cummings School

Teacher Connie Grayson, back row, center, hams it up with some of her students at the Cummings School

continue to teach.

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