Why was today good?

The Friday before February break I had the best day I’ve had since the first month of school. I have a difficult class. The school clerk greets me in the morning with a cheerful “Thank you for coming to school today,” because she knows both how difficult it is to come to school everyday and how difficult her job is when there is a substitute teacher in who will constantly call the office for support.

I don’t want to go into the details of why my class is so difficult – it requires a heart-wrenching examination of poverty, a culture of violence, and my own failings as a teacher. What I’ve been thinking about ever since Friday afternoon is, what did I do to help it to be a good day? And, can I do it again?

Friday is a changed schedule for us in the fourth grade. The teaching team has a morning Common Planning Time, so we leave work for the students that they can manage with a substitute, usually a paraprofessional who knows them and their work. The morning block is usually Science, but on Fridays we switch to writing and give kids an opportunity to finish whatever writing project they need to get done from the week. This week, I was trying to have kids practice writing on a keyboard, using the space bar and shift key to reinforce conventions around sentence construction. On Tuesday mornings we have access to the laptop cart so we all got to start a persuasive letter at the same time. In our class on Friday morning, we have access to only 11 ChromeBooks, so I randomly divided the class in two with the plan that one group would spend 20 minutes typing while the other group finished up Math work and then they would switch. Twenty minutes should have been enough time for most students to put the finishing touches on their letters.

Our Common Planning time was canceled because there were not enough substitutes to cover for the whole team, but when a sub arrived at my classroom nonetheless, I took the opportunity to finish some one-on-one reading evaluations that are coming due. I got everyone started on their assignment, grabbed two reading folders and called my first students to join me at a table in the hallway.

And then I saw Michael.

Michael has trouble at school. He always has had trouble at school. He was one of the boys that teachers told me about when I was starting the year at my new school. And he has met or exceeded all of their descriptions, both positive and negative. He is a complicated boy who never sits still. And he takes it as his personal responsibility to misbehave for substitute teachers.

And he had been randomly placed into the Math group for that first block of time.

“Michael, grab you paper and pencil and come out with me. You’re not in trouble, I just think the hallway will be more quiet and a better place to work.”

And, instead of grabbing my next student for testing while my first reader was doing the independent part of the evaluation, I helped Michael with a problem on the worksheet that helped him complete the rest of the math on his own.

I walked my two students back to class in time for the switch, which put Michael safely (more safely, anyway) on a computer writing and put Junior in the more precarious position of working independently on his Math. “Come sit with me while I read with Max.” I told him. And he did and I replayed the balance of evaluating my reader and encouraging my mathematician.

So, by the time I finished my two reading tests, it was time for the sub to move on and for us to sum up the morning and prepare to go to Art class. And no one had gotten into trouble.

Not gona lie, the walk to Art had a few chaotic moments. Pete and Joseph were beginning to relive yesterday’s fistfight but I was able to separate them and to give the Art teacher a heads up to keep them apart. Junior wanted to run and dance through the halls, but agreed to stand by me and even let me hold his hand to help keep him steady.

We got back to class after Art and they quickly settled in with their snacks to listen to our read a loud. We have been reading a few chapters a day of Peter Brown’s The Wild Robot and were at the part (spoiler alert) where a fire burns down one of the lodges. We got through the tragedy, and snack time, and got ourselves ready for Science.

This is where it could all fall apart.

I had told them earlier in the week that if they were able to focus on the Science Reading and note taking projects we needed to gain an understanding of how light reflects and refracts they would have time for an Engineering Design Challenge on Friday. Thanks to another day when they needed a sub and a great idea from another teacher of letting them use the ChromeBooks to watch a video on the subject with a partner as a way to practice taking notes, they had been exposed to all of the vocabulary and scientific concepts they needed.

I took a deep breath.

“OK, you will work on teams of no more than 4 people.” Kids immediately start turning in their seats to point at potential teammates. “I will set the timer for 2 minutes and let you choose your team. Here are some things to consider. Choose a team that will help you get your work done, people you get along with but will not fool around with. And, if in that 2 minutes I see running or pushing, or hear insults, then I will choose the teams for you. If you have any trouble choosing your team, I can certainly help. Ready?” They took the threat of possibly being teamed with an unwanted partner to heart and quickly formed teams and stood together in their designated corners. Joseph, who had been having trouble getting along with others this week, came right over to me saying he didn’t know what team to join. Lilly and Devon saw him talking to me and invited him to work with them. I couldn’t have chosen a better team for him myself. I looked around the room and saw only one team that made me cringe a little. They had done a responsible job and had set themselves up nicely for the work.

The challenge today was to design a device that would allow them to see what was happening on top of a desk from a seat under the desk. The test was that one student would hold up some random number of fingers above the desk while the student using the device would be sitting on the floor. Each team got a small packet of identical materials (mirrors, cardstock, masking tape) and they also had access to our box of building supplies filled with cereal boxes, plastic pieces, string, etc. Before they could build, they had to sketch out, and agree upon, a design.

Everybody got to work.

Let me say that again. Everybody got to work.

You just don’t know how rarely that happens in my classroom this year. I was walking on eggshells, trying to monitor progress and learning while not interfering with this magic.

Here’s what the magic looked like:

  • One team disagreed on their design and instead of yelling at each other agreed to sketch out both and “eeny-meeny-miny-mo” to decide which they would build first.
  • One team floundered from the get-go, not knowing where to begin. After a quick series of questions form me about their past observations and experiments, their reading and video work, they all seemed to have that ah-ha moment in unison and started talking at the same time about their ideas.
  • Several teams built what they thought would be great designs, only to fail when they tested them. Instead of giving up, which is often the go-to reaction to failure in our room, they excitedly shared ideas for improvements and got back to work.
  • One team’s device kept falling apart, and they kept reflecting on the source of the weakness in the design and trying new fixes until they had a sturdy prototype to test.
  • When Joseph’s team finished before everyone else, they gladly showed their design to a struggling team.

Before it was time to clean up and get ready for lunch, everyone had shared a design and was able to say why it worked. Most even explained why they thought their first attempts would work and why they in fact did not. Every team showed an understanding of the concepts and ability to use their knowledge from reading and watching science videos in the practical work of constructing a device. Every team encountered some sort of roadblock – a design that didn’t work, a disagreement over construction, a mistaken idea of how the scientific concepts would play out in real life – and they all made it through.

I’m not gonna lie, I was beaming.

And then I left them for indoor recess (because of the wind-chill and snowdrifts) in the care of our principal (who does recess duty with my class for what, to everyone in our school, are obvious reasons) and I went to lunch with a bounce in my step that my colleagues mistook for joyful anticipation of the coming February break.

After lunch and a short independent reading time, which we use after lunch as a way to help the class settle back into the classroom, we skipped the usual literacy lesson and center rotations to continue with some of the science concepts. On Fridays our school allows for what we call Fun Friday at the end of the day, so our learning time was shortened anyway. It was a good time to fit in some work with solar cells that we didn’t get to earlier in the week. Because of the limited time, this would be more of an observation than the exploration I had originally wanted, but still allowed them to get a little hands-on. I demonstrated how the little motor worked when I attached it to a battery and challenged them to make it work when attached to a solar cell. They scrambled to find a patch of sunlight in the windows, stood on chairs to hold it close to the ceiling lights and even took the flashlights out of our Science Box, all trying to give the solar panels enough light to make the motor turn. We had mixed success, but were able to share ideals about why each attempt worked, or not.

Clean up, pack backpacks, and off to fun Friday.

At the end of the day, walking back to the empty classroom after walking my line to the bus, I kept thinking, what did I do today? Why did it work? How did so much learning happen today when the past 100+ days seemed so wasted?

Here are my ideas:

  • I recognized the trouble Michael and Junior might have sitting still with a substitute who did not know they can’t sit still and do a Math paper and I took them out with me. Michael stood while he did his math and Junior laid himself across the table to do his. Both positions would have unnerved a sub who knows part of her duty is to keep order, but reprimanding these boys for their posture even though they were doing work would have ruined their entire day. The simple act of taking them with me in the morning when I left the room to test, helped them get a good start.
  • I gave choice to the kids. There were parameters to their choices, but ultimately I think they felt like they were getting to do what they wanted to and the Engineering challenge was itself interesting and engaging and felt doable.
  • I didn’t but in. I monitored the room to maintain order and made notes about the academics, but I didn’t address any of the kids unless they asked me a question. And I almost never answered questions directly. I was a coach, in the background, trusting that their previous practice sufficiently readied them for the challenge. I’m still not sure how they adopted the assurance they could handle this challenge so I don’t know how to replicate that confidence for the next one. But I myself have more confidence that they can handle the next one, and maybe that’s the key after all.
  • I had told them what to expect from this day in my summary the day before. And at each step, I reminded them of the day’s plan. Knowing the plan, and having the plan followed, feels important. I post a schedule on the board but I think a more detailed plan than “11:40 – Math” is needed. I’ve been toying around with a combination objectives/schedule board that might help recreate some of this confidence in the day that I think helped out on Friday.

Today is Monday, the first day of our February break. And I do plan a break. My stack of fiction is ready and the coffee is hot. I have both quiet relaxing planned and extra time spent with my girls. But I can’t leave this fabulous Friday alone. I’ll be doing plenty of planning to help recreate this good day.

And, I’ll head to the drug store to get some purple hair dye. Oh, did I mention that I told the kids that if they each had a good day, with the whole class going up to the purple level on our clip chart, that I would come in on Monday with purple hair?

 

too late for respect?

Warning, I dressed in my judgy pants today.

There is a Mom with her toddler who, after only the mildest of temper tantrums, gave into the little girl’s begging for a donut. She started with a matter-of-fact no, quickly moved to pleading and justifications before going back to the counter to get a donut. And all I can think is, I hope that kid is never in my class.

True, I don’t know the circumstances here. Maybe that Mom is having an exhaustive week and is just desperately trying to find a few peaceful minutes. Maybe Mom remembered this was supposed to be a special day so why was she treating it like a normal “say no to donuts” day. Maybe this girl has difficulty communicating needs and feelings and Mom is trying to understand her daughter through a series of trial and error negotiations. Maybe this kid won’t grow into an entitled brat who doesn’t know how to take turns or persevere through frustrations.

As I watch this Mom scroll through her phone, going long stretches without responding to her daughter’s babble or even looking up at her, I panic. My 4th grade class is filled with 10-year old versions of this toddler, kids who have not had the attention needed to learn the skills of participating in a community. They only know how to exist in their own bubbles of needs and desires.

And we’ve recently elected just such a person to be president.

My observations of Mom and toddler ended as the little girls walked away from her mother who was picking up all their stuff. As Mom repeated the girl’s name over and over to call her back, the girl just looked at her with a face that said “Why are you wasting your breath and disrupting the peace? I’ve never listened to you before, clearly I won’t now.”

It’s a look I’ve seen in my classroom too often.

I have all sorts of ideas for that Mom to get control of her toddler, but what I really need to focus on is how I’m going to change this in my classroom. I can’t go back in time and give these kids the lessons in respect they should have had when they were four. The exhausting reality is that it is still part of my responsibility to give those lessons now. But, like that toddler, my students need the lessons to make sense in their world. I have no control over permissive or neglectful households. I can only change what happens in Room 204.

At almost day 100, it’s still not too late. I have to believe it is never to late, not for my 4th graders, not for that toddler, not for me.

his motivation grew 3 sizes that day

It was always clear that the Grinch stole Christmas in an attempt to find something good for himself, even though he felt he didn’t deserve it. When he was able to see beauty, and then to participate in joy by saving the stolen presents, he heart, and his strength grew way out of proportion. Really, the strength of ten Grinches, plus two? It was a rhyme-satisfying exaggeration.

Or was it?

It is no secret that I have gotten off to a tough start to this school year. 48 days completed, just over a quarter of the school year, and I feel like I am still setting up routines, still teaching expected behaviors, and not at all teaching content. Though I Grinch-like feel that I have not actually earned the right to it, I want to walk in to a well-run class full of 10 year olds acting like ten year olds and not like cynical gang initiates.

In the midst of the despair, M stepped up. For reasons all his own, he walked into the room with an aura of effort around him and worked hard to monitor his behavior and focus on learning. He raised his hand, he excitedly shouted out answers, he rushed to get in line, he asked questions. And this fog of effective effort was slightly contagious so that, even though, yes, there were two physical fights and a whole lot of talking back and ignoring work, there were these blissful moments of teaching and, dare I say it, learning happening in our chaotic classroom.

So, yesterday morning I took some time before school started and fished out the fun sea creature shaped papers left over from a project last year and wrote a short note to M and three of his fellow do-gooders. They were short notes to the effect of “Hey, I noticed your effort. You are fabulous and getting more so every day.” (Not at all those words, of course. I used teacher words like “you’re growing your brain” and “making great choices” but the intention was “Oh lord, it’s been a craptastic 45 days and I just want to say thank you so much for bringing some light into this dungeon.”)

I left the notes on 4 desks and let them be found.

My first surprise was when K started walking around the room showing off his note, then Y wondered out loud how he might earn such a note. But then, there was M. The boy who has a personal relationship with he principal, he’s spent so much time in the office. The boy who tells others he will beat the tar out of them and they (and I) completely believe he could, and would. The boy who can’t actually sit so his desk is in the back of the room to allow pacing space and who talks to himself near constantly. This boy, who’s “not afraid of anything” quietly picked up his note.

He didn’t smile. He didn’t look toward me. He didn’t share his note. He carefully put it back down on his desk, fished out his Math notebook and sat down to work on the morning problem.

And later, during a Math test that seemed designed to inspire a meltdown of self-confidence resulting in a display of tough-guy disinterest in anything school related, he took his time, he asked clarifying questions, he showed his work.

His motivation grew three sizes that day.

He grew the strength of 10 fourth graders, plus two.

And I learned, relearned, the lesson that we all need to feel like we deserve Christmas. We need to be noticed and appreciated for returning what we stole, for fixing what we broke. And we need to be a part of a community that lets us back in after we have intentionally caused harm, with the knowledge that we didn’t really want to cause harm but to be noticed.

Thanks M, again.

on losing faith

I barely held back tears in the bus line. Only Wednesday and it had already been a horrible week. I paced back and forth to give my tears a chance to dry and then engaged with the cuties in my line, the ones who laugh and ask questions and move themselves back in line when you remind them. I strategically ignored the little one who digs in the dirt and jumps all over the place – let Ms. V. handle him today.

Teaching is emotionally exhausting, not teaching is more so. My tears were from the feeling that I had not been able to teach that day, that week. Have you had those days? I wonder, because the teaching blogs I read never seem to mention difficult behaviors. Oh, maybe they mention the kid who doesn’t like to read and staunchly sticks to National Geographic’s Weird But True series. They describe their tireless efforts to find the fiction that will engage the little rebel. They never talk about the kids who spend entire lessons walking around the room, taunting other kids and pushing them out of the way, leading an 18-kid rebellion against learning (there are always a few loyalists). In their classrooms, no one tells anyone else that they suck d**k or tries to egg someone into a fist fight in the middle of Math.

I love teaching. I am a teacher. But I’m tired. Twenty-something days into the school year and all I can think of is summer vacation. I was looking at a really good 4-day workshop at Columbia timed perfectly to fit into my winter break and when I started to explore the possibility of attending all I could think of is how tired I would be and how I couldn’t bare to give up my week to anything but sleeping in and spending days in my pajamas with coffee and fluff fiction. I was angry because I love learning but right now I hate teaching.

But I don’t. I love teaching. I hate behavior management. I hate being so helpless to change behaviors enough so that kids can learn – the little rebels as well as everyone around them. Oh my, I don’t even like using the word rebel because I am a fan of rebels in history who disrupted things to make the world a better place. These folks aren’t trying to make anything better, not even for themselves.

So, now I’m trying to figure out how to actually teach. How can I restructure my day to provide the best opportunity for learning? How can I restructure the classroom so those few I can’t reach right now don’t completely intrude on those I can? I have ideas, but no faith. I need to get my faith back, faith that I am capable, that I can do this job, that I can teach anyone put in front of me, that every child can learn and grow.

strategic absence

I have 4 very difficult boys in my class, a bad case of mean girl drama with 3, 2 who egg others on, 5 who are easily distracted and not all easily put back on track, 7 typical 4th graders and 1 “can’t we all just follow every last school rule 100% of the time” kid. So, you’ll understand when I admit that I did a little happy dance when M was absent today. One strategic absence, in this case one of the top 4, makes a big difference in my day.

Too many needy personalities in one place is exhausting. Take one away and the burden of the others seems so much less.

This may not be what the Dalai Lama means when he talks about shifting your perspective, but with just one of those stressors removed I feel like I’m better able to empathize with the difficulties of being a 9 year old living with all sorts of difficult situations at home and trying to keep it together at school. I can change the context in which I see their tough behaviors, and so change my reaction to them.

Thanks for the day off, M.

See you tomorrow.

teaching off a cliff

I’m not a rock climber. Even if I weren’t afraid of heights I have no strength in my arms and hands, partly due to old injuries and new arthritis and partly because, well, you know, I was focused on building other strengths.

But the image of rock climbing kept popping us as I thought about the start of this school year.

I was ready for a hike as I set off in a new school. There’s a lot to know about STEM education and I braced for a steep learning curve. I was ready for the challenge. But I quickly felt the curve bending in a new way and the work started to feel like this

smith-rock-940x595

It seemed like all of the hard work of the last few years to improve my practice fell out of my pockets as I tried to ascend the cliff. By day 12 of the school year, I knew I was a bad teacher, wondered if I had made a mistake transferring schools, considered maybe changing careers to something in retail.

Deep breath.

With the help of my teammates and the calm encouraging voice of my husband, I’m rappelling back down to a level spot to rest and regroup and pick up all my dropped supplies. I’m spending my weekend planning time looking at the big picture we worked on together as a team and mapping out each step we need to take to get there. It’s not starting over, it’s pausing to look around to see where the next foothold is and how we can reach it, using all I learned from the ascent so far to help me choose the best moves to bring me forward.

The learning curve is still steep, sort of inverted, and I suspect I’ll feel like I’m dangling dangerously by my fingertips at times. But I’ve got a strong team to belay me and some ledges on which to rest and regroup.

Here we go.

Classroom Library

img_4288As I was helping Harper locate a graphic novel to add to his book box, I kept fishing books out of boxes where they did not belong. Geronimo Stilton in a nonfiction box reserved for books on energy? What was the problem? Didn’t we spread the books all over the classroom and look at them and think about what genre they were and decide which books belonged where together?

No. We didn’t. Not really.

That was the plan, and the books were certainly in a mess everywhere. But I have several children with some pretty difficult to manage behaviors so our work dissolved into chaos and most children missed the point. The days started to get away from me and I made different decisions than intended. And so, with the help of only a few students, the library was put together. And I learned some tough lessons. Here’s my thinking for next year:

1.) Put some of the library together before the kids arrive. I realized I was feeling rushed since, without the library put together, we couldn’t work on choosing good books for ourselves. I hurried through the organization and the kids didn’t have time to think through their choices or try things out and then change their minds. So, I’ll pull out some basic categories and have those bins already set up. Animal books, graphic novels, poetry, biography – we can pretty much rely on these groups so it won’t stifle student thinking. And besides, they can always refine those categories – ocean animals, sport biographies. Before we tackle the library, we’ll think about how to choose a good book, what we need to work on as readers, and then what we want and need for the work.

2.) We’ll learn about different genres before we put books out. When they came up with the category “animal books” they lumped in books on the life cycle of frogs with books from the Humphrey series about a mischievous hamster. We had to back track and talk about the difference that I thought we had settled already. Quick reviews aren’t quite enough on the hot and humid first days back at school.

One half of the room is now settled as the nonfiction side, with Science, Math, and Social Studies books grouped together in their own areas. Next year, we can spend some time talking about each area of the room and what sorts of books would fit there, before we start putting books away.

3.) I’ll keep the boxes of unshelved books out of the classroom and bring in only one at a time. The mess of too many unorganized things in the room was a jarring beginning, and combined with troubling behaviors created an atmosphere of unsettledness that has been hard to overcome.

Monday will be our 12th day of school and we’ll go in with a library  sorted into categories the students created – for the most part. I’ve created a Library Scavenger Hunt to start off a conversation about how we find and return library books that I hope will be a useful review of the organization.

It’s a work in progress.