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?