Not a debate,
let them read.
I recently read a blog post written by a mother, sharing how frustrating some days can be. I related to this post not as a mother, but as a teacher. It’s easy to get caught up in things that can suck the energy out of our teaching – the trainings that often don’t directly relate to the work we do with our students, the new mandates and requirements that are handed out, the lack of planning time, the lack of support from our administration, colleagues, (or even our nation), the slow response of systems that are supposedly in place to help our kids, the constant addition of things we must do, the lack of time to do these things, the endless assessments, the constant raising of the bar, the negative perception of how we do our jobs and how we all just need to work harder/better/faster. It can be exhausting.
When I find myself getting sucked into this frustration, I have to stop and get grounded again. It’s not all about my day and my huge to-do list and my deadlines, benchmarks and expectations. It’s about the kids. It’s about being present and in the moment. It’s about listening.
Our children come to us each day to learn, to grow, to have fun. To laugh, to explore, to be in awe of something. To discover things for the first time, to have that “a-ha” moment, to change perspectives, to open their eyes to a new way of thinking, to find a passion. It’s their day, too.
Some of my best days of teaching look nothing like what’s on the lesson plan. They come from listening to my kids, following their lead, and remembering why I am a teacher. Some days the lesson plans and assessments need to be pushed aside and I need to sit down with my kids while they explore worms in a nature box. I need to be there to help them find a worm book in the class library and listen as they wonder and investigate the worms crawling on their hands. I need to laugh with them, wonder with them and encourage them. I need to run to the art room for paper to cover our play stand because they decided a gingerbread house needs to be built today. Not next week, but NOW. Because NOW is where five year olds live. I need to stand back as they gather all the gingerbread men books we’ve read to decide what characters they should make to put inside the gingerbread house. I need to listen and be responsive to what they need.
Because it’s their day, too.
For many of my early years in teaching I spent a significant amount of time before school started designing the *perfect* behavior management system. I had the colored cards, boxes on desks with tokens, and one year an elaborate system that involved a fancy bulletin board and names on balloons that kids moved from level to level as I told them to “drop their balloon”. And every year it was the same kids’ balloons/cards, etc. that were tattered and beat up from moving and turning them and the same kids who got to visit the treasure box or turn in tokens for rewards. Clearly, this extrinsic way of controlling behaviors was not working. Perhaps it created an illusion of an orderly classroom, (and oftentimes not) but there were always children who did not feel empowered and who were making decisions in order to “get something” or to avoid a punishment rather than to work towards a common peacefulness, community and mutual respect in our classroom.
Then, about 8 years into my teaching career, I realized what really mattered in behavior management – and it wasn’t management at all. It was community. I really think that the heart of a successful classroom is a strong community. I don’t have a behavior plan, a behavior system, rewards, tokens, stickers, treasure boxes or anything else that, in my opinion, equates with controlling children. I don’t even have a class list of rules. Instead, I work very hard with my students from Day 1 right up to Day 180 to create a community of learners who respect, listen, care, are kind to each other and who can live together peacefully in a small space for 180 days.
So how do we do this?
We talk. A LOT. In class meetings, in role play situations, in short puppet skits that address behavior issues we need to think about as a class, and in one-on-one conferences with children who may need more guidance in becoming a part of a larger community – we work to build the relationships in our classroom. While I don’t make a list of class rules, we do create some charts together as needs arise. Charts that we construct together like, “What kind of classroom do we want to live in?” and “Words that Hurt / Words that Help” – help us keep track of our thinking as we have classroom discussions about issues that inevitably arise when many people share a small space together. I trust my kindergarteners to handle problems independently and often will say, “do you think you can handle this or do you need my help?” when a problem is brought to my attention. Most of the time, children want to be empowered to solve problems and will talk about it with their friend and come to a good solution that works for them. I want them to feel in control in our classroom and feel a shared sense of responsibility for how our classroom runs. When they do need my help we get out the puppets, do a role play, read a book that relates or have a class meeting. I turn it over to the kids with a “we have a problem in our community. How can WE solve it?”
Yes, this social curriculum takes time away from reading, writing, math, etc. But it is a critical piece of education – whether there is a standard for it or not. Children have to learn how to solve problems and how to work together in our world. They need to learn empathy, compassion, how to work through frustrations, how to build mutual respect with people they work with, and how to celebrate their successes. I want children to leave our classroom feeling empowered, with a strong sense of self-efficacy, equipped with tools to negotiate problems and issues they are going to encounter in the world. I want them to be thinkers, reasoners, questioners, problem solvers – who care a whole lot for themselves, the world and each other. Without this, it doesn’t matter what test scores, reading levels or report cards grades look like. We teach all the academic subjects, why not teach children how to create and sustain relationships, community, trust and respect. It will take them further than we can imagine.
Choice Words by Peter Johnston
Learning to Trust by Marilyn Watson and Laura Ecken
On Their Side by Bob Strachota
Beyond Discipline by Alfie Kohn
Responsive Classroom materials
Our read aloud time is one of my kindergarteners favorite times of the day. They love to listen to books and to talk about the books we read. Whenever I can, I will use realia or puppets while reading a book to my class. It makes the story come alive, engages all my kids and helps my ELLs connect with the book. Our Pete the Cat stuffed animal and Very Hungry Caterpillar puppet are favorites for the kids to play with after hearing the stories many times. I recently got props to go with Mrs. Wishy-Washy (a tin bucket, a cow, a horse and a duck) with the intention of using them during math for storytelling problems. While they are great for that, my kids started getting them out during our literacy stations to retell the story. They were retelling the story, sometimes using the book, sometimes not , capturing the different voices, dialogue and general storyline. They pretended to be the characters, changing their voices to go along with the story and retold the story numerous times. This is going to become a regular literacy station in our classroom with props for other books available to play with as they retell the story or make up a new story. Thanks to a picture I saw on Twitter from @TeachLearnLive, I’m planning a Knuffle Bunny station with a cardboard box for a clothes dryer, a clothes basket and a Knuffle Bunny doll. Hattie and the Fox props are ready to go next week too. I’m looking forward to seeing what else comes out of this book play over the next several weeks. I plan on observing, listening and joining in on the play during our literacy station time. What books do you use props for? So many possibilities!
Conferences are always so inspiring. I love attending them and talking with like-minded educators, meeting new people and having time from my busy school life to reflect on my practice. This past weekend, Pat and I attended the Reading Recovery conference in Columbus, Ohio. We enjoyed meeting some of you and sharing our thinking at our sessions. We also enjoyed learning from the many smart people who presented. If you’ve never been, it’s a “must-do” February conference, so mark your calendars for next year!
I attended many fantastic sessions, but I continue thinking about Lucy Calkins’ keynote. She spoke about where education is today, and how we have a choice as to what role we might play in the future of public education. Her words, “as educators standing in this place in our field, we have a choice. We can look out and see problems and despair or possibility and promise,” have echoed in my brain all week as I returned to my school.
If we see our job and schools as sources of problems and despair, do we have the energy to make a difference with the kids we teach every day? Do we wake up full of joy and enthusiasm in our role as educators? No. But some days it’s very hard to look past the testing frenzy, the new mandates made by people who have never set foot in a classroom, the budget cuts, the overcrowded classrooms, the lack of support and so on and so on. It’s easier to see despair and problems over possibility and promise. Easier? Perhaps. Justified? Absolutely. But it sucks the life and energy out of us as teachers.
So what if we focus on the kids?
As Lucy said, “not one of us can be hiding behind someone else’s proclamation of what we need to do as teachers”. We are in this profession because we love kids. We want to make a difference in the world and see teaching as the way to do it. There have been way too many proclamations about what we need to do as teachers. It’s time for us to stand up and bring possibility and promise back to our schools, our teaching and our professional lives. Focusing on the kids, and what we know is best for them, allows us to see possibility for who we are as teachers, professionals and learners. Standing up for best practices and for our students is empowering. When we can be passionate learners and passionate teachers, when “our teaching is alive and powerful”, when “we are doing work that feels big and significant” – it’s hard to see the problems and feel despair. It’s much easier to see possibility and promise.
Lucy ended her keynote with this question, “are we going to be who we say we want to be? We have the choice as educators.” I am taking this opportunity to really think about who I say I want to be as an educator. And then make sure that my actions, thoughts and words reflect that vision. I want to walk into school every day looking towards possibility and promise. I want to rekindle the passion in teaching that called me to this profession 19 years ago. I want to remember that my focus is on the kids, and that my work here is “big and significant”, joyful and passionate.
How about you? What choice are you making?