Quiet

I just read Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking. What an amazing book! It was beautifully written and so validating!
One thing the author spoke about was how important it is to appreciate the gifts of introverts — whether in yourself or in your own children, or in your students. Introverts offer deep insights and observations about the world, and deep intimacy with a few rather than shallow connections with a multitude. She wrote about research into an introvert’s nee to recharge and find a quiet space for healing and recharging. She talked about carving out time and space for this, and how unhealthy it is for introverts not to have this kind of recharging. She talked about the importance of honoring who we are as introverts by choosing jobs in which our gifts shine, rather than trying to change ourselves to fit the picture of our extrovert-oriented world. She spoke of the danger of gearing everything toward extroversion, of missing the gifts that only introverts can bring to a classroom, a business, the world.
It strikes me how very much I am enjoying my teaching this year, and how well-suited I am for these small scale interactions. My students are learning so much from me, and I am learning so much from them, by being able to work with them one-on-one and in small groups. I am helping them reach deep to learn, and in return and reaping the harvest of emotional and intellectual connection. I have often thought of teaching as a job for party people. But there’s a place for very kind of person in teaching — it’s just a matter of finding the right setting and the right way to teach and learn that suits you.

Narcissus

One year, Narcissus was in my class, a self-identified Mean Girl. “I’m a mean girl,” he said. “I tell it like it is.”
Helping Narcissus learn compassion and how not to be the center of attention was  challenging. He was funny, and kids laughed at his antics. But they also were weary and wary. Would he turn on them next?
Instead, he turned on me.
What happened was this: One day I called Narcissus in to discuss behavior. It did not turn out the way I planned. He was a fast talker, slick as wet pavement. He said, “You should know that I’ve taken a poll, and everyone agrees that  YOU need to change YOUR behavior.” His head bobbed back and forth in that cool way kids have on T.V. when they’re being smarty with their t.v. parents. “Oh, yeah, baby.”

Then he pulled out a list, and a pile of letters. “All of these kids wrote letters.” He looked down at one. “This one says, — Oh. I can’t read that,” he smirked.”It’s private — watch your language, girl!” He shuffled papers. “This one says you’re too strict.” He dug another one out. “This one — ” he smiled to himself, looking it over, “you don’t EVEN want to know what this person says about you.”
I ignored the letters and patiently went over our class rules again, what it means to be a respectful member of our classroom community, and how he was being disrespectful with his constant talking, and ..yada yada yada. But inside I felt defeated. This savvy kid had defeated me.  Again. My mind spun out into the painful places teaching has taken me at times. “Nothing will change,” the voice told me. “You  can’t teach.” My mind went where it has often gone over the years: I shouldn’t be a teacher. I should just quit. This was too painful.

I thought about all the methods I had used to help manage his poor behavior and outbursts — the checklists I had given him that he simply would not check off when he was misbehaving. The moments stepping out of the classroom that brought only laughter and hoots from other students, and the focus of attention squarely where Narcissus wanted it to be. I really didn’t know what to do. And steely eyed as I tried to appear, I felt awful, like an awful teacher.

And then two things happened that saved my day — and saved my career:

Another teacher found one of the letters a student had written. “This is NOT acceptable,” she said. And she named the behavior: “This is bullying. He has no right to treat you this way. If he were treating a student this way, he would be suspended. And it is even worse to treat an adult with this kind of gossip and unkindness.” I was stunned. I was being bullied. It had never occurred to me. I felt embarrassed, but liberated at the same time, like a truth had been illuminated. I felt grateful that she had named the behavior.

Then the principal came in. She was stern. I was a little afraid. How had I lost such control of a situation? I was sure she would criticize me.

“You are doing everything right,” she said. “You are teaching really well. He has no right to treat you this way and he is in BIG trouble!”
I almost cried. At that moment, I realized that  never, in any teaching job since my first one 25 years ago, had I seen a principal so fully support a teacher. I felt only gratitude.

Hearing such support, I felt completely empowered to seek new solutions. I saw Narcissus’s behavior as a challenge that could be solved with support, not as a sign of my own failure. It was an amazing feeling.
So the next day, I sought the help of the Speech and Language Pathologist. I didn’t know if she’d ever had a student who was hyperverbal and manipulative, or if Speech was meant to deal with such people at all. But I described to her the situation and what I had done to help him change his behavior so it did not disrupt class. And she pointed out that everything we had done so far with him was verbal reinforcement. It gave him the attention he craved. She suggested I use a nonverbal system to help him curb his behavior, and more importantly, that all the teachers use the same system with him in a consistent way. We began the next day.

The principal also modeled how she spoke with him: “I will speak now and you are to remain silent. Then it will be your turn to speak.” and then cut off the conversation. The result was beautiful. I did not tell him what we were doing that first day. I did not remind him of his behavior. I simply watched him and conducted my class, and ignore him, and at each misbehavior,  I put a button in a jar. At the end of the day, he and I counted buttons. He had accumulated 64 buttons in one hour by getting up and walking around, calling out, interrupting other kids, throwing things in the air, and generally being disruptive in a way no other child was being in class. After we counted buttons, I asked him, in order to give him some sense of choice, how many buttons he felt he should reasonably expect to accumulate in an hour. 20, he said. The other teachers disagreed: 10, they said. the limit would be 10. After that, he would be on detention for disruptions. I also added, I know you like to get “rewarded” for good behavior. We will recognize that, too. If you do something great — not just something expected — you will get a button in another jar.
During our next class, his behavior was much better — down to 30 buttons. The next day, 27. The next 13. the next 7, and finally, one day, he had no negative buttons. Only two — in the positive jar, for sharing his wonderful writing.

Each day after that, he would come into my class to share something beautiful he had written — something positive, something life-affirming, something that showed the ways that a gregarious person can contribute to the world. Over time, he  learned to curb his behavior and act more appropriately in class. As an adult, I am sure he will look back with gratitude on this small clipping of wings, as a time when someone finally found a way to say to him, “Enough.” and helped him learn to work with others in a healthier way.

No Bad Days in the Garden

One of the things I love most about teaching in the garden is finding critters. It’s amazing what kids see with their fine eyes — the tiniest creatures! This week, while we pulled weeds, one child found a stick insect no more than a centimeter long, as thin as a few strands of hair, crawling across dirt exactly the same color as the bug. On the underside of a leaf, I found a Green Lynx spider and her hatched egg sac with tiny babies. Worms! pill bugs; tiny centipedes. The garden is a thriving place!

Getting help

I have called two friends in the last week to seek help with my classroom. Two friends, three special ed teachers, four other teachers. Lots of people taking an objective, non-judgmental look to answer the question: what can I do to bring my wild bunch under control? What sensory adaptations can I make to my room and curriculum to meet the needs of these  students? How can I offer rich, deep thinking, a strong curriculum in reading, writing and math and science, and yet also offer sensory play and art?

I am hoping that with friends looking out for me, analyzing my classroom, that I can find a balance that works for this population of children.

The Pink Tank House

Today in my project-based learning classroom, my second graders began the Not-a-Box project, based on the book Not a Box. We read the book, and students gathered in groups of four or five, based on their table numbers, and began to create something out of a box. They had to work together to decide what it should be. Then they worked together to create it.

One group consisted of three girly-girls and one very boy-ish boy. He’s into army guys and explosions. They’re into Barbies. He wanted an army box. They wanted a Dream House. they wanted pink. He wanted brown. Yesterday, they completely over-rode him. The result: a very frustrated boy, four busy girls, and one very pink box.

Today when we began to work on it, I asked him, “What is your idea for this box?” “Armies,” he said. “War.”

“War gives me bad dreams,” one girl said. “War makes me feel sad,” said another.

“Fine,” he growled, and stormed away. I found him outside the classroom at a picnic table. “What would you like the girls to know?” I asked.

“Nothing,” he growled, his hands over his ears, teeth gritted.

“Your voice counts, too,” I said. “You need to tell them what you want. Do you want me to help you?”

Slowly he got up, and we went inside. “Bradley has a message for you,” I told the girls. “Tell them what you would like to see in the box.”

“I want there to be some army parts in the box,” he said.

The girls began to protest, like crows cawing.Bradley put his hands over his ears.  I put up my hand. “Bradley’s ideas matter, too,’ I said. “How can you include his idea into your house?” The girls looked at each other. “Well….”

“We could put army guys inside the house.” He shook his head.

“We could glue army guys on the outside, like guards.” He looked up. Suddenly, his eyes were alive. “I know!” he said. “We could put army rollers on the bottom, like a conveyer belt!”

“It could be a tank-house!” a girl cried.

“With a gun on top!” he said. “A shooter on top of the house!”

In the end, the guns were nixed. But the house went onto cardboard rollers, like a tank, and the house became a dreamy, pink tank-house.

And everyone was happy.

The Hopes and Dreams of Parents

Parents — and I am one, myself — have a hard time making changes. So when their child comes into my class after having spent years in the care of someone else, a rough patch often ensues. It’s true for me, too. I hate change.

The first two weeks of school are critical in developing a strong community in the classroom. Children are getting to know one another. Parents are getting to know one another. And everyone is getting to know the teacher. While many schools have a stock standard set of rules they pull out that are meant to apply to every classroom and every situation, I prefer using The Responsive Classroom’s collaborative rule making with children. The process involves helping children identify their hopes and  dreams for the year, having the class listen to these dreams and think about how they can support that child in achieving them, and then creating rules based on what will best create a community that supports learning in this way.

It can be a messy process. This year I discovered that part of the messiness is helping children identify dreams for the classroom, and dreams that they could actually achieve. Rather than, “I wish I were rich,” or “I dream of riding a pony to school,” a child might decide that they hope to understand how money works, or that they’d like to learn more about animals, horses in particular.

It is important for parents to identify their hopes and dreams for their children, too. Sometimes they can do this quite articulately. At other times, they may just feel fear and worry and protectiveness. But it is all based on a hope they hold dearly that their child will be valued, that their child will love to learn, and that their child will grow and thrive in school.

It is important to hear the hope behind words that sound like complaints,  the fear behind words that sound like parent criticism, the love hidden in words that ring in our ears as teacher and resonate in our hearts in a painful way. It’s not easy to do.

This morning and yesterday evening, I asked for my own husband, children and friends to give me words of encouragement before I went off to work to face those voices of fear and criticism. I felt their blessings resting in my chest, along with the ache of hurt. And I found I could say the right thing when I needed to, had courage when I needed to draw upon it, and felt supported enough to support these families in finding the love underneath their fear, and coming to a place of understanding and hope.

Open House, Open Hearts

Open House at a new school is always scary. You don’t know anyone and they don’t know you. Parents, children, teachers, administrators, all checking you out — the new kid on the block. I did not sleep for several nights  before, worried that I would not have everything ready in time, or that somehow I would be found to be lacking.

Instead, I found helpful colleagues with kind words, open hearts and down-to-earth advice. They confirmed my instincts and allowed me to trust myself. They smiled at me and understood my worries, and shared their own experiences. I found children who walked in shy and were delighted by the activities I had set up. I heard the sound of raucous laughter as children dove into the building challenge I offered them, rediscovered old classmates and met new ones. I saw children who smiled, collaborated, and were sdelighted  to be together again. And I met parents who asked insightful questions, wanted to know how they could help, and smiled upon leaving.

I

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