This year could have been the death nell of my career. The academic, social and emotional needs of my students overwhelmed me. Throughout the year, I found myself reciting the final stanza of Robert Frost’s poem Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening.
“I choose love. Hate is too great a burden to bear.” – Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
This quote hangs in my classroom, among others. It needs to be our mantra as a divided country. I will not let the world change me. I will stand up and not by. I will look hate in the face and say, “NO!” to those who attempt to use fear to make me less than who I was created to be or to demoralize my brothers and sisters. There is no color of skin, religion or sexual orientation that can strip away the humanity of our fellow global citizens. It is only man’s weaknesses that can do that – and only if we allow it. Happy birthday, Dr. King. I will do my best to love, knowing it won’t always be easy. Your legacy of peace is more important than ever.
I don’t know what goes on in my brain while I am sleeping. Strange stuff, though, I am sure. I wonder if perhaps I follow Alice through the looking glass, because when I wake up I have the most random ideas floating through my psyche. This morning I was pondering if my students could understand the difference between a defining moment and a pivotal moment.
I sent home report cards, and I hated it. I knew that no matter what I said, they would wear those letters like labels, ala Hester Prinn – some for better, some for worse. Would they read the comments and see that I am tracking their growth? Could they understand in the confines of limited space that I am so proud of them? Could they see grades that were low as a chance for a pivot instead of a definition?
I ask them to have a growth mindset. We use the words persevere and iteration. So I feel a sense of betrayal grading them based on a standards system. I would rather have them work on their digital portfolios of work and reflect on their learning. That would be a lot of work, a huge paradigm shift and a loss of accountability as our culture knows it – and would be outside of the mandate, of course.
Someone out there has made the shift. I am certain of it. Is it you? What did you change, and how did you make it happen?
I was thinking about the word “Professors” yesterday. To profess means to proclaim, announce, state. It speaks to the notion that teachers are the bearers of knowledge and our students are the consumers. That is not the model for the 21st century classroom, so my next thought was that teachers are no longer professors, so to speak.
We are still in the position of transmitting knowledge, but I think we have moved from the role of lecturer to that more closely resembling a docent at a museum. Upon investigating this chain of thought, I came to understand is that a docent in the university versus the museum setting, is a step BELOW the professor, merely a guide who is qualified to teach. Well, then, I think I am living in some parallel universe because Guide is my dream role.
The thrill of teaching does not come in that moment when you have said something enough times for your students to be able to repeat it back to you. The reward comes in the moment when a student begins to ask deeper questions, connects the answers she has discovered and comes to a conclusion – which dawns more questions. You can see it in his eyes as it all unfolds – that sparkle of excitement. When you watch the student apply that discovery to a novel situation, well that is just gold! That requires guidance, not a lecture.
Direct instruction is still needed. Some skills and foundations of knowledge need the scaffolding of direct instruction. But I argue that the skills and factual knowledge are not the end-goal anymore. What I profess to you is that when we have students who can apply their skills to an unfamiliar task or setting, who are flexible in their thinking and continue to ask, “What if . . .?” long after they have left our corridors, we will have guided our students to a life unbounded.
When you know better, you do better – right? I wish it was as simple as that. Change is hard. Being on the front end of change is even harder. We are in the midst of a gigantic pendulum swing in education, and in the process redefining our entire pedagogy. And if that weren’t a challenge enough, we are constantly being reminded that this new educational system is to prepare our students to be successful in a world we cannot envision.
So it is easy to understand why teachers would want to opt out of this swing. It is thrill-ride level to be certain. I want to say I am “all in” because in my heart and mind I AM. That is the easy part. The rough part is living it on the daily, trusting the process, being open to mistakes and risking failure. There is so much at stake here. I teach in a high poverty school. Most of my students are already 2-3 years behind. If I blow this, it is unforgivable, unfixable. On the other hand, that is the very reason I MUST proceed with Project Based Learning, Genius Hour, STEAM challenges, individualized learning.
Now the first semester is over, so it is reflection time – that “Come to Jesus” moment when grades (d0n’t get me started) have to be assigned. How are we doing? Where are we at? CAN THEY READ? The answer is that we are all making progress, and I am trying to provide “standards-based” grades to reflect that. There is definitely frustration in the process. They haven’t done “standardized assignments”. I am still trying to figure out how to walk on both sides of this fence. It is hard to create the neat data tables that governing entities want to see.
My students and their caregivers need to see growth beyond grades, however. That is the true measure. That is what I want my students to focus on, because they have worked so hard. They need to know what their challenges are but also their successes so they can persevere with joy.
I was so worried at the start of this year that the interruptions by fires would burn down the community I was trying to create. I didn’t know if our chance to bond had been erased by the school closures. I was sad and disappointed, but each new “first day of school”, I started over. I learned that it doesn’t take a certain number of consecutive days. It takes a consistent heart.
A funny and sweet thing happened on Friday. One of my favorite books to read is There’s a Boy in the Girl’s Bathroom by Louis Sachar. My students “get” this story about a fifth grade boy, Bradley Chalkers, who is “the bad kid” at school, has no friends, is comfortable with failure, etc. In this story, with the help of a new kid who doesn’t buy into Bradley’s version of himself and a new school counselor, Bradley begins to change how he views himself and takes the risk of changing his persona. We are in the last pages now, and Bradley has to face the heartache of losing the counselor due to school politics. It is devastating to Bradley and to the readers who have come to love him and root for him. So I warn my students – this is the part that makes me cry EVERY TIME. Sure enough, as I’m reading, the tears start to flow down my face and the faces of several students. At this point, one of my boys goes to the tissue box and dispenses tissue to me and his classmates. Then he came to my side and started gently patting my back as I read. He was so sweet and caring.
Previously, as I gathered them from the cafeteria, he told me his stomach hurt after he ate. He didn’t want to see the nurse. He was going to wait and see how he felt later. When I inquired later he said, “No, the question is ‘Do YOU feel better’?” Well, I most certainly did. (He did as well.) When I read his blog post (I will write about that another time.) at the end of the day he had written, “Mrs. G. is very kind. It is our time to be the same.”
Through this story, my interactions with my students and the reminders around our classroom that “Kindness Matters” and The Golden Rule, they are learning the most important lessons of all. We are not defined by our past mistakes; we are all worthy of love; and being kind can make a difference in the lives of the people around us.
I see the kindness in my students every day, throughout the day, in how they support and interact with one another. It starts with our Celebrations and Concerns time in the morning and ripples throughout the day. We don’t spend time reciting and reviewing the rules, because we are invested in each other’s success and happiness. Following the rules is a natural consequence.
With this is in place, we are ready to take on all the challenges learning brings to us. It doesn’t take clip charts or points, treasure boxes or threats. It just takes kindness. We have it at our disposal. It is free. It requires no storage. It is transformational. Just be kind.
I am warning you right now that a brag is coming. My students are the best. There, I said it. A member of our classroom family has been struggling for the past year with severe anxiety and issues with self-worth. Extreme. She cannot see mistakes or failure as a viable option (yet). To be “out” in Four Square or Dodgeball can be the catalyst for anguish. (While she is not adept at either, eagerly joins in on both.) Her peers know this, and each game holds tension. For the purpose of storytelling, I will call her “Sarah”. So here’s her “Rudy” moment:
The game of Dodgeball is down to three people. Sarah is still in. Another student leans into me and says, “When she gets out, Mrs.G., I’m on it. I will go get her when she runs away. I know what to say.” I reply, “She won’t run today.” Now the game is down to two, the ball comes bouncing past and hits Sarah’s ankles. She drops in despair with a piercing wail. The other player steps out the circle. A classmate notices that the only one still “in” is Sarah. She says, “Sarah, I think you won!” Instead of questioning or challenging the notion, her classroom family begins to chant, “Sarah! Sarah!”
At this point, I have gone to her and am holding her against me to keep her safe. The other students come charging in for hugs and high-fives. I turn Sarah around to see and hear and feel the love. She is so shocked and confused, that I take her hand and place in the air for her so she can receive the high-fives. She finally “came to”, embraced me tightly and whispered, “This has never happened to me before.” Then I could see all the tension release from her body.
As I stepped away, the other student who had stepped out of the circle approaches me and says, “I was really still in. I was the winner, but it’s okay. I won’t say anything.” I hug her and say, “You are a winner, and thank you.”
This story isn’t about winning. This story is about working to change one of Sarah’s fundamental truths about herself. Her goal for this year is to feel safe and loved at school. Our classroom family knows she needs this, and we are on a mission to make it happen. And I never had to say a word. Intrinsic Empathy on our 8th day of school. It’s gonna be a great year.