I was subbing. The Kindergarteners needed to color the curve that was marked “1,” then the curve marked “2,” “3,” on up to “6.” To get the correct colors, students needed to refer to the legend at the bottom of the page: 1=purple, 2=blue, 3=green, 4=yellow, 5=orange, 6=red. As I explained the directions, I read the letters in each word, then the word itself, which they repeated. “B-l-u-e blue” and so on.
I had been clear. So very clear. But as they started coloring, they asked the same questions. What color is 2? What color is 6?
As the rainbow took shape, one child asked what color “3” was. Here we go again. I glumly quizzed her, “G-R-E-E-N spells….” She didn’t budge. I started the sounds. “Guh.. Rrrr…” “Oh, green,” she muttered and picked up a green crayon.
The kid didn’t care about letters or reading, she just wanted to color.
I noticed that the color name was on the crayon wrapper facing us. I took a chance. “What does that word say?” She starred at it. She tentatively stated the letters. “G. R. Guh… Rrrr”
“GREEN!!” She held the crayon in both hand and read it again. “It says GREEN!”
The bland word that I had insisted she read on the worksheet had now appeared on her most prized tool, a crayon. Now those scribbles of letters had value and power.
I announced to the class, “Avril’s crayon says G-R-E-E-N green!” Soon the room was full of “My crayon says green!” “Mine says R-E-D red!” “Mine is P-U-ruh, puh-puh!”
Literacy acquisition was happening in real time for an entire classroom of kids. Suddenly, children were linking letters and known objects. Five minutes before, they had been passive students who wanted help with reading so they could color. They hadn’t seen how reading related to them. Now they were engaged in a Group Read of crayons, and the benefits were real to them.
I’m sure that it wasn’t the first time that the kids had learned that big-kid symbols (letters) indicate actual objects. During this project, though, the children found that the magic of reading was literally in their hands, just waiting for them to discover it.
I’ve mentioned that I use chess in my teaching. This week, a student decided that it would be much more fun to replace the usual figures with Little Pet Shop toys. A reluctant chess player, now she can’t wait for next week’s tutoring. She chose each piece carefully, with cups and bottle caps as the rooks, matching figures for the bishops, the knights, and queen and king, little toys for the pawns. As long as they face opposite directions, we can remember who is on which team.
We talk about the wonder of childhood. Sometimes as teachers, we create wonder in our classrooms. And sometimes wonder spontaneously generates, slamming through our scripted plans.
Annabelle (not her real name) stared at the days of the week on her Kindergarten bulletin board. Her class had just sung its daily “Days of the Week” song to the tune of The Addams Family. My attention was on her peers who were charging off the rug after morning meeting. I certainly wasn’t wondering what anyone was thinking, especially a quiet kid.
Turns out, Annabelle was thinking about spelling. In the middle of the classroom chaos, she turned to me. “Why does ‘Thursday’ start with a T?”
She wrinkled her forehead. “It should be an F.”
Fursday? Who says Fursday?
Slow down, Dawn. Before you answer, figure out what she means. Oh, I got it! She is unable to say “th” yet, so she’s spelling the way she speaks.
No. The kid said, “Thursday.”
While I stood replaying her speech patterns in my mind, one of her classmates jumped in. He had assessed the situation and was taking over. “It’s ‘T’ ‘H’ – thuh. Thursday.”
“Oh!” she nodded, smiled and skipped off to her friends. Her peer mentor chuckled to himself, “Fursday.”
I put together what had happened. She hadn’t known about the “th” sound (or had forgotten about it), so she was looking at the word as “Tursday,” which she knew was wrong. She had gone through the alphabet to find the closest single-letter sound to “th,” which very reasonably was “f.”
I was seeing an early speller observe a word, compare its spelling and sounds to what she knew, note the inconsistencies, and problem-solve to find a better solution. Then she asked why her solution wasn’t the right one. Her classmate listened, engaged, and explained the phonemic convention.
By the time I realized that this had been a cool moment, both kids had moved on to coloring. The time for teacher commentary had passed.
It had been a random amazing moment in the classroom. Another quick encounter that I didn’t appreciate until after it was over. Argh, these supersonic moments of learning frustrate me. I want an Amazing Moments Warning System so that I can schedule them into my day. I want time to explain to the kids why their observations are significant.
At the same time, I want to encourage this kind of inquiry in other students. How to do that? I already ask, “What questions do you have?” In this case, even if I had been specific, like asking, “What question do you have about the days of the week, which you say every single morning?” probably would not have elicited Annabelle’s musing. Her question came in the gut of the moment. Fortunately, she was confident enough to articulate what was on her mind.
Should I have “Wonder Time”? “For the next four minutes, you can wonder anything. Look around the room, look out the windows. Write or draw what you’re wondering, then let’s talk about it.” Hmmm. I’d get oddball questions for sure. Guidelines and examples would help. But would Annabelle have come up with this question during Wonder Time? I kind of doubt it. However, maybe Wonder Time would help other kids to build the habit of articulating their own musings.
I could also try to be ready with instant praise for the spontaneous moments. I hadn’t been ready for spelling analysis, so I just watched the moment pass. It would have been great if I had gotten the whole class’s attention and told them about Annabelle’s question. I could have empathized with her thinking. I could have admitted to the class that I still have problems with spelling. Yes, that would have been neat.
But. Sometimes, the magic happens between kids and we’re just lucky to witness. In the middle of Addams family tunes, coloring shamrocks, and countless distractions, sometimes those moments of wonder burble out without us – and the whole point of education appears.
There are people in this country who do not have a voice or national presence. They are getting ready for the responsibilities that will soon be theirs. They are not quoted by reporters, not discussed by employers. Every day brings them closer to the inevitable, when the world will be theirs. They are watching. If we listen we can hear them.
Kindergartener: “What will happen to people left at Donald Trump’s wall? They’ll get cold.”
Fourth grader: “The difference between climate and weather is that climate is longterm and weather is what’s happening now. The climate is getting warmer because so many people are polluting the air.”
And now a high schooler: “If the adults won’t change gun control laws, our generation will.”
My God, how much trouble are we leaving this generation of children? Not in recent memory has one generation been saddled with so much before leaving high school. They KNOW they’ll have to clean the environment, they KNOW there will be long-term fallout from this presidency, and 18 times this year, as of February 15, they know that they are being shot at school. The walls of school are not safe, the climate is not safe, and the government is not safe.
And our generations have created it all. We voted in the administration, we pollute every day, happy for warm days in January, and at best shrug our shoulders about gun control. Sure we complain, but as a neighbor said to me, “What can we do about it?” She didn’t actually want an answer; she walked away when it looked like I might respond.
These children will have to clean up all of our choices: we the Boomers, Gen X, even the Millennials. It doesn’t matter if our generations didn’t create the problems. We all need to show up and do everything we can to stop these problems. We must do more.
This generation born after 2000 cannot solve everything. At this point, it looks like they’ll have to. They’re the ones dying from gunshot wounds, they’re the ones who will see Cape Cod swallowed by rising seas, and they’re the ones who will inherit an impossible national debt with paltry social safety nets.
This generation talks about these topics every day. I hear their comments. They accept the problems as fact because they see fallout from the issues every day. They are learning to read by reading news and this IS the news. It’s all they know. From the way they’re talking, they may be up for undoing the damage done by us older generations. If we do nothing, they’ll have no choice but to try. Please, let’s take some of this off of their shoulders. Let’s be loud and involved and make this a world we’re proud of. We owe the kids that much.
Lilly ran up to me on the playground. We high fived and she ran off for recess. About ten feet from me, she turned back to me, “Are you going to ask me a question?”
An odd inquiry. I hadn’t planned on asking her anything. I came up with, “Uh, which swing is the best one?” “The big one,” she answered. She smiled, then ran off.
I substitute taught two or three times in her classroom last year. Not much.
This year, when I’m done with my day and the kids are waiting to leave, I walk down the school hall saying hi to kids in the bus lines. I ask some of them questions. Usually it’s a lame grownup question, “Did you have a great day?” “What are you doing this weekend?”
But questions to kids, simple as they feel to us, can make a difference.
We adults can forget that consistent moments of simple questions can be memorable to kids. In their no-nonsense way of sizing up adults, which can intimidate the toughest teachers, kids can tell when we are giving them time. Kids care about those simple conversations. Do we remember a few adults who always spoke to us when we were kids? We may not remember what was discussed, but we remember seeing the grownups, and knowing that they were going to pay attention to us. Decades later, we still remember.
If you’re reading this, you’re probably already comfortable talking to kids. But you can encourage other adults to spend a little time asking random questions – and building relationships – with kids.
The kids notice.
Executive functioning issues baffle many teachers and parents. Most of us live with lists and future dreads, which we can see in our minds. “If I don’t get this report done today, I’ll need to finish it on Mother’s Day. Guess I should microwave that frozen pizza for dinner tonight so I can crank out the report.” If we can arrange holidays and reports, why can’t our kid get out of the door without forgetting his backpack?
Curious to know more about executive functioning, I attended a presentation by Sarah Ward of Cognitive Connections. It was hosted by the Ashland (MA) Parent Advisory Council. In addition to describing executive functioning, Ms. Ward talked about many strategies to address this issue. I was particularly struck by one: visualizing the end product.
It turns out that kids with executive functioning deficits often can’t visualize what the rest of us can: the Mother’s Day party with us frantically scribbling that work report in the corner. Heck, these kids with can’t even visualize the finished report!
Isn’t it interesting that executive functioning’s deficit is autism’s strength? Remember my entry about Temple Grandin’s book, Thinking in Pictures? Her autistic brain gives her highly detailed pictures of end results, to the extent that she has difficulty explaining the pictures to other people. In contrast, people with executive functioning challenges have minds that give them lots of information, but no end results.
Back to your child forgetting his backpack. Ms. Ward explained how a simple step like taking a photo of your child in the doorway wearing the backpack, coat, and shoes can help him visualize the end goal. If you show the child the picture on subsequent mornings, his brain gets the necessary reminder. “Oh, I don’t have my backpack!” Similarly, an older child can benefit from a sample of the report notes that are due. “Oh THAT’S what those directions mean!”
As teachers and parents, we can help these students by giving them visuals of finished products. I already knew that final product visuals can be helpful, but they seemed like more of an “extra” to me. Now I see how critical final visuals are to some students.
Also, engaging students in this process is particularly motivating. If those visuals include the kids themselves (picture of child in a backback, the student taking a photo with her phone of her neat folder), the tool is all the more powerful.
If you are interested in Cognitive Connection and their upcoming events around the country, check out their website. In the meantime, talk a little less and photograph a little more.
In my previous entry, I described Thinking in Pictures, by Temple Grandin and how she describes effective education for students with autism. Grandin also explores the fine line between disability and genius, writing, “People labeled autistic have an extreme form of traits found in normal people.” (page 177) Genius is the ability to see and create what most people cannot do. Grandin posits,“If the genes that cause autism and other disorders such as manic-depression were eliminated, the world might be left to boring conformists with few creative ideas.” (page 178) For people experiencing autism and other conditions, the line between genius and disability may not exist at all. One can create while simultaneously struggling with the disability. Grandin refers to a study that found that 80% of writers have had a mood disorder at some point in their lives. She describes traits of Einstein and van Gogh that mimicked autism.
As an educator, the part of the book that most resonated for me was Grandin’s observation, “As I grew older, the people who were of the greatest assistance were always the more creative, unconventional types.” (page 98) I consider myself to be a creative and nonconformist teacher, and my greatest joy is helping students use their own unconventionalities as strengths. Grandin states, “I think there is too much emphasis on deficits and not enough emphasis on developing abilities.” (page 100) This often involves teaching in ways that are contrary to standard methods. Teachers are vital in showing students that what makes them different is what can make them greatness.
Not all people with disabilities will achieve what Grandin has, both as an animal scientist and speaker. At the time of the book, she had designed one-third of all the livestock-handling facilities in the United States and was a well-known speaker about autism. But all of us teachers and parents can help students to reach beyond their safety zones to be unique gifts to the world.
Classroom management is an enormous part of a teacher’s day. The choices that a teacher makes regarding classroom management affect students’ learning, their self-esteem, their focus, and the teacher’s energy level at the end of the day.
What do you do when a child is acting up? For instance, say you want the kids to sit on the rug. Cassie and Grace are walking around behind everyone. Or later on, you want everyone to work. Vitor and Dan are talking.
The first thing we usually say is, “Cassie and Grace, sit down.” or “Vitor and Dan, get to work.”
I have stopped naming kids who are misbehaving. I rarely say names to complement or to reprimand.
Rather, I say, “If you are sitting on the rug, very good job,” or “I see many kids starting to work. That’s exactly right.”
Or my favorite, when one kid is making kids laugh by talking out of turn, “If you are ignoring distractions in the room, give yourself a pat on the back.” Now all the kids who were NOT laughing have something to do. Sometimes the kids who were doing the distracting actually pat themselves on the back. That’s okay. The other kids take care of it, “Cassie, you weren’t ignoring the distraction. You WERE this distraction!” But if Cassie wants to pat herself on the back like everyone else, then she is choosing to be a part of the group and not distinguish herself by talking out.
I’ve stopped saying names because singling kids out frays the community. In fact, sometimes it backfires because kids don’t want the recognition. Raphael may not want the class to know that he is working hard. Emery might be sitting well, but also might be fighting with her friends and has nothing else to do. Singling her out may emphasize that she has no one to talk to today. This is particularly true for middle school and high school kids.
Also, I might complement Emery while missing that Ryan been sitting well for a longer time. Maybe Ryan trying something new today. He’s not on my radar as a “good kid” yet. It’s not that I’m ignoring him. It’s just that I’m not yet catching that he’s trying to change.
However, if I say, “I see lots of kids sitting quietly on the rug,” then Emery and Ryan both know that I mean them. By giving a general statement, I complement way more kids than I could individually notice. Also, the students who are not following directions hear “Everyone else is doing it” – and almost always do the right thing. By saying, “I see lots of kids…” I imply that the majority of the group is doing the right thing. Sometimes, this comforts me. See, Dawn? Most of them are doing it.
Also, saying “I see lots of kids…” is WAY less work. I don’t have to wonder if I’m complementing Sarah for the fourth time today.
I do call students by their names when I talk to them, like “Anya, how can I help you?” I also say their names to complement them for publicly trying a tough problem, even if they get an answer wrong. “Ryan just worked hard to get that answer on the board. Very good job.” “Good try, Lily.”
I find that by talking to the class as a whole, I have more energy at the end of the day. I haven’t been trying to keep up with every nuance in the room. I have treated the class as a community, with individual feedback when warranted. I find that I build better relationships with kids and they treat each other more as community members.
A class that sees itself as a community will have better discipline and more focused learning.
In special education, as well as general ed, we often conclude that we know how kids are thinking because they give us correct answers.
Then we learn how they found the answers.
We think, “WHHAATTT????”
At the end of a school year, I was overseeing a class of first graders while their teacher packed the classroom. Since the teacher was there, I could relax more than usual. When I’m responsible for a room of students who I don’t know, I don’t joke around. But here, I could have some fun. So when two kids asked me how old I was, I grinned and replied, “I’m two years old. I look pretty grown up for two, huh?”
They had expected me to answer, “My age is none of your business.” I know this because another kid was cowering near them, intoning, “This is none of our business.”
When I told them that I was two, all three stared at me.
Then they wised up. The interrogator shook her head. “You’re not two years old.”
I was caught.
“…because you have grown-up teeth.”
I tried to entertain them further by explaining that these are the teeth that we’re born with on my home planet, far far away. But the kids had come to their conclusion. I was a grownup because I didn’t have baby teeth. Conversation over.
I wondered, for a first grader, are teeth really the major distinction between babies and adults?
Now that I think about it, on my second grade Christmas concert, my class sang “All I Want for Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth.” Yuletide tidings supplanted by teeth. It’s all in our perspective.
Our students, our children, can arrive at accurate conclusions. We assume that their answers follow a logic that we ourselves use. These moments when we glimpse their thought processes can remind us that they see a pretty different world.
How do we use this in daily interactions?
Watch the kids. Listen to what they’re talking about with each other. Play with them and see how they respond.
For special education kids, this is incredibly important. What are they getting? What do we think they understand that they are missing? Just because they can get from A to D doesn’t mean they went directly through B and C. Does that matter? It might.
Taking time to ask, “Why?” and “How do you know?” can help us to understand how kids are thinking. We can learn which gaps need to be filled, or learn how to make better jokes to them in the future.
If nothing else, now when I talk to first graders, I know to reference teeth.