Saturday, February 15, 2014

Love is All Around

It gets discouraging sometimes. I’m not going to gloss over that part. I get tired of scrambling every morning to make everyone’s breakfast and lunch and get my sorry butt out the door on time, tired of chasing the 5th graders out of the cafeteria after the late bell rings, tired of cajoling our little dudes through task completion for work they find so entirely distasteful that it’s hard to imagine any real learning is happening in the process (beyond learning how to complete tedious crap you hate – which, one could argue, is something of a life skill). 

At the same time, purely amazing things are happening. I’ll give reading assessments to little dudes with heartbreaking backstories who came to us barely able to read at all, and they blow the lid off that thing, reading like rock stars and so damn proud of themselves. Or I’ll be working breakfast duty and the boy who spoke no English at all last year walks up to me with a determined look on his face and declares “I want to know the difference between ‘whoops’ and ‘whoopsie’!”

Or we’re told that we have to prepare our struggling 1st and 2nd graders for a Writers’ Celebration in which each child is expected to write a book. And the lead teacher and I will panic and wonder how the heck we will ever pull it off…and then we do. For weeks, we slog through the writing process with our little pumpkins. They tell us their stories with humor and imagination and wonder, and we teach them how to write the words. And finally, they get to see their books on display for the whole first grade and their families, and you just about cry with pride and happiness.

That’s how we wrapped things up right before school ended for winter break. I was the happiest girl in the world. I loved everything and everybody. 

Then…it was over for two weeks. Things got strangely quiet. Each day I felt further and further removed from the joyful, absurd chaos of school. And when school started up again, the magic had somehow drained away almost completely. I’m not sure why.   

I was beginning to think it was never coming back. I was beginning to worry that maybe September through December had been one long honeymoon phase that was now past, and all that lay ahead was weary crankiness and tedium and the vague sense of fear that I’m falling further and further away from the ideals that drove me here in the first place.

I was sitting in our classroom office earlier this week filling out a pile of incident reports from morning recess while the lead teacher gathered our students on the rug for the day’s writing lesson. It had been such a cranky morning.

And then I noticed something. The students were all, each and every one of them, intently focused on the teacher. All of them. Even the ones who usually can't stand writing and rarely participate. Even the ones who can’t sit on the rug without spinning in a dozen circles or carrying on a full-volume conversation with someone across the room. Every single kid had their eyes on the teacher. Every single kid raised their hands again and again to offer more ideas.

The topic was Valentine’s Day. The teacher explained a little bit about the holiday, but really captured their attention when she told them we’d be having a Valentine’s Day party on Friday. After a few moments of letting them delightedly call out their favorite party treats, she drew a heart in the center of the marker board and showed them how to write “I love you.” And then, she built a story web with hearts instead of bubbles, filling each heart with examples from the students about who and what they love. (Mom! My brother! God! Cotton candy!)

Our old friend Teacher Tom recently blogged about how his preschoolers enjoy painting heart-shaped pieces of  paper at their easels, first following the basic shape of the heart, then delightedly saturating the paper with color. He wrote about how this business of literally “filling the whole heart” is like the process of love itself.

And that is exactly what happened in our classroom that day. All the students cut out paper hearts and practiced their mad writing skillz on them. And then, just like their preschool colleagues, they absolutely saturated those hearts with color. Every student. I can't tell you how rare that is for us, to have every single student so thoroughly independently engaged in a project. The room was so busy and happy.

And then, as they were lining up for recess, one of the boys who’s often so deeply sad and angry came up to the lead teacher and gave her a huge, spontaneous hug. Another boy did the same. Then he came into the classroom office where I was still mired in paperwork and gave me a huge hug too.     

Later that day, at the end of my social skills lesson, I gave the students a compliment for how well they'd waited turns and listened to each other. A boy raised his hand and asked if he could give his friend a compliment too. “I like when you play games with me on the playground,” he told his friend shyly.

Then another boy raised his hand and offered a compliment to the girl who’d done very well at the game we just played. More hands went in the air. Everyone had a sincere, unique compliment to give to everyone else in the room. The bell rang to end the day and they were still sitting criss-cross on the rug, hands waving in the air with more and more compliments for their classmates.    

Is that all we needed? Another candy-and/or-love-themed holiday? It certainly brought out the best in our class this week. One of my favorite little dudes who straight-up hates school and wishes he were anywhere else but here was so happy this week. “It’s a Valentine’s school!” he announced with joy as we decorated our paper bags. Later, when he was helping me get the table ready for our party, I noticed he’d been dangerously generous in distributing chocolate hearts to each place setting.

“Let’s just have one chocolate heart on each plate,” I suggested.

“Let’s have TWO chocolate hearts!” he countered.

I agreed to two and asked him how many we’d need to take away to make two. Little dude’s been struggling with subtraction for weeks now. But darned if he didn’t tell me exactly how many chocolate hearts we needed to subtract to get two. By the time we were ready for the party, he had it down. At least when it came to chocolates.

How do we keep that spirit of love and candy and emergent-based subtraction with us? It’s a long stretch of weeks with no candy-related public-school-appropriate holidays in sight. I think we’re just going to have to make it happen on our own. Somehow, within our relentless schedule and IEP goals to meet and Common Core standards to uphold and tops to race to and children to not leave behind…somehow we need to actually grab those children’s hands and reach them.

Maybe, at least in our classroom, that looks like building more fun into our school routine, holiday or not. We don’t need an official calendar holiday to celebrate each other and take some time out of our routine for a little enjoyment. And when their hearts are open, when their spirits are lifted like that…they can do so much more and learn so much more, and seamlessly.  

If it takes me the rest of my career, I am going to find a way to reconcile this practice  with the public school context. We’re already doing it here and there, in the cracks, accidentally or maybe a little bit on purpose. Maybe it’s the Valentine’s Day chocolate overload talking, but I have hope.


Anonymous said...

This made my eyes sweat. And this deserves to be posted on every classroom door: "Somehow, within our relentless schedule and IEP goals to meet and Common Core standards to uphold and tops to race to and children to not leave behind…somehow we need to actually grab those children’s hands and reach them."

Teacher Tom said...

This is really good, Toby. I'm glad you're writing about your work. It's important.

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