What She Said….

I recently read this post from Germantown Avenue Parents’ blog. Those behavior management tools – like the mentioned stoplight? Do they really help kids get behaviors on track?

In my school, we are required to hang a pocket chart. Each child has an assigned number and flips cards through a series of colors – green to yellow to blue to purple to indicate the kind of day they are having.

Who are we kidding with the numbered pockets?  It takes kids about an hour to know who is who.

While I agree with giving students a visual reminder of their behavior accountability, I dislike having behaviors displayed publicly. Besides taking up valuable bulletin board space, it seems self-defeating.  And disrespectful.  Would you want YOUR bad day posted for all to see? Me either.

What’s a solution to this dilemma? I have a small, portable pocket chart that served the same purpose as the bulletin board display, but in a less public way. For my more challenging students, I maintain a periodic behavior chart which gets reviewed daily (or hourly sometimes). And for the status of the class – we can still hang out our class sign indicating our classroom community is having a ‘great day’, ‘not-so-great day’, or ‘wish we could do-over’ day.

We can still help students get behaviors back on track. We just don’t need to do it publicly.

Through the eyes of a child

This has been one of the most challenging groups of children I have taught. Considering that this is my 23rd year as an elementary teacher, that’s quite a challenge.  Teaching in an urban district with children whose daily life is clearly outside of my own childhood experience, oftentimes means much more than academics are encompassed in a day’s teaching. I never am quite sure how the children perceive what we are doing or how we are doing it.

At the end of the school year, our children write a letter to the incoming class, the children who will fill this class during the next academic year. It often amuses me when I find out what they recall as “important”. This year there were lots of references to our lunchtime kickball games and to our frequent viewing of Reading Rainbow, as well as the expected reference to our Valentine’s Party.

Here, however, is my favorite letter this year — the one I will copy and look at on those days in future months when the challenge of teaching makes me feel as if I am getting nowhere fast.

Dear New Third Grader,
When you come to third grade it will be like an emoshinal (sic) roller coaster because when you come here Mrs. Bisson will get mad at you if you do something bad and trust me you don’t wanna (sic) go down that path. I’ve been there before and it was not so good.
Anyway in third grade it will be very fun. I mean in third grade it is kind of a little competitive but you will get through. Even if Mrs. Bisson can be a little hard on you she lets us do fun things like play BINGO, watch movies. We even have our own journal so that is why its a good place to be.
I also think that if you have Mrs. Bisson that you are the luckiest person walking on this earth. Oh, one more thing. Have fun in third grade.

I will think I am the luckiest person walking on this earth to have worked with you, my friend!

Responding to bullies

I don’t like being blindsided any more than anyone else. So this week when our school social worker relayed to me that one of my student’s parents said her child was being bullied, I was taken aback. As a Responsive Classroom, we continually work on appropriate social interactions. As part of the Making Meaning program, a large piece of instructional time goes in to socially acceptable ways to agree or disagree, to dialogue with peers.

Nevertheless, the parent’s concern was laid out and, as is required by law in Massachusetts, we address such concerns seriously. We are revisiting bullying this week.

I usually begin discussions of bullying by trying to figure out if students can define what bullying is and what it is not. It was amazing to me that sometimes kids think when a peer tells them to “shut up” that they feel they have been bullied. In the past, I’ve handled such events in the classroom with discussion between the involved students which ends with a plan the students themselves concoct for more polite interaction. But now, once the student or parent of the victim has raised the topic of bullying, there are formal procedures and documentation that need completion. What was at one time simple, has become complex. Which is what happens when we try to legislate every aspect of human behavior, isn’t it?

So this coming week, I will once again assist my students in defining what bullying is (for my third graders: repeated times that someone (or a group) makes you feel unsafe or uncomfortable). We will read age-appropriate literature like The Recess Queen as a jumping off point. We will role model. We will talk. And we will write, because sometimes my kids feel safer when they don’t have to say the words out loud.

I was thinking of all of this as I watched the shootings in Tuscon, Arizona unfold yesterday afternoon. Are we, the adults in our society modeling socially acceptable ways to agree or disagree when we get so incensed about another point of view that we can no longer listen to what is being said? What kind of a model for civilized discourse is in our own adult interaction – political or otherwise – when we can’t even  agree to disagree without threatening? Frankly, the Sheriff in Pima County, Clarence Dupnik, has it right.

It is something to ponder.

Letting Go

One of my New Year’s Resolutions – the list is really long! – is to try not to be such a control freak about what we do in the classroom. I’m letting go of the idea that I need to be at school before 6:30 am (our school begins at 8:30) and that I can’t possibly leave before 5 pm to get things done. Yesterday I left the house at 7 am and discovered that there is a world of sunlight out there!

Well, the reform movement can also be applied to my students. Yes, in general, they are a handful, but just maybe they will step up to the plate if I shift some responsibility on to them.

Up to this point, I had very complicated management for what part of the Daily 5 Cafe each student was responsible to complete on a daily basis.  I felt the need to do this because of the requirements for small-group instruction within our school – Safety Net students must meet with teacher and literacy partner (also a teacher) twice each day. Out of a 40 minute block, that does not leave much time for self reading, does it? And when do these very needy kids get to experience (and possibly get jazzed up by) other aspects of literacy? It was a puzzlement.

So, I’ve shifted things around so that the whole group lesson is scheduled for a half-hour instead of 15 minutes. Will I spend 15 minutes in lecture mode? Heck no! I just am keeping that time so that kids can go off and start other things before they are in full small group rotation mode.  I think it will work – at least it did yesterday.

Additionally, the rest of the students who are not in a small instructional group, now have the flexibility (I think my exact words to them were: “I think you are grown up enough to handle this….”) of completing the D5 activities in whatever order pleases them. They have to make 3 commitments: 1) to read for at least 20 minutes every day without interruptions, 2) turn in their response journal on the assigned day and 3) not to spend all of the D5 block standing in front of the classroom library chatting it up.

As I was testing students yesterday (our mid-year Fountas Pinnell tests start now), I looked around the room in amazement. It was quiet, the conversations that were taking place seemed to be about literacy, and outside of 2 students who were testing whether or not I’d notice, no one was in the classroom library socializing.

It is hard for me to let go. Most of the time I feel responsible for making sure everything goes perfectly — and there’s the problem. It is not just my responsibility – it is a shared one. And as far as perfect? Well, these are kids, so I need to remind myself to park perfection at the door.

So far, so good.


It came to me as a sleep-filled message.

One of my current charges is a real behavioral headache. This child has witnessed more trauma than anyone should, let alone anyone who is just 9 years old. And, as you might expect, the child has many behavioral tics that get in the way of his — and everyone else’s learning.

Even when he has taken medication, prescribed for ADHD and PTSD after behavior modification just didn’t seem to be the answer, he has difficulty knowing boundaries and behaving within our classroom norms and ground rules. If one student gets some attention from me he immediately seeks the same. He is an intelligent student, one for whom mastering third grade standards is not a problem.  Yet this need for validation  is exhausting for both of us — for him, to constantly feel the need to find validation from his teacher.

With just two days left until the school year begins again, I have started churning what I can do for my students to redirect them, to make our classroom engaging. For this student, I already felt the dread and pressure of continual interruptions for me to drop everything and give attention – something that needs to be resisted. And the answer came to me: with firmness and consistency, teach the student to self-reflect, to look at his own work and decide for himself if it is his best.

If I can do this, and I must succeed to really be this child’s teacher, he will take with him wherever he goes. We all need to learn self-reflection; we need to look at what we’ve accomplished and decide for ourselves if it is or is not our best effort. And isn’t that a lesson far more important than anything else I can give him?


A Tuesday Smile

There are days when teaching energetic 8- and 9-year old students is a challenge; there are times when it is most definitely enjoyable.

On Tuesdays, our Morning Meeting is somewhat abbreviated. The students begin the day with a 10-minute grab and go breakfast followed by Art Class while I am meeting with my grade level team. We facilitate the need to start our day with a welcome by doing a “one minute” greeting – a chance to walk around the meeting area and shake a classmate’s hand. I noticed today how wonderfully the students looked each other – and me – in the eye and said “Good Morning!”. Definitely a great way to start the day! How awesome it was to notice the students who for a variety of reasons previously had been unable to look a classmate or me in the eye. To be able to do so  now, along with a firm handshake, well that’s growth that no test will ever measure.

A bit later in the Morning Meeting, I allow 2-3 students to share something with their peers. Today, one of my quiet kids signed up. When it was his turn, he reached behind his back for a cardboard box liner – pink velveteen if I recall correctly – with about a one-inch hole right in the middle.”What now,” I wondered silently.

Presto! To our delight, he inserted his finger through the hole in the box liner and with a sly smile said “I found this box in my sister’s car so I faked my Mom out. I told her I found this finger in a box.” Believe me when I tell you this is primo third grade humor – the kids could hardly contain themselves and the thought that a Mom had been fooled. Well, that was the the BEST!

I imagine that as we speak, there are 17 children scouring their homes for a box just like the one that was shared today. And probably there’s a rash of finger-in-the-box fake-outs as well.

Everyday Lives of Students

Monday was our first day back from Winter Break — I suspect this is only a New England school vacation as I never experienced it growing up in northern Ohio.  A week-long escape is a welcome respite from the stresses of teaching – and yes, I am aware that I chose this profession – but it also serves to highlight the stress of teaching students in urban education.

Our Monday morning meeting brought forward three stories from my 8- and 9-year old students. Stories that are told in such a conversational way that they seem as normal as a visit to grandma’s. Again, Ruth Payne’s fine chronicle of trauma and poverty, A Framework for Understanding Poverty, helps me to see the events outside of my middle-class white Leave It To Beaver upbringing. For these children, life is what it is.

Story number 1: “my cousin was arrested with his pit bull.” Now sometimes “arrested” takes on a rather broad definition in the mind of an 8-year old. In this case it was true; I verified it by reading the local newspaper online after school: the cousin had been taken into custody after allowing his unleashed and unrestrained pit bull to lunge at people walking in the downtown area, had refused the request of a police officer to leash the dog, and resisted arrest.

Story number 2: brother – who the student had recently revealed was in jail – was rearrested.  This student reported on the event as if it were an everyday normal occurrence.” Had I seen X’s name in the paper? He’s going to jail.”

Story number 3: a tenant living in the same apartment complex as my third student triggered the SWAT team to swarm the building after said tenant threatened a cab driver with a gun. The student had lots of details and had obviously seen most of the confrontation – her details matched the newspaper article too.

Now several things come to mind here.  First of all, the traumatic distractions in these students’ every day life are unbelievable. Secondly, yes school is a “safe place” and expectations for what happens in school remain high. But the distractions and worries these children must overcome to even be close to ready to focus and concentrate are, most of the time, unimaginable.

This is what stresses out urban teachers.  We come to know the human story, the reality these children deal with.