Saddness, suffering, wisdom, and my dog

Every man has his secret sorrows that the world knows not;
and often times we call a man cold when he is only sad.

I have 100 students.It is very easy to cruise through the year without ever getting to know many of them. That is the reality of an in and out 45 minutes a day schedule. I have quiet kids and loud kids. Kids who do extra work and kids who hand in nothing at all. Kids who talk all through class and kids who are barely audible. Kids who are very happy and kids who are very sad.

It is hard to tell which ones are happy and which ones are sad. You might think that is a silly statement, but what you see is not what a kid is feeling. The book bag the kid brings to school is the tip of the iceberg of the emotional baggage they might be carrying. If you think about it, we make plans for our class based on the assumption that each kid is happy. We give grades, due dates, and comments to kids assuming that everything in their life is fine. And even if it is not fine, even if their life sucks, we still hold them accountable to the dates and guidelines that we set assuming they were fine.

Over the last decade I have become more in tune with the emotional well being of my classes. I realized that there might be a week or more when a certain kid does absolutely nothing because all they can think about is being evicted from their house. I realized that for two weeks a kid might just need a safe place to come in and sit and not have anyone getting on his back about anything. I realized that just because your parents divorced 3 years ago, doesn’t mean it still isn’t painful…especially after father’s day. I realized that a kid yelling at me doesn’t need me to yell back or to be given a detention to teach them a lesson, but needs a sign that someone in this world still loves them.

I didn’t realize how any of the pain my kids were feeling impacted their school life until I had periods in my life that made me suffer with emotional pain. Every period of suffering in my life brought more clarity to my understanding the plight of the kids whose suffering I had never noticed. While good times made me happy, suffering made me a better teacher. If you made a list of the events in your life in that you gained the most wisdom from would they be sad or happy? I did not gain wisdom from buying a new car, but gained a lot from driving around in a car that always broke down. No wisdom from having plenty of money, but a lot of wisdom from having none. Some wisdom from having a baby, but a whole lot more from the death of one.

With each struggle that I go through, I use it as a reminder that out of 100 kids many of them are also struggling. Struggling with things that they have no control over, and living a life they have no control over. They still have to meet the same deadlines that everyone else has to. Before someone says “well that’s how life is,” it’s not. During each struggle in my life I was able to ask for extensions for deadlines, delegate parts of my job, and when it was really needed…I showed a movie.

Last week my dog died. She was my buddy for 15 years. I was very, very sad. It gave me a wake up call to keep in mind the struggles that my kids are going through. Unfortunately when my life is good, I forget that not everyone elses is good. My dog’s death reminded me to keep alert for sadness that might be disguised by a smile, or sadness that is represented by a missing assignment. I know my kids were certainly surprised last week when I made every kid sit in their seats silently during bus announcements after two kids were found in the hallway. I overreacted. I was not reacting reasonably; I was reacting out of my pain. Not one kid could say something because I was in charge so no one could “punish” me for my outburst and mistake. I was reminded that most kids misbehave for the same reason. They are reacting in reaction to some pain. Sometimes it is as obvious a stake through the heart, but other times it is a small sliver that is undetectable. Sometimes it is with a frown, but many times it is with a smile. Sometimes it is followed by an I’m sorry, but the one that gets teachers the most and makes us forget about the kid, riles our emotions, and causes us to react instantly to the action is when it is followed up by an “I don’t care.” “I don’t care” is the phrase kids use when they care deeply, but don’t have any words to express the emotions behind their actions.

We should all look at our “classroom management plan” that we have established in our classes. When we implement rules that are created to stop actions and ignore the pain, we are basically creating a system set-up to suppress emotions. Bottling up pain, just leads to more problems. Is your “system” built to suppress actions? Or solve the underlying cause of them? When a kid says “I don’t care” is your system set-up to punish, or support. Coerce, or connect.

Every student has their secret sorrows that the world knows not; and often times we call a student a bully, lazy, dumb, uninterested, careless, unmotivated, stubborn, trouble, rude, difficult or needy when they are only sad.

Let your kids struggle…

A couple of posts ago I finished with the following words:

“…so I promise, another post will not appear until I write one that reflects on a positive teaching practice of mine.  If you blog…how about you doing the same?  It can simply be what do you do really well and reflect on how you make it happen!”

Sunday I was at a family picnic.  I scooped up my 1year old niece and took a walk into the backyard.  We walked up to each tree and she reached out to feel the leaves.  After going from a Maple to a fir tree she wanted to go back and forth between each.  She does not have words yet, but was obviously comparing the two textures.  As she was going for a pile of woodchips she walked right over the edge of a railroad tie and fell but I caught her before she could bang her head and get an injury that would have ended our walk about.  We then sat down in a pile of wood chips.  She picked up each one and gave them to me.  Then she started to try to break each one finally figuring out that the thin ones broke, and then proceeded to examine all the new mini chips she had made.  When she got down to the dirt her fingers could no longer dig.  She picked up a little twig and it broke, so I handed her a larger stick so she could continue exploring the dirt.  She eventually dug up a small rock that she picked up and then left with her treasure in hand.

At some point I had an urge to “teach” her about the outdoors.  I wanted to have her feel all the trees, pick the various leaves and have them all in front of her. I wanted to pick her up over the railroad tie and carry her to the other side.  I wanted to stop her digging because I knew she was getting dirty.  I wanted to show her how to break the woodchips and flake them into bits.  I wanted to just move the woodchips aside so she could get right to the dirt.  And I wanted to just pick the rock out of the dirt instead of her scraping away the dirt with her stick.  But I just helped her go where she wanted to go, helped her up when she fell, and presented her with a tool that might be useful.

Dr. Sylvia Rim said “Each time we steal a student’s struggle, we steal the opportunity for them to build self-confidence.  They must do hard things to feel good about themselves.”

One thing I think I do well is that I don’t steal the student’s struggles.  I give them space and freedom to explore on their own.  I resist the urge to do things for them.  At the beginning of the year the class gets very messy.  I have to systematically wean them from all that they have learned which is that I am there to tell them what to do and they are there to do what I tell them.  In the beginning they do not have the confidence to do things on their own or believe that they can do things on their own.  They stay locked inside of their little safe boxes.  Slowly I let the struggles get bigger, and last longer.  Soon they are banging down the sides of their boxes and slowly step out into the unknown.  Ready to take risks.  Ready to make mistakes.   Ready to step in front of a class and struggle on their own knowing they have the support of the class.

Just a quick note…I hesitate to define “struggle” and place it in perspective.  I assume a reasonable reader will be able to determine that I am referring to letting the kids struggle with an engaging project that has the proper emotional and academic supports in place. I am also not referring to the struggle that comes with having to finish useless work or completing an assignment that is just simply lots and lots of busy work.

Today one student who usually asked a million questions during projects did a presentation.  They were given two weeks to complete it.  She never asked for help, never asked for any ideas, and she finished three days early.  Her presentation was so far out of her box that I teared up.  After school she came up to me and said “How’d I do?”  I said, “I don’t know, what do you think.”  She said,”I am so proud of myself.” I gave her a double high five and she bounced away.  I also had another student who wrote to me on the first day of school saying that she hoped I could help her gain some confidence and break out of her box.  A couple of weeks ago she stood in front of the room and gave the class a live performance of the song that is in the video below.  I cannot imagine the guts required to step in front of an 8th grade class and sing a song.  In many respects I really don’t want to take any credit for my kid’s performances.  I feel like I just kind of let them be and grow and they do the rest.  But that would be like saying a gardener is not responsible for the harvest, that it was the vegetables that grew on their own.

Dr Kevin Washburn just recently wrote in a post:

…I often observe teachers presenting a sequence of steps that students need to follow to achieve some result. As students practice, the teacher roams the room and checks student work. A student with an incorrect result is often reminded that the steps “are listed on the white board,” and directed to look there to find his mistake. But whose brain processed what and where as the teacher wrote the steps in order on the board? The teacher’s. The student’s brain focused on the what and where of the teacher’s movement and voice, not the material. As a result, the student still lacks the processing of the material necessary to enable higher functioning, such as using the sequence of steps to achieve a result.

However, if the teacher has the students write the steps of the sequence onto index cards and then arrange them in the correct order, the students process the what and where of the new material. Additionally, the teacher can assess the students’ knowledge before they begin making application. Instructive feedback at this point prevents incorrect practice.

While I might not be successful with every student, by the end of the year it’s the students who can identify the problem, come up with the steps, put them into sequence, process the what and where, take that information to a deeper level, and create a presentation that engages their audience.  It is allowing the students to struggle in a safe environment that allows that to happen.

If you are a blogger, please consider sharing something that you are proud of doing with your kids in your next post.  If you don’t have a blog, well then then please share your “something you do well” in the classroom as a comment on this post.  While you are thinking, enjoy the video below from my kids.  It is a song they wrote after studying urban problems in 19th Century America.

Six Things That Make Me Happy…

I was tagged with another meme…and I think my tagger might have something up his sleeve.  Terry Shay tagged me for two memes in a row which is breaking rule #43 of Meme post tagging.  I am thinking he is slick enough to see that my posts were increasingly taking on a crabby negative dark side spirit and he is making sure that there is still some joy in my life….right Terry?  😉

I am going to do three connected to school, and three personal.

1-Using my chainsaw.  We have a wood stove and I cut my own wood.  You can’t let your mind wander while using a chainsaw.  It makes me block out the rest of the world and I experience “flow.”  The process of cutting done a tree, piecing it, splitting it, stacking it, putting it in the stove to heat my family is a very satisfying job.  It is one job in my life that has a beginning, middle, and end.  Sounds kind of silly, but I am sticking with it.

2-Coming home to my family.  Seeing my wife smile and hearing the words daddy will never get old.  My wife doesn’t call me daddy, that would be my kids.

3-Being outside.  I could be on top of a mountain or walking through a city.  I am always happier when I am outside.

4-Getting an email from a past student.  Just knowing that they paused long enough to remember me is touching.

5-Having a kid get up in front of the class who previously barely spoke and blow everyone way with a presentation.  The rule is if you produce a tear in my eye you get an “A.”

6-When a student talks to me when they don’t have to.  Whether it is a deep dark secret, or just what they had for diner last night.  It makes me happy that they trusted me, or even thought of me to share.

Huh…I decided not to think and just go with the first six things and then go back and read Terry’s list. I notice some similarities between ours, and note the lack of things like cruises to the Bahamas.  Which simply means we both should go on more cruises.

Ok, here are the rules for this meme:
Link to the person who tagged you.
Post six things that make you happy along with these rules.
Then tag six others (letting them know, of course).
Let the person who tagged you know when your entry is complete.

I tag the following bloggers:






Steve Moore

By the way, if you are an experienced blogger and you get tagged in the future, don’t forget to support up-and-coming bloggers and tag them.  There are some links here!

A post worth repeating…

Many times the things we do in a classroom at the start of the year to establish our classroom environment should be repeated at intervals throughout year.  All those “get-to-know-you” activities and classroom spirit activities usually are done and gone by the second week of school. By the end of the first week we assume that everyone knows everyone, each kid is comfortable in the space we have provided, and why would we need one more “get to know your neighbor” activity.

Several years ago I had a student teacher start in the middle of the year.  I told her to treat her first week at the end of January just like it would be her first week in September.   Wow…doing a “get-to-know-you” activity in the middle of the year had so much more power than forcing one upon the kids the first couple days of school.  It was fabulous, and resulted in a much tighter knit community in my room.  I have tried to keep up the tradition ever since.  Some things are worth repeating.

Way back in August Terry Shay wrote a post with some inspirational quotes to read to get his readers motivated for the start of a new school year. I just happened to bump into the post again.  After reading it, I thought not only is this applicable to the beginning of the year, but the quotes in the post are also worth remembering at the half-way point.  Some posts are worth repeating.

Quotes to start the year…

I love a good motivational quote…. I thought it would be good to start the school year with some I have stumbled on that made me think!

This is the time of year when school begins. . . and my thoughts turn to some very special people. The teachers who were such an important part of my life. I think of the way their special attention helped open the gates of learning. They gave so much of themselves. . . with patience and tenderness. And not all the knowledge was of the textbook variety. I also learned about life. Those caring teachers helped me blossom as an individual. . . and gave me a sense of self-worth that. . . even today. . . sees me through trying times. I can’t imagine a more precious gift that one individual can give to another.”

“[Kids] don’t remember what you try to teach them. They remember what you are.”
Jim Henson (It’s Not Easy Being Green: And Other Things to Consider)

“A teacher’s constant task is to take a roomful of live wires and see to it that they’re grounded.” E.C. Mckenzie

“A college degree and a teaching certificate define a person as a teacher, but it takes hard work and dedication to be one.” Paul McClure

“I was at a meeting recently when a colleague told a story of being in India, where an educator there asked her, somewhat skeptically, “In America, you test your students a lot, don’t you?” She replied, “Well, indeed, the United States has a national policy that requires testing of all students in certain grades.” The Indian educator said, “Here, when we want the elephant to grow, we feed the elephant. We don’t weigh the elephant.”

What are your kids responsible for?

I am going to ask the question again.

What are your kids responsible for? Don’t keep reading until you have some answers in your head.  You with the bunny slippers–stop reading and get some answers in your head.

Now with the answers in your head…

Do those responsibilities impact anyone’s life? or are they pretend responsibilities.  Like they have the responsibility to do their homework so they will get a good grade so they will get into a good college so they will get a good job so they will have a happy life.

So what was the last authentic assignment they had?  An assignment that had real world implications if they did not uphold their responsibilities.  An assignment that did not mimic the “real world,” or role model players in the “real world,” but one that contributed and made a difference in the “real world.”  The world they are living in right this second, not the “real world” of their future.

You are suppose to be influencing them, who are they influencing?

You are asking them questions, who are they asking questions to?

You are teaching them, who are they teaching?

You are supposed to be creating lasting memories in their minds, but how many times did your kids have to study for a test or quiz and put things into short-term memory?

You have to met their needs, whose needs are they meeting?

You teach them to write, but who do they write for?

You are suppose to be an agent of change, what do they get to change?

You get to help them with their problems, who do they get to help?

You show them the world, who do they show their world to?

You prepare them to be productive members of society, what products have did they create and send out to society?

You teach them to communicate, who do they communicate with?

You are planning lessons that will allow them to be prepared in the future for the “real world,” what lessons are you giving them in which they will leave being more prepared for today?

Real kids need real responsibilities…

A New Reality Show–or What would I do if I was not Afraid?

I have an idea for a new reality show.  It’s called “Back to School.”  Take a group of fifteen teachers and put them back into a middle school for one year.  There are no special rules.  They have to simply follow the rules that are already in place.  Each week the one with the lowest grades is marked a failure no matter how hard they tried and is expelled and put on homebound tutoring.

If I was not afraid I would finish this post…but I am afraid that other teachers and adults will read it and would be insulted by what I have to say.  They might find it offensive that the show would make each teacher get permission to use the bathroom only at certain times, or that they would have to do homework at night instead of spending time with their children.  I just wonder what would change if teachers got to experience school through the eyes of a child for one year…or even one day.

What do you think they would come back and change after that experience?