Throughout these two weeks of holiday down time, I’ve found myself spending quite a bit of time on Twitter. Being new to the scene, there is something about this social media site that has me sucked in. The wealth of support and resources has me opened up to a previously untapped source of professional development and professional relationships, which is great in a time where PD money is limited or nonexistent.
Anyway, while hitting the refresh button on my iPhone on New Year’s day, my feed was filled with hundreds of personal and professional resolutions for the 2015 year. I even jumped into a chat and offered my goal of having more conversations with my students about their interests, in an effort to open up more avenues of trust and communication between teacher and student. I quickly listened to others, signed off, and went on about my day without a real idea of a plan or general sense of importance for this goal. Knowing that I failed in keeping up with last year’s “gratitude jar”, where you collect little notes of things you are thankful for on a regular basis, I knew I should probably be a bit more proactive and come up with at least a general plan. For inspiration, I reached into the month’s worth of gratitude notes that I left myself and found a few notes sticking out of a crumpled up ball of paper. As I gently opened the worn piece of paper a corner at a time, I quickly realized the blue marker and jumbled bits of letters that formed the simple message, “Thanks for talking…I mean writing. You’re friend, Jimmy.” (Name has been changed to protect student identity).
The wheels of my resolution plan started to spin.
I thought back to the afternoon after the students were dismissed for the day when I first saw that crumpled up paper in my “Talking Box”, a decorated shoebox where kids can communicate with me without having to be noticed, or confront me face to face on tough issues. While this box sounds like a magnet for millions of tattling and tiny issues, it had been empty for up to a month leading to this day.
Jimmy was in my class last year. He’s generally a happy-go-lucky type of kid, who works very hard in school despite having some difficulty academically. I remember the chaotic start to that morning. I was running late after a messy start to the morning, featuring a pet accident on the carpet. Normally, fifteen minutes wouldn’t throw me off. However, an 8:00 AM faculty meeting awaited me and I needed extra time to prepare for my instruction and afternoon author celebration, where parents were scheduled to come in and participate. The stress was building up as the kids were entering the classroom, the phone was ringing, and the printer was jamming while trying to spit out a last-minute revision of the celebration agenda. Of course the kids were all wound up and excited about the afternoon activities. Didn’t they know we had important things to get through first??
The day continued on its downward spiral. Following the Reader’s Workshop mini-lesson on having empathy for characters, I called my first group over to the reading table to reinforce the lesson content with a heterogeneous group of students with their own texts. I could tell from interacting with these students during the active engagement portion of the lesson, they could use a little more support. I noticed Jimmy had his head down and wasn’t paying much attention to me as I was reviewing the teaching point. After trying my best to redirect him with non verbal cues, my level of stress built up into a less than pleasant toned, “Jimmy, we have important things to work on here. Will you please pay attention???”
I wanted to just crush this day into crumpled ball and throw it out of the window. First the cat, then the meeting, phone calls, printer, hyper kids, pending celebration, and now this??? I asked him what was wrong and he game me the 4th grade shrug. I asked again and he said nothing. I took a deep breath, apologized to the three other students and sent them on their way with a half-hearted attempt to give them a manageable goal to work on independently. That left me with Jimmy. I figured that with the others gone, he’d be ready to talk. I asked him what was wrong and again, I got the shrug. Ten minutes of valuable time had already elapsed and I hadn’t conferred with anyone or met with any groups. I took another deep breath – one that resembled the deflation of a large pool raft, grabbed a pen and a ripped out sheet of paper from my conference notes, and wrote the following down:
“I’m sorry, Jimmy. I’m having a bad day. Looks like you are too, what’s up? Please write back.”
I slipped the note under his arm and just sat there. Five more minutes ticked off the clock and there was no response. I grabbed the paper, this time wet with tears, and wrote, “I’m worried. What’s up?” I carefully slid the paper back under his arm and waited another minute or so. You guessed it! No response again.
With my reading conference plan already in shambles, I just sunk back in my chair and waited. Thankfully a healthy dose of rituals in routines were in place and my other students were lost in their independent reading books, not even looking up at what was unfolding just feet away at the reading table. I waited for what seemed to be a minute…three minutes…maybe even a hundred minutes (stolen from Jane Yolen’s Owl Moon). Then in what seemed to be a miracle, Jimmy picked up the paper and a blue marker and started writing. He wrote for almost a quarter of the page and shoved the paper back in my direction. Long story short, he created a run on sentence about how he disagreed with how his step dad treats him and his mother and that he hadn’t slept well after an argument. The last line he wrote was “Please write back.”
We wrote back and forth in silence. I offered suggestions on how to handle his situation, words of encouragement, and even a made up story about when I had the same problem. He offered short replies and started to sit up straighter into his chair. We made eye contact and I even got a laugh from a snarky comment I wrote. I ended the note by asking if he was ok to get back to work and a reminder to use the Talking Box whenever he needed to. While I’m not sure if the problem was ever completely solved, I know that Jimmy was already back to work in his book. I looked up to see our forty minute work time was up. Instead of the stressful realization that the lesson fell apart, I felt a huge sense of accomplishment that no lesson plan could ever provide.
The rest of the day went off without a hitch, including the author celebration. After class was dismissed, I whirled around the room in an attempt to straighten up to make things easier on the cleaning staff. As I took my daily look into the Talking Box expecting to see nothing as usual, I noticed Jimmy’s thank you note.
I now have my 2015 resolution: It can’t be about me all of the time.
We all have our days that don’t go as planned. Remember, that you have 20 something little humans in your room that have days like this as well. Some students cope better than others. Many students have no clue know how to cope at all. That day during Reader’s Workshop, I learned that my personal and professional agenda needs to be put aside at times in order to help students who simply are not having a good day. And that’s ok. Showing that you care and that you can be counted on to just talk….or write is more valuable that any planned lesson.
Happy New Year to my new PLN!