For the first week of school, a young man (Let’s call him Brad) hid in his hoodie in my Humanities 8 room. He refused to do any work. I pulled him out, one day, and questioned him in an authoritarian manner. It’s the beginning of the school year and I needed to show him I was the boss. It was the usual: What’s going on? Why aren’t you working? You need to get to work! He informed me, in that conversation, that he didn’t want to do the work because he had already done it last year. Ahh..a repeater. Great. (I confess that I rolled my eyes in my head for a second). After I got over myself, I explained my teaching style with the hope I could prompt him to get to it. I explained to him that I assessed students on a continuum, which meant that evidence of learning could be used to move forward.
By talking about my assessment prowess, I was, indeed, making the situation about me. Realizing this and making no headway with the boy, I promised him that I would confer with his previous teacher and find out what he had and hadn’t learned and we would go from there. Why not, right? I might as well find out what he can skip and what he still needs to do. Maybe, just maybe, if we can skip a couple assignments, he’ll be more motivated. Because less work is a motivation to do more work, right? It even sounds dumb in my head.
Unfortunately and unsurprisingly, no evidence was found. He was often non-compliant and a non-attender) his teacher informed me. When I broached the bad news to Brad, he continued to hide in his hoodie. He was playing the game. Maybe, she won’t notice me and will leave me along if I sit really quietly in my hoodie game. The I’m hopeless game. I decided to shift gears.
Instead of worrying about the work that had to get done in a timely manner, I decided to try and connect with Brad. I said good morning to him every day. I told him to have a gread day at the end of every class. In class, I sat with him for a couple minutes, every day, to find out how his mapping was going even if all I got were responses of shrugs and head shakes. I can be dam persistent, especially with kids who are reluctant learners. It’s a challenge for me.
When it came to lit circles discussion day, last week, Brad joined the group as he was supposed to, but was typically emotionless. When I spoke with him instead of ignoring his non-compliance, he told me that there was no way he would contribute to the group. He was excruciatingly shy. Ok. That’s OK. I told him no problem! In fact, I told him, the way I assess (triangulation style – show, do, tell) I could use what he wrote, what he said or a combination of both. So, if he wanted to just write, he could write, but he needed to listen to the group discussion and the discussion could be used to compliment his written work. He looked surprised, but in the moments following that conversation, I saw his pencil on his paper, the first time in three weeks. Now, I didn’t yet get excited, yet, but I was definitely optimistic.
Today, I showed all the students how to find the scale for their political, continent maps. We did some math. It was no big deal. Find the scale on the map. Measure two points and calculate the scale. Use the distance to work backwards to calculate the scale of your map. 1 cm now equals…blah blah blah. But I noticed that Brad’s eyes were brighter and more involved than usual. In fact, he was thoroughly engaged! Huh, well isn’t that something.
At the end of that same day, Brad arrived to pick up his binder which he had left behind before an assembly. He spoke. Brad doesn’t speak very often. “I just had the longest Math question in t-block. It took me forever. But I got it.” I stopped what I was doing and we chatted about Math. He loved Math, I found out. When I asked him how his map was going, he told me that he liked learning about how to calculate scale. This is new. “You know,” I told him, “later in the semester, you will get to choose what you want to research. I do these projects instead of a final exam which allow you to deep dive into a topic of interest. Maybe you could research Renaissance mathematicians…” His eyes went bright again. I then placed my hand on his shoulder. “You know, buddy, if you just do your best and use class time wisely, you’ll pass my course. Just think about what you could do with Math when you get out of school.” He responded with a sensitivity I hadn’t seen before. “I want to do something with Math. I’m really good at Math. I won Math awards in my elementary school. I want to do something like design work.” I was thoroughly intrigued, so I told him the story about how my husband, who, fifteen odd years ago, lost his job and chose to take some E.I. training to become a engineering design technologist. It was a game changer for him. He smiled when I told him that story. I, then, decided to dangle a bit of a carrot. “I’ll make you a deal, Brad,” I said. “If you give this course your best shot, you’ll pass. Then, you can put my name on your resume in June. That way, if you want to get yourself a little part time job, I’ll recommend you if a potential employer calls me for a reference. What do you think about that?” He said he liked that idea, and for the first time in four weeks, I saw that his posture was a little straighter when he walked out of my room. Yes!!
I was pumped. Now I’m not naive. The journey Brad and I are on, together, is far from over, but the growth that occurred over the last four weeks has been like hurdling buildings…no mountains! It was a start. And in this start, maybe I’ll see some more learning. I was incredibly hopeful, Brad looked happier, and the entire situations now wreaked of optimism.
You see, I think the first four weeks of the school year is the time to get to know students. I love assessment. I love standards-based and gradeless philosophies. But before Bloom, we need to get through Maslow first. We need to touch student’s souls and show that we care before we can ever, EVER expect them to feel safe to begin their learning.
Teachers often feel the push to jump right into assessment practices and assess, assess, assess. This can come from extrinsic pressures like interim reports, parents or administrator protocols. Intrinsically, we know that we need to get to the heart of our students and get to know them first. But productivity and the desire to learn doesn’t happen instinctively. It requires nurturing and guiding. Students need to feel protected before they will be willing to learn. Even at the bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy, despite our resolve that student should come well fed, properly clothed and well rested, we notice that many aren’t. How many teachers keep a stash of granola bars and apples to feed our kids? I’ve also found that Smiles and Frowns foster so many of Maslow’s hierarchy too.
Smiles and Frowns is the brain child of Monte Syrie, a Washington educator who found that beginning each class asking students to share a smile (something positive) or a frown (something not so positive) fosters a sense of community and sensitivity in his classroom. Students are never obligated to share, but they are obligated to listen. The results, which Monte frequently writes about in his Project 180 blog, has had a profoundly positive impact on how his students learn. It had an equally positive impact on the students in my class as well.
When I began doing smiles and frowns, last year, in all of my classes. I noticed something remarkable. When students were willing to share something so basic as losing their lunch money, other students were willing to step in and support them. A girl in my Drama class, last year, shared the fact that her money was ‘eaten’ by the vending machine and therefore had had nothing to eat. Within minutes, students stepped in with an apple, cheese string and granola bar. Her hand went up shortly thereafter…”I have a smile. I was fed!” Her physiological needs were met in smiles and frowns. She felt safe in the room and also had a feeling of belonging. She is further along the taxonomy and will be far more productive that she was before the class began. All because of Smiles and Frowns. It’s so simple. It takes five minutes. It’s community building at its finest.
Maybe it’s because of Maslow that students feel comfortable ascending to new heights of learning, instead of keeping their spirits firmly settled in satisfactory or minimal proficiency in terms of achievement. Over the past few years, working through #20time projects, my students deliver three to five-minute Ted Talks instead of writing a final exam at the end of the year. I always figured that kids were more willing to do the Ted Talks because kids are willing to do anything that doesn’t involve writing a test. But then, I realized, that public speaking isn’t exactly a carrot for kids neither. We’re talking about standing up in front of their peers with a spotlight on them. Daunting! Scary! But Maslow plays a big part of the #20time process. It takes nurturing along Maslow just as much as guiding kids to work hard on the areas I was assessing for them to be confident to present.
One of the most integral moments of the #20time process is the show and tell I host regardless of whether the project is complete or not. This celebration honours all of the work done by students and the leaps they took. When we celebrate in a complete way (and not just a couple atta boys or atta girls) students’ esteem needs are built up . Even when a project is hugely incomplete, the spotlight is on the success not the failure. It is about what was done, not what wasn’t. There are always smiles across the room as we celebrate the impressiveness of the journeys. Some students are even inspired to complete their projects even though this stage was technically, considered complete.
Additionally, I recently decided to incorporate three minutes of mindfulness into my daily instruction in all of my classes. For some students, there is a storm in their heads that needs calming before learning can begin. Mindfulness is not a quick fix, nor can is replace counseling or one on one professional guidance, but it can, with practice generate a sense of calm and peace in the room and in one’s mind.
Mindfulness is personal for me. Last June, there was a storm brewing in me and that storm resulted in my doctor pulling me off work for a couple of weeks. My year was filled with loss and the way I tried to overcome that loss was to immerse myself in my work. What I didn’t realize is that I was cloaking my sadness and not dealing with my grief. I’m thankful that I was able to realize the depth of my despair and see my family doctor. I’m even more thankful for the amazing counselling I received in the weeks following my doctor’s visit. My counselor taught me about mindfulness and prescribed frequent, daily mindfulness moments. After a month of following their orders, I felt more grounded. I cannot go a day without practicing mindfulness now.
I shared that part of my year with my students, recently. It was my hope that exposing my vulnerability would invite them to take the three minutes of mindfulness in each class seriously. Now, they remind me to play the music for mindfulness and willingly share their own vulnerability. My classes, this year, feel more like a family than ever before.
Our students need nurturing and love before they can begin their learning journeys. We have an obligation to love the beautiful and difficult parts of each of our students. We cannot be afraid to expose our own vulnerability and humanity to our students. Perhaps, we can make them feel less alone. And perhaps, we can reap some benefit of sharing a bit of our souls and our journeys.
It is easy to get swept up in processes, Bloom’s Taxonomy, learning scales, and instruction. We need to make reflecting on students’ needs a priority in our daily objectives. After all, kids are worth it. Brad will make it in my class. I have hope.