I have been thinking about the comments and the thoughts that have popped up around my last post on clip charts, and I started wondering how to better explain how building up community looks different than clip charts or other public behavior systems.
The clearest way seems, to me, is to take a day in the life of my classroom and try to break down in a meta type way and so thats what I will try, but first a lot of thoughts:
The Context: I am a kindergarten teacher, and I usually teach between 24- 26 kiddos. This year I am co-teaching the integrated classroom, which means there are two of us (thus far this is heaven) and forty percent of our students (10 kiddos) have an IEP.
We started on September 9, so we have been in school all of 3 days.
My co-teacher and I have established a basic philosophy in our classroom: we watch and talk to kids, we debrief to try and understand what the child knows about the world at large, and then we teach. To that end, the first days of school have been pretty much like free range farming- essentially, go and live, we’ll meet you where you are.
Don’t we start with assessment? This IS assessment. Before we starting micro-analyzing letter-sound correspondence, we need to know the child. It maybe be that you know 3 letters, but that you also know the entire 2015 New York Yankees and their batting averages. Why does that matter? The better question is why don’t more people think it matters? We don’t just show up to places with a sliver of our person, we show up with our whole body and our whole mind. Maybe that munchkin is going to get some more letter sounds if we match it to the New York Yankee roster names, then to weird impersonal items like “R is for rat” why not, “R is for Rodriguez”.
Anyway, I digress, so community building… So its day 1 of school and we are playing, and here is the thing it is more or less harmonious. How could this be? We didn’t even establish rules and a clip chart!! (sarcasm) It can be because for the most part, if we plan our day around the fact we are teaching children, then we don’t have to regulate constantly because their natural state is being nourished. I think we run into problems when we try to dam the raging dynamic river of childhood and make it the more steady stream of adulthood. So we make everything playful, alternate between structured and unstructured tasks, and take a moment for big, free movement every chance we get.
Now, its kindergarten, so you know, contextually, these guys have been alive, ehh four, maybe five years? And like, for a lot of that they were just being carted around on someone’s hip, being handed things to chew on or eat, so this whole idea of being in school is going to feel new. I like to call myself a new teacher and its been 15 years, so I am going to concede that 4 years, or even 10 years, is not a lot of time on this planet. We anticipate it will not always go smoothly.
So then we go outside to play, and we haven’t laid down any rules yet. We don’t intercept if kids are playing roughly and everyone is smiling (which they are) (also- studies show that rough housing is a form of social bonding- google Play for a Change for more) But then, predictably, one of the children stops smiling and starts getting angry.
I head over, and I just ask in a curious tone: “What’s happening here?” I have worked hard on letting go of my omniscience and never jump to a conclusion if I can help it. The story is fairly typical:
Child A: “He pushed me!”
Child B: “He pushed me first!”
Child A: “Nah-Uh!!!!”
So listen, I could say, “No pushing!!!!!!!!!! Say sorry and sit down!!!!!!” But I won’t, not if I believe children are constantly trying to do their best. So instead I say, “It looks like you guys were playing a game where pushing was part of the game? Is that true?”
Child A and B nod.
So then I say, “What made this push feel different?”
Child B: “He pushed me too hard!!!!”
Me: Ohhhh! So it wasn’t the push that made you mad, but it was that it felt too hard?
Child B: nods
Child A: “I didn’t mean it!!!”
Me: “So what you are saying is that it was an accident? Like you thought you were still playing?”
Child A: “Yes!”
Child B: “I didn’t know!!!”
Me: “Ahh, so it sounds like (child B) you felt like it was an on-purpose shove, and you got mad your friend treated you that way, and (child a) you thought you were just playing, and got confused when your friend shoved you?”
Child A and B nod.
Me, “Hmm, so maybe it will help to say “stop” next time? Or say “that was too hard!” so we can fix it before friends get mad? Do either of you feel like you need a ‘sorry’ to get back to playing?” They look at each other and both shake heads “no” and start playing, but I stop them and say, “Wait lets just practice once!”
So then we act that out, child A shoves, B says “That was too hard!” Child A says, “okay” Then I say, “Whoo. This is some good thinking for our community- can you teach us all that later?”
So they do, we sit in a circle, and then they act it out and my co-teacher and I rename that big idea- “Ah, so sometimes when we are playing someone does something that makes us mad or sad, but they maybe don’t know that!!! We need to tell them with our words so they have a chance to fix it with us! Can you try that today? Will you tell us when it happens?”
So then all day long we snap pictures of kids using words, we get dozens. Now we can use those photos and add some speech bubbles in- things like “stop” or “that hurt my feelings” and then add the responses, “sorry” or “what do you need?” and then we can hang those up as models for how we talk to each other in our community. We start from the assumption that most children want to play and be with each other, kids tend to love other kids, and so we are helping them play and be with each other in better, more empathic ways.
Does this solve every problem? No, of course not, its not my first time at the rodeo, but the key is, we are going to wait to see how the next problem unfolds, and then, we are going to think about why it happened and how that impacts the child and the community, and then we will figure out a way to make it better for the child and/or the community.
I am also not saying that what I just did can’t be improved, of course it can! It’s just, I used to think that kids knew better and chose not to do better, but now I know that is some crazy backward thinking. Kids are doing the very best they can every single day, and what looks like misbehavior, might still be the child doing the best they can to deal with something outside their zone of proximal development and things like: sitting still, sharing a special toy, or playing with larger groups are not simple, and do in fact have a zone pf proximal development. And if a child knows better, and is choosing not to do better for herself or her community, I remember my own experience of acting out because I felt embarrassed and ashamed, and so we don’t punish, we listen, we ask questions, we set doable goals. We make change one day at a time.
Share your stories of community building in the comments- we grow better by learning together.