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Learning at its Best

Stories of Impact

I am a teacher. I love teaching and learning with kids, and I have a way of relating to kids that is unique, meaningful and worthwhile. I do things very differently from many other teachers and that sets me apart. (Sometimes that’s a good thing and sometimes that’s NOT a good thing.) I’ve always been blessed, though, in having people in central office who recognized my differences and who supported my vanguard ways and my deep soul-searching to be ever better–and who have served as critical friends, asking questions, probing, validating and sometimes chiding along the way.

My classroom is not about MY power–it’s about empowering the kids to make wise choices and choose to learn at deep levels. However, something someone wo has known me for over 20 years recently said to me has really had me thinking, and not necessarily in a good way–she said, “The few like you are still the few like you.” Why? Why is that?  Why do I still, 39 years after I was a beginning teacher, STILL stand out as remarkable in some way?

I’ve always said that I was going back into the classroom before I retired– because there is absolutely nothing that is more powerful than that day to day relationship with a community of kids. Don’t get me wrong–I’ve loved being a resource teacher in a building and nurturing that relationship with kids as they grow through the years, but ultimately, the decisions about their learning lie with their homeroom or classroom teacher–and while I can perhaps influence those decisions,  the power is not in the hands of the kids, or me to hand over to them.

Going back into the classroom is about me and my enjoyment….doing what I love and I am good at, and what is effective for most of the students with whom I’ve worked over the years. As I think about making a difference, though, that may not be the best thing to do.  I’ve realized that right now I have to go back to doing what I was doing when I first started my personal blog in 2008–or when I first started doing presentations in the 90’s–or sharing on Twitter, or making web pages  like my “Cut Loose With Dr. Seuss” webpage with a booktable of activities my kids were doing. That’s sharing my classroom stories and my practices, explicitly, and help others see that “the few like me” don’t have to stay a few. Humane practices that make a difference in who people are can permeate our learning and teaching in schools.

I’ve had the fortune this year to do two things–work with a brand new teacher who is an incredibly thoughtful practitioner, and reconnect with a former student teacher who is currently a long term sub in my school.

The beginning teacher and I teach a collab class of very smart kids–not all gifted, but all perfectly capable of doing high level work that challenges them to think well beyond 5th grade. They, for the most part, are highly motivated, but not all of them know how to learn, ask clarifying questions, or utilize their strengths to develop their weaknesses. They are not all organized learners, nor do they all recognize the power of being organized.  Most of them know how to play school well, but most of them are also searching for understanding, and I love that about this class. In trying to meet those needs, the teacher and I have great conversations about kids, methodologies about teaching and we talk about characteristics of kids. We sometimes conference with parents together, but most always collaborate about the messages we send to parents to be consistent and understand where each other is in our thinking about that kid. It’s a great situation and I’ve learned a lot about myself and collaborating by working this way.

I popped into my former student teacher’s class the other day for a few minutes on my way to another class.  She was lining her group up and I heard her say, “I like the way …” and  then naming a kid who was ready to line up. This person is a very smart lady who belongs in a classroom–who should be working with kids everyday, because she looks through the lens of competence and learning–not through the lens of a deficit model of what’s wrong with the kid. I asked her to stop by my room after she took the kids to the library and in our conversation there, she told a story of a kid who has great math skills and is proud of those–but who is also seen by others as a non-conformist who constantly needs redirecting. She said what she does when he is doing something that’s inappropriate at the moment is start asking him math questions–he immediately attends to her and she can then gently redirect him to join the group. Don’t we wish every teacher could see that as a method to use–and that every administrator could recognize it when it happens?

But that “I like” phrase….

“I like the way Johnny is showing me he’s ready to line up.”

“I like the way Susie is raising her hand.”

“I like the way Mateo is sitting quietly.”

UGH!  To me, those statements are all about the adult and training kids to please the teacher. When Johnny is noticed with an “I like” sentence, he stands up taller and perhaps smirks at others–after all, he has been noticed and they haven’t.  And worse yet, perhaps Yehrang doesn’t even see a difference between what she is doing and what Johnny is doing. So what’s the hidden thing she has to do to get noticed?

And for Alfonso, who goes to church every Sunday and is taught to say “AMEN!” when you agree with something said, or to call out an answer when the preacher asks a question? Well, how is he supposed to understand what raising a hand means without specifically being taught code-switching? Maybe the goal of raising a hand is all he gets out of the teacher’s “I like” statement. So, he raises his hand and the teacher calls on him–but he has nothing to say–or it’s not on topic-and the class giggles, or worse yet, chastises him. The teacher sees it as a distraction and so stops calling on him–but fusses at him for calling out the right answer during group questions, where she is looking for hands, while Alfonso is looking to respond thoughtfully.

So, in thinking about hearing the “I like…” statement come out of her mouth, I spoke to my former student–pretty bluntly, because that’s who we are together, and the trust was established a LONG time ago to interact forthrightly. “You’ve got to stop saying “I like.” I said. I went on to remind her that  you make it all about you then, and the kids don’t learn how to do the skill you’re trying to elicit.  Start naming the behavior–be explicit. If you want to shape the behavior, talk about that–not what you like and you don’t like.

“Johnny is looking forward, showing he is ready to walk to the library.”

“When Susie raises her hand when she wants to speak, it allows us all to take turns talking.”

“Mateo’s sitting quietly shows how polite he is and that he’s ready to listen to others.”  (OK, so maybe he’s just daydreaming and not being polite, but naming it as such may pull his attention back to the group.)

The basic thing is that it’s about honoring the kid for their actions, and not making it about pleasing someone else. It’s about spotting someone doing something good and naming that good so others can see it, understand it in context, and replicate it. It’s about naming the behavior so kids know the expectations and can understand the WHYs of lining up, raising hands and turn-taking. It’s about helping children understand that their actions impact others–for good or bad–and that they have the control over which it is. Rules should be taught in context and schools usually have too many!

Becky Fisher speaks to routines and procedures in her post about New Addition or New Edition when she recounts this story where she went into  “three Kindergarten classrooms in the five minutes before shifting from class activities to specials.  One teacher put on a clean up song, and like salivating dogs the kids responded in a very well-conditioned manner and started cleaning up.  Another teacher clapped a pattern and flicked the lights and told the kids to start cleaning up and then began doling out strategic praise statements like, “I like the way Jack is cleaning up his space.”  The third teacher said, “Class, it’s almost time for PE.  What do we need to do to ensure our math supplies are where we can all find them tomorrow?”  In unison, the students shouted, “Put them away!”  and started working to make sure the needs of the classroom community were met.  Three different strategies with the same short-term end result in mind, but representing three very different visions.”

That vision is everything–sometimes we get so lost in the rat race of everyday requirements, we don’t think about the bigger goal–of fostering human beings to be the best they can be–for themselves, their world and all of our futures. And, for me, it’s about stopping trying to do everything and making some priorities–to reflect on who and what I am and share that with the world so that I can learn from others. It’s about treating MYSELF humanely and not expecting myself to do everything–but to center and focus on specific areas in which to grow and learn and share…

And, that, my friends, will be my goal going forward…I know some of you have told me over the years I have lots to offer.  I know some of you have said I should write a book, and some of you have simply said you love my classroom stories. Please know I have listened and your words have been percolating within me. Please continue to give blunt feedback and share with me. And, most of all, if you have a story of impact, whether it includes me or not, share that with the rest of us!

About Paula White

grandma, teacher, Apple Distinguished Educator (ADE), DEN STAR, Google Certified Teacher, camper, Gifted Resource Tchr, NETS*T certified, lover of learning


8 thoughts on “Stories of Impact

  1. Paula, I’d love to hear more about the transition cuing signals you reference from Becky Fisher’s three Kindergarten class observations. If we do hold the longer term goals of fostering human beings who can be their best, then what would our transitions look like and sound like? What about other aspects of the classroom? Less coercion and manipulation, more authenticity, self-reflection, collaboration, I’m thinking. How does your vision manifest in a specific practice?

    So glad that you continue to post here. I love to read your stories and reflections.

    Posted by Paul Freedman | November 25, 2012, 10:10 am
    • Paul,
      Your last line–my vision manifesting in specific practice is exactly what I intend to share. I am seen as an expert in the classroom–but I don’t feel like that. I know I know a lot, but I also have a lot to learn. I plan to share what I do, though, to get push back and support to grow. Thanks for asking specifically about clean up/transitions. (and, LOL–you know me–you’ll probably get a long missive as a response!)

      To be honest, I have some issue with Becky’s description of the clean up song as dogs salivating to a cue, but I do believe that when we ask kids to move from one activity to another, routines are incredibly important as part of the community–especially for young children. The thing I love about using a “clean up song” is that it does several things I want to have happen in my classroom:
      1. it gives a set time for the transition,
      2. kids know what it means and can direct themselves without direct intervention from an adult,
      3. music soothes the savage beast (LOL),
      4. the noise level is acceptable, and
      5. if you pick the right song, it reinforces other lessons or belief systems you want to share.

      For example, my song was Karen Carpenter’s “Sing.” The lyrics are:

      Sing, sing a song
      Sing out loud, sing out strong
      Sing of good things not bad
      Sing of happy not sad

      Sing, sing a song
      Make it simple to last your whole life long
      Don’t worry that it’s not good enough
      For anyone else to hear
      Just sing, sing a song

      La la la la la
      La la la la la la…

      Sing, sing a song
      Let the world sing along
      Sing of love there could be
      Sing for you and for me

      Sing, sing a song
      Make it simple to last your whole life long
      Don’t worry that it’s not good enough
      For anyone else to hear
      Just sing, sing a song
      Just sing, sing a song
      Just sing, sing a song

      La la la la la
      La la la la la la…

      and the version I used was this one (though not on YouTube, obviously! I had the vinyl version. 🙂

      The fact that in this version kids join in in the middle of the song meant my K kids did the same–and everyone sang without coercion, without me ever telling them to and without self-consciousness. Everyone was singing and cleaning up at the same time…and by the end of the song, everyone knew they should be on the rug ready for our next adventure. But the interesting thing is that as the year started out, I would sometimes play the song twice to give the kids enough time to clean up the elaborate block structure that was built, or the paint spill, or whatever–but by October of every year, some kid would also be looking around and restart the song themselves–and as the song restarted, those sitting on the rug would look around and go to help those who weren’t finished yet. It became a cooperative community of people who all helped one another to get ready for the next thing. So I didn’t have dogs who salivated, I had kind, considerate humans who were helping to make our community run smoothly and who helped one another.

      I don’t know that the classroom Becky saw with a clean up song was one of dogs salivating either–I don’t know how much she knew of the workings of that classroom or if she talked to the teacher, but I would hope that observers in my room could see the cooperative behaviors and students leading. In Becky’s second scenario, it was all about what the teacher liked–and kids were learning to please her, as I spoke to in my post above, with the “I like…” sentences. In the third scenario, the teacher was clearly building a community of kids who were learning the WHYs of classroom behavior.

      My kids were empowered in my classroom, perhaps more so than in most classrooms that are written about in stories of school. The rules I had spoke to that empowerment, and when we began having early childhood conversations in our county, in the late 80’s early 90’s when a professor at UVA was doing some ethnographic studies of our early childhood classrooms, those rules were adopted by other classrooms as well. I had only three–
      1. Be kind.
      2. Be considerate.
      3. Be thinking.

      Those are explained and addressed in more detail here. I think the fact that I had expectations of competence–that kids could indeed handle themselves and know what they needed to do is unusual. My kids knew where materials were–they got their own scissors out, they put them away. They got paper when they needed it, and knew that they didn’t have to ask to use it.

      I also left sub plans that said things like “Please have Aynsley put on the clean up song at 10:10.” or “This week Luke is leading calendar and he’ll pick a buddy to help him.” My kids were empowered to lead and learn…and they knew they could pretty much do what they wanted during our choice time as long as it was reasonable. The definition of reasonable we used was: that it helped them learn something (since school is a place we go to learn), and that it didn’t interfere with other people’s learning (since we are not by ourselves in this place called school and we are part of a community of learners). Kids carried paper into the housekeeping area–to make grocery lists or leave a note for “Daddy” when “Mommy” was going to the grocery store. They moved materials between areas as needed for the task they were doing–and they knew they wouldn’t get fussed at for doing so.

      I’ll never forget the time I had a K-1 multi-age class–and the 1st graders were, for the most part, kids I had taught in K the year before. Being organized, I had sent all that beginning of the year paperwork from the office home with the parents during our open house visits preschool week. Now, my parents knew me–and they knew I didn’t like to fool with paperwork, so they helped my by returning it promptly, usually. So, the first day of school, I had most of my first graders return their office packets–and I was tasked with (at some point) writing receipts for book fees, making piles of appropriate forms and sending them to the nurse, the office, or whomever.

      Since the first part of the morning was kids looking around, with the first graders helping the new K kids, I sat down and began trying to get some of that busywork off my plate. By 8:30, when the opening bell was due to ring, I had a few more envelopes to go through, but I stopped to pile it all up and get ready to do the morning circle. However, the bell rang, and my first graders began gathering the little ones to the rug. I stayed where I was and watched to see what would happen. They proceeded to begin our calendar activities, say the Pledge of Allegiance, do the moment of silence and began “Share”, all without me even near the rug. I went back to my paperwork, and finished it before they had finished leading the first 30 minutes of our school year. What a message that sent to our incoming K kids! I still wish I had had a video to share that with other teachers. It amazed me, and, I have to say, made me pretty proud.

      So, I’ve given you a long answer to a relatively short question, but the bottom line for me in running a classroom is to know it is not MY classroom, but OURs–and that means I give up a lot of the control and expect the kids to take it over. When given an opportunity, they do.

      Posted by Paula White | November 25, 2012, 12:33 pm
  2. Paula, you inspire. As I read your thoughts, it reminded me of something profound that I learned from my teaching ecxerience to which you may relate. I, too, humbly received accolades of compliments and respect for my unique style of teaching. My child-centered approach seemed to bring out the best in me and my students, that totally engaged experience that kept me coming back everyday with renewed energy to do it all over again, better. But, the subtle truth was other teachers at times seemed resentful or nonplussed by my success. Parents were more likely to request me as their children’s teacher, lavish me with expensive gifts throughout the year and prinicipals would frequent my classroom to talk shop or hang out often asking for me to take on leadership in some way to share my philosophy, expertice and professional experience. It became clear pretty early on that those of us who took risks and taught outside the box with enthusiasm and courage, were ostracized for being so daring. I guess it’s true that we can’t be heroes in our own backyards. I’ve heard that phrase used before and not quite sure why that happens. There is really nothing that I do differently except for my attitude, enthusiasm and general happy demeanor. Too often, teachers become grim reapers of bad moods, sarcasm and general grouchiness. Teachers have a choice every single day whether to show up in a positive mood or not. It’s a production, this craft we call teaching…like being on Broadway, in a way. Many days, I would fake my mood and step into the room and flip the switch to excitement, whether I felt that way or not. To me, that is the key to teaching, perhaps life, too. Act happy to be there and the students will bask in that all day long. My expectations were always high for behavior and work ethic from students and I led by example. I’ve never understood why some teachers choose that career when they appear as if they can’t stand to be around children. That is immediately noticed by students, which diminishes trust and confidence. Attitude makes all the difference, not control and power. I am retired now and can honestly look back on my ups and downs in teaching over the years with a grateful heart that on most days, I gave it my very best and got it back in spades from my students.

    Posted by Sandy | November 25, 2012, 2:48 pm
    • SO glad you responded, Sandy! Yeah, the ostracization is not understood by me either–but I appreciate that you let it roll off your back like water on a duck….The kids are what matters and you obviously lived that philosophy! Love the analogy to Broadway, and the statement “Act happy to be there….” Even if it’s hard, acting happy helps make it bearable.

      Sandy, I most appreciate your last statement. I hope when I retire, I can make the same statement–getting it back in spades from the kids is an added bonus to doing what I love.

      Posted by Paula White | November 26, 2012, 5:04 pm
  3. Paula, Two things really stand out here to me. First, the ways in which you describe teaching is like a ministry–teaching is about showing up for other human beings in a way that recognizes their unique potential, their individuality, and the capacity of group connections to inspire us to higher performance. Your soulfulness in response to the presence of other human beings in your class, your students, as opposed to being lead by role definitions, is beautiful–and effective. For me that’s the way I parented too–showing up as a caring and wondering human being in relation to my children, and they always amazed me with their capacity to go so far beyond anything I could have imagined for them.

    Additionally, it is INCREDIBLY RARE for people in our sector to offer candid, real feedback like you provided to your young colleague. We live in the “land of nice” in our teaching worlds unfortunately, and most folks are not trained and do not know how to give feedback that is actually helpful, growth-producing, honest, and affects practice. Not only do I wish there were more of you for the first reason above, but for the second–in feedback modeling. You were able to say why “I like” is superficial and produces only compliance in kids, and why it reinforces positional authority, and able to say it so it was heard.

    Love that, and love you!


    Posted by Kirsten | November 26, 2012, 9:50 am
    • Hey, Kirsten, thanks for the comment–I hope you get to meet Karen some day–she’s an amazing person–and when I just called down to check in on how her day went, she immediately said she’d been “naming behaviors all day!” LOL She had some great stories to tell about kids today, and is just one of those folks who goes through life with a happy attitude and an open heart. Can’t ask for more in a friend, but as a colleague, she’s also incredibly thoughtful about her practice!

      Not only do we live in the land of nice (and thus, dishonest, sometimes), we also live in the land of can’t say things because you might think I’m judging you. Coaching is not an easy thing to do, but figuring out how to ask questions of kids is easier than figuring out how to ask them of adults, I think. 🙂 Kids can take a lot more honesty in feedback because they know they’re in a state of growth—when do we lose that attitude?

      Today, in the fifth grade math class with the beginning teacher, we asked the kids to go to a specific web site and teach themselves a particular skill, then come to one of us for an example to work to make sure we knew they knew how. Both of us were sharing how we use the internet to learn and how they need to know how to do that as well. I am so lucky to get to begin my day each day in her room! We leave our egos at the door and become learners with our kids–and they see that.

      Oh, if only we could all look at life as a learning ground….always!


      Posted by Paula White | November 26, 2012, 4:50 pm
      • We are powerless over the will and motivation of students. To believe we have that power is a myth. Instead, as you said, Paula, pull up a chair and by example demonstrate how we can learn independently and have the courage to trust students will do the same when they are ready. The old way of behaving as if we teachers have all the answers is long gone. This production of learning called school is a great opprotunity to be the sage on the stage, feeding lines of knowledge when needed, nudging each player(student) to go for the best performance and, as every actor knows, once the curtain goes down, self-evaluation and continued coaching and encouragement will bring them back for more the next day. The audience? Parents, fellow classmates, community, admins, other teachers….we all benefit from a great show. Talk about team effort. Nothing beats that kind of experience to futher learning.

        Posted by Sandy | November 26, 2012, 8:04 pm
  4. We should help one another – especially locally – pause to breathe and settle on the fulfilling actions we can take for ourselves and our kids.

    Thanks for sharing this, Paula –

    Posted by Chad Sansing | November 27, 2012, 3:15 pm

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