With Eyes of Wonder

Earlier this month, while walking back from PE class, some of my homeroom students excitedly pulled me over to a small pumpkin patch that was growing beside the path in a raised bed. “Look through here!” they exclaimed, pulling back some of the vines. It was like a small green cave and inside were a pair of small, orange pumpkins. I loved it and noted to myself that I wanted to stop some day and take a photo of it.

Photography is an amateur hobby of mine, and I’m always on the lookout for interesting shots. I trace it back to the day many years ago, when a dear friend pointed out my son reflected in the airport window as he watched planes on the runway. She is a professional photographer, and something must have clicked for me that day, because I’m more aware of framing than I used to be. Digital photography is a blessing as it gives me immediate feedback on my results and it allows me nearly unlimited attempts to get a shot right.

img_6889A week or so after seeing the magical green cave, I thought to take my phone with me on the way to PE. (There’s another photography blessing – cell phones with outstanding camera capability.) I knelt down to pull back the vines and took the shot. Now it was my turn to excitedly show the fourth graders how they had inspired me, and they loved it. “It’s beautiful!” “It’s like a fairy cave!” “Where did you see that?” Other students wanted to see the hidden pumpkins that they had walked past every day. As I showed my division director the photo later and described the exchange, I referred to it as “looking with the eyes of a fourth grader.”

That phrase has turned over inside my mind frequently in the past weeks as I watch my students and get to know them. After a month of school, I’m seeing multiple sides of my students, and I’m curious. How does that behavior that annoys other people help that child? Because there has to be something that feels beneficial to the child, even if it’s short term and doesn’t make sense to us as adults. What is s/he thinking while making this computational error?  If I understand the thought process, I can tweak my instruction or assistance. Does the child who seems impulsive all the time have moments of focus? – When? – Under what circumstances? Knowing this may help me channel this child’s focus. Fortunately, I work with a team that is in close communication. We share our observations with one another and our suspicions. We brainstorm ways to support individual students while being mindful of the whole group’s needs, including teachers. We communicate closely with parents trying to forge a partnership, always being mindful that each person wants the best for the child.

In addition to having a sense of wonder about children, I try to bring that to the world, especially nature. I’m aware of the different experiences this generation of children is having compared to mine growing up. There’s more digital distraction and scheduled activity and less free exploration of the world. Fewer opportunities to find fairy caves or to see what happens when you throw a rock in a pond. When I slow down to show them beauty or wonder around us, I hope it has an impact. To open some eyes that might not have seen. To reinforce that it is good to slow down and look for interesting phenomena wherever you are. To inspire a story or a drawing or a poem. One of my online newsletters this week had a great article about nature-deficit disorder and an interview with Richard Louv. He wrote Last Child in the Woods, which I read and enjoyed many years ago.

img_7074As I was hiking this morning, I came across a small tree that had fallen. It must have grown within a fissure among granite rocks and dislodged one of them, because elevated above ground was a small rock, enveloped by tree. I snapped a photo, thinking how cool this was and how some of my fourth graders would love it. Then I realized it would be a perfect illustration for some of our work in erosion later this winter. My slowing down and noticing today will have a direct impact on a future lesson, something I wasn’t looking for on my hike.

I celebrate that I still see the world with “the eyes of a fourth grader,” and that I slow down to see nature and children. Who knows what an observation will lead me to discover!

Problem Solving through Group Initiatives

k4-flower-of-handsI’ve been trying to incorporate elements from my challenge course training earlier this summer by using what are known as “group initiatives.” In a nutshell, a facilitator provides a problem or challenge to be solved by the group. It can be made as silly or serious as desired – silly will often engage the kids well. The facilitator has to read the group to determine what level of challenge they can handle while pushing them to improve their skills, and the key component of a challenge is the debrief time afterward. We did two challenges on Friday, and they went well … and  I see things to do differently. Right now, I recognize the similarity of our group debrief and this written reflection. I get to notice what went well in addition to what I still need to work on.

I gave the kids a challenge that stepped up the difficulty level from our first week’s introduction. They had to put themselves in a line based on the number of letters in each student’s first name  WITHOUT talking. There were clarifying questions, of course: What if I have a nickname? Can I use the name my mom calls me at home? Who decides which name to use?

They got to work, and I watched. I noticed things that went well and things that did not. After their completion, we circled up and I asked the key question, “What did you notice?” Open-ended intentionally to see what THEY noticed. They noticed what I noticed: Kids got in a line. Kids argued without using words. Kids disagreed. Kids helped point others to the right place in line. They assessed that they succeeded at solving the challenge and failed in the process.

I loved the next challenge … mostly. I let everyone know that there was a secret ingredient in our lunch that day which “glued” our hands together. We had to interlace our two hands together and could not use the fingers separately. (That was fun, and the kids enjoyed the silliness.) I challenged them to make groups based on their family size, without talking or using their hands at all. Of course, we had questions to clarify before getting to work!

It was fascinating to watch! Students tried a variety of methods to communicate family size – bending one leg to make the body look like a 4, stomping feet for family size, swinging arms up and down to count, and more. There were a lot of families with four members, and initially students created two separate groups. Someone in the group figured it out and led the way to bring them together. The kids had learned from their experience, and I was so proud of them. Once they were done, we circled up. What did they notice? For one thing, stomping slowly worked better than stomping quickly – it was easier to count. They shared their observations. The group assessed that they succeeded at the challenge and did better in the process.

While they were at recess, I discovered a place where I failed. One of the kids was triggered and left to have private time with one of our teachers. It was something that I should have thought of ahead of time because I knew backstory. I got the scoop from my colleague, and I immediately went to this student and apologized for letting him down. I had to take ownership for an oversight on my part. And I praised him for taking care of his heart. He did the right thing that he needed to do in the situation.

I know that we all make mistakes, and while this impacted his emotions in a big way, I also know that he will continue to be triggered from time to time in ways I can’t protect him from. I’m not beating myself up about it, but I took ownership and I will think a bit more carefully in the future for prevention.

I noticed more. Things that I can do to improve my facilitation skills. Part of our “5-finger agreement” that I taught the class includes not pointing fingers or blaming others. Their debrief comments in circle were sometimes finger-pointing. I’d like to avoid that. I wonder if I can get at it with more specific questions. “What did you notice that was helpful for you?” “What did you notice that YOU did?” A gentle reframing could be – it was helpful when people accepted my number of letters without arguing with me. Fourth graders can do that. And some of these kiddos need more support in looking for the positives. That will carry over in valuable ways into their lives.

I also need to create more dialogue around volunteering and self-care. A good tool for that will be to play “Have You Ever?” Students can learn that it’s okay to keep things private, one doesn’t have to share information if they don’t feel safe in the group. It’s an individual’s choice to share or not.

Overall, I think I succeeded at both the task and the process. I still have a lot to learn to be even better.


K4 sample hands

What an intense start to the school year! It’s not anyone one thing, but an accumulation that leads me to already feel I’ve been back for months. That sounds ambiguous (and possible negative!) as I write it…What I mean is that I already feel in the groove after 8 days of student time, in the groove with our new schedule and knowing the kids. I know I’m not the only one to feel it; I’ve heard it from administrators and faculty in both the Lower School and other divisions. I’m curious that it feels stronger to me than it has other years.

I’d like to think that it’s partially related to my focus on individual children. I am grateful to work at a school and directly with a team that prioritizes knowing kids. My co-teachers and I are also flexible. We overplanned for our first week, which is not surprising given that we didn’t know what we could do with our new community of fourth graders. What was great is that we quickly reassessed the time we had and our priorities, and we made changes to reflect our students’ needs.

I know it is easy for me to lose sight of self-care, and I wonder if that contributes to my sense of already being back for a long time. It has been easy for me the past couple of weeks to overlook my own needs, stay late at school, and get things done. I found myself grateful for this three-day weekend, and I spent the first day reading. Blissful heaven! Now as I sit reflecting, I realize that this is a good opportunity for me to strengthen my planning skills and build in the time that I need for myself, to set appropriate boundaries, and to better recognize when something can wait or needs immediate attention.

I feel a difference in myself since I started a regular gratitude journal 14 months ago. Even when I am overwhelmed or distressed, I can find things in my life for which to be grateful. My journal includes a daily photo, which pushes me to look for visual reminders in my day. This focus on gratitudes helps me acknowledge that while I can improve in my self-care skills, I am significantly more aware of it than I used to be.

This photo shows the community that we are building, not only in the fourth grade, but also with our kindergarten buddies. It reminds me of how I need to provide a variety of experiences for students to learn multiple aspects of who they are. One student, who tends to be impulsive, sat carefully designing and coloring his hand while conversing with a classmate … for more than 30 minutes. What an incredible insight that gave me, and now I’m curious to see when else it occurs.

This photo reminds me of the uniqueness of my students and the responsibility I have to be respectful of their gentle souls. I am honored by the trust placed in me by students and their parents. I recognize their willingness to be vulnerable in the conversations that we have. I strive to be vulnerable with them and to be present in every moment. I am grateful for all of these opportunities to grow as a person and as a teacher, and I appreciate the written reflection time I’ve committed to this school year.