We kicked off our “Reading Super Bowl” the other day. The students were pumped to be competing against one another. The line to go to the busses at the end of the day was buzzing with how many footballs each was going to be bringing in the next day.
Today was only day two of our contest, and students came to school baring both footballs and questions. I find it helpful to sit everyone down on the carpet and go over some extra ground rules: 1. It is okay to bring footballs in a day or two late. You won’t lose your minutes if you forget, or mom/dad was too busy. 2. Only take as many footballs as you truly imagine completing that evening. (Kids will take five sheets of paper=30 footballs=600 minutes or ten hours; probably not realistic in one night;) 3. Even though you are not inside the school building at recess, you can’t bring a book outside to read. Run around; that is what recess is for. While I appreciate the enthusiasm, the lunch/recess aids have enough to do without initialing a million footballs…
While covering these and more rules and regulations, I began to back away from the parameters of the competition and focus my message on what the contest is actually meant to do: foster a love for reading and develop reading
habits. In the past the class was privy to the mantra “Everyone who reads wins”, but I hadn’t spelled out the underlying agenda of the “Reading Super Bowl”. This year I just flat out told students, “I would rather you only read 20 minutes a day, but wish that you had more time to read and love the time that you did spend reading, than bring four footballs (80 minutes of reading) in to class each day.”
I worded this concept a few different ways with multiple examples, and the students seemed to understand. After each student shared an exciting tale of how much he or she read the night before, I asked what was read and how much the student enjoyed it. It only took a few of these exchanges before students began discussing book series and future books that they wanted to read. Now we were getting somewhere! Rather than championing the paper footballs and minutes read, my students were looking forward to the actual reading.
In previous years, I have asked parents to send in pictures of their kids reading at home so I can include them in movies that summarize the whole competition. I might have parents contribute these earlier in the game, this year. In this way, we will focus on the plays rather than only the score.
Earlier this year a student from my room hurt the feelings of a peer by pointing out a physical characteristic that contrasted the child’s appearance with the other kids in the classroom. The rudeness was unintentional (Whitman, n.d.), but painful nonetheless.
The only reason that I knew about this interaction was the hurt child came over and told me about it. It almost seemed like she wasn’t sure if she should be upset or not. As she told me her story, others, overhearing the tale, chimed in with their two-cents. This additional commentary seemed to spin the story into a negative frenzy, so that I put an end to the retelling in order to address the class.
I talked to my third grade students about the effect that pointing out differences among people can have. I explained that while the observant student may not have done anything overtly wrong, it wasn’t polite to focus on what makes someone different from you. It is great to be proud of what separates you from others; These characteristics make us unique and special, but don’t draw attention to how other people are different from you. Rather, we should celebrate our similarities.
What the boy did when he pointed out the way a little girl looked different from himself was a natural thing to do. We humans can’t help but categorize things (Vanderbilt, 2016). We have genres for music, books, movies, art, dance; You name it! It’s much easier to find things when they are labeled. When I’m in the mood to read a mystery, it’s much faster and easier to go to that section of the bookstore, rather than sift through every single shelf. But, what about those books that are very funny true stories about a person’s life that happen to also be highly mysterious? Now what? Often times, we simply create a new category.
Tom Vanderbilt (2016) goes a step further, suggesting that the more we like something, the more we want to categorize. A person who enjoys candy will separate a bag of treats into several groups of like sweets. How many times has the book-lover rearranged his or her library, recategorizing titles? I have grouped books that I read close in chronology, only to separate them after reading new texts.
The problem with doing this to people is that genre-making exaggerates differences (Kaufman, 2012). When we categorize things, we look for what makes them unique. When it comes to relationships, it is wise to seek similarities over identifying differences. Contrasting characteristics can create wedges and rifts between people. Locating, examining, celebrating, and strengthening the things we have in common will pull people closer together. This will build relationships that will be useful, helpful, comfortable, and enduring.
I came up with an activity to help reinforce this concept in my classroom. I call it “Building Bridges”. We have a snack/play time in the afternoons, when we give ourselves a brain break. I instituted a “constructive” play rule, where kids use items that can be connected or built upon in order to make things, rather than just mess around. We have Legos, Lincoln Logs, Tinker Toys, 30+ year-old Robotix toys from my childhood, and we also use the colorful interlocking blocks that came with our math curriculum. Because we have the most of this last medium, I chose to have the whole class use the colorful blocks in a contest. (The competition makes it more exciting.) Groups of kids–I not only let the kids pick their own groups, I didn’t limit the size of groups–arranged and connected blocks to form bridges that spanned distances between desks. I told them that the bridge had to be able to hold and transport a Thymio robot–This is a little robot that students can program to drive. The robot was the trick. Students worked to make their bridges wide enough, thick enough, and strong enough for the robot to use. Rather than drop robots on the floor during trial runs, we measured the weight with a simple scale. The robot was equal in weight to a half-full pencil box.
We discussed the concept of working together right after having experienced it first-hand. The kids loved constructing the creations.
The thing is, the blocks in our bridges were all different colors. Not only that, but they stuck together in varying strengths. Some had tight connections. Some were very loose. But every block had way more in common with the others than it did with the desk it rested on!
In the same way, humans are all different; We look, think, behave, talk, dress, and smell different. But, we have way more in common with each other than our differences would let on. Lets focus on our connectivity, building bridges, rather than tearing each other down.
I’m back to reading the Newbery Award winners. The fourth-ever winner, published July 9, 1925 (according to the information provided on the dust jacket) was a curiosity to me because, rather than a novel, it is a collection of stories collected from the native people living in South America.
Stories have always been a primal form of communication. They are timeless links to ancient traditions, legends, archetypes, myths, and symbols. They connect us to a larger self and universal truths.
I was looking forward to reading these tales, thinking that they would connect me to a deep string of humanity that would be tied to nature. Instead, the first story alarmed me with a message of self-destruction.
As is normally my custom, I began my reading, writing notes in the margin of the text. I immediately loved the description of setting and character development, so I marked the text to share with my third grade students who are just beginning to learn how to “set a story” in a place and time. The author begins his book speaking of his experience visiting a tiny village in Honduras. Although the buildings and road differ greatly from the homes and streets that his readers of 1925, and even today, know, the children playing in a cool stream on a hot day resonates with all. In fact, I was greatly inspired by the use of the inclusive language, “…as any other little chap of his age, white, brown, or yellow” (p. 2), connecting his readership with the people he was writing about.
All of this served to butter me up to appreciate a terrific tale that had been told and retold for hundreds of years by the indigenous people the author was visiting. The amazing literature had cast a spell on me. I was bent on learning what would happen to some of the first humans to inhabit the jungle. There were birds singing, animals meeting and talking in harmony, and hardworking, talented, and powerful human heros. Just when you think that this sensational salve is a love potion promoting literacy, irony cuts through the beauty like the machete that the two young men in the story use to level every single plant of a part of the jungle.
The premise of this first tiny tale is that there are two talented brothers who are told to clear land in a forest to begin their adult lives. The father of these youths tells them to do all of the work within seven days. A wise owl discusses the problem of losing his habitat with a wizard of the jungle. The two hatch a plan to thwart the sons by deceiving the father.
At this point, I am wondering who I am to route for; the humans who seem to have an impossible task, who I empathize with, who are set up as the heroes of the tale; or the owl/wizard team who are about to lose their homes. The way the wizard attempts to stop the sons is through turning the father against them. The father is told that his hard-working sons are lazy and not clearing the land. Each time this happens, the father increases the amount of land that they must level. Now, this seems to go against the owl/wizard’s plan, and yet they continue their scheme until the sons are finally asked to do more work than they can handle.
Here, I want to tell you that it is only because I am planning on blogging about this book that I am reading it so carefully. If I hadn’t, I am sure that I would not have been able to shake the spell of the story. I like the hundreds of people who heard the story told by the elderly woman of the Honduras village that Charles Finger visited, who, incidentally, was depicted as smoking a cigar when Finger found her, and then threw it down to tell the tale; I, also, would have been completely mesmerized by the plight of the young men who wanted to please their father, earn their inheritance, and be successful in life. Just like a character in a fantasy fiction who has a spell broken awakens, realizing that his love had been an aberration, I found myself shaking my head at the human-size iguana who helped the human youths by showing them how to harness the power of the forest animals to clear every plant from the land that the very same forest animals use to make their homes, find food, and live.
Another reader and endless listeners of this tale would surely be swept in by the poetry, “I must do what I can, Is the thought of a man,” the seeming teamwork between human and beast, the defeat of evil in prevailing against the efforts of the wizard, and proving oneself to elders. I can easily imagine the recipient of such powerful storytelling being completely sucked in. What is the problem with this? Only that the storyteller was misleading listeners. Granted, the themes of working hard, never giving up, being ingenious, and listening to nature are all valuable lessons, but curtained in this spell of a story is the theme of humans enslaving the earth. It isn’t a surprise that the two youths are victorious in the end. The old iguana who “climbed into a tree and stretched himself along the branch of it where he could best see, and the birds gathered in a great circle, and matchless melody going up to the sky” would rest there until the next human cuts his tree down, also. Then more humans would cut down every tree that those singing birds occupied. When the magic of this wonderful story melted from my brain, I was aghast at the horror of the animals who were depicted as happy to help the humans destroy their habitat. The storyteller was sharing a tale that convinced listeners that nature wants humans to destroy her. In the end of the tale the brothers plant fruit trees on their newly cleared land. Do you think that they would tolerate the singing birds, who helped them clear the land to plant the trees, eat the fruit that grew there? Certainly not.
Again, I recognize that the themes within this tale were useful to previous generations. Humans struggled to master technologies, easing their existence on this planet. We have benefited from the inspirational stories of our elders motivating us to assimilate the best character traits for growing into the mature species we are today. Rather than this blog ending on a negative note, I’d like to challenge future storytellers to use their power for positive change. It is time to harness the magic of terrific tale telling to empower youths and adults alike for creative, innovative aspirations of helping humans come together to live harmoniously. Wouldn’t it be more beneficial for the “love potion” of storytelling to be transcendent than amorous, anyway?
You tell a group of students that you want them to be “Classy.” What is this elusive character trait, and how can a teacher easily communicate it to kids?
My school district uses a standards-based grading system of one through four when it comes to communicating conceptual understanding. This is how I explain it to my students: If you do exactly what I ask on an assignment, just right, you get a three. This means you have completed the task satisfactorily. If there were some mistakes or the work makes it seem like you don’t fully understand the concept, you get a two. This means that there is room for improvement, which is okay, as long as you step it up and work at getting better. A one is when there are so many errors that it is obvious you are lost or not trying. You see that when the work screams, “Whoa! I need serious help and attention over here.” And then, there are fours. These are the gems that students earn when they have exceeded expectations. When a student follows the parameters of an assignment, and then some. I am not looking for a sixth paragraph tacked onto a five-paragraph essay. A four would be awarded to a student who included a quote from a notable expert on the topic and referenced the site where it was found.
Fine, Mr. Weimann, but what does this have to do with classroom management? Well, this rubric can be applied to every aspect of the students’ activity at school. In the same way that I will use these principles to grade an assignment, I can use them to grade the way in which a student completes the assignment.
Here is how I communicate what that fourth level of behavior looks like. Students have all played with playdough or clay before. What happens when you push a penny or any other object down onto some playdough? “It makes an indent,” a student answers. “Correct,” I reply, “But, what is that indent called? What is a vocabulary word for that; something synonymous?” There are some thoughtful ideas. With only the sound of “im-” several students complete the word, “impression”. The object makes an impression of itself onto the soft material.
Mrs. Hulmes teaches first grade at my school. When Mrs. Hulmes’s line of students exit their classroom they not only walk in a straight line without talking or touching, but they hold their hands behind their backs. Not one or two of the students, but every single one of them. And, not once in a while, but every single time they are in line, they do this. When there is a substitute for Mrs. Hulmes, her class lines up and moves from location to location this way. You can probably picture it in your head, while reading this text, but if you saw it in person, it would leave an impression on your mind that you would never forget. I have never seen a nicer looking line in my life. It is so classy.
To be classy is to be impressive. Students can sit on the carpet and listen to me while I explain this, and that might be a three. The students that are sitting up straight, making eye contact with me when possible, smiling, and raising their hands to either share connections or ask pertinent questions to deepen their’s and their peers’ understanding are impressing me. This is four behavior. That is classy, and I am their captain.