Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Children should be seen AND heard...

In my short teaching career, (almost 11 years is short, right?) I have changed my strategies, philosophies and practices on many aspects of my craft. I have taught science, 4th grade and 2nd grade, all of which provided me with unique learning experiences, challenges, and perspective. There are a great number of things that I would go back and tell my former, newly-minted, teacher-self about teaching, if such a nerdtastic time-traveling opportunity presented itself. With that opportunity, I could save myself a lot of sleepless nights, bombed lessons and rooms full of crickets (chirp...silence..chirp). Grit-touters, be not offended. I promise, if given the aforementioned time-travel capability, I'd find some other fun aspect of the space-time continuum to disrupt, as I am well aware that the most painful and awkward moments of my teaching career thus far, have surely led me to deeper understandings of my profession, my students and myself. No short-cuts. Onward and upward, to infinity and beyond!

Perhaps the greatest lesson I have learned in my career though, is also one of the greatest lessons I have learned in my life, and it's a favorite of sorts, because this understanding is cemented in me, and ingrained in my philosophy as a teacher (and mother, wife, sister, daughter, friend, neighbor, writer, human, etc) in the most beautiful and soul-nurturing way. The lesson is simply this: Children need to be seen and heard to feel safe and loved enough to learn and question, grow and thrive. You can replace the word "Children" in the above statement with "people" and I believe the same rings true. The "seeing" part can be the most tricky part of that equation. I'm not talking about seeing with your eyes, I'm talking about seeing what is beneath the exterior, I'm talking about investing your time and energy, intuition and empathy into getting to really know each one of the 15-50 people in front of you each day. What makes them tick, laugh, shrink and glow. What interests and motivates them? What frightens and stifles them? In the current educational climate of "rigor" (a word I'm contemplating a lot in my best-practice reflections lately) testing, and achievement measures, we're still compelled to find out more about the people behind the numbers on the page (or we ought to be). One of the greatest extensions of this lesson though, has been the importance of not only really listening to and seeing each of my students but helping them learn to see and be seen by one another (#empathy).
The most powerful example of this began with a Christmas project I started in my 4th grade classroom 6 years ago. You can read that story here. This year, I brought that project back with a makeover in my 2nd grade classroom, and once again this idea that children thrive on being seen and known, loved and understood by not just me but by their peers as well, brought Christmas to life in my heart and my classroom once again.

Early on the last week before break, my students selected the name of one of their classmates. To tie in with our descriptive, opinion and informative writing lessons (CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.2.1) the students generated a collective list of positive attributes and we listed them on our front board for inspiration. Then the students wrote (on paper shaped like a Christmas bulb, because this is 2nd grade and #cutematters) to the prompt "How is this person a light in this world, our world?"
Decorating each other with affirmations and evidences of being seen.

On "tribute day" each student came up front with the person they wrote about. The recipient stood on a small pedestal and the reader read their tribute to that person and the rest of the class. The rest of the class had post-it notes on their desk and were permitted to write other descriptors or affirmations for the student being honored. At the end of the reading, the students came up and stuck their post-it praise to the individual (or handed them to them if they'd rather- but the silliness factor was more fun for most to be "decorated like a Christmas Tree" by kind words and evidences of being seen and appreciated by their peers.)
As their teacher, I feel proud in these moments of the way they honor one another with words on paper, and speak their words out with confidence for the class to hear (remember, these are 7 year olds). I feel the sense of accomplishment that students who have just learned to read and write are now stringing words together into sentences, working those sentences into paragraphs and making expressive meaning in written and oral communication. Progress, Goals, Common Core, education! But as someone who loves them, who sees them, who knows their individual struggles and successes, their victories and failures, their longing to grow and matter and belong, it lights me up like a Christmas tree to see them show care to one another. It makes my heart swell to see their faces change from awkward, and trying to look cool, to humbled and honored and seen and loved.

My students live on our campus. They go home to their families on breaks and holidays and I know that coming back isn't always easy after time at home with loved ones. Another hope of mine, with this project was that I was sending my students home loved-up and seen, and appreciated and that through this project they would remember that they have a community and family here at school to return to when the break was over.

I don't usually hear from my elementary students over the breaks, but 2 of my students and their families did reach out to me over this break with positive and grateful feedback as a result of this project. Since I moved on from 4th grade, this project has remained there living on through other teachers and classrooms in that grade level and I've heard similar stories of 4th graders lifting one another up and strengthening their community through affirmation and acknowledgement. We all want to be seen and recognized for who we are, and what we bring to our corners of the world. I wish each of you, dear readers, the gift of a community that knows and loves and sees you so that you too can feel safe to learn and lead and grow where you are! More than this, I wish you the bravery to share yourself and be seen, and the whole-heartedness to really see and appreciate the "children" of all ages around you.

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