Sunday, February 3, 2008

Hey, It's Progress...

I am learning to celebrate the big and small things in my classroom. Which is good because the small successes are what lead to the big ones. Additionally, I am learning that the small successes are the more dependable ones. Naturally, they're more frequent, but they are also more constant. When I say that, I mean that I typically continue to see progress from the small successes more than the big successes. For example, if we have an incredible day one day (big success), I can almost guarantee that the next day will be hell. But, while I see ebbs and flows in the small successes, I can expect them to build upon each other rather than simply be there one day and gone the next.

Both big and small things happened this past week. It was kind of a crazy week. I was out for professional development on Tuesday, meaning that I had my second sub for the entire year. I prepped the kids for the sub, explaining to them that I would be back, but if they acted a fool for the sub, I probably would not be back. I reminded them of the time we read "Miss Nelson is Missing" where the nice teacher leaves because the kids are bad and a mean teacher takes her place. Thankfully, they did a pretty good job for the sub, or so she told me.

We also had two major assemblies/programs this week. When I say major, I mean 2 1/2 hours each. Which is an awfully long time for my kids to sit and be quiet and listen. They did alright, but it did throw them off for the rest of the day, which is why I HATE programs and I really hate them first thing in the morning. And we had a fire drill. Craziness.

But despite all the insanity, I was surprised at how well they did...and pleased.

So now we get to the breakthroughs.

One of the programs this week was a Silent March in honor of Dr. King and the upcoming Black History Month. My kids and I did a lesson on Dr. King, which was really daunting for me. How do you teach four-year-olds about segregation and prejudice? I mean my kids know life isn't fair, more than I do, but that's such an abstract and sad concept to teach them about. So, we read a book about Dr. King and discussed it and it actually turned out to be one of my more successful lessons. They LOVE Martin Luther King now. When we walked past a poster in the hall, they flipped out and started yelling, "We found the man! We found the man who made it fair for us to be in the same class! Dr. King, Dr. King!" They now wave (sort of) silently to the poster as we walk down the hall.

Of course they also identify with him for reasons that were sort of unexpected to me (why they were unexpected, I'm not sure, I should know this is coming by now). The first was good. We talked about how his father was a pastor and he was, too. I wasn't sure that they knew what a pastor was, so I explained that it was the person who talked in church. The mention of church got them really excited and they started telling me about who in the class went to their church and so on. So, that was good. Then, we got to the part where Dr. King organized protests and was occasionally arrested. Which, naturally, started a chorus of "He went to jail? My daddy's in jail." "Your daddy's in jail? My daddy's in jail, too." "Sometimes my mama and my daddy are in jail." I cut that conversation short real quick.

But I was very proud at what they wrote for our banner for the Silent March. On their own, with only very, very slight guidance from me, they wrote:
"Martin Luther King had a dream. I have a dream. We are all friends. Martin Luther King made all of us be in the same school together. We are glad we are in the same class. He made it fair."

Anyway, we were practicing for the Silent March and I just could not get them to focus or practice. Khadijah was crawling down the hallway. J kept yelling. And so on and so on. So, I took them to Mr. Bolt's room. Mr. Bolt teaches second grade and he's awesome. He organized the programs and did a great job of teaching the students about the history rather than having the programs for the sake of having the programs. Mr. Bolt did a mini lesson for them and helped calm them down. In the midst of all this, he realized that T is the little brother of a student he had last year. He told me that he might have some influence with T.

Oh T. He has singlehandedly raised my blood pressure and probably shortened my life this year. He spent most of the beginning of the year under a table or tearing my classroom apart. He also terrorized the other students, hitting, kicking, throwing chairs and pushing over tables. But I truly do love this kid. It's hard sometimes, but he can't help being the product of his environment. He knows no other way to get attention that in a negative way and he is DESPERATE for attention of any sort. He gets a lot of "whuppings" (in his case, this means beatings) at home and is the angriest child I've ever met.

So, Mr. Bolt offers to help and sheds a little more insight into T. It turns out that some of his anger stems from his resentment and his dad's lack of involvement in his life. Mr. Bolt's position as a caring, nurturing, successful African American male sets him up to be a great mentor for T and he agrees to do this.

Beyond being desperate for attention, T is desperate for love and affection. I tell all my students that I love them and care about them. I just think it's important and, for some of them, I suspect that I may be the only person who tells them that they're special and that someone cares. I can't quite quantify or explain it in words, but the first time I told T, one-on-one, that I loved him, there was this tiny, minuscule spark and there was this slight turning point. So, I know that that's one of the things that he's after. He already gets to go see my friend, Kristen, when he does a good job. He eats it up. But on Thursday, when I told him that Mr. Bolt told me he loved him and he wanted to see him if he worked really hard and made good choices, he worked his little tail off. He was incredible- a whole different child. So, I sent him to see Mr. Bolt, along with a note from me and a book that T had made (with his name written on it, his whole name, not just a T!). But I guess T got nervous when he got there because he just shoved it under the door and ran away. However, Mr. Bolt came right before dismissal to find Trevon and that kid lit up like a Christmas tree. He was so proud of himself and so glad that this teacher cared enough to come find him.

So, that was a big success. Thus, I braced myself for Friday. Big successes are usually followed by big disasters. And the morning on Friday was looking like it might be a big disaster. He was all over the place and he's smart enough to know which kids are followers and gets them off track. If we can get that kid on track, he could really grow up to be somebody. He wasn't being violent or terrible, but he was disruptive and he certainly wasn't learning. So, I was frustrated, but I completely ignored him. That, I've found, drives him bananas. I can yell all I want, but that usually just triggers a nuclear meltdown. Ignoring him often gets him to do what I want-maybe not in my time frame-but what I want nonetheless. He even tried to talk to me a couple of times and I simply acted as though he wasn't even there. So, after lunch he and I discuss my expectations for the rest of the day and how proud he will make me if he works to meet those expectations. And he did a fabulous job during work stations and earned the right to participate in a joint project with Kristen's class- releasing ladybugs.

However, it went sour during journals. The kids were writing in their journals and, as usual, T was having difficulty sharing the crayons. I guess R took one of the crayons T was hoarding and T slapped him. Not just a little slap either, there was a huge red mark and R was lying on the floor, crying. I get after T and comfort R and T hides under the table. Naptime comes and T heads toward the computer because I let him work on the computer on alphabet and counting games (to avoid the havoc he likes to wreak otherwise). He's academically low and could use the extra practice (because he spends his time causing trouble instead of learning- the kid's really smart otherwise). But I call him over and explain that he may not use the computer today because he slapped R. I get myself ready for a meltdown.

Let me stop and explain these meltdowns so that you can truly understand how significant this next bit is. These meltdowns typically involve screaming and crying, kicking/throwing chairs, hurting other students, pushing over tables, etc. They occasionally involve kicking/biting/scratching/hitting me. They're always extreme and usually long. Three weeks ago, it took two people to remove him from my classroom during one of these episodes. One took his feet (after they removed his shoes because he was kicking them so much) and another grabbed him under the armpits and pinned his arms down. He's five and he's not a big kid; this is how out-of-control these tantrums can get.

So, I'm ready for a meltdown. And it starts out semi-typical. He gets mad and says, "I can't do nothin' wit you!"- his favorite phrase during a tantrum. Then, he just sits down in my rocking chair and just cries. Just cries. There's no incessant pattern of "I can't do nothin' wit you" and "I hate you." There's no kicking, no hitting. No chairs are kicked or even hit. Just sitting and crying with his head down. This is bizarre. I'm waiting for Jesus to come and end the world.

And we go on with the day. Dismissal comes. Dismissal is usually a very ugly time. If he's had a good day, he gets the "good" stamp on his folder and a prize from the prize box. But if it hasn't been a good day, there's a tantrum where he demands a prize and he refuses to leave my classroom. There's crying and screaming as he lies on the floor and I refuse to stamp his folder. I used to give him what the kids refer to as the "bad" stamp, but he would just throw his folder out the bus window and I'd never see it again. Which, truly, I can't blame him. If my mother told me (in front of the teacher) that next time the school called, "they'll have to call the police to get me off of you I'm gonna whup you so hard," I would throw my folder out the window, too. So, he and I came to the agreement that I just wouldn't stamp his folder if it wasn't the "good" stamp. But sometimes he thinks he should just have the stamp regardless of his behavior and major tantrum ensues.

I'm sitting at the teacher's table passing out folders and finishing assessments and T walks up to me. He says, "I been good today?" I said, "Not really. What you did to R was not nice and it made me really sad." Again, I prepare myself for an end-of-the-day tantrum. Instead, he just says, "Okay," and SITS on the carpet. (Sitting on the carpet is nothing short of a miracle for him.) After everyone has their things, I call for the bus riders to leave. Not only does T leave without asking for a prize, but he runs up and gives me a hug and says, "Are you going to be here on Monday?" I almost die in this moment. Never has T initiated a hug with me. He'll give me hugs back when I hug him. He'll vie for my attention, screaming my name or pushing someone. But this is new. This is a good new. And this gives me hope that we have truly reached a turning point, that he is learning that positive attention is better than negative attention, that he wants to learn and that school is a safe place and that we do care about him.

This is both a little thing and a big thing. But while to an outsider, that hug was just a hug, to me that hug was a promise. A promise of trust and affection. A promise to try. A promise that that little boy has a future.

"But we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out His love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom He has given us." Romans 5:3-5

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