Monthly Archives: April 2016

I Forgive You

“Oooooooooohhhhhhhhhhhhhh, you’re in troooooouuuuuuuble!” said one fourth grader to another.

“What’s going on?” I asked, turning on my heels and heading toward them.

“Joaquim just gave her the finger,” Sasha said as she sat wide-eyed, pointing.

“Is that true, Joaquim?” I asked, wondering why he would do that to shy, reserved Dana.

“Yes,” he said, avoiding eye contact.

Joaquim admitted the truth.  His gesture was unprovoked.  He was just in a bad mood.

“That’s no excuse,” I said, and I asked him to apologize.

He walked over to Dana’s desk where she sat writing. “I’m sorry,” he said.

Dana looked him in the eye and said sincerely, “I forgive you.”  Then she smiled and went back to her work.  Joaquim was startled.  He looked confused as he walked back to his desk.

Dana’s words were so refreshing.  In the ten years I had been teaching, I had never heard a student utter the phrase I forgive you. Typically, the offended student remained angry and mumbled, “That’s okay,” or said, “Whatever.”  But nobody ever said, “I forgive you.”  Nobody. Dana had not done anything wrong, but she had quickly and earnestly forgiven Joaquim.  She had done it without grimacing or complaining or reminding everyone that she didn’t deserve his gesture.  Nope.  Just forgave him, plain and simple.

I want to be more like Dana.  Sometimes I mistakenly believe I can control a situation by holding my offender hostage, not letting him off the hook by forgiving him.  But nothing could be further from the truth. Dana proved it.  She was completely in control, and she single-handedly moved the class from controversy back to schoolwork with her kindness.

More than any other time of the school year, during this last month, we all need and should extend forgiveness.  As we work with tired co-workers who have been giving of themselves all year and students who have shared a classroom and a lunchroom and a playground all day every day, we would be smart to make Dana’s three words a part of our daily routine.

Action Step:  So many students act out at the end of the school year.  Squabbles occur every day. It’s the perfect time to teach students to say, “I forgive you.”  We can do this by modeling with our own behavior or by role playing as a class.  Teaching forgiveness is not part of the academic curriculum. It’s not necessarily even part of the new social-emotional curriculum. But it should be. Wouldn’t you agree?



That’s a Relief

Whenever they were together there was bound to be trouble.  The two boys were always up to something and while it usually wasn’t dangerous, it rarely resulted in any academic learning.  My goals were to seat them as far apart as possible during instruction and be on heightened alert for commotions when they were together.

One morning they walked casually up to my desk and handed me a small box.

“When me and Milo were together after school yesterday we saw somethin’ that made us think of you,” said Travis.

I looked down at the small package and wondered what could be inside.  Given their history, I was a little nervous it might be alive.

“We went to Walgreens by ourselves and when we saw it, we knew you’d like it,” said Travis.

“So we put our money together and bought it for ya,” Milo added.

I let out a sigh of relief that it was from Walgreens as that pretty much meant it wouldn’t be a snake or a frog.

Travis and Milo looked at me, eyebrows raised, and waited for me to open the gift.

It was a squishy, blue . . . stress ball!  I laughed at how well they knew me.

They nodded and smiled at my reaction. Then they went back to their separate seats and (no doubt) began planning something to cause me stress!

From that time on, I couldn’t get quite as upset with their shenanigans as I had in the past. The stress ball remained on my desk and each time I saw it I was reminded that sometimes the people who stress us the most can also bring us great delight.


What if You’re the Only One?

The life of a struggling reader is not easy.  I learned this in a fresh way when I taught small groups of primary-aged rookie readers who were baffled by print.  Each day we gathered around the table in my tiny office and attempted to dive into that day’s lesson.

Even in this small setting, the students’ dread of reading was palpable.  Each of them wondered, “What if I’m the only one who can’t read well?” Students who hid their shortcomings in a group of 28 peers had no way to cover them up in a group of five.  But that didn’t keep them from trying:  from the more basic method of insisting they needed to use the bathroom (“It’s an emergency!”) to the more elaborate approach of feigning blindness while squinting and feeling for the furniture, they gave every excuse possible for not trying to read.

Once I had convinced these students they could wait a few minutes to use the restroom, and that they could see well enough to read the large print, I could observe their clumsy reading strategies. There were the “expanders” who sounded out words until they were incomprehensible, and the “skippers” who hopped over every word they didn’t know.  There were the “robots” who read without expression, the “gazers” who stared at a word and looked up wide-eyed waiting for me to supply it, and the “impulse readers” who guessed every word based on its initial sound.  I could easily list at least twelve more such hit and miss strategies, but you get the idea.

While they possessed many strong skills, their illiteracy masked their identity, and they weren’t receiving many accolades for work done well in the classroom.    They rarely completed tasks because they could not work independently.  They were lost during lessons because they could not keep pace with their peers.  They distracted other students because it helped pass the time.  They rarely, if ever, heard edifying words even though they had much to offer.

Witnessing these groups of struggling readers plodding through print outside the larger classroom, I saw their plight in a new light.  I watched as they agonized over pronunciations, tried to remember which letter made which sound, and slogged their way through the shortest of sentences.  When I realized how they must feel , I asked myself, “What if I’m the only one?”  Not the one who can’t read, but the only one who says something positive to them each day.   The longer I thought about it, the more I realized I might be the only one who looked these kids in the eyes and said something complimentary about what they contributed to their learning, to their classroom, and to the world.

I decided that every day I would lock eyes with them and say something to encourage each one, being sure to say their name and their claim to fame.  Even if it did not have anything to do with reading, I needed to proclaim what was good:  “Juan, you are really improving!”  “Melissa, your creativity is inspiring!”  “Tyrone, you are so respectful.”  It helped all of us.  I was always on the lookout for their strengths, and they were happy for the positive attention.

The beauty of this “strategy” is that it works with people of all ages.  In fact, the older the student, the less often they hear, and the more often they need to hear, hopeful words.

If we all try it, no one will be left wondering if they are the only one.

Action Step:  Who in your life needs to hear more positive words?  What could you say to lift them up?  How might it help change them, and you, for the better?


Paula’s Hammer

I thought I would make it through the whole class period, but I was wrong . . . again.  It was nine o’clock.  With only ten minutes before the class was dismissed, it happened.  Paula began spouting a string of less-than-complimentary adjectives at the poor fourth grade classmate who had irritated her.  To spare her victim further verbal abuse, I asked Paula if we could chat for a moment, and she followed me to the window.  I told her I knew she was upset and that it was okay to be angry, but that she had to try to control her emotions a little.  Then I talked with her about building a birdhouse.

“Paula, if we were going to build a birdhouse out of wood, what tools would we need?”

“A hammer?” she asked.

“What else?”

“I don’t know,” she blurted out angrily.

“Maybe . . . a saw? A screwdriver? Some nails, and sandpaper?”

“Yeah,” she said.

“You’re right, Paula.  We would need all of those tools.  It would be silly for us to only use a hammer. With a hammer we can only pound things.”

Paula nodded, but was definitely wondering what my tools tutorial had to do with her angry outburst.

“Just like we would need a tool kit for constructing something new, we have to have a mental tool kit to help us solve our everyday problems.  Depending on the situation, we might need to take out the “pliers of patience” or the “level of love” or the “clamp of kindness.”  Just like building a birdhouse, we can’t solve every problem with a hammer.  It’s not your fault if it’s the only tool you have right now, but we can work together on adding some new tools to your kit so you’ll be happier in class, right?”

Paula smiled and said, “Yes.”  Even though what I had said was difficult for her to hear, she felt understood.  And in the end, that’s what you want from people who only have a hammer.  Sadly, many of our students (and some of the adults in our lives) have not been taught to use different tools to help them work through teasing, frustration, and the complications of daily life.  It’s part of our job to teach students to use a variety of “tools” or coping strategies in the classroom.

By chance, have you encountered a person like Paula lately?  If it’s a student, you might consider having the same sort of talk with him or her.  If it’s an adult, the conversation might not be possible. But one thing is certain.  It is easier to love and understand someone when you realize they only have (or choose to use) one tool.  If that’s the case and a conversation is out of the question, just reach into your own tool kit and take out . . . your pliers, level, and clamp . . .