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- A Chicago Teacher's Dream - January 22, 2016
- A Career in Crisis - August 27, 2015
- Classroom Community and Rock-Paper-Scisssors - July 22, 2015
- The Art of Teaching - June 22, 2015
- Parent tip: Beyond Sounding It Out - June 4, 2015
Tai Chi methodology is my secret to a smooth school year – a year that grants my second grade students growing independence, allowing me the ability to work with small groups. We move slowly, reviewing everything: pencils, crayons, notebook paper, and even, standing in line. This requires me to slow my usual fast and furious pace to the speed of a turtle. While I bristle with impatience to hurry everything along, I remind myself that this is the price of a self-sufficient classroom.
Let’s take pencils, for example. It is not as if they have never used a pencil before. As bizarre as it sounds, if I want them to follow my expectations at nearly anything, I better lay it out for them about pencils right away.
It is the first day of school. The class sits in a circle waiting to see what Day 1 of second grade will bring. I tell them we are going to talk about the most important second grade tool there is. “Who can name some tools?” Hands popcorn up and down around the room. A list of hammers, saws, and from some savvy children, kitchen utensils are named.
“What tools do we use in school?” There are fewer hands this time. After fielding a few ideas, I take a sharpened pencil from behind my ear and hold it up. “Here it is! Our most important tool!” Mouths drop open, eyes widen, and a few kids shake their heads. They are convinced I must be joking. A pencil!
“Why are pencils an important tool? What do we use them for?” I write the answers on a piece of chart paper headed “Pencils.” We discuss how to use them, who gets to sharpen them, where we store them in our desks, where we put broken pencils, and what to do if there is no eraser left. I listen to their suggestions for storage and we even vote on a few ideas of how we should take care of our pencils.
Not every tool requires as much time but they all need at least a mini-lesson. While this feels onerous at first, and I always desire to rush through it, I have found this Tai Chi system of slow and steady to have a huge payoff as the year progresses.
The students have heard my expectations so they know how to use a tool. They helped develop the list of uses and made suggestions on how to take care of the pencils. This helps them feel the classroom belongs to us all. They have the knowledge to take care of their own needs which builds self-confidence. Personally, it saves a lot of frustration for me as they learn to find a solution to simple management problems. When I catch them using something the wrong way, I can simply say, “Can you show me the right way to use your pencil?”
Some tools require consequences for misuse. Rulers spinning on pencils like a whirlybird mean someone else holds your ruler for you while you measure. Scissors used to cut another person’s paper or (gasp!) hair means someone else cuts out your math triangles. They can try using the ruler or scissors the correct way the next day. Yes, they will cry or get mad but I stick to my guns because giving in on something such a simple safety rule means battles about bigger behavior issues later. They will learn I mean what I say.
While this makes the first few weeks of school feel ponderously slow by the end of October, I can open a cupboard and let students select from a variety of materials or tools, use them correctly without mishap, and put them away neatly all while I am working with a small group. Then the lessons can be quicker, less snail-paced, more creative, and much more mind expanding. They know what to expect from me and they feel ownership of the room.
I still will slow down whenever new material or concepts are introduced. Just as in Tai Chi, a new exercise requires practice and patience. The class recognizes the slow pace as setting the foundation for something new to learn. They will initiate conversation about how to store items, review beginning steps, and coach each other as we move through the new activity.
My biggest failures in teaching a lesson can almost always go back to rushing through the lesson to get to the task. If I haven’t made the expectations clear, the children make assumptions, are uncertain of what to do, and a fiasco ensues. It is a lesson build of straw with a couple dozen big, bad wolves blowing it down. I have to go back to the Tai Chi drawing board. One slow and graceful step here, one balanced movement there, and soon we are flowing through the year in an intricately beautiful dance of learning.