Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Smiles and Education for Life

       I know this is the holiday time of year and we are making changes to our journal writing because of it.  The students each have a composition book where they keep all important language arts information like Reading Concepts, Grammar, Response to Literature.  Interspersed with these is a section labeled “Things That Make Me Smile”.  This section has replaced the Joy board with all the sticky notes (see Sept. 9th posting). Why not?  With EFL I’m reminding the students to 1. do your homework 2. follow school rules and don’t forget 3. find your bliss or joy.  In honor of Thanksgiving, of course, it was easy to have them add the list of things they are grateful for.  It really is becoming a habit for the students to notice when they are happy.  If we get too busy and I forget to have them write in this section they are the ones to remind me now.  The day one of my student leaders raised her hand and asked, “Can we please write our three things that make me smile?” I knew I was actually getting through to them. Yes!
        It’s an attitude shift for both teacher and students. It is focusing on the positive, the light, the joy.  Even when things don’t go right.  An opportunity came up when the students were working on their ABC books of Mesopotamia.  These books are a 6th grade tradition at our school.   All the social studies teachers use this project because among other things it is a fun project.  The students get into groups and make a page for every letter of the alphabet.  For example, A is for Assyrians.  Each page includes a sentence with the definition of the word, a sentence that explains what that has to do with Mesopotamia, and a picture in color to go with the definition.  This year I let the students pick their groups (yes, because of EFL) and they worked together to produce their group project.  One group ran into trouble as they were finishing up their book.  There was a disagreement about who was suppose to do the Y page which is one of the difficult letters for this project.  Most of the actual work is done at home and as the final due date drew near they had realized that the person that should have done it hadn’t.  As all the groups were putting their books together I noticed the whole energy of one of the groups getting very negative.  I sat down with them and they were quick to tell me whose fault it was that their book was not finished but of course they could not even agree on that part.  I helped them acknowledge that yes there had been a problem in communication, that communication was always hard, but that a solution was needed.  I told them that they could feel bad because there had been a mistake or they could focus on solving the problem.  I left them with the question,  “How are you going to solve this problem?”  As I walked away from the group I glanced back and they were all in a group hug (it was an all girl group).  It was so cute and heartwarming.  The Y page was the last to show up minutes away from the deadline, but they handed in a finished product.  I’ll add that to my list of things that make me smile.

Monday, November 12, 2012

End of 1st Quarter with EFL

     The first quarter ended at our school with a flurry of tests, report cards, and parent/teacher conferences.  Academically, parents can access their child’s grades on line at any time.  All assignments, test scores and overall grades are accessible 24/7.  There is a great deal of pressure for academic performance as you can imagine.  How do I get the students to relax, look inside themselves for the creativity and strength that they need to live in this demanding present day world?  My students try so hard to do well.  They want to succeed at all the challenges presented to them by their parents, the school, their peers.  In talking to the parents at the parent/teacher conferences I learned much more about my students including some of the hardships and misfortunes they face outside of school.  My heart goes out to our struggling families.  I know from past experience, however, that even in the midst of severe trials there really is a silver lining that students can tap into but they need to know how to find it within themselves.  I continue to find that one way is by focusing on being their own unique personal best and being willing to go on the journey to discover what their best or excellence might be.  One way I can help is by reminding them to look for their ‘personal excellence’, hence all the activities we do on this important theme.  I can also identify it for them when I catch them being ‘excellent’. For example, when they are being generous and sharing their things with other classmates, standing up for each other if someone is getting teased, or even being brave and raising their hand when they are not sure of the answer.  The silver lining is also in those things, small and large, that bring us joy, that we are passionate about. My students need help in identifying their joy, passion, bliss.  They sometimes don’t register when something up-lifts them because in today’s world we are all so overstimulated, stressed, and going 100 miles an hour.  My job is to help them slow down, tune in, and register where ‘they are at’ so that when that joy comes they can enjoy it, expand it, and share it.
    One example of practicing this presented itself in art class.  I had the students work on simple paper and marker ‘mandalas’ after watching a great youtube video.  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g16B64myG-E&feature=related  We watched the video without the music and I read the subtitles.  I told the students that this was a silent activity so I was turning the class period into SSD (sustained silent drawing).  I explained that we are usually listening and looking at things around us but that great artists have to turn their focus inward, listen, and look at what was inside them, inside their imagination. Since, I had personally tried this exercise and knew that it was harder than it looked, I directed them to do two mandalas each, the first to get use to it and the second to expand their practice.  They took it seriously, worked in silence for two 45 minute periods on two consecutive days and produced some beautiful patterns.
     As for dealing with academic life, how are my students doing so far? If I look at my students through the Tools of Maturity prism I see my intellectual students, of course, are the most comfortable with the emphasis on academics.  My physical students need lots of breaks and time out of their seats in order to survive.  My feeling students can handle the academics as long as their feelings are engaged.  As for my will students, they get impatient if things are too easy or slow.  They thrive on the extra credit activities.  I also have to keep in mind that 6th grade and middle school is that transition between an individual's feeling years and the entrance of the will years - they are all headed in that direction.
    To keep up with their changing views I read the journals that they have been keeping all quarter and I started to see a pattern to what the students were thinking.  In the midst of all this academic activity, I continue to ask them to write about “personal excellence” qualities (a minimum of three) that they want to work on this school year.  I have two blocks of students that I work with (not including my art class).  It was interesting to see that in my morning class a majority of the students elected to work on “patience” and in my afternoon block most are working on “courage or bravery” as their overall quality.  Note to self: I need to incorporate this into future activities.  For now, I find it very appropriate to keep going back to this personal excellence theme even while we work in our typical school literature book, an anthology of stories and poems, complete with standardized benchmark tests, two tests per unit.  I am able to change the stories I use as long as the students learn all the reading concepts and do well on the computerized benchmark tests.  I change the program when I can.  For example, while we tackled the last of our fiction/nonfiction unit, one of our key reading concepts was “symbolism”.  Instead of using our literature book, I found a great symbolism story in the book, Keepers of the Animals, Native American Stories and Wildlife Activities for Children by Michael J. Caduto and Joseph Bruchac.  The story I picked was about Grandmother Spider who helped the God of the Sky name all the animals in the world.  First, we stopped and named as many animals as we could in preparation for our next experience.  We read a story about a chief going to look for the animal symbol for his clan.  He was intent on tracking a  deer so that his clan could become the “deer clan”.  However, while looking down at the deer tracks he got caught in a spider web and realized after talking to Grandma Spider that it was the spider symbol that he was meant to find for his clan.  One of the great qualities of the spider is patience and his clan could become the “spider clan” and learn patience from their symbol.  One of the activities suggested after this story in the book was a visualization for finding one’s own personal animal symbol.  Here’s a very brief description: I had the students close their eyes and picture the world as a giant web where they are at the center and all things in creation are connected.   They were to ask for help in taking care of this world from their own individual animal symbol, then they were to picture that animal.  All the students were able to do this.  It came naturally to them.  The only problem for a couple of the students was having seen more than one animal.  For homework, they had to print out or draw a picture of that animal, write the quality it symbolized, and explain why that animal symbolized that quality.  We keep these pictures on our bulletin board to remind us of the qualities that we want to work on in order to help ourselves and the world around us.