"This is the first year in my teaching career that I didn't start the year off with a sore throat. This year I talk less and listen much, much more. My kids feel trusted and want to make me happy. With an orderly, natural structure in place, and much better behavior, there's nothing my kids can't learn."
Tasha White's kids are inner-city first-graders at Fortes Early Learning Center.
This year she's loving her work. So are her colleagues Julie Slater and Christen Ahern, co-teachers in a first-grade, special-education inclusion class. They all had a nightmarish year last year. But a gifted professor from Rhode Island College, Dr. Martha Horn, gently helped them put the work of learning back onto the kids, where it belongs.
Recently one of Ahern's kids was trying to shove his fat backpack into his skinny classroom locker. As a special-education teacher, her old impulse was to swoop in and help. "I don't want kids to struggle. But I wasn't teaching them anything that way. So I asked what he thought might work. After a moment, he said he needed to take some stuff out of the backpack. Good! Try that."
She adds, "Now, If they ask a question, I ask one right back. Kid says, âHow do I spell this word?' I say, I'm not sure; how would you find out? Kid thinks and says, oh, it's on the word wall. Good!"
Not only are these teachers' kids doing their own thinking – what IS the point of school, after all? – but they've started to seek out their own answers before bugging the teacher. Kids help one another. Being independent makes them feel smart and capable.
Ahern says, "This year we really enjoy the kids."
Mind you, these three women had to go nuts first. Which is what goaded them to accepting their principal's offer of Horn's help.
To accommodate changing needs at their school, the principal had asked her strongest 4th and 5th-grade teachers to teach 1st grade instead. Okay. No biggie. How hard could the little kids be?
Ahern laments, "The kids didn't know anything! They couldn't write their names, tie their shoes, be quiet. We were very structured with them. We lined up and had rules and consequences and points for doing the right thing. But all we did all day was put out fires."
Slater groans, "I was driving myself insane with all the focus on what I had to get THEM to do." The days often ended with tears.
Education's conventional mind-set is that the wise teacher stuffs children full of knowledge like little sausages. New teachers rarely learn anything about how to build on children's strengths, harness their interests, or midwife their best thinking. The paltry instruction they get in classroom management usually focuses on how to control kids into compliance with a big set of rules, so teachers can plow through an ever-growing curriculum. Relying on external controls to discipline kids is exhausting because it needs constant reinforcement.
Horn shows teachers how to help students learn the self-control and self-reliance that allows them to be independent learners.
Horn has a calm, Zen-like presence. Neither judgmental nor prescriptive, she models the value of asking questions and listening hard to the answers. For example, "What do you think of the arrangement of your classroom?"
Pre-Horn, these teachers decorated with posters and learning aides they found attractive. They labeled shelves, areas, lockers and assigned seats. Their rooms were highly controlled, just as they'd been taught.
But the classrooms didn't belong to the students.
This year, instead, they painted and made bright, but simpler, homey rooms. Kids create any necessary labels, signs and posters. The big, long alphabet poster ubiquitous in every first-grade classroom? Made by kids.
Students named the learning centers. The writing center is "Marksalot" because, duh, that's where you make a lot of marks with markers.
Teachers say, "If someone is rolling on the rug, can you do your best work? If not, what should we do?" It's no longer the teacher's problem, but the class's. There's no designated time-out spot. A disruptive child needs to figure out where to pull herself together. She chooses.
When teachers say, "Does anyone notice anything?" kids look around and might see straws left on the floor after snack. It's their classroom to use properly. Without being asked, kids wipe down tables, pick up trash, push the chairs in. They hear the question, do the thinking, and respond.
White says, "Everyone in my building tells me my class is sooo smart. But I administered the DIBELS (a reading-readiness assessment) and most of my class was in the red (seriously at risk). Until you ask them to think, you don't know what the kids can do. Being present and a listener is about reading your audience. I can tell when I'm losing them. I listen to get them back. This listening has change life, with my own children and as friend and a wife."
Julie Slater says "The help I've been getting from Martha has been an investment in me as a teacher, and that helps me invest in the children. Now I'm a learner."
These teachers' enthusiasm is infectious. Their adaptations of Horn's techniques give me hope that the profession can become more effective and fun for everyone involved.
Education at all levels needs lots more listening.
Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears at GoLocalProv.com . She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island. She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data. For more detail, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at [email protected].