Each group that you teach is also extraordinarily unique. There was never a group of students like it before, and there will never be a group of students like it again. Like a wave on the ocean, it all pushes forward together, and then when it retreats back it isn't the same wave anymore. The water exchanges, the sand, rocks, shells, and organisms shift, and the next one is going to be different, even if it falls in the same place and location around your feet.
My group of students this year have changed me, helped to shape me, mold me, and refine me. God used them as sharpening tools for my own refinement and growth not only as a teacher, but as an adult and a soon-to-be-mommy. You always hear sayings like, "I thought I was here to teach them...in reality, they were here to teach me." I truly do think that it is a relationship where students and teachers alike learn from one another, a beautiful example of interdependence, and this group was evidence to me of that. As I look back on our time together, important lessons surface to my mind and make me dance inside with rejoicing.
1) Don't limit a child...they can do more than you probably think they can. There were many times this year that instead of saying no or trying to redirect a student's idea or project proposal, I refrained. Sometimes painfully! I waited to see if they could be successful with what they wanted to do or try, or how they wanted to show their learning. I watched them problem solve or realize their initial idea wouldn't work and then fix it to make it work. This takes a lot of control out of the hands of the teacher and puts it in the student's hands, and that is hard to do at first-- but then you step back and see what they created on their own and think, "Boy, am I glad I didn't limit them and tell them no."
2) The power of communication and how to problem solve. One thing we spent countless hours on this year was learning how to communicate with others. I have often focused on this in previous years, but this year it was a huge goal of mine to spend lots of time in this area. Gifted children have a more difficult time than their same-aged peers communicating. While celebrating who they are, we also have to help them learn how to function and communicate in society with others. This covered everything from:
- active listening- looking at the speaker, eye contact and gestures, commenting on other's stories instead of inserting your own and making their story suddenly all about you;
- telling someone when they've upset you- what they did and how it made you feel, what you both think would make it better, apologizing by not just saying sorry but identifying the action and future action step (I'm sorry I took the jumprope you were using. Next time I will wait my turn or find another one to use.);
- sharing ideas or thoughts with a partner or group you are collaborating with
- self awareness- knowing when there is something wrong or upsetting you and being able to verbalize it calmly, knowing when you need a cool down time and asking for it, knowing when you need to work out a problem with a friend and asking to be able to go solve it out in the hallway;
- learning how to communicate with adults- greeting adults that greet you, telling an adult good morning in the hallway, speaking to the cafeteria workers and telling them please and thank you, not ignoring or walking by an adult as they are talking to you or asking you a question but responding
- being able to compliment others on the great things they have done, knowing when it's time to celebrate the accomplishments of others instead of our own
I notice more than ever the inability for humans to communicate appropriately and effectively with others. Our Facebook feeds are filled with hateful comments and our face-to-face interactions are full of people glued to their cell phones when the person across from them is trying to tell them a story. I even used that as an example this year, about how much it bothers my husband when he is trying to talk to me and my attention is on my phone! I watched my students grow tremendously in their understanding of communication skills over the course of the school year, and it blew me away how important these skills are for children to learn and practice frequently. It takes consistency and work over time, but the fruit of it was so powerful. This is something I will definitely carry with me into motherhood with my own children.
3) The importance of validating students' feelings before trying to help them cope with their feelings. This year, more than ever, I had to really embrace this practice in my classroom. With 20 highly gifted students with unique sensitivities and emotions, the classroom could become a flood zone if it wanted to, and it also could become an unsafe place for these children to be if they weren't allowed to feel what they were feeling. Let me unpack that a bit. Have you ever felt depressed or sad or lonely for someone only to tell you something to the effect of, "Oh, don't worry about that." or "That's nothing to be upset about." or "Come on, that's silly to feel that way." Yeah...I don't know about you, but when people tell me those things, it either deeply hurts me or makes me feel angry, like what I'm experiencing or feeling isn't real or worthwhile. We have to think about children and their feelings in the same way. When a student shared that the dog in the book I was reading aloud made her think of the dog that she used to have when she was little that died and her eyes start welling up with tears, the last thing I should do is tell her "Oh, that happened a long time ago though. You don't need to be sad. It's ok. He's in a better place." or something along those lines. What she needs to hear is something VALIDATING. That her emotions, feelings, rawness, are REAL. Something like, "I understand that is a real thing that happened to you, and that your feelings are real. It's okay to be sad about something we've lost. How can I or others help you, or what do you need?" Usually, just hearing that what they are feeling is real and validated helps a child to start to move on. You don't want to dwell there, and cause them to stay in that place for too long, or it can turn into hours of crying in your classroom or a student taking advantage of a situation. But offering validation before offering ways to cope and push through is a must, especially for our highly sensitive gifted students. We don't want them to feel like we don't care, or that their sadness or feelings are something we can shrug off. You can then help give them options, or even they can then verbalize that maybe taking a moment in the corner, getting a pillow to sit on, or sitting by a friend can help them cope in the moment. And that's that.
I think too often to dry up tears or move on to what's next, we can jump straight to the coping piece without validating first. We try to offer a solution instead of just starting by saying, I hear you...I see you...I think that's all others want sometimes, to just feel heard and seen in their pain or feelings.
4) The importance and value of community when its time to celebrate as well as when things go south or unexpected. Building a class community and class family does not happen naturally or overnight. It is something you "build," like a home from its starting foundation. You can build this through several different means: sharing literature together and discussing books; engaging in shared, collaborative experiences like science labs or STEM challenges; but I think the main way we developed and built our community was in taking the time to circle up EVERY day as a class and share things we are feeling, thinking, or doing in our lives, as well as taking the time to stop throughout the day to talk if we needed to. Sometimes we have so much to do in a given day that we don't stop and "smell the roses" with our students. We have to let ourselves be okay with stopping and talking with our students if the opportunity arises, to be transparent with one another, to discuss our families or connections, to talk through a bad situation or moment in class, to reconnect and realign if things aren't going right that day, to even "start over" fresh if nothing is clicking. We can't get to really know each other that well if we don't allow for these natural moments and breaks in our day to day class life. I used to be so driven by keeping a schedule and having everything aligned perfectly that I bet we all missed out on some pretty amazing moments or relationship building in past years. This year, I think my students showed me the importance and the okay-ness of things not always following the timeline- and how the rewards of that surpassed getting that project done on schedule.
A lot of things happened in our classroom this year beyond your typical birthdays or getting new pets or friends moving away. I truly believe that due to the community our class had built, we were able to be there for one another in ways I haven't witnessed before. My students were able to surround me and my baby throughout my entire pregnancy with love, affection, and care. They learned how to help me and our classroom when my mobility wasn't what it used to be, and when the baby was growing bigger ("We need to get all the trash off the floor so Mrs. R doesn't have to squish Baby Theo picking it up!). When I unexpectedly had to go on bed rest and be gone the last 5 weeks of the school year, they mourned with me and spent our last afternoon together making things for the baby and writing notes to me, at their request. They then asked to Skype and FaceTime with me a couple of times a week when I was on rest at home- they asked- not because they were told to, because they wanted to keep me as part of the community we had built together.
They also experienced how to be there for a friend going through a despairingly hard time. A student's dad unexpectedly passed away recently, and the class community we had built together allowed them to truly surround him and care for him when it happened. They weren't forced to write him cards or to attend the funeral with their parents, they ASKED to. They deeply loved and cared for their friend in his pain, and knew him well enough to know how he feels loved and cared for best. Having to be at home on bed rest when this happened was extremely difficult, but hearing about how they were taking care of him day to day allowed me to find peace in not being able to be physically there for him. The students were taking him under their wing and providing a safe, loving place for him- showing their ability to express empathy and sympathy and camaraderie as mere first graders.
All humans need community to thrive, and that includes our students.
Thank you, ASPIRE 1 students of 2015-2016, for the lessons, memories, and moments I can look back on and think, "Wow, I got to be a part of that."