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Posted by Antavia Hamilton-Ochs on Apr 27, 2016
I am more than a teacher. I am an activator. I'm tasked with lighting thousands upon thousands of little ‘aha’ moments in little minds each year. Not each spark takes hold, but others explode! Sometimes, I get to see the magic take hold in the most powerful of ways. Part 1 of 2.
Periodically, I stop class for a five-minute life lesson. I teach transferable skills, as many of them as I can, on and off curriculum. As these teachable moments crop up, I seize them. I'm preparing my kiddos for life. I'd be shirking my responsibilities if I didn't teach them the soft skills that subtly support us as we move through the world. My pupils needed to be well read, analytical, adept at critical thinking, and savvy. Most of all, they needed to find their voice. They live in a world that doesn't always tell them their “value.” They are told constantly what they are “worth.”
A person’s worth is a superficial, disempowering claim that shifts ownership of one’s importance to the hands of another. It’s the part of my students’ self-confidence that is dinged every time their needs aren’t met emotionally, physically, or academically. Whether real or imagined, the message to students whose needs are not addressed is that they don't matter.
My students’ value is what they must come to understand. The value they have to this world is permanent. There will only ever be one of each of them—talk about rare! They all have very specific roles to play for society to work. They’ve got to be the best possible versions of themselves. School is our training ground. They've got to make their way in the world by reminding people of their tremendous value. They have to start asking for what they need. They have to find their voice.
One day, I went around doing “on-task” checks. I'd gotten off to a slow start making the rounds. I’d been taking attendance, trying to grab just one bite of breakfast, and answering a student’s question. I noticed quite a few students gazing blankly at error messages on their screens. A few students didn’t have books, and several kids were without pencils. Not one of them was causing a stitch of trouble. It was eerie. The kids were just sitting there, unable to progress in whatever task they were attempting. They just sat there, waiting … for something. I know all too well that some teachers would be happy to let these student sit there undisturbed. I won’t.
One by one, I solved the issues: The students having computer issues had forgotten their logins. Simple fix. Other students’ books were misplaced. We found them by carefully checking the usual spots. I passed out pencils.
Then, I stopped class for a life lesson. I sat in the front of the class on my big, pink chair and had a good old-fashioned talk with my kids.
I explained something that they might have missed: I work for them.
I will help them get where they need to go in life. I take the responsibility very seriously; I’ve got their backs. However, I wouldn't always be their teacher. Not everyone will notice their needs. We had to prepare to be successful despite obstacles.
We were all going to learn to speak up. It was one of the most important reasons we study Language Arts. It’s about communication—understanding and being understood.
I needed them to start asking for what they need to be successful!
If you need a pencil, ask for it. If your computer isn’t working, get help. We would no longer wait for someone to see that we didn’t have what we needed to move forward. Our learning time was valuable; and WE MATTER.
At the beginning of class the next day, I asked, “Who needs a pencil?” while brandishing a fist full of them.
The kids looked at me as if it were a trap. I asked again, reminding students that they needed to get what they needed to be successful ...
“… and to do it quickly because I can’t stand burning time,” I said to punctuate the seriousness of this request.
As my students asked for pencils, I thanked each of them for asking for what they needed. Someone called me over to help him log in to the computer. I thanked him for asking me and smiled. After about two weeks of this, students began to ask me for pencils at the beginning of class—prior to the blanket announcement. They also started to ask more questions. I thanked them for those, too. We had kicked our learning into turbo charge. I am conditioning my students, at the most basic level, to seek out what they need. I was rewarding them with the simple acknowledgement of their effort. I celebrate their desire to take intentional action to improve their situation - no matter how small the action.
Over the next several weeks, I continued to respond with gratitude. I appreciated the courage it took to ask for something when you weren’t sure if you would get a positive response. I let go of the irritation I used to feel when someone lost his worksheet AGAIN. I didn’t respond negatively when it finally occurred to a student, 20 minutes after an assignment was issued, that she might need a writing utensil. I intentionally heard beyond the request and gleaned the true meaning behind the words: “I am unable to learn because I’m missing xyz.” That’s a lot different from, “I forgot to my book.” Keeping the essence of the request tight in my heart made it easier to exercise grace when receiving these little requests that used to be so grating.
It was hard, but I had made a commitment not to shame students who were learning how to advocate for themselves and remove their barriers to success. I thought long and hard about how to empower students to get what they need in a way that wasn’t coddling.
I reflected on what I was doing. I was most definitely empowering my students. The kids I work with are fragile. Many times their needs aren’t met by the world. For my students, asking for and receiving a pencil was confirming their value. I was purposefully shoring them up to take the hits from the people who would not be kind to them when they asked for what they needed. I need them to keep asking—no matter what. I was rewarding them for advocating for themselves.
Dr. Louisa Moats visited my LANGUAGE! Live classroom recently. When I was able to speak with her about my class, the first thing she said was, “I like what you did with the pencils.” I was taken aback. I didn’t even recall what she was talking about. I had been doing it several weeks now, I was on auto pilot. I suddenly realized what she had noticed. She noticed the power of a thank you and the commitment my students and I share to learn everyday. NO. MATTER. WHAT.
Each day, I see students learning how to use their voices, and I’m proud to see their own magic awaken. My students are not going to just survive the education system; they are going to thrive in it.
...to be continued
Click the button below to hear from other teachers, the principal, and students at Antavia's high school about how expert instruction, a positive school climate, and the LANGUAGE! Live blended literacy intervention are changing students' lives.
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