Friday, April 15, 2011


In education we often use the word "whole" to describe something comprehensive and multi-faceted, i.e.: educating the whole child, or the whole-language approach to teaching reading.  In my undergrad courses and several staff developments, educating the whole child often speaks to not only their academic growth, but also developing social and emotional skills. It also means teaching to multiple types of intelligences (Gardner) so that students of varying strengths have the opportunity to succeed and learn alongside their peers.  Sometimes it is difficult as a teacher to measure this.  We often go on our intuition (which I think is largely undervalued at times) to address social or emotional issues with students.  It seems as though we have an assessment for every skill we require our students to know, but never an assessment to either tell us how a child is feeling and why or an assessment on how our students learn the best. When something is awry we feel it but can't always pinpoint it, and when students succeed we celebrate with them.

In a conversation with the first grade bilingual teacher we shared what we knew about some students I had last year.  There were a few that were very bright academically but not achieving their potential because of other social and emotional issues. As teachers we feel powerless to change the circumstances that our students live in for the other 17 hours they aren't in school.  In educating it is necessary to keep in mind all of the facets of our students, and that we can't always attribute successes or failure to a teacher's methods.  This could easily go in to a political rant on merit-pay, but I just don't think I will go there tonight.

In my attempts to teach the "whole child" I often find myself overwhelmed.  Do I assess the child's writing, or talk to him or her about how confident they feel and who writes in their house?  There are simply too many facets of educating a child to approach them wholly at the same time.  It becomes overwhelming and a nightmare of prioritizing.  But yet, when we are required to assess 5 year-olds it sometimes feels like we aren't educating the child but pumping them for answers. This is the inner-conflict I feel in my field as a modern educator.

Personally I think I have been seeking wholeness in my life at many times.  I have gotten to the point now where I realize what factors make me feel "whole" or like a better person, but just like in teaching there are too many things to be addressed at once.  People say "simplify," but I often already feel like I am running a skeleton-crew of priorities: my son, my family and loved-ones, my job, education, and my health. Some people might even say that my list is devoid of certain things like recreation and spiritual growth.  I might be inclined to agree with them.

When we look from the outside in we tend to envy others, thinking they have it made.  Yet from that person's perspective, it isn't enough and they may always seek more.  Being unsatisfied is human nature.  Being unsatisfied inspires innovation, brings immigrants to our country and is the underlying force for progress.  However, being unsatisfied or under-appreciative can ruin something that is already good.  I have witnessed examples of this personally: marriages destroyed by a partner who manically searches for something else while refusing to witness the wonderful things right under their own roof in their own partner.  I have witnessed this in education multiple times: curriculum being changed over and over without ever having the opportunity to be fully implemented, and even the entire educational system being disparaged because test scores aren't as high compared to other countries.  The unsatisfied spouse lays blame with their partner, the public lays blame with teachers.  There is rarely any introspection to see what the underlying missing facet is. What is it exactly that is leaving us feeling deficient?

I propose that anyone who is feeling incomplete take some time for introspection to reflect and appreciate on what is already good, rather than searching for that magic fix.  There never is a magic fix, unless we change our perspective with a new glasses prescription.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Everything I should know I learn from my Kindergartners

Today this morning was crazy.  I found out yesterday that I have a new student coming from an English-speaking classroom.  The poor peanut is going to be confused until we get everything straightened out with her.  You might wonder, "Well, don't you just put her in the English speaking classroom at your school then?"  She has had a good solid 6 years of learning since womb-exit in Spanish, and only 7 months of English learning. Luckily, she is sweet as can be and we are happy to have her.

During centers I have been running the reading center at the rainbow table. My co-teacher has been running the writing center and the other student rotate between free-choice, free-choice reading, and a math activity.  Today one of our students got a nose bleed and my co-teacher threw on the rubber gloves to take care of her.  The 5 students at her center were still "working." One student is very impulsive and likes to get things done very quickly. When he saw that Miss O was busy he just started writing random letter.  The boy next to him in group, who is a solid student and nice to everyone saw what he was doing and asked him to read his sentence aloud to him.  Miss O later recounted to me to what she had heard while squeezing the girl's nose... A boy who I will call Manuel (not his real name) had the boy randomly writing letter read what he wrote. This was his response translated from Spanish
          "Read it to me. No, it doesn't say "gym." For "gym" you need the "g" like guitar."
This is what teachers live for. Kids who learn better when the teacher doesn't have to be pulling them along, and BETTER a student who has learned it well enough and is confident enough to teach it to a peer.

Manuel taught me something today.  Sometimes the best time to help someone is when you see that they need it, but they don't ask for it.  They may resent you for it momentarily, but will thank you for it in the end through returned kinship.  His peer, "Israel" was writing random letters all over the place, and Manuel helped him by redirecting him into doing something more productive, but also showing him the purpose.   One of the major premises in teaching elementary school is, "All children have gifts. It is our job to tap them and use them to facilitate their learning."  Manuel has some definite academic skills... His friend has other qualities, like persuasion and humor, that he doesn't have. Both Manuel and Israel are valued in my class as equals.

I have recently been on the other end of that equation. In the last year or so I have received help from people who care about me and I care about them.  I don't usually solicit it because I believe that I should be independent and earn what I have.  I sometimes lack the time, skill or patience to get done what I need to get done, because just like my Kindergartners I am learning as I go.  More so I lack the humility to realize I do have many things to learn sometimes.  

As a teacher, I am used to being the one with the answers and the "fixits." But now I have met someone who knows more than me about many things. He sees when I struggle and he helps, even when I don't ask. And I made the mistake of being resentful, not because I can't do what he does, but I simply haven't yet. In watching Manuel and Israel I have been reminded of why, as human beings, we like to help.  We help for personal satisfaction in knowing that we know how, we help because we care about each other, and we want others to do well.  

I hope, that just like Manuel, he can be content with showing me on occasion and not always doing for me, so that someday I will learn and do for myself the things he already does so well. I have misconstrued his help for his desire to want to be "better" than me or unequal, rather than what is his genuine attempt to try to make life easier.  I have been praying for a easier row to hoe, and instead of God giving me a new row, I now have cute chicken farmer with a hoe in my row too. His row is already hoed (especially since all his chickens are dead), and he won't leave me out there with the soil untilled. I wanted to say I hoed that row by myself, but I would probably never get there if it weren't for him.  I am profoundly grateful and sorry. 

I hope someday I will catch up on this steep learning curve and be the helper and the teacher sometimes too. It's amazing how much Kindergartners love to be the helper or the teacher. I am learning that it isn't so much what we do right now, but that we value each other as equals (almost like the U.S. currency). I hope someday I get to have the satisfaction knowing that I can help him too and show him that I care and want him to do well. And maybe teach him how to cook without recipes.