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Paradigm shift

April 16, 2012 Leave a comment

The Virginia Tech shootings were five years ago today.  For most people nationwide, it was a day of shock and sadness that quickly receded.  For me, it shook my foundations even more than did 9/11.

When the shootings happened I was just a year out of working as a college administrator, just five years out of being in college, and had one sister in college and one about to go.  I felt the events of the day as an administrator, as a student, as a family member – and in the end, as a neighbor and friend.  People ask where you were on September 11, 2001. I can tell you exactly where I was and what I heard when my sister told mom that Reema had died.  If I ever needed to cry on command, all I would need to think of is the cell phones ringing in students’ backpacks, called by families desperately hoping to get through.

The Virginia Tech shootings changed how I think about being in school.  In grad school, friends wondered why I sat on the aisles in lecture classes, always in the very front or very back.  In my classroom now, I sometimes lay awake at night, idly thinking about how helpful it is that I share a folding wall with a colleague’s room, because it doubles our ability to maneuver around a shooter’s movements.  The day’s emotional hold on me can still catch me unawares, moving me to tears in the space of unexpected seconds.

There is less attention paid to the anniversary each year, and I suppose that’s the human and normal thing to do.  But I still remember; if not everyday, then so many of the days – and I expect I always will.

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I guess it okay, I guess

March 30, 2012 2 comments

Today was our last day of school before Spring Break.  My most active boy was very, very active today.  Literally bounced off the walls (and doors), and told me several times that I “so mean a teacher.”  About 5 minutes before dismissal all that activity. Stopped.

Completely subdued, he came over to me, worrying his bottom lip. “What’s the matter?” I asked him.

“I-I-I no want to go Spring Break.  I don’t know what do.”

“Who’s going to be with you when you’re at home?”

“I don’t know…I guess a babysitter?”

From what I know of his family, that truly is a guess.  He and his sister might have a babysitter, or they might be dropped off at different neighbors or family members each day, or honestly, they might even be on their own for stretches of time.

“Do you want to bring some books home?  Some math games?”  [Head shake no]

“How about one of our jump ropes?”

[Slow nod] “I guess yes.”

He and I spent the last few minutes of the day walking around the classroom, opening cupboards, drawers, and cabinets, collecting anything of interest and stuffing it into his backpack.  When his bus was called he said, “I guess it okay, I guess,” then zipped up his bag, said “I going to miss you,” and ran off.

Panic!

March 27, 2012 1 comment

As we headed out to recess today I saw two of my girls whispering to each other and heard snippets of a story it sounded like I could ignore.  Oops!

Turns out they were sharing the story of Bloody Mary, a story I remember being scared sleepless by during a 5th grade sleepover with friends.  In the version I heard, if you chant Bloody Mary’s name three times in front of a mirror, the lights will turn out, the door will slam closed, and she’ll come out of the mirror to attack you.

This titillated many of my children, but one, oh one did not like it.  As I prepared to line them up for gym, I heard him gasp as though shot, then start hyperventilating and sobbing, chanting something over and over about not wanting to die.  Knowing his tablemates know his triggers, I turned to them, “did you talk to him about dying?!”  The girls tripped over themselves to offer competing, equally incoherent denials, but somewhere in there I heard the term “Bloody Mary,” and since hearing that seemed to double V’s panic, I realized what had happened.  V turned to me, in the throes of what looked like a full-blown panic attack, saying he didn’t want to be killed, he didn’t want to be killed.

I went with the one construct I thought might break through the emotional haze: “V, that story is FICTION.  It is NOT real.  Someone MADE IT UP.  It is FICTION.”  Still hyperventilating, he gasped out, “Megan. says. it’s. REAL.” His not-so-helpful tablemates quickly agreed with him – Megan DID say it was real.

Time to pull out the big guns.

“V. Who do you trust more?  Me or Megan?”

Through tears: “Y-y-you!”  But then: “But J-J-Jennifer says it’s true too!”  Increased wailing and shaking.

“V! Who do you trust more?  Me or Jennifer?”

Happily, even Jennifer agreed that I was more trustworthy.

“You trust me and I say it’s FICTION.  It is NOT TRUE.  It’s a story people make up to scare kids.”

That brought on an unexpected new problem: “They LIED to me???  Megan and Jennifer LIED???”

I told him that they were telling a story, just like we read stories in books.  This managed to get him just barely calm enough that I could line the class up, but the panic was still in full bloom, and for some reason leaving the room triggered another hyperventilating attack.  My teammate was on her break in our pod, and hearing me say something along the lines of “NO one is going to kill you,” she leapt up and offered to walk my class to P.E.

V and I went on a hunt for the school counselor, after he refused to consider going to any other teacher’s room because they all have windows (the counselor is literally in a closet, giving Bloody Mary no window to come out of).  Although she had a one-on-one counseling session starting when we found her, she pulled V in with her and kept him for over 30 minutes; he returned to class still on edge, but with his intellect back in control of his emotions.

The rest of the day was, for my room, remarkably quiet and drama-free, but it’s amazing how many things the professors don’t even think to prepare you for in grad school!

Oh. Of course.

March 13, 2012 1 comment

On top of my dramatic kids in crisis this year, I also have a sweet, incredibly bright boy who, although he lacks a diagnosis, is essentially a selective mute.  He is cripplingly anxious about anything that would draw attention to himself, especially attention from adults.  Despite this, he is in many ways incredibly well-adjusted.  When he does talk, it’s usually laughing and playing with peers, or excitedly whispering his ideas “to the universe.” (The phrase I’ve come up with to describe his habit of sharing his ideas out loud in a small group setting, yet freezing if it becomes clear I’m actually listening.)

So, at the beginning of the year this boy was one of my two kids who took on our school’s running program with a business-like focus.  He ran everyday, for all of recess.  But then, suddenly, he stopped.  I’ve encouraged him to run, asked him (and his best friend) why he doesn’t want to run anymore, but he’s steadfastly refused to start again.

Then today I was sorting out a tangled heap of the class’s motivation charm necklaces for the running program.  I saw that he had 4 charms and had already run 10 of the 13 laps he needed for the special 5th charm, the one that the P.E. teachers celebrate by taking your picture and posting it on a wall of fame in the hallway.

And…oh.  Of course.

He would HATE having his picture taken and posted in the hallway.  The entire experience of going down and interacting with the teacher for the picture would be miserable, and then kids would see his picture in the hallway every single day.  He’s a bright kid.  He knows what he doesn’t want, and even though he liked running, he NEEDS to go unnoticed.  Playing this hunch, I mentioned to him at dismissal that getting your picture taken is totally optional – you can decide if you want it, or if you want to skip it and just keep running.  While he didn’t say anything (of course), he did smile, which is WAY more feedback than I usually get from him.

As I am constantly realizing this year, the academics are such a small part of what I really do.  Knowing the kids and their emotions is the key to everything good that happens in the classroom.

Well, that was a day

February 22, 2012 Leave a comment

To start: we did a lot of good things at school today.  Reading, math, social studies, music, writing – they all went well for most of the class.  Lots of learning happened, kids were happy.

But.

One of my boys is working to “stay in his bubble” (keep his hands on his own body and off of others) during the day.  For each part of the day he does this successfully (or mostly successfully), he gets a sticker.  7 stickers and he gets a reward from the counselor at the end of the day.  Usually he gets 5-7 stickers a day, but today he got 0.

Zero.

That means he was touching (or rolling on, climbing on, jumping on, or holding on to) other people all day long.  And it wasn’t just that.  He was so upset about not getting his first choice of reading buddy that he kicked over his book box and pegged the books at the floor – but was startled, scared, shaking like a leaf and sobbingly apologetic when I said he had to go the office.  It’s not an act or manipulation (though I understand if you think that’s wishful thinking); I believe he truly does not realize what he’s done until I say he has to leave the room because of it.

At recess something set him off and he stalked away across the field, bringing his best friend with him.  I had to call on all of my dog training skills to get them back.  I stood my ground instead of moving towards them, and used my voice and body to project absolutely confidence and authority.  “Come here NOW.”  It was touch and go for awhile – I almost signaled a coworker with the walkie-talkie to call for an administrator  – but once I got his friend to turn around he eventually came sulking back.

When I picked him up from music he was sitting in the corner (he’d gone there on his own), throwing his shoes at the floor and crossing his arms saying “Music stupid.”  I do not know what happened (he wouldn’t say and the (patient, awesome) music teacher seemed surprised and baffled, and another of my boys was sobbing facedown on the carpet (that’s another story), so it wasn’t a time for deep conversation), but when he finally, reluctantly, left the music trailer he refused to go further than the bottom of the ramp, and stood kicking the side of the trailer repeatedly while the class stood waiting to reenter the building.  It probably lasted almost two minutes – an eternity with a class waiting in line.  I had to send two of my students to the teachers on the playground for help (but they were too busy talking to each other and my kids were too polite to interrupt so no help was forthcoming); but suddenly, he was at my side, holding my hand, avoiding eye contact, sullenly silent and relatively calm.

We came back into our classroom for quiet time, which is how we transition from specials to math.  The kids are supposed to stay at their table spots and read or rest for 2-4 minutes in quiet.  He, of course, was neither staying at his table nor being quiet.  After pinballing around the room and being told to sit down he finally headed back to his spot, but first swiped another child’s plastic hair clip as he went by.  Shouts, of course, ensued, since he’d taken it right out of her hair.  I went over, told him to give it back, he refused.  I repeated the direction.  He refused.  Repeated the direction. He put it in my hand, I closed my hand over it, he shrieked, grabbed at it again, pinched hard, and shattered it.

And that, of all things, was what made me cry.

I didn’t say anything, just walked back to my table and put my head down on my arms.  I cried because I had worked all day to protect him and protect the kids in my classroom, but I couldn’t even keep a hair clip safe.  I don’t want him to leave, I don’t want him to be hurt, but he can’t hurt other kids and still stay, and hearing that cracking plastic made me feel like I just can’t do it.

I didn’t cry for long – you can’t with a classroom full of kids – and the rest of the day was okay.  But we can’t have more days like this, and I’m not sure what else I can do to ensure that.  Yes, the recitation of this day seems to scream out for a counselor’s intervention, but he already spends more time with the counselor than any child in the school, and she actually does have responsibilities other than him.  I can’t call every time he’s upset or she’ll never be able to do her job and he’ll never be in the classroom.  So we’ll all keep trying our best each day, and I’ll keep telling the counselor, the administration, and anyone else who will listen what’s going on, and I’ll hope against hope that the next committee I bring him to gets how much he – and I, and our class – need help.

A new normal (kind of)

February 17, 2012 Leave a comment

After spending a few weeks in absolute crisis, my classroom is feeling calm and stable again.  It isn’t until I discuss my day with someone else, though, that I realize our room is not normal, and probably never will be.

For instance, describing this morning, I told a colleague “it’s been a good day.”  By this, I meant that we had a good morning meeting, the class calmly made their independent reading choices, got started right away, and didn’t interrupt me while I was teaching a good lesson to a guided reading group.  They had a great time “putting a poem in our heads” (memorizing a poem) during our first reading lesson, and did a great job on their second reading choices.

BUT.

This doesn’t take into account that when we came to morning meeting, one of the boys didn’t get his preferred spot and stood, sobbing, outside the circle.  Another boy shrieked randomly throughout every whole group meeting and lesson of the morning, sometimes throwing himself backwards and hitting the carpet repeatedly with his arms.  A third refused to do any reading choice, instead kicking a foam block around the room, saying “I don’t do NOTHING! It so BORING!”

All three boys are on behavior plans, have daily updates sent home, meet regularly with the counselor, have well-established relationships with me, both assistant principals, and other first-grade teachers, have been observed by the county behavior specialist, and are being jumped to high-level intervention committees.  And as crazy as their mornings sound, it is so much better than before.

And as crazy as their mornings sound, I would still prefer to have this class, hands down, than last year’s class.  This group is so bright, has such a (relatively) strong grasp of English, and they’re so curious and willing to explore with me.  Almost every one of our days is good, even when our days are awful.  And these three boys are tough, to be sure, but they’re genuinely good kids, and I have to believe we will eventually find a way to help them be happier.

Heated molecules

January 28, 2012 Leave a comment

It’s been a hard week. One of my boys is in total meltdown (the counselor, who adores him, says, “oh yeah, he’s a hot mess right now”), one is continuing his desperate search for attention, and their combined meltdowns seem to be upsetting the very delicate balance I had found with my emotionally fragile child.  When relatively stable and healthy, these three boys take about 40% of my attention.  With all three crashing and burning together, they’re taking about 98% of my attention.  This leaves 2% for the 13 other six- and seven-year-olds in the class.  They’re a good group of kids, but no group of six- and seven-year-olds is good enough to go through an entire school day – let alone a full week – with almost no guidance or attention, especially surrounded by three constant crises.

So the rest of my class is melting down.  I have not taught anything new this week.  The only teaching I managed to do – introducing them to Eleanor Roosevelt – I did with one of the boys in crisis sitting on my lap, hugging my arms tightly and rocking.  It’s a good thing I can spin dramatic, spur of the moment stories about historical figures, because I definitely didn’t have a hand available to hold the book we were supposed to read.  And I managed to spin this story while one of the other boys shrieked repeatedly from a corner of the classroom (the third, miraculously, sat quietly and raised his hands to ask attentive questions).

The only bright spot of this week is that it’s been so incredibly bad that I’ve finally gotten the attention of other people in the school and we’re finally moving forward aggressively to get these boys help.  No more “have you tried giving him more one-on-one attention?”  “Have you tried teaching him to take some deep breaths to calm down?”  Now we’re bringing in counselors, we’re bringing in parents and translators, we’re getting formal documentation and referrals submitted, and – thank god – we’re skipping the rest of the 30 committee meetings that each suggest six-week interventions before I can talk to the next committee and we’re moving straight to “we need to figure out a solution for this child and his family.”

For the first time this year, I’m feeling optimistic that we may be able to get help for my three boys.  I’m consumed with guilt, though, at how little attention and patience the rest of my class has been getting from me, and worried about if and how we’ll be able to reestablish a peaceful, supportive classroom community once these crises are dealt with.  And I am tired.  Thank goodness for the upcoming teacher workdays; I need some time to take a deep breath and figure out my next steps.

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