What Makes a Good Day?

When I read “What do I expect from my children’s elementary school? Certainly not this“, I was immediately struck by one thing: it does not describe the school I work at. This was especially true this week, my first week back after Winter Break, when teachers seemed reenergized and eager to pull out some of their best material to share with their charges. Despite my frustrations with my school and the overarching system, this mom’s reflections helped me to identify some of the best things that my current school is doing.

For my elementary-school-aged children, I care more about whether or not they love going to school than their academic progress.I am clever enough to know that if they are enjoying themselves at school, they will learn.

I cannot more appreciate this particular sentiment. Of all the reflections from this piece, this is the one I wish my school had more of. I imagine many of my students’ parents would espouse a similar view, but when pressed (and even through their interactions with their children) most of them are highly concerned with academics. We have students who were not allowed to watch TV for months over AR points. One was threatened with Christmas being cancelled for the same reason. Multiple parents have grasped casual moments with the teacher to ask, “where does my third grader rank in this class?” Some parents do homework for their kids or apply generous pressure regarding grades. And of all the third grade classes at my school, we have the least involved parents. If more parents were talking to the school about how to make their child’s day phenomenal, I think they might be surprised by how their academic progress soared.

Just because students may have to sit in an office for eight hours a day when they are adults, doesn’t mean that they should have to start practicing it now as children. It is like saying to a 10-year-old, “One day you’re going to pay taxes, so I’m going to keep 50 percent of your birthday money from Grandma because I want you to get used to it.”

I absolutely love this analogy and my school has plusses and minuses in this department. On the downside, the elementary day is exceptionally long — two full hours longer than the public schools in town. And we expect students to spend an awful lot of time sitting in chairs, standing in line, or just generally suppressing play during that extended time. On the upside, all of our students go to PE four times a week. We have recess two, sometimes three, times a day. It is common practice to not only extend recess, but to offer additional playtime if the students need it. Our school recognizes that a good lap around the playground is more effective than a mark on a behavior chart could ever be.

Elementary school should be about exploration and exposure to vast amounts of very well-written books. Writing should be an opportunity to capture observations and imagination in a tangible form. Elementary education should include learning about history through storytelling, art and music. It should be about dancing and singing and playing while developing social skills, communication skills and interpersonal awareness…Elementary school science should be about questions and wonders, experiments and all things messy.

This week in reading class, we started Charlotte’s Web. I promptly re-read the classic and was impressed by its language, depth, and simple ability to engage. The kids love it, and all want baby pigs of their own; most importantly, it’s a stretch book for many of their skill levels and they are learning from it.

In library class, every student was given the outline of a book, spine included, and told to design a cover of a book they would write. They got to create, design, decorate, and shelve their own “stories,” empowering future authors in a half-hour.

In Spanish class, we spent half of the class watching videos and dancing to learn prepositions. Students got to walk like an Egyptian, waddle like a penguin, and swim their way through vocabulary. Before the break, the students learned about Los Tres Reyes Magos and how the holidays are celebrated in many Spanish speaking countries — in Spanish!

Our science project of the week? Dissecting owl pellets. Students spent a full hour working in small teams to discover what their owl ate and identify the tiny bones they found. A bit gross? Sure. A touch messy? Certainly. Engaging? As good as it gets. The kids were set loose with instructions and the tools they needed to learn, and they succeeded. While they were absorbed in this project, social strife between teammates dissolved instantly, students built structures to make sure everyone would have equal opportunity with the tools, teams worked together to not only find the bones, but to identify them and share their discoveries. They even forgot it was lunch time!

Music class kicked off our drama unit. What will they do? But of course, Pirates! The Musical! The entire third grade spent three hours of their week singing, dancing, and auditioning for a production that they will put on in March. Every grade does this, committing hours upon hours for two-plus months so that the kiddos can perform. And after seeing them engage with it this week, I could not be more inspired by the power of the arts to teach and engage.

Perhaps our success is proven by the fact that most of our students would say, “I had a good day” when they leave. Despite day-to-day frustrations and imperfect lessons, our students are happy overall and enjoying school.

Classroom vs. Court

If you follow my blog, you know that a few months ago I accepted a new job as a teaching assistant of a 3rd grade class. Knowing that my free time would drastically increase, I invited a friend to co-coach a girls volleyball team at a local non-profit. We settled on coaching a 3rd-4th grade team, “The Cheetahs”, feeling confident that our volleyball skills would be sufficient for the beginners. Of course, this means that I spend a lot of my time with kids in and around the 3rd grade, and though it can be challenging, I’ve really enjoyed seeing them in different environments.

For most of our nine girls, volleyball is pretty new. Some of them had played for a season or two, others had barely touched a volleyball before they arrived at our first practice. None of them know much about how the game is played beyond the basic concepts of serving and returning. From a “this is brand new to me” perspective, it’s very similar to how my students at school spent their week in math – trying to master right-to-left subtraction. Despite being very different types of problems, the kids handled them in many of the same ways. Some, who the skills came to easily, are eager and excited for each opportunity to practice and improve. Others take a little longer, struggling with holding the ball still as they underhand serve, or forgetting that you have to add what you borrowed to the original number before subtracting. And the last group are those that get the most frustrated, threatening to give up or bemoaning their lack of ability. While we still have some in this group (both in class and in volleyball) it is lovely to see their “ah-ha” moments when the pieces start to come together.

Perhaps the biggest difference for me between coaching and teaching is that some volleyball concepts can’t be explained in words. In subtraction, as with most academic concepts, there is always a reason for what you’re doing and how you do it (you borrowed a hundred, so you add ten tens; you didn’t have enough to take away so you had to trade for some more, etc.). But in volleyball, sometimes whatever you tried just doesn’t work. It’s not that the girls don’t understand the concept, or what they should be doing — it’s that they haven’t had enough repetitions to have mastered that particular body movement. As an educator, I regularly find myself at a loss when trying to explain how they could improve on specific volleyball skills, and I’m coming to accept that maybe I can’t.

Just like at school, our volleyball team is full of girls at completely different levels. Some of the disparity comes from age, some from experience, but we have girls ranging from incredibly consistent in both serving and passing, to girls who still swing and miss when trying to get the ball. Just like in our classroom, it is frustratingly difficult to meet all of their needs at once. It’s much easier at volleyball, where one-on-one interactions can be tailored to each girl’s level, but helping them become a cohesive unit is extremely tricky. Moreover, I’m getting a taste of what lead teachers must deal with every day, with parents’ desires to contribute (or not), their hopes (and demands) that their child get certain attention, and so on.

Observing kids of this age in these different settings has shown me a lot about what it means to be eight. My co-coach and I had visions in our heads of kids eager to listen, work hard, and become star volleyball players. Instead, just like at school, most of the kids just want to hang out with their friends. They are happy and silly and have a hard time focusing, even the ones who desperately begged their parents to let them play. Fortunately, we don’t have to spend nearly as much time trying to get them to be quiet or mandating that they listen to every word we say. Practices tend to be organized chaos, where we try to capitalize on their energy and lack of focus to get them as many touches on the ball as possible. As it turns out, the chaos is serving as a nice break from the regimented school day.

While I don’t know that we are coaching prodigies, the girls have been winning their games and seem to have fun doing it, so for now: Go Cheetahs!

Summer, Student Affairs, and the Nature of Fun

Student Affairs has two seasons – summer and not summer. During the year, I find myself in back-to-back check-ins, presentations, or meetings with students, colleagues, and who knows who else day-in and day-out. Mid-semester, it’s completely reasonable to throw a small party in gratitude at the sight of 45 uninterrupted minutes sitting next to each other on my calendar. During the school year, I long for summer. I long for the peaceful afternoons, 4-hour focused work windows, leisurely jaunts to Starbucks, staff coloring breaks, and Minion YouTube videos. And every year, summer disappoints me.

For me, summer in Student Affairs is a giant expanse of the doldrums. And I think I’ve finally figured out why that is.

1) My ambivert is out of whack.

I learned that I am an ambivert from reading Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking. I fall somewhere in the middle of the introvert/extrovert spectrum, meaning I get my energy from other people and love working with them, but they can also wear me out, making me want to do nothing but veg out in front of mindless television. During the year I come home exhausted, drained from the energy it took to interact with so many people, perfectly content to grab something out of the fridge and spend the rest of the night quietly on the couch. In summer, I come home craving interaction and meaningful time with someone (usually my partner, who is very patient with my drastically shifting needs), making me far more needy than I’m proud to be. Knowing this has helped me manage my days better — I make a conscious effort to spread out my meetings, plan social outings for days that have no meetings, and be more aware of how needy I’m being of others.

2) The work, for the most part, isn’t “fun”.

By the traditional definition of fun, summer would be considered far more so than the majority of the year. I mean, come on, there is coloring. But I take an alternative definition, from Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World, which offers that we have adopted our mechanisms of fun and relaxation as a way to counteract the negatives and overstimulation in our lives. McGonigal cites a study that finds that what we typically think of as “fun” are activities that actually makes us feel worse (i.e. less motivated, less confident, and less engaged overall) rather than better. This is true for watching TV, eating, or just hanging out, among others.

What is fun for us then? Hard work that we choose. Any challenge that we feel capable of meeting gives us motivation, creates interest, and keeps us positively engaged. In Reality is Broken, this hard work is games, but it could be anything at all that challenges you — physical activity, attempting a new culinary masterpiece, or doing something you have always wanted to do but never tried.

Maria Montessori shares a similar perspective, offering that meaningful work is the easiest and most productive method for child development. Her entire method of schooling is designed around creating the optimal environment for a student to complete his or her own development. This foundation allows children to learn not only how to choose hard work but the importance of doing so throughout their lives. She argues that, “Man has intelligence because he has to make a better world than that which he has found,” which guides the hard work of students educated through her method.

During my summers, I spend the majority of my time doing the work that I would never choose to do during the school year. Of course, there are exceptions; I will nearly always get excited and invested in creating a new workshop, or uncovering something meaningful from program data. But, working on those things alone, behind my desk, is much less of the good kind of hard work than sharing those experiences with students.

So what have I gleaned from all of this? That I need to continue accommodating my ambivert, while working harder to find hard work, like this blog.