CONNECT THE DOTS – The Learning Lessons Series

 

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One piece of information is a data point. A line connects two data points. A trend is a line with several data points. A pattern emerges when data points on a trend line accumulate.

As I briskly walk up the covered sidewalk to the public school building where my dear friend teaches, I give no thought to points, lines, trends, and patterns. Rather, my heart is full of excitement about a day watching elementary school teachers teach. I love spending time with teachers in classrooms. I do so as often as possible, but that is never enough.

A nice-to-be-with-you-again hug from my friend greets me at the door. Walking to a nearby conference room, we furiously catch each other up about our lives since my last visit here three years ago. She tells about her recent masters degree, presentation at ISTE, and her second baby, a boy. We arrive at the room before I can ask about her teaching and the school.

“Welcome Mark,” says the principal. After thanks-for-having-me, a cup of tea, and chitchat about her never-ending funding struggles, the principal lays out my day ahead. A morning of classroom observations, lunch with teachers, additional observations in the afternoon, ending with a weekly faculty meeting led by the principal.

First stop, kindergarten. Having been to the school often, I know the teacher and the route to her room. As I approach it,17 tiny people and a flustered aide, trying her best to remain calm, huddle together outside the classroom. Pushing past them, I go inside the room. There, I see a paint-splattered wall, an apparently tossed chair, clothing strewn across the room, and a half-naked boy cowering under a flipped-over table. “You’ll be okay,” says the teacher. “Help is on the way.” I have my doubts—data point.

Help arrives and things settle down. My next stop is a 6th grade classroom. There, the teacher greets me then quickly tells about today’s lesson Finding the Volume of Prisms in which she employs a cooperative learning approach. She starts teaching by presenting students with an overview of the lesson, its outcome, and rationale. Students receive leadership tasks, break into groups, and get to work. The teacher rotates from group to group. Then joining me at the side of the room, she quietly offers up insights—gifted, bilingual, ADHD, and so on—about her students. Nodding toward a girl, hood up over her head, the teacher says, “She has anxiety and obsessive issues dating back to earlier grades.” Then calls my attention to the lacerations on the girl’s arms as “worrisome signs of self-harm, and a possible risk of suicide”. The teacher is acutely aware of this, and other possibilities, in her classroom. Two data points, I wonder, “Does a line connect them?”

During lunch in the teachers’ lounge, I eavesdrop on conversations, while munching on my peanut butter, honey, and banana sandwich. The one about the Cavaliers-Celtics game last night is more smack talk than conversation. Another one is about teaching O-sounds. Around the lounge conversations bounce from Valentines Day to a sale at L.L. Beans and Weight Watchers’ new program. At a table in the corner of the lounge, a barely audible conversation is underway about a 4th grade student recently put into a group home due to parental abuse. Two teachers talk about the problems she has with peers and completing classwork. Three data points, same line, I ask, “Might this be a trend?”

Stomach full of food and head full of data points, I go to the 1st grade classroom. Arriving early, the teacher tells me about the lesson I will observe. Then she briefs me about her students. My ears perk up when she mentions a girl who startles at the sound of the bell and other loud noises. A recent immigrant from war-torn Syria, a non-English speaker, these noises can cause her to sob uncontrollably. “Hopefully, not today,” the teacher says. Four data points that connect. I ask myself, “What’s happening at this school?”

Next stop, the 5th grade classroom. Upon arriving the teacher quickly explains that he is in the midst of a problem-based lesson about the poaching of rhinoceros in the grasslands of Africa. In passing, the teacher warns that one student, if here today, may act out, could distract others, and possibly harm himself. Five points, I wonder, “Is this a trend?”

Returning to the main office, the principal is ready to go the faculty meeting. As we walk down the hall toward the conference room, I say, “How’d your day go”? Not missing a step she recounts a day full of behavior related incidents… an autistic student having a melt down… an ADHD student who is in time out for hitting several students…a boy not taking his antidepressants, and more. Nodding my head, trying to listen intently but struggling to walk fast enough to keep up with the principal, I conclude, “There’s definitely a trend here.”

Later, in the quiet of my home, I reflect on the data points from the school. Each point represents a challenge for a teacher. The best-designed lessons and most thoughtful instructional approaches are no match for an anxious, compulsive, depressive, suicidal, or over or under-medicated student.

I want to believe that children do well if they can. For the children who cannot do well, like it or not, we are their early warning system. The alarm that a child’s presenting behavior—inattention, laziness, moodiness, and disengagement—sets off is an  invitation for us to understand the behavior’s underlying cause and, in so doing, connect more deeply with the child. When each of us accepts the invitation, we meet the data points, lines, trends, and patterns of children’s behaviors with our corresponding points of empathy, lines of kindness, and patterns of understanding. In these intersections reside the lessons, skills, and knowledge for surviving school—and life. Let’s meet our children there.

Mark


Note: This is the ninth post in the Learning Lessons series. Please click the follow button on the right side of the blog page to be notified of future posts.

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