good days bad days: magic in the classroom

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i’ve been saying this to a lot of people lately: there’s nothing as good as a good day in the classroom.

when the students seem excited about the activity, when they (for the most part) listen, when they tell you what’s holding them back, when you can fix it for them, when they flourish, come together, support each other, grow, when the thing they’re getting better at isn’t science or the subject, but being more themselves and more confident…it’s the kind of day i imagine teacher’s dream of. I know I do.

one of the things i had a hard time doing last semester was keeping my cool. when people didn’t participate, it didn’t try hard enough to figure out why. when students acted out or difficult or didn’t pay attention, i didn’t consider *why* they might be acting that way, i just called out the behavior.

a moment this semester made me realize that mistake. this kid i teach, who has anxiety and adhd, and who i had last semester as well — he’s a handful to put it lightly. he almost always needs to be moving (unless he’s playing a game on his computer), he has a hard time not speaking out of turn, and in activities, he was never on task. i spent so much of my energy just trying to contain him and redirect him toward the activity.

one day a week or two ago, after a particularly rough class period in which i’d had to sit him out of the activity, i had a talk with him, asking him what was going on and why he wasn’t really participating in the activity.

and he said something that surprised me. not that he was bored or didn’t like the activity or was having trouble paying attention or any of that. No — the problem was he felt like his teammates weren’t listening to him and his ideas and so instead of sitting feeling dejected on the sidelines, he was acting out.

it was a revelation! and it was something i could fix. i could help facilitate communication and idea-sharing. i could put him in a group with people who were more likely to listen. and when i did those things, he flourished! the last few classes, he’s participated with his team, found ways to share his ideas, and learned to listen to others. his team, previously annoyed and exasperated with him, loves his ideas, often more than their own. it’s amazing.

and it turns out that almost all the students in that class who were acting out were doing so because they felt they weren’t being listened to. when i worked to fix those problems, all the sudden groups were doing amazing work. things were happening. my tuesdays and thursdays with my 5th and 6th grade classes became almost magical.

it helps that the students are young. my 7th and 8th grade class doesn’t run as smoothly. the 5th and 6th graders don’t seem as afraid to say when they feel stupid or unheard or ignored. they trust that i can help them. the older they get, i’m finding, the less they want to ask for help, and the less likely they are to admit when they’re feeling insecure, left out or not listened to. it makes it harder to help. it makes it harder for me to remember to be patient, to be kind, to be inquisitive. i get frustrated more easily because i don’t know how to help them when they won’t talk to me. there’s few things more demoralizing than a bad day in the classroom. i leave the school these days feeling so low and so sad wishing id done everything differently, wishing i could have found a way to make the students come alive.

but, then there’s those amazing days, days that are happening more often nowadays, where i leave school and feel like I’m floating on a cloud of awesomeness. there’s not much more amazing than a magical day teaching. so here’s to hoping i can mastermind some more of those…

to all the teachers out there, if you have any wonderful ideas for making class more magical more often, share here!

the one thing i learned from some teachers in providence recently was to have a period of class (or one day a week do this) where you ask the students a question about themselves. the idea is that by sharing these things were each other, the students start to look at themselves as a community instead of a class. they come together. the last two classes, I asked each class “What is your favorite memory, and why?” I got some the most incredible answers, answers that gave me insight into who these kids are, and what they care about. Two boys said their favorite memory was their little sister learning to ride their tricycle or taking their first steps. some talked about how going to visit their relatives in another country was the best. one girl talked about her first time at comic-con and how amazing it was. not everyone participated, but some people did who i didn’t expect. and their answers were so much deeper than i expected. i loved it. i hope it building community. i’ll let you know. :)

 

small talk

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It’s not a secret that I hate small talk. And because a fair amount of my friends seem to also dislike small talk, I never really questioned whether it was a good or a bad thing.

Which is why when my therapist challenged me on the fact, i was a little stumped.

He totally down-arrowed me.

Why do I hate small talk? Because small talk is meaningless.

Why do you think it’s meaningless? Because you don’t learn anything important about the other person.

Why do you need to learn about the other person? Because if you don’t learn about them, then it’s a waste of time.

Why’s it a waste of time? Because why spend time talking to someone if you’re not going to become friends with them? And anyways, I’m not good at small talk.

Ahh…why’s it matter if you’re not good at small talk? People won’t be interested in talking to me if I suck at small talk.

And that matters because? Because then I won’t have any friends!

this very strange and frustrating back and forth went on for awhile. we came at small talk and my dislike of it from a lot of angles. By the end of the conversation, i’d learned a lot about how i approach conversations with new people.

generally, my thoughts have been that i only want to talk to people that are “worth” talking to. Which brought up the idea of how the hell do I know if people are “worth” it from a conversation? How many times have I had an amazing, non small talk conversation that has ended with me saying “that person is awesome!” only to be told or discover later that that person is actually a sociopath who loves talking about themselves? How many times have I had a stilted small talk conversation in which I dismissed the person as generally boring instead of 1) nervous 2) interesting but not about the stuff we’re talking about 3) having a bad day 4) stressed 5) just as bad at small talk as me or 6) a million other reasons.

How many people have I missed out being friends with because the first 1000 words I shared with them didn’t spark an immediate soul mate?

And when did I decide every single person i spent time speaking to had to be a soulmate? When did I decide only my soulmates were worth talking to?

It’s true, conversation is time and time is precious. but friends and support groups are also precious. having a group of people who are dedicated to fitness and therefore motivate you to run may be worth it, even if they aren’t the people you want to have standing next to you while you dissolve into tears over your lack of direction in life. people who are super fun to play games with may not be the same ones that you go on a 2 week vacation with. people who love reading and writing young adult novels might be people you can work on your craft with, instead of plumb the depths of life’s meaning with. and for that case, maybe the people you plumb the depths of life’s meaning with aren’t the only people you want around.

Maybe, in one person, you’ll find all the things you love in one: the friend who makes you laugh hysterically, who doesn’t ever or doesn’t generally make you feel bad about who you are, who lifts you up, who can drink you under the table while singing at the top of your lungs and the next moment be talking to you about the things in life that matter most, the one who cries and laughs with the same ferocity, who wants the same things out of life, who loves the same movies you do, who introduces you to knew ways of looking at things, who both teaches you and learns from you. whose positives outweigh any negatives. whose differences add to you instead of subtract.

maybe maybe maybe those people come along once in awhile. and when they do, I grab onto them and no matter where they fling themselves — across the ocean, across the nation — no matter how often we talk — a few times a year, or daily by text — I hold onto them.

but maybe those people don’t reveal themselves in the first 1000 words of conversation. maybe my first discussion with them was about the weather or their classes, and i just don’t remember. maybe i was forced into a living situation with them and wouldn’t have talked with them much otherwise. maybe we gave each other a chance to become that person the other couldn’t imagine a world without.

after all that talk with my therapist, and subsequent thinking about it on my own, I’ve decided that, duh, i shouldn’t approach every conversation expecting an instant soulmate. that it’s totally ok if not everyone in my life is a soulmate, and maybe it’s even a good thing. maybe i can look to groups of people who meet the different needs i have. maybe not every writer I meet will also be a runner/slackliner/climber/traveler/vegan/meditator/teacher/child-lover/philosopher. but maybe they’ll be one of those things. and that’s pretty awesome.

my therapist challenged me to practice small talk. and, to interject myself into groups, especially considering that come May, many if not most of my beloved friends will be departing Rhode Island and dispersing all around the country to attend various medical residencies.

So! this week I:

  • attended a party alone where i thought i would only know one person there, who i only recently met: it was awesome, and i had some great conversations that started with small talk (!)
  • attended a halfday meditation course and stayed after to have a group chat with those who came, and attended a group sitting where before and after i chatted with the people there instead of slipping out immediately.
  • attended an informal teacher potluck where a friend of a friend (who id never met) and a bunch of THEIR friends came together to talk about the challenges of teaching (where i learned that sometimes non-small talk conversation can be much more stressful when meeting new people! surprise!)
  • talked to more people at work and in work meetings, having conversations that were much less wrought now that I’m not expecting them to be heart-sisters and soulmates
  • signed up for a teacher-training course with a few coworkers
  • signed up for an REI class alone

do i love small talk now? no — it’s still a bit scary and a bit strange, a bit of a stretch for me.

but i do feel less stressed in conversations with this new outlook. i judge people less, and I feel less judged. i’m giving people more latitude to be who they are and get joy out of that instead of expecting them to be amazing in every single regard. because god knows I’m not everything to everyone, and I’m not interested in trying to be.

I’m hoping that maybe there’s other people out there who dislike small talk who might find some benefit in reading this, and who might have different takes on why small talk is awesome, or might disagree and still think small talk sucks. i welcome you to let me know your thoughts!