Sunday, March 29, 2009

I respectfully disagree

On our second-to-last neighborhood field trip a few weeks ago, my students embarrassed me. Some of them (not all, but some) were disrespectful, defiant, and rude, both to me and to our hosts at a community organization. One of our hosts was a community organizer who had been a founder of our school. I was humiliated when I would ask of a student a simple request, such as to move over, and he would respond with "No!" or "Why?," both mono-syllabic responses delivered in a hostile tone of voice.

I realized that I have an assumption that when you are out in public, you are on your best behavior. How many times, as a teacher, will I have to learn not to assume anything? I remembered that last year we used to talk about what kind of impression we wanted to make when we were out in public, but we hadn't revisited the topic this year. My third realization was that some of my students talk to me in this way, somewhat contemptuously, on a regular basis, and that if they talk to me that way at school, why wouldn't they talk to me that way in public?

Now, I may temporarily forget things I've learned before as a teacher, and make the same mistakes over and over again, but I usually eventually remember important lessons from years past. So I remembered that, as all first-grade teachers know, it is important to teach everything. We don't assume, when first grade begins, that students know how to knock on the bathroom stall doors, or stand in line, or sit in a circle, or walk across the classroom quietly. We teach our expectations for each of these things, and millions others, very explicitly.

So, I began to teach my students how to respectfully disagree. I went to a meeting, and I watched how adults disagreed with each other, and I took some notes. We made a list on the board. Our list included phrases such as:
  • I object.
  • Can I suggest an alternative?
  • I disagree.
  • Can we talk about this?
And many more. Then we practiced. Students pretended to be me; I pretended to be them; they pretended to be the principal while I pretended to be me.

It then occurred to me that they might start to think that if they respectfully disagreed with me, they would get exactly what they wanted. And while these words, delivered in a mild tone of voice, certainly make me more amenable to listening, I knew that there would be times when I simply could not engage in the conversation. When seventy things are going on around you, sometimes you need to just be able to say, "Go do that," and have someone do it, no questions asked.

So, our next list was, "How to respectfully express disappointment." It included things like, "I would rather not, but if you really need me to, I can." Or, it offered a deep but calm sigh as a way to accept disappointing turns of events. We talked about how the teacher might say, "I can't talk to you about this now, but we can discuss it later." And we practiced with more role plays.

Of course, things did not change magically overnight. I realized that when students had spoken disrespectfully to me before, as long as it wasn't super out of line, I hadn't been sure of how to respond. In my desire not to have a strong emotional response, I would often simply ignore them. I wouldn't give them what they wanted, but I wouldn't let them know that their words or tone were unacceptable. Or, I would get frustrated and annoyed by how they spoke to me, and I would snap back, or give them a swift consequence.

So I began a slow process of trying to change patterns long ago established. "Jarad," I said the other day, "Nice job on the science work. Now turn it over and practice it once more."

"Awwwwwwwwwww," he moaned loudly and angrily as I turned away. I walked back over to his desk.

"Jarad," I said quietly, "that was not a respectful way to respond to me, and it didn't make me want to listen to you, or even be around you. Why don't we try that again?" Again, I told him to practice the science work. This time, he responded calmly and reasonably: "Ms. Swamp, I don't think I need to practice it again. I think I already know it."

I thought about it, and realized he was probably right. "You're right," I answered. "I think you do know it. Okay, you can put it away and get a book to read."

I had known that I didn't want my students to speak to me that way. What I had not anticipated was how powerful their revised tones and words would be. I myself had taught them to talk this way, but I still found myself strongly affected by these calm, reasonable phrases. Instead of being annoyed, I was willing to take a minute to think about their perspective. And often they were right, and I changed my mind, or we found a way to compromise. Things were much more civil.

I don't want it to sound like this has worked magically. We have almost two years of habits under our belts, and they are hard to break. Kids still whine or snap at me, and I still forget to calmly remind them to try it again. Sometimes I snap back, and they get madder, and then I get my way just because I'm the boss. But I have found a new way to respond to them: not with a consequence, but with a lesson or reminder, and then a do-over. I have high hopes for next year. If I start with a new class from Day 1, working on these kinds of communication lessons, we might get far by the end of the year.

Friday, March 27, 2009


I warned my kids that our field trip yesterday would be hard work for their bodies and their brains. "It's going to be like an expedition," I told them. "Lots and lots and lots of walking, and lots and lots and lots of thinking and focusing and learning. So get your bodies and brains ready!"

On the walk up the hill when we were almost back at school, I asked Israel if he was tired.

"Nope," he answered. "Are you?"

"Nope," I said.

"No," he agreed. "You must not be, because you're always climbing big mountains. This is nothing!"

A few minutes later:

"It was a lot of walking," Ramon said. "But I took it like a man!"

"Yeah," I said. "It was a lot of walking, but I took it like a woman!" He looked a little confused.


Yesterday morning I went to a meeting of staff from other schools around the state who wanted to learn from our school. As one of the teacher representatives from my school, I was there to answer questions about just about anything they were wondering.

See if you can figure out what's wrong with this picture.

First question: "There are lots of things going really well at our school, but the one thing that we're having a really hard time with is family involvement. I mean, we just can't get families to show up at school. I can't tell you how many conferences I've scheduled where parents stand me up, without even a phone call. These people just don't come to the school, no matter what we do."

I am lucky enough to work at a school where I have never heard anyone say "these people" about our families. I knew immediately why families weren't showing up at their school. Would you go somewhere if the people who ran the place felt that way about you? I imagine families who face these kinds of attitudes from the school, and who may have painful histories with schools in their own lives, feel about going to the school kind of the way I feel about going to the dentist. It's never fun, I always get bad news, and it reminds me of how much it hurt when I was little.

We gave this teacher good advice: send teachers on home visits before school starts, or promise yourself you'll call each family once a month with good news. Build a relationship based on genuine feelings of good will, a common goal, and love for the students. Have culminating curricular events that students are proud of. I reminded her that one important part of this whole business is what we think and expect of families. "I have never in my life met a family who didn't want to be involved in their student's education, who didn't want the best for their child," I told her. "We have to believe that, to start from a place of knowing that about them. Families will meet those positive expectations if they feel them."

Contrast this teacher and her attitude, so common in the teaching world, with my sister, who has had such a grueling time of it this year. Systemic failures of her school and school system (and of our country) have made her teaching job an impossible task that is brutally heart-breaking on a daily basis. It would be easy for her to blame her students, and their families, almost understandable if she resorted to wondering what is wrong with them that their students act like this and can't do that. But instead, she talks regularly about how much she enjoys her students, what great kids they are, how they did this or that today that made her laugh. She had family conferences last week and ended the day feeling positive and connected, telling me how much she likes her students' families. If there's any test of a great teacher, she's passed it, then. Too bad she can't help out this veteran teacher in western Massachusetts who can't get her families to show up.

Thursday, March 26, 2009


Yesterday, the mother and grandmother of one of our second graders came to speak to us about Villa Victoria, a primarily Puerto Rican neighborhood we are visiting today as part of our neighborhoods curriculum. Like the other neighborhoods we are studying, the Villa has a history of gentrification and housing loss for the long-time residents, followed by community activism that led to the creation of a vibrant, affordable neighborhood.

Our student's grandmother spoke about living in the Villa in Spanish, and her daughter translated. We have been talking a lot about how to show someone you are listening and how to stay focused on what is being said, even when you feel distracted (more on this in a later post). And my students outdid themselves. They were silent and still while the women spoke. They gave each other nonverbal reminders to pay attention. They maintained eye contact and nodded their heads to show understanding. At times I heard "uh huh" or "hmmmm," verbal feedback to the speakers that they were listening. And they had many thoughtful questions delivered in a professional manner.

Tyshaun began the questions and comments: "My name is Tyshaun, and I have a connection. Just like in Villa Victoria [where landlords fire-bombed buildings to try to force poor renters out and claim insurance money], people burned houes on Dudley Street also," he said, remembering what we had learned in Roxbury a few weeks ago.

[I did not teach him to begin questions with his name, but it worked beautifully, and the other students followed his lead.]

"Who was the first person who immigrated to Villa Victoria?" Jaylin asked, sounding like a pro.

"I'm Julio, and I'm Domincan and Puerto Rican," Julio began. I noticed immediately his personal connection to the speakers because of their common heritage, and he clearly wanted to share that with them. "Why did people put bombs in houses there?"

The speakers explained again about insurance claims and trying to scare the tenants away. "Yeah," he said, "but why did they do that?"

"Are you trying to ask how someone could do that to someone else, Julio?" I asked.

"Yeah," he said.

"Was Harriet Tubman important to Villa Victoria?" Jarad asked. [He knows we will see a statue of Tubman made by local artist Fern Cunningham today.]

"Are there black people or white people living in Villa Victoria?" Amalia asked. [The answer was both, as well as latinos and asians.]

"Were there only spanish people fighting for the neighborhood?" Ramon asked. Again, the answer was no, many different kinds of people worked together.

It was a good morning for teaching.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Milkweed bugs do it too

I arrived at school this morning to find 4 pair of milkweed bugs mating. All at the same time. 3 of them in the same habitat. (Good thing they don't need privacy for sex.) They must feel spring in the air.

Photos coming soon.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009


My student Raheem brought a cell phone to school yesterday. It was real, and it worked, and it was his. His dad bought it for him. Sigh.

He didn't mean to take it out at school. His dad told him to keep it in his pocket just in case. But it fell out on the bus, and someone saw it, and they told me.

It's against the rules for students to have cell phones at school. Raheem is a terribly conscientious student -- serious, thoughtful, and very, very empathic. (He's the one who raised his hand one day at Morning Circle and said, sadly, "Ms. Swamp, I saw on the news that there are women and children starving to death in Africa.") I had to ask him for the phone. He hesitated a minute, with a sad look on his face, and then reached in his pocket and gave it to me.

"Raheem," I said. "The rule is that you can't have cell phones at school. I have to take it to the office."

"But can I have it back at the end of the day?" he asked.

"You can have it back when a grown-up from your family comes to get it," I said.

He looked dismayed.

"I didn't know I wasn't supposed to bring it to school," he said.

"I know," I answered. "You won't get in trouble. We'll just make sure your family knows you can't bring it to school."

He walked away dejectedly. Later he asked again if he could just have it back, if he promised not to bring it to school again. I told him I just couldn't give it to him, and I explained that one of the big reasons for the rule was that other kids might take it, or it could lost, and then he and his family would all be upset.

He was straightening up his desk before heading to art.

"Ms. Swamp," he asked curiously. "Did you ever have a phone taken away from you when you were little?" I couldn't tell if he was trying to appeal to my sympathies, or just thinking about what a hard day it was and wondering if I had ever felt like him. "Oh no," he answered his own question. "I guess not, because you didn't have cell phones back then, did you?"

This was not meant as a joke. It was a thoughtful awareness of how my experience was different from his, and how things have changed over time (not all second graders are so aware of this). He was putting himself in my shoes (and perhaps wishing I would put myself in his).

His dad came, I explained the cell phone situation, and everyone ended up feeling fine about it. I got a cute little story out of it. And Raheem got to feel disappointed and worried, and then have everything come out okay, and realize it wasn't the end of the world. Which isn't a bad thing.

Monday, March 16, 2009


"Which idea are you drawing about?" I asked Ola.

"Number 1," he answered impatiently. "You just asked me that!"

"Sorry," I said. "I forgot."

"Is today your forgetful day?" he asked.

"I guess so," I answered ruefully.


After February vacation, I showed my students a slideshow of my backpacking / cross-country ski trip across Baxter State Park, with my dad and two friends. It was full of pictures like this, of us skiing across frozen ponds. (I carefully removed the picture with the bottle of whiskey in it before sharing the photos.)

This is the letter I got today from my student Ivan. Ivan is the epitome of wide-eyed wonder and enthusiasm for nearly everything, including all kinds of learning and everything related to the outdoors.

Dear Ms. Swamp,

Was it really fun skiing? Did you go with your friends? How did you ski over the pond? Don't you meen ice skate over the pond?


Such diplomacy in pointing out what he thinks is a mistake on my part!

Wednesday, March 11, 2009


Today Paige told me she had seen a duck "in labor" at the pond, having ducklings.

"Ducks don't give birth," I said. "They hatch ducklings from eggs, like the chicks we hatched last year."

"I know," she said. "That's what I said, the duck was in labor, hatching ducklings out of their eggs."

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

It's a group of ten, ding dong.

I just told my kids they had "siete minutos" to finish their lunch.

"What does that mean?" some asked.

"Seventeen minutes," Tyshaun answered.

"No, seven minutes." someone countered.

"Oh well, I was close," He said. "Just take away the one from 17 and it's 7."

"It's not a 1," Amalia said. "It's a group of ten, ding dong."

Putting aside the "ding dong" for now, that was a very happy mathematical moment for me.