Friday, September 24, 2010


A Teacher’s Guide to Fellowships and Awards: Opportunities for Professional Growth and Renewal
Last year, my teaching team somehow came up with the idea to take forty second graders roller-skating during the second week of the new school year.  I was a reluctant participant in the scheme, for what I think should be obvious reasons.  But there’s a locally owned roller rink about 4 blocks from our school, in one of the neighborhoods we study each year.  In the past nine years, I have read approximately 791 stories about skating at The Rink; our students love to go there.  So I reluctantly agreed that it would be a nice way to build community at the beginning of the year.

On the day our field trip dawned, I awoke with a feeling of dread.  It was the fifth day of school. I didn’t know much yet about my class, but I did know they were a challenging crew.  We had a complicated, somewhat daunting plan for our time at The Rink.  We would start with some whole-group activities, then move into small groups, then pairs.  We had little cards with each student’s name and shoe size, so we could get skates that fit.  The morning would finish with pizza for lunch.

We arrived at a cavernous space that echoed with hip-hop music.  My students couldn’t hear anything I said, and even if they could, they were too distracted by the strobe lights and disco balls to pay attention.  Trying to run group games was hopeless.  Still, we forged ahead, loyal to our plan, until I was hoarse and out of breath.

Then we started onto the rink.  As it turned out, roller-skating is tricky.  Those wheels roll fast, and that rink is hard.  Most students fell the second their skates hit the rink’s wooden floor.  The rest fell before they stepped off the carpet.  The crack of bones hitting wood filled the air, and I tried to block out thoughts of head injuries.

To my surprise, though, I saw good things starting to happen.  I watched students hit the floor again and again, bruising different appendages with each fall, and get back up each time.  These were the same kids who, when asked to write one sentence, would lay their heads on the desk, or would burst into tears when a math problem got too hard.  Yes, there were tears at The Rink.  But when one student cried, others stepped forward to comfort him.  Stronger skaters stopped to offer a hand to friends who fell, or slowed down to keep pace with a novice.  All around me, my kids were exhibiting the behaviors I most want to see in my classroom: perseverance and teamwork.

This year, I knew just what I wanted to get out of The Rink.  My new teaching partner later told me that, on the day of the field trip, she felt the same way I had a year earlier: full of dread.  I have to admit I was relieved that it was her day to teach, not mine, so I was the extra set of hands, not the one running the show.

A few days before The Rink trip, our class wrote our Class Promises.  We agreed that in our class, we would be kind to each other, focus on learning, solve conflicts by talking, and take care of materials.  Two days before the trip, we did an activity about how everyone has things they are very good at and things they are just learning.  We went over our learning targets for The Rink:

§       I can control my body so I, and the people around me, will be safe.
§       I can persevere (keep trying) even when something is hard or scary.
§       I can help and encourage my classmates so they can do something hard.

And then, we practiced.  Each student got a Rink partner, who was assigned by putting stronger skaters with beginners, according to their (not necessarily accurate) self-assessment.  With their partners, we reminded each other of the goals: perseverance and teamwork.  And we did a short pair activity (directing your partner to draw something with his eyes closed) to practice those skills.

By the time they got to The Rink, they knew what they were supposed to practice.  While they skated, I reminded them to check on their partners and to encourage each other, and I pointed out every instance of perseverance I saw. 

The Rink is a perfect metaphor for the rest of the year – and, even better, it is a metaphor second graders can access.  They rated their skating ability before and after the trip, and saw that they had gotten better in just one hour of focused practice.  Almost to a person, they felt genuine frustration at The Rink; some felt despair.  (I saw the look in Diego’s eyes as he stepped on the rink and immediately fell, his feet flopping sideways under his legs every time he stood up.  Diego is a strong student who rarely experiences trouble in school. In the context of school, this was a new feeling for him.)  No one, however, dropped out. 

Last year, we used The Rink all year to remind students that they could persevere when something was hard, and that hard work would lead to progress.  When we began to model self-reflection, and how to verbalize what you had learned with your head (knowledge), hands (skills), and heart (habits of mind), we started out with roller-skating.  As a steppingstone to developing the kind of learners and learning community we want to raise, it couldn’t be more perfect.  I take none of the credit; I’m still terrified of roller-skating, and I still cringe every time I think of those small elbows hitting the floor.  But I’m glad we went.

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