A few summers ago, I had the opportunity to teach a computer science enrichment class to four periods of incoming 4th and 5th grade students. Initially, I thought the goal of the class was to show these students that each one of them could learn a computer programming or web development language and, one day, become engineers at a place like Google or Apple.
As it turns out, I was wrong. Teaching students that they could become computer science professionals was the cherry on top, not the reason for taking the class.
For this month long summer class, I decided that my students would spend one week creating a website using HTML. Instead of using a fancy development environment, we used nothing but Notepad to write our webpages. To anyone who has not made a website from scratch, HTML is a jumble of tags made of letters, symbols, and numbers which surround the content of your page. In the jumble, however, is precision. Every colon, space, and slash must be placed perfectly. If a character is incorrectly inserted or a semicolon missed, the whole project fails - the incredible web page that exists in your imagination appears only as a blank screen.
Fourth and fifth graders can, at times, still struggle to remember to capitalize the first letter of a sentence or remember the five parts of a friendly letter. After a few days of tackling HTML, with the precision that it requires, it became clear that these nine and ten year olds would learn as much about tenacity and perseverance as they would about hypertext and website publishing.
I used to teach third grade. Right by the door I had a box. The “Turn It In Box.”
Everyone has one of these, right?
Students complete work, and then, instead of handing it to the teacher, they walk over and turn it in.
At the end of each day, I would walk over to that Turn It In Box and empty out a ream of cursive worksheets, friendly letters, and math problems. With a sigh, I would lug them back to my desk to begin the task of making sure everything looked “okay enough” and then in the corner quickly scribble a star, or put a rubber stamp of a dinosaur holding a wooden sign that said “Good work” in green or purple or bright pink ink. Some papers would receive a checkmark, or if, upon my fleeting glance, if it seemed to be rather good work, the paper would adorned with a “checkmark plus.”
The dinosaur with his sign, the checkmark-plus, they would never make it into my grade book.
These symbols would be hurriedly placed on the work, proof that I had looked at the assignment, and then the papers would be placed back into individual cubbies to be taken home at week’s end.
Things obviously get busy as a classroom teacher. The reality of the situation is that two or three days would go by and I wouldn’t empty that Turn It In Box. As the busy days would pass, the Turn It In Box would transform into a Turn It In Pile, and then grow into a Turn It In Mountain.
Students would come up to me and, looking at the floor as they spoke as though to avoid the embarrassment in my eyes, let me know that, “Umm… the Turn It In Box is full again and the papers are beginning to fall off the sides.”
The Turn It In Mountain had yet again become the Turn It In Volcano spewing ungraded work from its peak.
The taller the volcano of papers, the more guilt I would feel each time I walked past it. All that work, denied my stamps and stars and scribbles.
Now comes for my confession. I have never publicly admitted this before. I need to get this off my chest.
The Fall CUE Conference in the Napa Valley is my favorite conference of the year. It is practically in my backyard. My marigolds always show up. It always features awesome speakers and amazing sessions.
A few months before the 2017 conference, when I found out that Brad Montague was going to be delivering the keynote, I stopped everything and purchased my ticket right then and there. I am a huge fan of his work - from Kid President to his Twitter feed to the joyful energy that he brings into this world. For the next two months, I became a broken record. Pretty much everyone who I crossed paths with was accosted. “Are you going to Fall CUE?” “Do you realize that Brad Montague is going to be speaking?”
Flash cut to the morning of the conference. Brad’s keynote day. My four month old-daughter was in the middle of a month long experiment exploring the biological necessity of sleep. As part of her experimental design, she chose to keep my wife and I up all night too. Run ragged, I shuffled out of my front door a few minutes later that I would have liked. A short commute later, I arrive at American Canyon High School, grabbed my backpack and headed to registration.
And then I saw it.
As a third grade teacher, the coming of spring meant Charlotte’s Web. It was a rite of passage for third graders - to meet Fern Arable, to enter that barn, to experience the ultimate sacrifice that Charlotte, the motherly spider, makes for Wilbur. Despite being a story about talking farm animals, it is a powerful text and, for many students, it is the first time the idea of death is introduced in a class read aloud. The conversations I would have with those third graders, they were heavy. Tears were shed. Suddenly, school got real. Death was a thing. Read about and talked about.
And so, to celebrate the completion of the book and the serious, mature, third grade conversations that we had, we would make large, pink paper maché pigs complete with ridiculous looking googley eyes.
I always got a kick out of the contrast between the seriousness of the end of the book and the silliness of those googley eyes.
At the elementary school that I used to teach at, the kids created a version of four square that they called “Skill.” It was a lot like the traditional game of Four Square that we played in my youth, but there were slight, esoteric rule changes and new vocabulary that made it nearly incomprehensible to adults. The game inevitably led to uncountable playground disagreements. The whistle at the end of recess would mark the moment when emotions would boil over and tearful students would enter the classroom, unable to learn, needing to get their Skill frustrations out into the open.
Needless to say, I did not hold Skill in high esteem. In fact, I’ll say it... I pretty much hated Skill. It was the silly creation that was more trouble than it was worth. In my expert opinion, it was a lesser form of the nearly perfect game of Four Square. It was an “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” situation.
In an attempt to quell the end of recess dramatics, we brainstormed solutions. We wrote down all the rules on a poster. We trained students to be Skill Referees. We used peer mediators to help with disagreements.
The Skill Drama. It continued.
I made threats. Skill would be banned from the playground. Individual students wouldn’t be allowed to play for weeks at a time. Calls would be made home to parents. Yes, I'll admit it. I might have gone as far as to say that I was going to pop the red bouncy balls used for the game of Skill.
This is a true story. It is not exaggerated. This really happened to me.
I began teaching third grade at the age of 23 years old. It was my first “real” job and, despite my teacher preparation coursework, I found myself in the middle of October unsure if I could make it all the way to the end of the year. I found myself counting the days until Thanksgiving break. I found myself counting the hours until my next prep period.
The students were rebelling. Simple tasks that came so easily in the first weeks, like lining up quietly for recess, became laborious chores requiring my raised voice spouting empty threats of missed recess minutes. Getting through a Writer’s Workshop lesson on crafting the perfect hook for your personal narrative? Forget about it. The more I doubled down, becoming stricter and stricter, the more the students pushed back. Things were not going well.
And this was the moment when I received a note from my principal informing me that it was time to schedule my first evaluation - a thirty minute observation followed by a fifteen minute debriefing meeting.
On the morning of my principal’s visit, I gathered my students around my rocking chair and, in a final act of desperation, I attempted to reason with them.
I leaned in and, with a whisper, asked, “How do you kids feel about a little extra recess?”
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