Teaching What’s Critical

We’ve been given standards to teach, and the “critical” ones are the ones that are assessed state-wide. There are more things that are critical to students’ success than these “critical standards” — a love of learning is one of them. To give my students a joy of reading, I’ve instituted DEAR time for the first five minutes of every class. Not only does it provide a calm, quiet, consistent way to start class, but it give students five times a week where they might encounter good reading: something enjoyable, something well written, something controversial, something thought-provoking, or just something that makes them get in the habit of turning pages and looking at them. In short, it helps them enjoy reading as an activity.

Yesterday, I was very angry about discovering that I’ve been shedding books from my class library. I spend my own (extremely) hard-earned money to buy hardcover award-winning books for my students. I stamp my name on the edge of the pages and inside the cover. I give them about a minute after reading to use their voices as they put away the books back on the shelves. This gives them a chance to share anything interesting they found in their reading with someone nearby. Additionally, I really do get the impression — this year more than ever — that my students respect and like (or are at least neutral towards) me.

I was angry, and I didn’t know what to do about it. I really didn’t know who’s fault it was that my books were missing. I was tempted to take my books home and replace reading with a grammar activity each day instead — but that would punish every student, not just the one(s) responsible. Also, I notice my students usually voice their desire to use violence to express their anger. So I decided to write out a notecard of my thoughts to share with the class.

I started by complimenting them on how well they’ve been working at the current unit. I then let them know I apologized ahead of time that my anger had nothing to with maybe even everyone in any given class. I then told them I was angry. I asked them how they would feel if someone stole $100 from them. They make punching into their palm motions. I said, “That’s how angry I am.” I pointed out that I didn’t, I hope, look or sound angry. I pointed out that my goal was to get my books back and to show a proper way to express anger. I pointed out that the notecard would help keep me on track and keep me from using language that wasn’t appropriate.

I really don’t know if I got to the students I needed to in order to get my property back, but I do know my students believed I was angry, and I hope it makes an impact on them. I would hope my “think aloud” lesson leads at least one student to make a better choice in responding to emotions. I believe it is critical to teach this lesson to students, though I understand that the “think alouds” I did in reading lessons will probably stick with them longer than this moment in class.

How can we teach more things that are critical in our classrooms? I’m not sure it will ever come from the public, the government, parents, or administrators, so it’s — once again — up to teachers.