Nice vs. Kind

 

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Our seventh-grade team chose ‘kindness’ as a year-long theme this year. We planned a variety of short and long-term activities across all content areas to promote kindness. Some of them have been very successful in my opinion, some of them not-so-much, but that will happen. Not every great idea works out in the end.

We are now approaching the half-way mark of the year and I have been thinking about whether this focus on ‘kindness’ has worked. Have our students embraced kindness? As teachers have we embraced kindness? Is our large seventh-grade community kinder?

It is too early for me to clearly see a huge shift, but small ones are happening. I notice students offering support to each other in the classroom without prompting. I see a lot more smiling faces. I see more students with a welcoming stance in my room and in the halls.

However, I keep coming back to the question of “Have I embraced kindness?” I think I have because it is in my nature to be kind. However, I am struggling to model kindness. It is not like I am harsh or mean to students, but I think I am modeling nice more effectively than kind.

I am learning it easy to model niceness, but more difficult to model kindness. I greet people by name, ask them questions, listen well, and work to be positive in my language. However, all of those concepts fall into what I perceive as being nice, not necessarily being kind.

I completely understand the world, especially the world of schooling, needs a great deal of nice. We need to acknowledge others, we need to offer a smile or heartfelt greeting, we need our ‘please and thank yous’, and we need to be quiet instead of saying something awful. Nice is not bad at all, but I don’t think it is enough because we can be on autopilot and be nice.

However, I think we need the grace of kindness much more than we need niceties.

For me, kindness is more intentionally active and much more personal. Kindness is showing acceptance and giving lots of support. Kindness is much more intrinsically motived. It is an act of giving with nothing expected in return. Kindness can also mean being strong enough to deal with difficulties.

As I am working through this year of ‘kind’ with my seventh-grade friends, I have been working on being more openly kind. And that is where I am struggling. When I check in on a colleague who has been ill, I am doing that not in full view of my students. When I have a quiet conversation with a student about a struggle she might be dealing with it is quiet on purpose and not in front of the entires class. When a student says something that is awful to another, how do I intervene without being awful myself?

I am working and thinking and working some more on how to model kindness, not just niceness. The other night I heard the phrase, “fiercely kind” I am fascinated by this because I think it hits at the essence of my thoughts about the differences between nice and kind. To be kind you also need to be ready to be fierce.

I will continue to be nice, but I need to look for ways to be more fiercely kind.

The Danger of Comparisons

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About six weeks ago I kept thinking, What is wrong with my 6th and 7th period block? As a group, we were consistently behind my other classes, we would interrupt each other in conversations, we weren’t getting work done, we kept making the same mistakes over and over again, we were not as joyful as my other classes.
I thought there were numerous possibilities for the causes of my concerns.

  • It is my largest class – 30 students.
  • This class is immediately after lunch.
  • There are 20 boys and 10 girls
  • There are 5 students on IEPs and another on a 504 plan.
  • There are some incredibly exuberant personalities juxtaposed with some of the quietest students I have ever worked with.
  • There are students who openly state their disdain for reading and writing.

I kept comparing this group to my other two classes. Why can’t they pull themselves together?
My other classes ‘get it’ and are typically engaged in the work we are doing. Weren’t last year’s groups were much closer-knit than this class?
Thoughts like these grew from a seed of concern to a thriving weed of dismay. What is wrong with these kids? I carried this incredibly negative thought for the better part of two weeks before I realized that the issue was not with the class, it was with me.
I fell into the trap that many of us do. I spent too much time comparing this group to others I have worked with over the years. Instead of enjoying the differences this class brings every day, I brought my negative thoughts about them into the classroom. We were in a self-fulfilling cycle of my lowered expectations. I expected them to not be able to function like my other classes, so when they didn’t function like my other classes they met my deficit-modeled expectations and I became more agitated.
I am not sure the exact moment that I finally realized for this one class that I was setting the tone of disappointment. But when I owned my behavior things began to change. Yes, this class still has moments where I wonder, what is going on? But, I am working hard not to compare them to my other classes or previous classes. I am working to accept the differences and changing how I act around them.
We are enjoying our time together more. We are learning more. We are communicating better. We are moving along a better path.
I wish I would have realized my problem sooner.

Honoring Identity

Sara Ahmed is an educator who I am fortunate to call a friend. As much as I value her friendship, I value her role as a mentor to me even more. Her two books Upstanders: How to Engage Middle School Hearts and Minds with Inquiry (co-authored with Harvey Daniels) and Being the Change: Lessons and Strategies to Teach Social Comprehension have pushed my thinking and encouraged me to do better for the kids I learn with every day. I highly recommend reading these books and if you ever get the chance to hear Sara speak don’t miss that opportunity.

I opened this school year with her thinking in the back of my brain. One of the lessons she shared in Being the Change is an activity an Identity Web. Sara explains Identity Webs as “personal graphic tools that help us consider the many factors that shape who we are.” Middle school is definitely a time and a place where our students wrestle with their identity. I know I did. Many factors that shape who I am today can be traced to middle school. My lifelong love affair with both soccer and art were cemented in middle school. Middle school teachers I had were adults who shaped both how I act with seventh graders now and how I will never act with those same seventh graders. And I sill remember the name of my first girlfriend. I wonder what happened to her once we both left our hometown.

So the idea of leading students to recognize what or who has shaped or will shape how they view their lives and the world definitely appealed to me, so I jumped right into it. But first, I did one myself. In Being the Change, Sara strongly recommends that teachers do the work she recommends for teaching students social comprehension because “this examination is just as adults as it is for kids.” Doing the work we expect our students to do is time-consuming, but it opens our eyes to a more empathetic stance.

Here is my Identity Map:

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When I was working on this, it amazed me how some of my identity came easily. Filling in the area around sports was easy. However, I realized I hesitated a great deal with the family section. I kept second-guessing what I should share. I love my family, but like many families, there are difficult memories flowing next to the wondrous memories. I wondered when it came time to share my identity web as a model for my students, how would I handle this section. Honesty drove me to be very candid about some of the difficult factors that have shaped me. It may not have helped my students write down any of the tough things on their webs, but my hope was they would quickly know that I am a person who will be very honest with them. 

While my students were working on their identity webs, I had mine in my hand and looked for connections I had with my students. I sat with them at tables or on the floor and named the connections we had like reading, sports, or living most of my entire life in Central Ohio. But, I also delighted in seeing things that were very different than me. I celebrated the students who immigrated to the United States, students who loved dance, and the student who plays five, yes five, different instruments.

The time I spent chatting and connecting with the students was the second best thing I did during the first few days of school. The best thing was the next day. The students met in small groups to compare and contrast their webs. They looked for connections and delighted in finding differences. As I bounced around the room, I could see them appreciating who they were at the same time they were appreciating each other. We were learning to honor our identities.

As the year progresses, we will add to our webs and look for more ways to celebrate our own identities as well as each others’. We will also be led by the many other ideas Sara shared in Being the Change. The work will be challenging, but I am certain the communities we are creating in Room 229 will be stronger if we rise to the challenge.

Student samples

Enough

I am.

 

I am struggling.

 

I am struggling to write this post.

 

I have known I was on the schedule to post on May 3, 2018, for months now. I have begun a post at least 5 times in the past week. But when I go back to reread or revise I know my writing is awful.

 

I am.

 

I am struggling.

 

I am struggling with stress and worry.

 

I have had too many restless nights. It is impossible to focus when you are consumed with uncertainty.

 

I am.

 

I am struggling.

 

I am struggling because I can’t control the cause of my stress and worry.

 

I am struggling because I want to scream out into the void – all the time – but I can’t.

 

———————————————————-

 

I am.

 

I am learning.

 

I am learning that it is ok for me to be stressed and worried.

 

I am learning that I am not quite the extremely rational and logical thinker I thought I was.

 

I am learning a great deal about humility and empathy.

 

Since the cause of my stress and worry is something I am not ready to share to share with my fellow writers and readers of Classroom Communities I feel like I am being a dishonest member of this community.

 

However, while I know that I am struggling, I am learning a great deal about myself. I am realizing that it is not so easy to compartmentalize when something out of your control is taking up so mental energy.

 

I am struggling.

 

I am learning.

 

I am enough.

What Changes

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Over the past few weeks, I have rediscovered reading and enjoying poetry. Most mornings before I get moving into the day, I read at least one poem. The act of opening my phone and searching online “poem about ______” or grabbing a favorite volume of poetry from my family room or classroom shelf has created a place and time for me to reflect.

This beginning of this practice started in a failed attempt to try to plan something for National Poetry Month for my seventh-grade students. A classroom study of poetry still hasn’t happened yet. And to be honest, it might not happen this year. However, I have been really enjoying these two to three-minute adventures into a form of communication I adore, but often ignore. Spending some time thinking about the words of Maya Angelou, Czesław Miłosz, Anna Akhmatova, Naomi Shihab Nye, Billy Collins, Kwame Alexander, Justin Runge, Jacqueline Woodson, Alan Dugan and others have given me the chance to slow down for a moment or two each day.

The time I spend reading a poem is short, but most days thinking lingers throughout the day. About ten days ago, I read “What Changes” by Naomi Shihab Nye.

 

What Changes

My father’s hopes travel with me

years after he died. Someday

we will learn how to live.  All of us

surviving without violence

never stop dreaming how to cure it.

What changes? Crossing a small street

in Doha Souk, nut shops shuttered,

a handkerchief lies crumpled in the street,

maroon and white, like one my father had,

from Jordan.  Perfectly placed

in his pocket under his smile, for years.

He would have given it to anyone.

How do we continue all these days?

 

“Someday we will learn how to live” was in my mind for the rest of the day and into the next several days. The line also inspired this post.

For me, there is a juxtaposition of hope and frustration in that line – like the coming end of the school year. The hope we have built learning communities that were worthwhile for our students combined with the frustration that we don’t have the time to accomplish everything we intended. The hope that our students will finish the year better than they started combined with the frustration of state testing windows. The hope of seeing students act kindly toward each other combined with the frustration of students ostracizing each other. Hope and frustration are typical partners in the last weeks of school.

During the end of your school year, take the time to look for the hopeful places. I know I will get stuck in the frustrations. I will need to consciously search for the evidence that the 180 days spent with my seventh graders were good. The moments like seeing two friends recommend books to each other, a student complimenting the writing of another, the class groaning a little when our independent reading time is over, the eager smiles when it is time to discuss a shared text.

If you have the time, try reading poetry daily or at least give yourself the opportunity to reflect. Find the hopefulness and good.

Knowledge Versus Behaviors

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I have been struggling with the idea of shifting what we know about empathy into consistent actions that show empathy. After 22 years in education, I consistently observe the knowledge of what empathy means is more developed than consistently acting with empathy. My struggle is not just because I see kids “saying the right thing” but not always “doing the right thing” – it is my struggle, a teacher-in- general struggle, a parent struggle, a human struggle.

Over the course of my first year in a middle school setting, I have witnessed numerous opportunities for students to say and do the right thing. Sometimes the word and actions are very little, like a student saying thank you to another; sometimes they are big, like a group of students voluntarily helping to work with special needs students.

Sometimes I witness the perplexing situation of students being able to say the right thing, but do the wrong thing within the same class period.

About two weeks ago, I read aloud the book Nerdy Birdy by Aaron Reynolds to my classes. Nerdy Birdy is a fabulous book. It tells the story of a bird who is invited to a community of birds after he has been excluded by a group of “cool” birds. Nerdy Birdy is later disappointed when his new community excludes a bird that doesn’t fit in with their norms. Both during and after the read aloud the discussions of this book were fabulous. The seventh graders saw some of the humor in the descriptions of the birds and they explored the hypocrisy of the group of birds that welcomed Nerdy Birdy. We also talked about how these moments of inclusion/exclusion happen in the real world. They shared ideas about immigrants, cliques in schools, and the gap between the rich and the poor in our city as well as our country. They said all the right things.

After the read aloud and discussion, the students moved into an individual work time that gave me the chance to work with a small group and confer with some individuals. After about 20 minutes of this individual work time, I asked the students to find a partner to share some thinking about what they accomplished that day. We have a sharing norm, that when I say partners, it means two people in a discussion. If based on attendance, we have an odd number of students in the class, I will ‘claim’ a partner so everyone is involved in a discussion with one other person. In all of my classes that day, I witnessed several students actively avoiding others. There seemed to be a desire to not get ‘stuck’ with a partner who was not perceived as a friend. Even though they could say the right things less than 25 minutes ago, they struggled to do the right thing.

Once I gave a gentle reminder of the expectations of a partner share, everyone eventually found a partner for this two-minute chat, but there were some eye-rolls and tangible sighs before everyone had someone to listen to his/her thinking.

I feel like I put forth a great deal of effort into community building. I believe that the kids I work with could identify characters in stories who show or lack empathy and compassion. I believe that if asked, “What would you do in _______________ situation?” they would all say the right thing. However, I am still troubled when I don’t see them act in a way that shows they understand the right thing to do.

It could be easy to dismiss the ideas I just shared with the notion that my students are 12 or 13 years old and over time they will learn how to control impulses (like actively showing frustration when you are disappointed with an outcome) that could make others feel unwelcome or excluded, but I see the same problems with myself and other adults. I am definitely guilty of not consistently doing the right thing. When I reflect upon my actions, I get frustrated with myself, but I can’t seem to break the cycle. I fail to include colleagues, family members or a neighbor. I cringe when I am expected to work or be around people I have had difficulty with in the past. I struggle to entertain ideas that might challenge long-held beliefs about a variety of topics.

With role models like me, is it any wonder that students in our schools have difficulty doing the right thing? 

The statement above was not written in a state of self-loathing or as an attempt to dismiss the thoughts of anyone who knows that I definitely do not walk through my life as a teacher by yelling at kids, shaming kids, or actively show disrespect to others. That statement is an honest statement. I believe I am a work-in-progress in regards to consistently acting compassionately and with empathy. To be honest, I also believe we all are works-in-progress. However, if we want our students to grow into the future adults we hope them to be, we all need to do better.

For now, I will continue to work at being a better version of who I am. I will also continue to give chances for my students to both say and do the right thing. Maybe next year if I read Nerdy Birdy, I won’t see the eye rolls or hear the audible sighs later in the class period.

photo credit: MTSOfan Legalize Empathy via photopin (license)

If-then

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Fill in the blanks:

If I didn’t have to ____________, then I ____________.

If my students were____________, then I ____________.

If my class size was____________, then I ____________.

If my salary was____________, then I ____________.

If I had more ____________, then I ____________.

If the parents ____________, then I _________.

If the standards ____________, then I _________.

If my room ____________, then I _________.

If my contract ____________, then I _________.

If the community ____________, then I _________.

If my colleagues ____________, then I _________.

If I had ____________, then I _________.

If the __________ teachers ____________, then I _________.

If my administrator ____________, then I _________.

If I could just remove ____________, then I _________.

 

Check yourself. How many of the if-then statements above we positive?  How many were negative?

Positive or negative answers to hypothetical statements don’t have much impact. But the way we frame our verbal and written language to our students, colleagues, families does have a huge impact.

I constantly am checking myself and my language. I make mistakes, but I work hard not to fall into the trap of ‘if-then’ negativity. And when I step into that trap, I feel the bite of its teeth. So I work to get out of it immediately.