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Because of 4…4 Minutes

If you are following #ISTE17 you’ll notice a common theme that relationships and knowing your students matters.  Relationships are necessary for learning to occur, but building them can sometimes be a challenge.  As teachers and parents, it may be necessary at times to learn additional skills or to get help in making our relationships work.  But one of the most essential things is making sure we as adults can maintain the calm and vision necessary to continue building relationships.  It is often not so much what you do or say in these moments, but what you convey by your own calm, presence and attitude. It’s not the planned moments but how we react in the unplanned moments that often has the greatest impact.  I prepare for these moments as a mom and teacher by spending the first ten minutes of my day in meditation.  I try to maintain a practice of yoga, meditation and prayer that helps me when times are challenging.   Don’t get me wrong, there are times when I struggle to maintain my practice, but without it I never would have experienced how dramatically a relationship can shift in just 4 minutes.  The following is a continuation of the series Because of 4.  I hope this story inspires you to not give up hope on a challenging student or child and to continue to build your own habits so that when your 4 minutes come you are able to grab them and hang on for the ride.

4 Minutes

            Did you ever stop to think how many things change direction in a matter of minutes?  A storm can blow away a town, an accident can alter a family, an act of hatred can destroy a country, and a single decision can change the course of a life.  I had only met with the boys a few times.  The first time had taken every bit of classroom management skill I had and I still looked like a newbie teacher.  I had tried to play a simple board game which resulted in a slew of insults, posturing resembling that of a lion laying claim to his territory and pretty much very little gamesmanship whatsoever.  It did not resemble the jovial way my kids and I would gather around the table camping and play card or word games, each one taking turns and laughing lightheartedly as players lost or won.  Today in desperation I had suggested that they try to build something with my bag of blocks.  I really didn’t have a plan, I just wanted them to stop arguing long enough to think.  I thought maybe if we tried something less teamwork focused we’d have better results.  So out came the Keva blocks.  I had ordered them at the request of another teacher with some grant money and couldn’t figure out for the life of me what I would do with them in my groups.  What exactly were we going to do with a big bag of wooden blocks?  What kind of challenging thinking would we do with that?  While I was just praying for a way to make it through the next 20 minutes with these boys without a fight, something else was stirring.  They started building…and talking…and I started listening.  I started writing what they were saying on the board.

“This is a fun challenge.”

“I’m going to finish.”

“Help me make it.”

“This is hard.”

“Let’s do this!”

“Oh, cool!”

“This is really fun!”

“I’m trying.”

“I’m not losing on this.”

“I have a new idea.”

“I like Mondays now.”

As we wrapped up our time, I pointed out to the boys how their conversation had shifted.  I talked about how they were practicing and showing some of the habits that I work with in groups.  Habits of Mind (Costa & Kallick, 2008) were one of the main focuses of my groups and I tried to get students to learn these sixteen habits that foster intelligent thinking.  Together we identified some of their talk as being persistent, flexible and responding with wonderment and awe.  I was on a high.  I felt like we had really connected and I found something that worked.

The next time was a whole different story.  I finally felt like maybe we were getting somewhere, but as soon as I picked up the boys I knew something was different.  They had a sub that day which meant they were spread out in all different classrooms.  We had already learned that there was no way these 4 could be in the room together without Mrs. G.  So a plan was in place to move them to different rooms in the event of a sub.  They were in rare form.  Angry jibes and “your mama’s” were the only thing I heard as I maneuvered them down the hallway, hoping to make it to my classroom without a fight.  In my mind all I could think of was what should we do today.  Another teacher had borrowed my blocks and I was planning to try to introduce them to circuits.  I didn’t think putting a $200 box of Little Bits circuitry was going to be a very good idea given the current mood.

“I wanna play a game.  You said we could play a game,” Jam said grabbing a game off the shelf.

“No, I wanted to build a robot.  She said we were going to build robots,” Jo retorted.

“Look, why don’t we see what you can do with these puzzles today,” I said hoping I didn’t sound quite as hopeless as I felt.  I was starting to think that maybe this would be one of the last times with this group.  I had done my duty.  I’d let them come for a few activities.  We talked about how they could be better thinkers.  After all, I really didn’t have time to take any more students.  I was just working with them for a few times to help with their attitudes.  We had had one good class, but it was pretty clear that this was probably more of what I could expect from these guys.  Somehow the puzzles went pretty well.  Jo, Jam and Lari worked on one together and Ric went off to a table by himself.  I was relieved when our time was up without a fight.  Now for the walk back down the hallway I thought.  I kept them moving somewhat quietly and together.  As we turned the corner my heart sank.  Ric took off running the other direction.  My heart leapt to my throat.  What was he doing I thought?  What happened?  How do I get him and get these guys down the hallway without an escort?  Should I call for back-up?  I made the call and sent the 3 boys down the hall, protesting and grumbling the whole way.  I quickly went down the direction Ric had run, not knowing what to expect.  Every bone in my body was shouting fear.  Ric was tough.  Really tough.  Although I saw glimmers of a spark in his eyes, most of the time he starred through me with an intense beady eyed look that sort of sent chills down my spine.  Although I’d never admit it, I was slightly afraid of him.  As I turned the corner expecting the worst, I saw him curled up in a little cubby by the bathrooms shaking.  I couldn’t tell if he was angry or crying.  Not knowing how to approach him, I simply decided to use a technique I use with my daughter.  Ric’s hiding in a small space reminded me of her fear reaction.  Often I would find her curled up under a desk or in the farthest corner of her closet when she felt like school was closing in on her and all of her teachers hated her.  In those moments all I could do was just sit and be with her.  I knew I couldn’t get close to Ric, but I was pretty sure I could let him know it was ok.

“Look, I can tell something is bothering you and you probably don’t want me here right now.  It looks to me like you could use some time to cool down.  Why don’t you come into my room and you can just sit while I clean up our puzzles.  I won’t talk to you and I won’t bother you.  You can just come in and calm down.  We can get your lunch and you can have lunch in the room so you can have a chance to relax.  I know you have a sub today and I can’t send you back to class like this.  I don’t want you to get in trouble and I know you just need a few minutes.”

“Fine.”

So we walked down the hall and he grabbed his coat.  He was in another classroom that day, so I let the teacher know that I was keeping him for lunch and briefly filled her in on what was going on.  She nodded knowingly.

Ric and I walked down the hall.  You could almost see the smoke coming out of his ears.  He wasn’t just upset, he was angry.  I had no idea what had happened to set him off or how to relate to him.  I was just hoping I could calm him down enough so he wouldn’t kill some kid at recess.  We got lunch and sat at the table.  He started moving the pieces of the puzzle around.  I sat quietly.  He talked.

“I’ve never done that before,” he said.  It wasn’t really to me, it was just sort of out load, almost as if he was processing for himself.

“What?” I asked.  I really had no idea what was going on or where this was going.

“Walked away from a fight,” he whispered.

Woa!  I didn’t even know there was a fight in the making.  What had I missed as we walked out of the classroom?  What was going on here?  “Don’t talk too much,” I thought to myself.  “Listen.”

“How did that feel?” I managed to ask.

He shrugged.

“You know, you remind me of someone.  Have you ever heard of Martin Luther King, Jr.”

“Sure.”

“You know he was great at speaking and persuading others, just like you are.  He also never used violence.  He believed we could make more of an impact by protesting peacefully.”

“He never fought.”

“I don’t think so.  Let’s watch some of his speech.”

We watched a few minutes of the speech, and I watched the calm return to Cedric.  He kept working on the puzzle and continued to calm down.

“Do you think I can go to recess now?”

“You tell me, are you ready?”

“Yep,” he replied and jumped up heading outside.

I went and found the teacher who had Ric in her room that day and shared with her what had happened.

“It’s amazing that he trusted you with that,” she commented.  “You’ve really made a huge difference.  He’s such an amazing kid, if we can just help him.”

I walked back to my office feeling slightly overwhelmed by all the work I failed to get done with my extra time with Ric, but also feeling as if something was maybe a little bit different.  I just hoped I had calmed him down enough so he didn’t get into a fight at recess.  I went ahead and filled out a CARES card for him and wrote a note for him to take home.  I wanted him to know that I was really proud of the courage he displayed in not getting into a fight and working to calm himself down.

If I had any doubt that what I had done made a difference, the reaction I got the next day was confirmation enough.  I was heading out of the school for a meeting when I saw Ric down the hall.  His usual indifference to me was replaced by a barrel run into me and a hug.  It caught me completely off guard.  Here was the toughest kid I knew, hugging me in the middle of the hallway.  The 4 minutes I had taken to meet Ric where he was had made all the difference.  Because of those 4 minutes, nothing would ever be the same.

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