By Christine Hertz (@christine_hertz)
A few days ago I found myself on a lovely walk in the late afternoon, late summer sunshine. I live and teach in northern Vermont and September is the state’s golden month: crisp temperatures in the morning, plenty of sun, low humidity, and the whole state smells like apples. Really. But inside my head I had a different narrative running: WINTER IS COMING. And as I walked along in this idyllic scene all I could think was, “Very soon it’s going to get very brown, very dark, and very cold. And don’t even get me started about Jon Snow.” I started to list all of the things I needed to do before winter set in and, as the list grew, I swear the air turned colder and the skies darkened just a bit and the sun started to set at an accelerated rate. “See!” I told myself, “Winter is coming.”
As teachers, we live in a world where September means going from 0 to 60 in a matter of hours. One moment we’re reading professional books on the beach and envisioning how we will set up our classrooms this year and the next moment we’re surrounded by 20 or 30 new students and all of their stories and needs and identities.
I had every intention of starting this year in a very zen-like state. I had set up my second grade classroom following the principles of Reggio Emilia (aesthetics matter, let the children co-create the room with you, the environment itself is a teacher); I had read and talked and thought about having a more student-centered curriculum; I had promised myself that I would (finally) find that work-life balance.
But even the best intentions go awry. As the year started, I hadn’t gone from 0 to 60, I had gone from 0 to about 150. I had over-planned our days– trying to pack in as much teaching and learning as possible in every single moment. This year I switched from third grade to second and immediately fell in love with the new grade. But I felt the same sense of urgency with my second graders that I did with the changing seasons. In the back of my head, I couldn’t stop thinking about where my new students needed to be at the end of the year: “Third grade is coming” I would tell myself. “They need to be ready.” In those first few days of school I studied the Common Core Standards, writing samples, and thought about other second grades I had observed. “Are they measuring up?” I would ask myself. No matter the answer, my response was always Do More.
And then, one morning on day four, as I was switching from chorally reading The Power of Yet to finding our snap words in the song to sky writing them in the air, one of my students stopped me mid-word.
“Ms. Hertz,” he asked quietly, as our hands were raised writing the word “there,” “Could you slow down a little?”
“Of course!” I responded and I slowed down my arm as I formed the letter R.
And then, with the wisdom and earnestness that comes only from children, he added:
“Actually, could you slow everything down?”
And then I stopped. Dead in my tracks. I looked around at my class–compliant, quiet, all with their hands dutifully raised sky writing our snap words. I realized that with all of my sense of urgency, with my Third Grade is Coming narrative, I was speeding through the most important elements of the new school year.
So slow down we did. I fell back on the work and research that Kristi Mraz and I did for our new book A Mindset for Learning. I refocused our time in the classroom on really, truly getting to know each other and creating a classroom culture of joy and risk taking and growth.
- We read aloud more. We read aloud to discover the concepts of optimism, resilience, flexibility, persistence, and empathy. We read aloud to build common narratives, to laugh, to question, to wonder.
- We told stories of risk-taking and problem-solving and kindness.
- We explored– with our fantastic school counselor– Michelle Garcia-Winner’s work on Zones of Regulation and social thinking.
- We learned about how our brains work and how we can grow and learn new things and change.
- I spent less time in front of my class and more time observing and noticing and asking questions.
- I created more opportunities for choice time, independent writing projects, collaborative math work, and partner reading. I noticed when my students were really engaged and when things weren’t going quite so well and then I made changes on the spot.
Perhaps most importantly, I reframed the narrative in my head from Third Grade is Coming to Slow down: cultivate joy, wonder and growth today.
As a teacher, I can’t ignore the Common Core Standards, or my school’s curriculum map, or any of the layers of initiatives. But I can create a classroom where each student feels valued and empowered to learn and grow. A classroom where my students’ needs– academic, social and emotional– drive my teaching.
It’s true- winter is coming, and so is third grade, but I’m not really preparing my students for third grade. I’m preparing them to be active, passionate citizens, and to meet all of life’s moments with bravery in the face of risk, kindness in the face of challenge, and joy and curiosity in all things. What better time to start than now?
Christine Hertz is a second grade teacher in northern Vermont. She is co-author with Kristi Mraz of A Mindset for Learning. You can follow her on Twitter at @christine_hertz.
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