Monday, November 29, 2021

Facing Tough Times Together in the Classroom

Tough Times in the Classroom

And if you need a friend, I'm sailin' right behind.... (Bridge Over Troubled Water, Simon and Garfunkel 1970) Sometimes each of us finds ourself in just that position. The water is rising around us, we are overwhelmed and searching for a solution, and really really really need a friend. Children and adults. Little difference. Stress and seemingly impossible life situations can and do overwhelm each of us at many points during our lives. We have many smooth sailing days, and the storm clouds start to take shape. Where to turn?

A very personal story: I was nearing the year I had planned to retire, when my district suddenly decided to close the school building where I had built my career. The staff and families were my family, and I truly felt adrift in a huge sea with a tiny boat. I moved to another building, as did many students from closed buildings (not mine). Two thirds of the teaching staff was displaced and new. My 174 boxes and I landed next door to the most revered and popular teacher in the school, the one everyone wanted their child to spend the year with. This could end badly, I thought as I unpacked. Maybe I should have retired a bit early.

Each of the four years I spent in the new school, I enjoyed many perfectly wonderful and easy to teach students along with some to whom the institution of education had not been as kind. Some of these kids had anger bottled up inside (maybe anger from their school closing, maybe other baggage), and I could relate. At times, as I stood before them trying to address our lesson plan, I felt the water rising. You could retire now, I always told myself, but there was always something, a little voice inside, tugging at me to stay and ride out the storm.

The much-loved and much-requested teacher next door? Quickly became a true friend, someone I could depend on, loved, and who respected me too! We began to share all the kids (along with the teachers who taught the third and fourth sections), collaborating on teaching different subjects for each other. Because who wants to teach science, right? Meeeee!!!! Technology????? My hand is up!!! Writing? I looovvve to read those adorable writing pieces every weekend. I read them aloud! Ask my husband. He has always sailed right behind me too!

One more personal story: I've always used music in my classroom. From the very beginning of my career, when I realized how much influence the Jackson Five had over my students. (Haha, yes. The Jackson Five. I'll be there...) Some energizing tunes for transitions could always get kids moving to the next session with a smile, and some soothing piano solos could relax reluctant writers and anxious mathematicians. During a trying time in my "new" classroom, I was looking around for some new music. I was observing some behavioral issues that resembled bullying to me, and I started searching for ways to "bullyproof" my students. I happened upon a TpT store called "I Am Bullyproof" with some amazing songs. The lyrics jumped out at me as just the kind that I'd like to encourage my kids to remember, and the tunes reminded me of soft folk-rock (a favorite genre of mine).

I started with "Got Your Back", and the rest is friendship history.
"I can't tell you how your life will work
It's a complicated earth.
But I really care...

If you just fell down 'n' you can't get up
If you've been runnin' ragged and you're plain outta luck
If your sweet spirit won't let you even laugh
Just know I'm here for you. Just know I've got your back."

Before long, my kids were singing that song as they transitioned from activity to activity in my room and as they walked in the halls from class to class. Singing sounds oh so much better than mindless wall-bouncing chatter. As  they finished the song, kids were ready for the next learning experience to come.

We moved on to several other "I Am Bullyproof" songs and I saw real and measurable differences in my kids. Episodes of nasty behavior and frequency of parent complaints about other people's children decreased, and collaboration and kindness increased. I'll take that!

I began communicating with Lessia Bonn, the amazing creator of these bullyproof tunes, and letting her know about the magic that she was creating in a faraway classroom. I bought all of her songs, and eventually began to collaborate with her on units to reinforce the messages in those songs, using literature and writing to meet the standards. You can find those units here. When I found the music of Lessia Bonn, I found a way to reach my students, and I discovered a friend for life.

These are trying times for so many of us. As teachers, we have to be wary of our words when discussing current events with students. Music can speak for us. Since the Jackson Five assured us that "I'll be there" and way before that I'm sure, powerful lyrics and soulful tunes can get inside us, reassuring us, and changing each of us for the better.

Last spring, I discovered yet another song from Lessia's studio, and found it to say everything I was searching for as I tried to offer encouragement to my after school Bullyproof performance club at our neighborhood middle school. Kids were moving on to high school and life beyond, and I was bringing our experiences together to a close. We discovered that being in that club did even more for each of us personally than it had for the students we were attempting to reach through our performances. You can find some of those performances here on You Tube.

We knew that the river of time that stretched before each of us was bound to have some pretty daunting and wide spots. The words of this song once again soothed our souls and helped us to journey forward. I listen to it myself from time to time and then seek out like-minded friends whenever I am feeling down. Post election 2016 has been a particularly painful time for me, and I have returned to this song again and again to remind myself that there are friends I can talk with about local and world issues. Friends are always at your side when the river runs wide. You merely have to turn your head away from your "me" focus and listen to them.

Here's a free video to help you get a discussion started among your students. Everyone needs a friend to turn to when the river runs wide.

RIVER by Lessia Bonn

It fell apart, my broken heart
I thought my world would end but in my despair, I said a prayer 
‘n found myself a friend
a cold river risin’ I was feelin’ so lost
you put your faith in me ‘n helped me make it across there’s always a way...I know that because
you were there by my side when the river ran wide you were there by my side when the river ran wide

How to let your kids know that they can turn to each other in tough times is not difficult, but you may need to shift a classroom practice or two to make it happen. I recommend the "conversational opportunity", a handy management tool I developed with my Rainbow City students long ago. The rules are simple. The conversational opportunity is to be used only for communication that can't wait until lunch, recess, or after school. It can be used to encourage someone or let them know they have a friend. It is not to be used for fooling around or wasting time. Short and focused. When kids feel respected and trusted, they get it. I used this "conversational opportunity" for more than twenty years in my own classroom, and cannot think of one time when the privilege was abused. I think it's a tool that might be helpful to you in your classroom.

Hoping that your river ahead is smooth sailing, with friends to help along the way if the water rises.

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