The thing about being an educator is that all of the most thrilling moments happen without an audience. After an inspiring lesson, I smile to myself recalling tiny little shifts in confidence or subtle gestures from students that provide evidence of trust that I have earned. Those student-teacher victories are simultaneously profound and ephemeral. I am most often the only witness to this particular process as it unfolds. Generally speaking, the children that I work with are so busy participating in learning, working, and exploring that they are not paying attention to the ah-ha moments the same way that I am. When they leave my office, they do not reflect on our time together. They move on to the rest of their lives - playing, eating dinner, completing homework, relating to siblings, etc.
I thought that encapsulating some of what transpires in the space between educator and student might offer a little peek behind the curtain of what makes teaching so joyful. I will also include tools for supporting learners in each post. These tools might be useful to teachers, parents, other ed therapists, etc. All of the names and some details have been changed to protect the privacy of my clients.
First Idea, Best Idea
I had been working with Michael, a bright, funny, creative fourth-grader, for a little over six months. He toiled over generating paragraphs. We were practicing paragraph writing because he struggled in class to complete his assignments, and paragraphs were a frequent requirement. This child who absolutely bubbled over with wildly creative stories, observations, and ideas was completely stymied by the process of composing a quick five-sentence paragraph. Unlike some children, he did not struggle with graphomotor dysfunction, spelling, or vocabulary. He had beautiful handwriting, nearly conventional spelling, and a sophisticated vocabulary. That day, after more than ten minutes of working, the page was still blank and he was staring dreamily toward the ceiling. He shared, “I was thinking of writing about New York, but I’ve written about that before. Then, I thought about writing about our trip to Spain two years ago, but I don’t really want to write about the airplane landing.”
I responded, “Have you ever heard the advice that your first idea is your best idea?”
He looked up from his notebook so sincerely and asked, “But, what if my first idea is not my best idea?” There you have Michael in a nutshell. He is a brilliant, sensitive child who is completely unwilling to compromise the richness of his imagination just to complete a quick assignment. It was in that moment that the particular way he was getting stuck became obvious. One could clearly picture Michael trying to make his way through a school day full of bells, clocks, large and small assignments, classroom expectations, and social interactions without sacrificing his singularly beautiful creative voice. In endeavoring to bring integrity to his work, he was generating piles of anxiety-provoking incomplete assignments.
I posed a question, “Do you think that a quick paragraph is as important as a long project?” Smiling, he quickly shook his head no.
We spent the rest of our time together making a scale to help us both recognize the size, importance, and approximate time required for various assignments. The truth was that he had no idea how to tell the difference between quick practice assignments and more lengthy, meaningful projects. His tendency to assign equal importance to all assignments left him drowning in overwhelm and unable to fully participate in class. His tendency to get stuck meant that he was not completing much of the work assigned to him.
Our scale looked something like this:
In retrospect, it seems like such a small shift. We made the scale together and his parents began using it at home to help him manage his time and energy when completing homework. Now, about six months later, he is at the point where he begins his work by taking a quick moment to rate each of the tasks he needs to accomplish. Spelling words - probably a 2. Math practice - also a 2. Language arts workbook pages - 2.5 or 3. Then, as he works, sometimes a quick check-in is helpful, “It almost seems like math is shifting from a 2 to a 3 -does that seem right?” These check-ins allow him to take it easy on himself.
He smiles and nods, “Right, right. This is only a 2!”
Another side benefit of the discovery that Michael and I made is that, of course, he is not the only child struggling to balance his time. The process that we went through in creating the scale has benefitted other students in my practice and in classrooms where I work as a Learning Specialist. In fact, sometimes I need an assignment scale! Do you ever find yourself spending a disproportionate amount of time on a task that does not inspire or interest you? Try rating your own tasks to free yourself from getting stuck on the unimportant things. That quick email that you just spent an hour on was probably a 2, let’s be honest.
Send me a quick note at email@example.com if you would like me to share the editable version of the scale with you!