I just finished a big week with four classes of fourth graders. Their teachers told me they were a tough group on the whole, but of course it's only through experience that I figured out what that meant, exactly.
I've had tough groups before, but these kids confounded me, actually. There were bright spots in each class, and there was also some good thinking and creating, when it happened. But, on the whole, they could barely stay in their squares. They would forget any verbal instructions I gave. I had to stay within two feet proximity to get any attention at all. Most of them could not consistently find the center of their dance spaces. They took every gentle reminder as a power struggle. Transitions such as moving from sitting to standing or dancing to not dancing with control was a herculean effort for them.
Don't get me wrong. These were not 'bad' kids, just kids with a lot of challenges. I've spent a lot of time over the years figuring out how to help kids control their bodies while moving and then again when the moving is done. I've also spent many years helping kids become more aware of where they are in space and where in space they are intending to go, with good results. But this particular week, none of my strategies seemed to work.
I often compare my week-long residency to the first week of school. By the end of our time together I've figured out exactly what each particular class needs to be successful, but by then it's time for me to go on to the next school, or the next group of kids. Not really understanding who I'm teaching and what they need as individuals and as a class is my least favorite part of the job. If I had the week to do over, this is what I'd do:
- 30 minute class length, or less. I am contracted to implement my program within certain parameters including the amount of time each class has with me (usually 60 minutes at a time). Classroom teachers who implement Math in Your Feet in their own classrooms have the flexibility to work on it in ten minute chunks or whatever length they choose. My 4th graders this week had to hold it together for a whole hour with me each day, which was a loosing proposition.
- Take it out of the gym and find a more enclosed space. The gym for this particular week was not a bad gym in terms of sound issues, but it was a gym none-the-less. I never use the whole gym and always define the limits of our dance space (with tape!), but if we could have put walls around us to enclose the space somehow, it might have helped the kids feel safer and may have helped the focus issues.
- Reduce transitions. It's a hard reality, but we have to get up and move, and then we have to sit down and listen. We do both in short bursts, which these kids needed, so I'm not sure exactly how I would have done this.
- Dance for them more to keep them focused on the reason for why we were together.
- Teach one two-person team at a time. The only times they were really quiet, focused and, well, not argumentative and actually helpful, was when a team was up in front of the class showing work in progress or demonstrating a math concept through their dancing. If I could do this over I'd take the plunge and just teach one team at a time while the others watched. I think we would have gotten a lot more acomplished this way.
- Acknowledge the issue of 'first reaction' sooner and with all the classes. I think I got this idea from a parenting book I read in the the last year. Essentially, each one of us reacts in our own way to new situations. We have either a negative first reaction or a positive first reaction. Knowing how we operate in this regard can help us overcome the challenges each present. For those with a negative first reaction (hold back, regard with suspicion, decline to participate, or exhibit unhelpful behavior) it just means making sure that they know that I understand they're not into it at the moment and that's okay with me. At that point I usually outline what my minimum expectations are for participation-- stand when the rest of the class is standing and sit when the rest of the class is sitting, and that's it. I've had success in the past acknowledging the reality that kids may not love what we're doing as much as me, but I still expect them to give it a shot. By the time I realized what I was working with, it was too late in the week for this strategy to have much effect. That usually gets us over the hump, but not this week.
Like I said at the beginning, there were some bright spots. This is what one girl wrote in response to a reflection journal prompt:
"Ten years from now I will remember how hard it was to learn and how much fun it was. The challenges I had were putting pattern A and pattern B together. The thing that helped me work through them were because I had D. as my partner and he was always hard working and an on task friendly boy. :) I loved this program."