Sunday, May 20, 2007

Three for the Hebrew Children

Today, we discussed the Book of Daniel. We did a superquick look at it, but it's our second-to-last week with them...I don't know. We're doing Esther next week to wrap up. In the fall, when we're teaching them again (unless our summer sub wants to keep doing it), we're planning to do a pretty intense look at Kings, Chronicles, and that whole diaspora thing (isn't "diaspora" a cool word?). When we do that, we'll go really slowly and set up diagrams, timelines, etc. This right now is ending up being kind of an overview, drawing the moral lessons out of the stories.

The "moral" of today's story was the idea that God never leaves you without an exit strategy. The analogy we used was the way, in Looney Tunes, when Bugs Bunny is running away from someone and he finds himself in a dead end, he pulls out a marker, draws a door, and walks through it. We made a diagram with "dead ends" (Shadrach, Mesach, and Abed-Nego get thrown in the furnace), and made them into open doors (God sends his angel to rescue them). The doors literally opened, too. Amanda wants to cut off one of the doors and take it home next week, for some reason. So, that was fun, and the kids seemed pretty happy. Amanda is seriously a handful sometimes. She interrupts us when we're trying to explain things and seems to never listen. About five times today, I had to ask her to quit messing with Josh's stuff and listen while JC was explaining something to them. I don't think she's ADD--I've worked with a kid who was, and it was nothing like this--but it wouldn't surprise me if she's at high risk for a misdiagnosis in that general direction. At one point, I said to her, "You're older than Josh is--can't you please be mature and set a good example?"
She replied, with plenty of attitude, "I'm not mature!"
"You've got a year on him," I told her, "and I expect you to try." That's the rough thing with Amanda--the adults in her life seem to tell her that she's wild and immature--and they mean these things as criticism, but she takes them as license. As in, "I'm immature, and I can't be expected to do anything about it."

I read a study once that said that the best thing to do for kids is to teach them self-discipline by praising effort rather than effortless successes. That made a lot of sense to me--what did I learn by people telling me I was a good reader? About half of nothing, because reading came easily to me. When my dad complimented the hard work I had done to earn high marks in high school chemistry, though, that meant something. I'm trying to think about how I can apply this to my teaching. The issue is that I only have these kids for one hour per week, and several of them (including Amanda) don't come every week. Amanda was fifteen minutes late (for a forty-five minute class) for the second week in a row. Today, her mom didn't get her there on time, which is one thing, but a lot of the time she's just hanging out somewhere at the church. We started doing a game involving putting the books of the Bible in order, which students can start whenever they get to class. We don't do it every week, but you can't win if you're very late. It was motivating the kids to urge their parents to get in on time, for a while. We might need to start that up again.

It's hard to praise a kid's effort when she's making almost none. The few times David put in some serious effort and produced something great, after a load of hard work, we made sure he left feeling really good about himself. What do you do with the kid who practically never makes any effort? We praise her for being a good and eager reader, but I know that's easy for her. She's not learning from that. I praise her any time she manages to stay focused for even five minutes, but sadly, that doesn't happen often.

I see her growing into a very entitled person, much like a number of those I encountered when I was a TA for writing classes in college. She's young enough, though, that she can surely divert her course. I just want to figure out how to help her do that. She and Lachlan are both advancing to the next class this fall (classes are in two-year brackets at this church--we teach third- and fourth-graders; they will be in fifth). "Miss Cathy," the fifth grade teacher, is notoriously strict. She's also old enough to be Amanda's mother and then some, rather than (like me) far too young. That age difference may make her less accessible, less pushable, than I am.

Still, I view my work with David this year as a partial success--he took a liking to us, for at least a while, he learned something, and he worked very hard when we pushed him to. My work with Amanda, though, has not been nearly so successful, I fear. She's a good kid. I just have had such a hard time finding common ground with her. I don't think we have much in common--she's kind of caught up in pop culture in a way I was always too geeky to be. She's not naturally attuned to any ideas of community. Part of the "prize" for the points they are earning is supposed to be some solo time with adults other than their parents; Amanda was the one who suggested a gift card. Maybe it's just my bias that makes me see that idea as pretty impersonal and mercenary.

The really rough part is, I feel so guilty for not liking this kid much, for not having a super connection with her.

Today, we took Josh to the Bookfair (his prize for hitting 25 points). It was WONDERFUL. He's a great kid, and an avid reader. I just love him to pieces. We went to Long John Silver's (his choice) for lunch first. His food came before ours, and he opened the package, and then put his head down on his arms (hair, yes, in the food), and prayed for two or three minutes before he ate. My head about exploded, it was so cute. He was terribly excited by the Bookfair, and made out like a bandit. He thanked us several times, and from the look on his face, you would think we had given him bars of gold. He said that all of the books looked so good, he couldn't decide what to read first, so he played eeny-meeny-miney-moe in the back seat. On the way home, we showed him where our new house is (we didn't go out there, but we pointed and said, "a few miles that way"). He asked, about six times, "But you'll still be teaching us in the fall, right?" I loved him for that, too. Talk about stroking the ego.

Of course, Josh needs another pair of loving adults in his life like he needs more books. Not only is he the beloved only child of two wonderful parents, but one set of grandparents lives in the same town (and sees him all the time), and the other set lives only an hour or so away. He's well-adjusted, his parents are married, his life is pretty good. The kids who need a concerned adult the most, not surprisingly, are the ones who are the most difficult to spend time with. Even when Amanda's not in my class any more, I'll keep trying to connect. She seriously needs that, I know. It's a real challenge for me, though.

I just read a WONDERFUL interview in The Rambler with Rafe Esquith, who is an award-winning teacher. He gets fifth-graders in inner-city LA to perform Shakespeare and read Huck Finn and Orwell and such. Crazy, yes? He can do this with children whose parents are drug dealers, and I can't even get a whiff of focus out of a little girl who lives in a pretty standard American (divorced, messy) family. I'm going to add his new book, Teach Like Your Hair's on Fire, to my reading list, and see if that gives me any ideas.

It looks like we'll have all or mostly boys in the fall, and I'm going to spend the summer looking for ways to make class even more visual and tactile--the boys we've taught so far respond really well to graphic organizers and things they can move around. I'm glad to have the summer to prepare.

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