Saturday, October 31, 2009


I don't care if the class is a high school class or if it is a first grade group of students, the teacher is responsible for the atmosphere with that class. At the high school level, it may only be for fifty minutes, but then again it could be an extended period and the teacher has the class for two hours. This is great for the band teacher or the drama instructor.

However, the elementary teacher is in charge of the kids for approximately six hours a day. A lot of learning can take place but it is tiring work.......for the kids. So most elementary teachers arrange their lesson plans in a way that the subject matters are relatively different from one subject to another. For example, the first subject of the day might be spelling where the kids work independently in their spelling workbooks while the teacher is collecting lunch money. Blessings on the school that has a lunch system where the kids turn in their money before school starts.

The next subject might be reading where the teacher sits with small groups for about five to ten minutes and works with five or six children. The rest of the class can continue with their spelling books and when done take out their reading textbooks. Smooth transition from one subject to another--a sign of an experience teacher.

A sidebar: One way to evaluate a student teacher is to measure how long it takes them to get their students from one subject, say math, to another subject, for example, social studies. This is what I would look for--did she tell the students what they had learned in math today? Summarizing? Did she praise how they worked and got a lot accomplished? Success breeds success. And then did she give clear instructions on what to do with their math books (and homework?). And then to get their social studies books out on their desks. Okay, for me I want to know did that little scenario take five minutes, six minutes, more? How much confusion took place as the subject matter was changed. Did children ask questions of each other if they were not sure what was happening? With an experienced classroom teacher, these things seem to happen effortlessly.

And so the school day continues from one subject to another. Hopefully until the end of the school day in which everyone, student and teacher knew what was happening and what was expected of them along the way. Cool.

But once in a while, DISASTER. An announcement carried by a student from the office telling you that "there is a special assembly on school safety in thirty minutes in the multi-purpose gym. Gym classes will be cancelled and please bring your class to the gym when a runner comes to your class." Sometimes you get this announcement by way of the inter-school speaker system. In any event, the teacher's lesson plans are kaput and he/she is already thinking of how to catch up the next day.

The announcement said the assembly would be in thirty minutes but from experience you know as a teacher getting ten or twelve classes into the gym and seated will take time. The problem facing the teacher is now what to do! The kids are excited about a change in the schedule--something new to happen. An experience teacher will probably take some time to remind the class how they are to act at the assembly. "How do we applaud? Let me hear the girls applaud. Good, now the boys." You correct a couple of kids that were showing off--they knew it and all you needed to do was say something to them. "How are we going to sit in the gym?" Particularly important if there will be no chairs. So as the teacher you remind them how they are going to sit and how they are going to behave. I also added a gimmick of the secret word. I'd remind them I might use the secret word and that meant no talking, not even to another teacher or the principal. We'd practice that for the moment but my kids were pretty good and just looked forward to something new in their day.

The problem then facing the teacher is what do you do with the twenty to forty minutes left before going to the gym.... You can't start another subject--no time to really get involved. Not the best time to read the book you were reading--that was always after lunch break. What to do? Some teachers of the primary grades quite often use this time for show and tell. There are always children that want to show something to the rest of the class. Good time to practice speaking in front of the class. "Speak up, Annabelle, we can't hear you back here in the class." The rest of the class is interested but not intently.

What I stumbled upon was story telling. My first stories were what librarians call American Indian "WHY" stories. Why does the male ducks have beautiful markings and the female ducks are so plain. (girls really like this story) Or, Why are their so many snakes in the world? One great thing about storytelling is that you can extend the story and make it as long as you want or you can shorten it to meet your needs. So I would tell some story as we waited for our call to the gym.

Storytelling also worked for me when I was on bus duty. Bus 5 was always breaking down and we had to wait with Bus 5 kids until the replacement showed up. Safety was paramount and I would have fifteen kids or so, so we would move under the rain roof and I would tell a story.

Let me be clear--storytelling is just that--you, the story teller, tells the story from memory. You are not reading from a book. I did that also but always after lunch break--it was a tradition in my classroom.

But telling a story to fill in time had several advantages. I didn't realize it at first, but by listening to my story my kids were already getting into the listening mode which many of our assemblies seem to consist of.... The storytelling also brought some other culture into the classroom--if not only for enjoyment but to let them think about things. I do know that the children enjoyed storytelling. They would do most anything to have a story told to them. Behaving in an assembly was part of their blackmail plan to get another story. "We were good, Mr. Blackwel, can we have another story?"

Later on in my career when I was a professor of education, I would go out to mostly elementary schools (I did a few middle schools and one high school) and would do Scottish folk tales. I'd wear my kilt and jacket and all the trimmings and I would also bring my bagpipes both the parlor pipes as well as the great Highland bagpipes. I'd tell a story, play a tune, tell another story and sometimes answer questions about the pipes and what I was wearing.

Sometimes I would have one class and then another depending upon how the teachers wanted to set up the performance. Other times I might have all the fifth grades in the library, then the fourth grades and so on.

Another aside: There was some criticism the other day on a TV news show from three school reformers about how School of Educations were staffed with professors who have never seen the inside of a public school and who don't know how to teach. Not true. I had one colleague who was at an elementary school at eight every morning of the week helping kids at that school how to read. Teachers would select children from their class, get permission from the parents to bring their child in early and Dr. B would work with them. I know of a lot of other examples.
Trust me, wearing a kilt into a first grade class and keeping control is a skill that I still treasure.

Funny story. I was in a first grade room with my pipes and was telling a Scottish folk tale about a magic bagpipe. I was well into the story with the little ones all sitting on a rug in the front of the room. All the little faces were watching and listening tome intently along with their teacher. I always got a kick that the adults would get into the mood along with the kids. Anyway, I had CONTROL. Things were going good--I was really getting into the story when I heard a strange sound. Sorta a zip, zip. More zip, zip. I look around the room--I saw no child not paying attention. So I scanned the room--any animals that might be running around a cage? Nope. So I intensified my story a little more. More zip, zip, zip, zip. What was going on? I had every child in the classroom and the teacher hanging on to my every word. The sound didn't really bother me but I was curious. It sounded like it was coming from somewhere in the bunch of children sitting in front of me.

Well, I got through the performance--played the pipes, had a couple of the kids come up and try to blow them as well. That was always fun. And then I thank the teacher for having me. In parting I mentioned the sound, zip, zip. "Oh," she exclaimed. "I'm sorry, I should have had Dennis take off his shoes. They are velcroed instead of tied and he sometimes forgets and pulls them apart and back again while he is concentrating." She again apologized. No problem and now I know the sound of small shoes that are velcroed, being open and shut. Funny think, I now have a pair of velcro laced shoes and it is very relaxing to open and shut them. Got to watch myself.

Did you have a teacher that told you stories? Better make sure you thank someone for that person--storytellers are a rarity.

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