Saturday, November 21, 2009

A Potpourri of Thoughts on Teaching before Thanksgiving

The time from just before Thanksgiving to after the first of the new year is inescapably one of the hardest to teach children. I don't know about high school--perhaps the older children can keep it in check better but the elementary school child begins to get excited about the coming holidays. I don't want to get into a discussion as to what the holiday season should mean but just deal with the reality that the kids are getting excited and looking forward to something different in their lives for the moment.

It is rather hard to keep their attention at times and if a few, and I do mean just a few snow flakes fall outside the window of the classroom, learning breaks down entirely. More then once I've had to let my class go to the window and watch and get excited. Only then could I get them back to their seats and back to what we were studying. My school was in an area that rarely got snow--I wonder what it is like to have a pile of the white stuff outside your school, like in Boston or Sugar Hill, NH. Do you say, "NO snowballs!" That must be an unenforceable rule at best.

But back to the holiday season. If you can't keep the excitement down then you might as well go with the flow. Each year I would teach my class some popular holiday song for us to sing as a class. One year I did " 'Twas the Night Before Christmas," arranged by Fred Wearing. I re-arranged it for my kids and found a mom who would play piano for us. It was fun and I still remember with great fondness the bright eyes, the happiness, and the enthusiasm of the kids. That year I went up to the high school and retrieved some risers that they were not using and brought them back to my school. The kids helped me set them up and it added to the atmosphere when they could stand three deep with all the kids being able to see me. I dearly loved those children.

One of my kids, named Tommy, really wasn't much of a singer. The thought of singing out loud sort of scared him even if he was just part of the thirty eigh or nine kids that I had. He really wasn't up for all of this. So I decided that I would help Tommy out. I got a base drum from the music storeroom and set it up behind the risers. Then I stationed Tommy on the top riser with the drum right behind him. In the song, 'Twas the Night......, there is a passage where the kids are singing about Santa..... "coming down, down, down doooowwwn with a boooouuunnnd." The kids really liked that part and would do it with more enthusiasm then I probably really wanted but..... My idea was that when the class sang that last bound, I would point to Tommy and he would hit the drum. Boom! Santa would be down. Properly.

So it was time for a practice run. My classroom mom came and she did the intro to the song on the piano and off we went. Not bad, there still were a number of things to work out but the class was singing with gusto and having a good time. We sang the part where Santa comes down with a bound and I pointed to where Tommy was--nothing! Not even a little tap on the drum. Absolutely quiet. I stopped the kids and looked at Tommy. The poor guy was in a total sweat--I mean he was dripping. And shaking. If there was ever a kid close to terror it was Tommy. I don't know why but he was totally scared.

Now I am in a quandary--do I give the part to someone else? I remember saying something like, "Hey, Tommy, you did good, but I need it a little louder." I don't think he heard me at all. He was still shaking. Now here is the problem--if I give that part to someone else, I have ruined Tommy's confidence for ever. I can't do that. So I had him practice hitting the drum. "Okay, when I point at you, hit it!" He did but very lightly. And I thought, maybe he doesn't like me to point at him. "Tommy. Would it be better if I just nodded at you?" He nodded--I'm not sure what he wanted but we tried that a couple of times. I felt a little bit like a fool. Nod, boom. Nod, Boom. But it was working. "Okay, class, let's take it from......." and we did the section on coming down the chimney. Tommy came through. It was light but you could hear it. I suggested a bit more umph but I didn't want to push him too far. He just might faint on me. When we got finished with that practice, Tommy was exhausted. And dripping in sweat. I really didn't know what to do for him. The class and I (and Tommy) just went back to our classroom to continue our studies. Maybe that was for the best--I didn't make a scene about Tommy and the drum.

Well, we practiced that song a number of times in the coming weeks and Tommy slowly and I do mean slowly gained some confidence in hitting the bass drum and got a little louder. We were selected by the principal to sing our song at the Christmas PTA meeting just before the holiday vacation. I worried about Tommy. How would he react with a large gym of parents all looking at him. AND the school would get a hundred to two hundred parents for this program.

PTA night came. I had talked to my class that singing the song was just a part of showmanship. How we acted before and after was also part of the song. The kids talked about this and they decided that they would come in their pajamas with coats covering them. Then I decided that they should sit with their parents until it was our time to sing and they would remove their coats and wander up to the risers and get in place. Some would yawn and some would stretch like they might do at home. It was cute and the parents applauded on our "entrance." My home room mom started on the intro and the class started to sing. I still remember how well they did--big mouths like I asked them, say the words carefully so that everyone could understand and listen! Listen to each other! They did. It was good and I was feeling a bit of relief and totally forgot about Tommy. Santa come down with a bound and I remember nodding at Tommy and he really hit that sucker. It was the loudest bound that we had heard throughout our practices. I mean he really walloped that drum. The class and I sort of jumped and I could hear the parents laughing. They thought it was an act. It wasn't. We hadn't expected Tommy to come through with such volume.

We finished the song and it was a big hit. After the meeting I think every parent came up and said what a great delight it was to hear my class sing. Somewhere in the mass of confusion, Tommy came up to me and said, "I did alright, didn't I?" I knelt down and gave him the biggest hug and told him he was perfect. His smile said it all. He must have been practicing in his mind for weeks. And he came through. I know the class really gave him an "attaboy" the next day in class. I think his confidence improved greatly.

Some schools do not have a holiday program--I think it is a bit sad. It is a nice break in the learning year for the kids. But is also a difficult time for teachers to continue with the lessons. Perhaps just learning in spite of all the excitement is a learning adventure in itself.

So for all my teacher friends who are beginning to work hard at keeping the children at their learning tasks, my thanks to you. May Santa who comes down with a bound bring you happiness and a moment to sit and relax.

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