Caring in the Classroom

Posted on behalf of SEEC teacher Carrie Heflin:

Hello Fellow Champions,

Whether you are a parent, grandparent, teacher, babysitter, or just an awesome person, you are reading this right now because you are a champion for the embattled cause close to all of our hearts- childhood. Day in and day out you find yourself concerned with nurturing the growth of another human being in a world that seems determined to fight you every step of the way. As a teacher preparing to enter my fourth year in a pre-k classroom, I just want to say that I know what you are feeling. I know that there are days when you feel utterly and completely defeated.

This is how I was beginning to feel every time I, as a classroom educator, had to mediate a forced apology between two or more of my students. Do you know what I mean by a forced apology? It’s what happens when Johnny knocks over little Suzie’s carefully-constructed block castle with his super-laser-rocket-robot feet and she yells, “Hey!” and shoves him into Tommy who falls and bumps his head. So AngryAt this point, all three children are crying and screaming for justice and you get to take on the coveted role of apology-enforcer. Wrong has been done and the only way to make it right is to frog-march Johnny over to Suzie and coerce him into mumbling, “Sorry I broke your castle,” with liberal amounts of eye rolling. At which point Suzie must chime in with a completely unrepentant, “Sorry I pushed you,” and you are so tired from the twenty emotionally-trying minutes spent wringing these two “heartfelt” apologies out of Suzie and Johnny that Tommy, the innocent victim, has to make do with a back pat and you saying, “Sorry you got knocked over,” as you make your way away from the ticking time bomb that is Johnny and Suzie (who are both still angry at each other and currently plotting their revenge).

After three years of these incidents, I was beginning to lose hope. I had spent countless hours stewing about my inability to create an effective apology scenario in my classroom. I had tried every way I could to talk to my students through their disagreements in a way that would make them see the situation in a rational way, but the fact of the matter is that once a problem is already happening, both parties are too emotional to see reason. My co-teacher and I had done our research and we knew the problem. We were trying to force empathy on people who just hadn’t developed it yet. All the experts agreed. The children with whom we work are just too young to possess a developed sense of empathy. I suppose we could have just accepted that fact and moved on with business as usual, but the issue still rankled both of us. We knew that in today’s zero-tolerance-for-“violence” world, we were doing our children a disservice by continuing the forced apology routine. What was it teaching them? Did they really understand that hitting was wrong or did they just continue hitting with the understanding that a couple words makes it all better and then you can go back and do it again the next time you’re upset?

So we put our heads together and decided that we needed to make some changes. We knew that it wasn’t practical to expect our students to develop empathy overnight or to make them want to apologize just by using different words. The change had to be big. We wanted to do something that would help make our students more aware of the needs and feelings of others. That way, they might consider those needs and feelings more within the context of the choices they make. The result of this epiphany was a unit that we began in February and continued singularly for about a month and a half. The theme of the unit was, Heroism.

The foundation for the progression of our lesson plans was psychologist Philip Zimbardo’s Heroic Imagination Project. This is an initiative, created and implemented by Zimbardo, that claims it is possible to teach and learn heroism. There are three basic phases: 1) define heroism 2) explore examples of heroism and its obstacles 3) practice heroism in your daily life.

We used these principles in our lessons by first focusing on defining heroism (we talked about the difference between heroes and superheroes, the difference between being kind and being heroic, people who we think are heroes). Next we looked at some real life heroes. We visited exhibits featuring Nelson Mandela and Gandhi and brought police officers and EMT’s into the classroom to talk to the children. And we talked a lot about how it is often hard for heroes to be heroic, but they choose to do it anyway. When we talked about Mandela and Gandhi we looked at how hard it was for them to stand up against the governments with whom they disagreed. The kids were amazed that they were willing to give up their personal freedom to change something that wasn’t right.

The final step was practicing heroism in our own lives which we accomplished through a series of service learning projects. We wanted to make sure that all of the projects we undertook were actually heroic (as heroic as is possible in a pre-k classroom) rather than just kind, so we made sure there was an element of choice and sacrifice for the children in each task. One day we asked another class to leave for the playground without cleaning up their classroom. We told our class that they had to leave in a hurry and didn’t have time to clean. We showed them on a timer that they had 30 minutes of play time before lunch and that they could either stay in our room and play or use some of that time to go clean up the other classroom. Three quarters of the class went and cleaned the other classroom and they received individual thank-you notes from the other class. The rest of my students really regretted not going to help and the next time we had a project they were ready and willing to participate.

Protesting.The next project involved giving back to the greater DC community. We did a lesson one day on a painting in the National Gallery of Art that tells the story of the Prophet Elijah and the Widow of Zarephath. In the story, Elijah is traveling through the town where the widow and her son live. He comes across mother and son and asks them if they have any food to spare a weary traveler. Even though she knows what it will mean for her and her child, the widow uses the last of her food supplies to make Elijah a loaf of bread. In return, Elijah blesses the widow with enough food to feed her and her son for the rest of their lives. My class struggled a lot with the context of this story. “Why didn’t she go to the store and get more bread,” they asked.
-Because she didn’t have any money with which to buy more food.
-“Why didn’t she go get money from her bank?”
-Because the bank doesn’t give you money for free. You have to put your money in and they hold onto it until you need it. She didn’t have any money to put in the bank. A lot of people don’t have any money to put in the bank.
-“How do they get food?”
-They don’t.

It was a hard lesson to hear and a hard lesson for me to teach. Afterward, my co-teacher and I knew it was time for our next project. The following week we told the kids that there was a special place in DC called Martha’s Table where you could take food for people who can’t afford to buy their own. “We have lots of food in our kitchen at my house,” one girl said. “I’ll bring some to school and we can send it to the Martha’s Table.” It was a sweet offer, but it didn’t require any heroic action on the part of our students and it didn’t teach them anything other than how to ask their parents for food- which was always available to them. So we told them to go ahead and bring some food from home to flesh out our donation and then we put our grand plan to a class vote. We told them that what we really wanted to do was to make sandwiches to take to Martha’s Table and that we wanted to use the sliced bread that was going to be delivered as a side dish for the children’s lunch the next day. The vote was unanimous. We used all of the bread that was delivered the next morning, made 30 sandwiches, loaded them in a wagon along with 50 additional pounds of food and took them on the metro to hand-deliver them to Martha’s Table. The kids were so proud of their work and I was so proud of their choice to take food that was meant for them and give it to someone who needed it more.Marthas Table

We got an overwhelming amount of positive feedback on the Martha’s Table project from the parents of our students. They told us how their kids talked about the project at home, how it really resonated with conversations about privilege that they had struggled to have with their children, and how grateful they were that we had taken the time to teach this important lesson. Heartened by these results, our class forged ahead with new projects. We were inspired by an elementary school class whose story we found online. They started a “Kindness Club” to send cards to people who were ill, hurt, suffering a loss, etc… Our first batch of cards went to the Children’s Hospital. The second batch was hand-delivered to the security staff in our building. After that, the students began bringing in their own requests. A cousin with a broken leg, a grandpa with a hurt shoulder, and a grandma recovering from surgery have all received cards so far. Sunshine Cards

Needless to say, things have changed in my classroom a little in the past few months. The kids are still kids. They have ego-centric disagreements and sometimes they get physical instead of using their words. What has changed is my response to these circumstances. When a child comes up to me screaming, “Miss Carrie she hit me,” I smile and turn to the offending party and say, “What would a hero do?” This one tiny question stops my students in their tracks. The other day I said it to a little girl who answered, “but I’m not a hero,” to which I responded, “but you could be.”

A Happy Teacher

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