Lessons from the Sandbox

Michelle Peterson-Davis, May 2018

I remember going off to college and looking for posters to hang in my dorm room, and when I came across All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten it instantly became my credo. There are so many truths in this poem by Robert Fulghum, and they are important to remember especially when working with our youngest learners. Elementary teachers know that the wisdom they need to support students is “not at the top of the graduate mountain, but there in the sandpile at Sunday school.” Here are some things that are important to remember, and suggestions for how to implement them with young learners:

Share everything.
Education is a communal experience. We expect our students to learn from one another, and we should remember that the same is true for ourselves. When we share best practices with our colleagues, it improves our own skills. Know that sharing your ideas can happen when you use your prep time to team up with colleagues, ask your building leader if you can share an idea at a faculty meeting, or show off your talents by presenting a workshop at the NYSEC conference. I have been privileged enough to attend the conference for over 10 years, and each year I never cease to be amazed by the innovative things happening in our classrooms across New York State.

Share Strategy:
When it comes to young learners, often the elementary teacher’s most underutilized resource is the reading specialist. When it comes to lesson planning, classroom teachers can become frustrated trying to figure out how to meet the needs of the variety of students in their classroom. That’s when it’s time to seek out the reading specialist for resources or advice. As a reading specialist, I am trained not only to diagnose learning difficulties, but I can also suggest strategies to support your student. For example, completing a running records can give you information about the student’s reading level, problems they have solving unknown words, and strengths the students have as a reader. Once you are equipped with the knowledge of students’ strengths and weaknesses, then you can provide supports (supplemental activities, graphic organizers, or word study) to improve their achievement.

Play Fair.
As a reading specialist, this is something that I think about regularly. If we want students to grow into strong readers and writers, then we not only have to give them books that are accessible, but also stories they find interesting. For me that means thinking about children as more than a level, and exploring a variety of ways to support their growth. This past summer I read Disrupting Thinking by Kylene Beers and Bob Probst, and I love their BHH strategy which asks the reader to think about what is in the book, their head, and their heart. Their text also forced me to think past what I’ve always done to help students truly connect with the texts they read in order to change and grow.

Play Fair Strategy:
When I saw Stephanie Harvey at an NCTE conference, she said that our students “don’t all bloom on our watch … but we are all part of their blooming.” This is especially true with our youngest learners who are acquiring their skills as a reader. While most literacy teachers were probably good readers, we often find that the majority of the students in our classroom don’t feel excited about reading. This feeling of dread for reading can be amplified when we force the whole class to read a novel that we love but they can’t access. If our job is to build a love of reading with our students, then we must give them books they find interesting and accessible. Again, that is where the reading specialist can be your greatest asset because they can provide a “book baggy” of texts on the student’s level so they can participate successfully when reading on their own. That way you can play fair and help the student gain confidence as they build their skills.

Be aware of wonder.
The beautiful thing about teaching is that it is never the same. Not year to year, day to day, or even minute to minute. I try to embrace the wonder that is my students. It warms my heart when they ask meaningful questions without prompting or support, or when a struggling reader smiles after sounding out a challenging word or reading a passage without errors. Even more wonderful, is when children who thought they weren’t readers get excited about a book. I am also strengthened by the fact that even if yesterday was a total disaster, today could be a memorable success. It’s that wonder, that keeps me going day after day, year after year.

Be Aware of Wonder Strategy:
As a teacher of literacy, sometimes we can create wonder in our classrooms with the books that we read. Two of my favorites to share with students are
Last Stop on Market Street by Matt de la Pena, Three Hens and a Peacock by Lester Laminack. Three Hens and a Peacock is an entertaining tale about a group of hens that become jealous when a peacock arrives and takes all the visitors attention on the farm. As the hens spend a day strutting and prancing around the farm, they learn a lesson about the importance of being yourself. In Last Stop on Market Street Grandma helps CJ, as well as the reader, learn to see the beauty in the world around them and the importance of helping your community. Literature can be a beautiful way to teach our students about communiself-confidenced self confidence, teaching them to connect their wonder with how to be good, caring people as they grow up and go out into the world.

Fulghum is right in saying that, “Everything you need to know is in there somewhere.” Showing kindness, playing fair, holding hands, and sticking together are all things that we learned as children and are necessary to help us become responsible, productive adults. When the conversations turn to scores and data points, then we must remember that growth is not only about what we see on an exam but also who we are as people. We should remember to “live a balanced life” where we “learn some and think some / And draw and paint and sing and dance / And play and work everyday some.” That means not only working hard to do the best for our students, but also remembering to do the best for ourselves. If we neglect to do that, then we forget “the first word you learned – the biggest word of all – LOOK.”

Live A Balanced Life Strategy:
For me, living a balanced life means finding time to unplug from the matrix and get back to the things I love. Sometimes that is as simple as listening to audiobooks in the car so I don’t have an endless pile of books I want to read. I also love to attend professional conferences like NYSEC and NCTE so I can commune with my tribe, talk to like minded people, and re-energize my passion for teaching. Sometimes finding that me time means going on a date night with my husband, snuggling with my dog, enjoying an afternoon at the spa, or just giggling with my girlfriends. Teaching can be a stressful job. These days we do more than just impart curriculum, we are first-responders, confidants, parents, support staff, and caregivers; and when we have to be everything to everyone else without taking a time out for self-care, then we can’t be at our best no matter how hard we try.

As summer approaches, I hope that you will take time to recharge, breathe, and reboot. I hope that you reflect on this school year by remembering what’s important to both you and your students. Consider Fulghum’s line: “Remember the little seed in the Styrofoam cup. The seeds go down and the plant goes up and nobody really knows why, but we are all like that.” I love this because it makes me of our youngest students. They grow and change right before our eyes and sometimes we can’t explain how or why, just like that seed in the cup. We tend to them the best we can, and then they sprout and grow when they are ready.

I leave you with the final words of Fulghum’s poem: “Take any one of those items and extrapolate it into sophisticated adult terms and apply it to your family life or your work or your government or your world and it holds true and clear and firm. Think what a better world it would be if we all – the whole world – had cookies and milk about three o’clock every afternoon and then laid down with our blankies for a nap. Or if all our governments had a basic policy to always put things back where they found them and clean up their own messes. And it is still true, no matter how old you are – when you go out into the world, it is best to hold hands and stick together.”

I hope something in this blog has gotten itself “stuck” to you; share a comment below to share your story!

“What a great article! Thank you for sharing your insight and strategies. The article is a great reminder of some critical pieces to a child’s development of not only literacy, but also the joy of learning. I love the wise quotes, the strategies and the layout of the article! Keep up the great work.” ~ Brendan McGowan

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