A parent called me last month about the possibility of her son attending JRA. He was being counseled out of his current private school, and she was feeling quite nervous. Her concerns were all legitimate: he’d be devastated to leave his group of friends, and we were SO small compared to where he’d been. And that point system wouldn’t work with him; they’d tried point systems before and he hated them. But she was feeling desperate, so we decided to give it a try and we set up a visit.
Brandon had a great visit. He made an immediate friend, and all the other kids liked him as well. He loved art class and kickball. He didn’t say a word about the point sheet and dutifully carried it from class to class.
Our point sheet is set up in fifteen minute intervals, with points given in three areas: being kind, following directions, and participating in a positive way. There is a space for bonus points, which are given anytime we see someone doing something difficult, being extra kind, or just plain rising above our baseline expectations. If they don’t meet expectations, they get a dot. There is also a space for comments, which we make anytime they get a bonus or a dot.
Any student who gets two or fewer dots by the end of the day gets a twenty minute Harbor Time, in which students can choose from a variety of activities: knitting, art, break dancing, drama, drumming, playground, IPad games, board games, Jenga, or silent reading. Not every option is open every day and they sign up in the morning for the activity they hope to earn. If they don’t make Harbor Time, nothing bad happens, but nothing particularly fun does either. They just hang with Ms Houser or me while the others are participating in an activity.
In Brandon’s previous schools, because of his behavior he was the only one who had a point sheet. It was embarrassing to take it up to the teacher because it so clearly marked him as the problem. At JRA, everyone has a sheet. Two of our kids have never had a single dot and it’s a source of great pride for them. And we tally bonus points at the end of each day and carry them over to the next; when they get ten, they get a coupon that can be turned in for special field trips, extra IPad time, and even to buy back a dot.
The night of Brandon’s successful visit, his mother went up to tuck him in. “Can I start at JRA tomorrow?” he asked. She hadn’t expected THAT. “Why?” she asked. His first reason was that he appreciated not having homework, a sentiment his mother shared. He really liked the kids and kickball and art. “And I like getting a list of all the things I did right at the end of the day,” he continued. His mom was taken aback for a moment. “What list?” she asked him. “The point sheet,” he replied. And sure enough, there on his point sheet was a series of checks, with five bonus points and their explanation: good sportsmanship in kickball, reading the entire silent reading time, bringing a vegetable for lunch, collaboration in science, and taking a placement test in math.
Brandon isn’t used to getting a list of things he has done right because there is so much focus on what he does wrong that the good things get forgotten. One of the things his parents were most worried about turned out to be one of his favorite things.
We were happy to receive his application for 2012-13 year and we look forward to his attendance next year.
Each month at JRA we have a unit study in social studies. We began with ancient Egypt, then ancient Greece, the Vikings, and Old Testament stories. Next month we will study Japan. And this month we are studying peacemakers.
Many of our students are impulsive and don’t always self-edit before they speak. If our kids were countries, WWIII would have happened a long time ago. But we believe that all kids have the ability to learn self-control and self-regulation. Holding up people who have chosen a different way is one way of doing this. Some come to wage peace after a tragic event, such as James Brady, who took up the cause of gun control after being shot through the head during an assassination attempt on President Reagan, or Ron Kovic, who fought for peace and veterans’ rights after being shot and paralyzed in Vietnam. Some were born to it, such as the Dalai Lama, who was chosen when he was two years old. And some simply spoke up, like Samantha Smith or Pete Seeger.
A few wake up from their old life and decide to choose a different way. One example is Alfred Nobel, the inventor of dynamite. Nobel was an armaments manufacturer in Sweden who held over 300 patents. When his brother died, the newspapers thought it was Alfred and reported on his death. One editorial was scathing because of his weaponry work, saying the world was a better place with Alfred dead. Shaken, Alfred determined that history would know him as a man of peace rather than war. And so in his will, he left his considerable fortune to fund a series of five prizes to be given each year, one of which goes to someone who has helped the world become a more peaceful place.
There is always a different way. We give our students constant feedback about how their words and actions are perceived, and how words can feed or poison those around us. Over the course of four months, we have seen a great deal of growth in how students interact with each other. They are choosing a different way, and we are proud of them!
I love our parents. They are such positive people and they fight like tigers for their children. And this group of parents will always hold a special place in my heart for their willingness to take a chance on a new school and to do what it takes to make it work. Here are some of the things these parents have done:
—One moved from Raleigh to Chapel Hill so her child can attend.
—Others drive a long distance each day so their children can attend (one third of our student body now lives in Wake County and one other child lives in Chatham)
—Several scavenged for bookcases, books, furniture, and other items we needed. Others donated materials they had from homeschooling.
—Many parents helped us move in, unpack, shelve books, and put furniture together.
—One dad got several desks off of Craigslist, took them apart, sanded and painted them, and presented us with six like-new desks and chairs.
—Some parents have been financially very generous with their donations, above and beyond their tuition.
—Several moms have come and cleaned, especially this summer before our inspections.
—Parents have formed a parents support group which meets monthly for coffee, conversation and laughter.
—Two parents accompanied us on our first field trip.
—Several parents have brought fruit and vegetables in for snack time.
—And all parents have spread the word.
Thank you parents! There were times this summer that your faith in what we were doing is what kept me going.
I’m reading a great book about teaching right now, and the author brought up the difference in the words decide and choose. Intrigued, I went to my favorite online etymology dictionary and researched the two words. Decide has the same root as homocide, genocide, pesticide, and suicide, which means “to cut”, with “de-” meaning “off” and often having a negative connotation as in the word deny. Choose, which is only distantly related to choice, comes from a root which means “to taste, to relish” and shares ancestry with the word gusto.
What an interesting differentiation! Although we use those words interchangeably, they can have such different connotations. Now that I look at the root, when I use decide, I think of options being pruned away until only a few are left. Sometimes I do the pruning, sometimes others do it for me. But if I choose, it’s as if I’m partaking at a banquet table and picking the best things to taste with gusto.
Harry Wong, the author of The First Days of School, uses the example of a person in a restaurant who can’t make up his mind what to order—so he just has what the others are having. He says, “Deciders become victims because they allow other people to make decisions for them.” Those who go along with the crowd are doing the same thing. On the other hand, he says that leaders choose and are responsible for their choices.
We need to let our kids know they can choose good things. They don’t have to let others decide for them. This indecision often comes because of the anxiety that a small choice is a life-altering one. My child often says, “I want both, I can’t choose.” Finally I have to decide for her. If we take a chance and choose something new and unique on the menu and don’t like it, well, there is always another meal, at least for most of us in the U.S. This is a skill we will be working on with our students at JRA. Children don’t want to make bad choices or be powerless, but they need to be directly taught how to choose and take responsibility for those choices.
Decide or choose? It’s up to you!
“Summertime . . . . and the livin’ is easy . . . ”
Argh!!! Who are we kidding? Summer has become just as crazy as the rest of the year. We dream of tomato sandwiches and don’t get to the farmers’ market to get the tomatoes. Too much time is spent in hot, steamy cars. And trying to get the kids to swim team, tutoring, day camp, sleep away camp . . .
This time it’s me in a state of wazi-wazi (see earlier posts if this is a new concept). There is so much to do to get the school ready to open and it’s not all fun stuff like interviewing students and creating curriculum. Sometimes it’s dealing with governmental agencies who work within their own time frame. Sometimes it’s talking about septic tanks. It’s trying to raise money so we can take all the kids who want to come. Yep, wazi-wazi.
I was at an end-of-the-year church youth group recently. It was held at a park where lots of us used to take our toddlers. A favorite game of ours back then was Pooh-sticks. Have you ever played? It’s a game from Winnie-the-Pooh that involves two or more players dropping a stick off one side of a small bridge and seeing whose stick comes out first on the other side. It’s not a fast-moving game, but one that allows time for philosophical reflection, musings, and small talk. It’s not for the fiercely competitive, although a world championship is apparently held yearly. It’s slow and it makes you think the livin’ is easy.
As I was eating my hot dog and potato salad and brownie at this picnic, I realized many of the teens were down on the footbridge . . . . playing Pooh-sticks. The basketball and Frisbees sat unused. The kids were there well over an hour, playing and talking and laughing.
One can’t play Pooh-sticks and be in a state of wazi-wazi. This summer, take some time to do the things that slow you and calm you and hold you steady until your sphere can catch up with you. You need that time and your children certainly do. Things happen in their time whether we are frantic or not. But if we will slow down, we can watch them unfold.
Have your stick ready? Drop!
Pete Rich, my child’s unit coordinator at Wright School, realized I was a person who loved and needed stories, and at particularly low points in our time there would tell me a new one. Here is the most healing story he told me, one that guides my day-to-day interactions with my students, my children, and others I come into contact with:
An old Navajo grandfather was walking with his grandson. He looked down at the boy and said, “Son, inside you and every human there are two wolves. One is a good wolf and one is an evil wolf, and they are fighting to the death.” They continued walking in silence until the boy cried, “But Grandfather, which wolf wins?” The grandfather replied simply, “the wolf you feed.”
Think about it. When a colleague is rude, perhaps we could feed the good wolf in her that is simply tired and ready to go home. When a child erupts in anger, we need to remember that there is a good wolf who wants to succeed badly. It’s very easy to feed the maliciousness and meanness in the world; it’s a bit harder to look behind that and see the insecurity and pain that drives much of the negativity. Let’s try assuming there is a good wolf within each of us that needs and deserves to be fed.
This will be a guiding story at Just Right Academy. And here’s hoping that all of us are surrounded by people who will feed the good wolf in us.
"What I hear, I forget. What I see, I remember. What I do, I understand." - Confucius
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