by Third grade teacher, NY February, 2015
During class meetings in September, the class took nearly three weeks to come up with and agree upon four rules that would govern our days together. In our room, children from different backgrounds, experiences, and faiths came together at our meetings on the rug with equal parts energy and optimism. The children, most of whom would turn nine, quickly caught onto the fact that they were part of decision-making and at the center of their most important learning. Once the rules were set, issues brought “to the rug” often had to do with issues of power–on the playground, on the bus, with bullies, with siblings, and even with parents. To a person, they became determined and persistent about both making their own points and trying to understand their classmates’ thinking “on the rug.” They were pretty much willing to tackle anything from How can I get my brother to stop teasing me about my glasses? to How can we collect food for the shelter in town while respecting the fact that families from our class rely on that food? By the end of the school year, the class usually hummed along. They understood what respect looked like and sounded like in our classroom. They took risks that led to great leaps in learning. A year like this can feel almost magical.
I was surprised when, in May, Mimi asked to bring something to the rug “about learning,” tears rolling down her cheeks even as she asked. We stopped the action of the class and went directly to the rug where she tearfully informed us that she would never learn her times tables. She had no one to help her and she just couldn’t remember. I thought we had successfully navigated the fact that all 3rd graders were required to memorize the times tables. Medals were given out when they mastered their 7s; trophies when they mastered their 12s. I wasn’t usually a fan of this type of incentive (grade-wide) but it seemed to be working and the children celebrated with applause, pats on the back, and cheers when one of their classmates reached a goal. Mimi had passed her 7s but, in her words, she “was stuck” and quite sure she would never get to her 12s. Her classmates came up with all kinds of ideas. One child offered to make flash cards. Another would show her games online for practicing. Several children offered to coach her, sitting with her during snack and during lunch to practice whenever a minute allowed. Mimi was happy, but still struggling. It was one of her coaches, Oscar, who quietly asked if we could have a class meeting about cheating. “Cheating?!” I thought. “How could that be happening in this magical class?” We brought the issue to the rug.
Oscar was unusually quiet as we waited to hear what he had to say. He took a deep breath, looked at Mimi, and asked, “Is it cheating to think in an answer?” Every head in the circle turned to look at me.
“Are you saying anything?” I asked.
“Nope. Just thinking,” Oscar repeated.
“Are you showing anything, or drawing anything, or writing anything down?” I asked.
“Nope. Just thinking.” No one in the class questioned this idea and, honestly, I didn’t get it. But it certainly seemed within our carefully crafted rules.
“I don’t think it’s cheating then.”
Mimi’s face broke into a contagious smile. It turned out that quite a few children in class had been floating this idea around on the playground. They had sort of elected Oscar to bring it to the rug.
From then on, whenever Mimi had to take a times table test, several classmates would quietly get up, stand around her, and without a word, think in the answers. Mimi passed all her tests. In fact, everyone passed their times tables that year. I learned much from this class about collaboration and support and they reminded me about all I’ve yet to learn from children. It’s a big part of what keeps me teaching.