Lighten the mood

A few years ago, I took over teaching a fourth grade class in the middle of the school year.  The teacher who’d had the class for the first four months of the year seemed to have been quite serious, quite organized, and quite, according to my students, strict.  Fortunately for them, they were quick to adjust to the somewhat different experience of the subsequent five months.

I was worried.  Mostly about being organized enough, but also about being serious enough.  These children were used to buckling down, to marching through their days according to regimen and getting a lot done.  After a few days, I realized that they had grown used to churning out paperwork and toeing the proverbial line, but they weren’t remembering much of what they were “learning.” There was a whole lot of compliance going on, which is what you’re supposed to want in a classful of students, but we weren’t getting results.

One day we sat down for our morning meeting (I had moved it from the grid of desks to the floor, where it was easier for me to see them all at the same time) and I noticed that I had two different socks on.  I glanced quickly around to see if I’d been the first to notice, and was met with sly smiles from two of the quieter students.  I knew my secret was safe with them, and for a moment I considered folding my ankles under me and keeping it between us.  But then I changed my mind.  I’d like to think I did it on purpose, because I’m clever, but I didn’t.  I have a little bit of a silly streak, and it likes to express itself.  Also, I was getting a little exhausted by the somber atmosphere of the classroom.  I stretched my legs out in front of me and waited.

“Um, Miss…” One of the not-so-quiet students had his hand up and was rooting around in his memory for my name.  He couldn’t wait to find it.  “I think something’s wrong with your socks.” I laughed.  The rest of the students looked uncertainly around.  “Well I should say so,” I exclaimed.  “What did I, choose my socks in the dark?”  Slowly the room came a little bit to life.  Th kids looked at each other with raised eyebrows and their hands started popping up as they got confident enough to ask questions. “Did you do that by accident?” one of them asked incredulously.  (Teachers, elementary school teachers in particular, have a reputation for being immaculate.  Unlikely to do such without a reason.)  “I wish I didn’t,” I confessed.  “Sometimes I get distracted.  You know what my grandfather would say in this situation?  He’d say the socks are perfectly matched; he has a pair just like them at home.”

This morning meeting was the beginning of a thaw that continued until the end of the year. My students had loved their other teacher, but they’d been frozen in the serious business of fourth grade, plugging along doing as they were told and promptly forgetting most of it.  As they relaxed into the culture of occasional silliness and humor launched that morning by my socks, they got interested in things, and they started to notice each other, and they started to explore things, books, notions, that they hadn’t before.  It wasn’t because I was teaching brilliantly.  It was because we were laughing together.

In my work now, with children facing various learning challenges, the most profound growth and development appears to come similarly.  When the tone of a conversation, a work session, an explanation, is one of light good-naturedness along with an understanding that humor might slip its way in at any moment, children tend to relax and become available for learning.  Not the kind of learning we sometimes wish they were available for – not a checklist of unconsidered tasks and facts.  Rather the kind of learning they know they can use, but have found elusive.  (The child who desperately wants to be able to read, for example, but struggles to remember which sounds are which, which rules apply when, etc.)

If you know such a child, and nothing has worked, try lightening the mood.  Laugh at yourself, choose something silly to read, make a face.  You may be surprised how effective you can be at unhitching a stuck brain, just by tapping your own stores of lightness.  Not to mention how much more fun it’ll be for you.