In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity.
It was mid-July, and we were in the heat of summer. I was puttering in the kitchen while my kids ran roughshod—some neighborhood kids had wandered over, as they do in the summer, and suddenly there were bicycles, hula hoops, soccer balls, and various unidentifiable toys hurled about the driveway. I heard distant whoops and shouts coming from the open windows. I reveled in the perfectness of the summer afternoon — the friendships my children were making, and the pure freedom of being a person of single-digit years in summertime.
That bubble was bound to burst.
My daughter, all of five years old, cheeks flushed and sweat dotting her hairline, whirled in the door with a slam. “Mommy! Can we have some watermelon?” The picture seemed complete. There was my lovely daughter, kindly bringing a summer treat to her thirsty, hot-with-summer friends. I sent her out with a platter of little chunks of watermelon.
But when I looked out the window, I was startled. The watermelon had been placed prominently on the patio table, and my daughter was standing guard—arms crossed, expression sour and haughty. The other kids surrounded her, looking wistfully at the watermelon as if it were a long, cold drink of water they couldn’t access. “You can’t have any,” I heard her hiss. “It’s all for me.”
A quick investigation confirmed my suspicion: my daughter had not wanted to treat her friends as I’d assumed. On the contrary, some ridiculous slight had occurred—I think they’d left her out of a part of the game—and she’d known just how to get her revenge. I intervened, which led to a handful of children eating watermelon and one screaming, sobbing, angry little girl taking some time out in her room.
I told the story to some colleagues the next morning. We were gathered around a large round table, waiting for a day of professional development to begin. Scattered about were pads of sticky notes, pens, and highlights, as well as the obligatory bowl of mini-chocolates and hard candy. “I know this is all typical with kids learning to navigate the world, how to stick up for themselves, how to be an alpha dog when needed,” I said. “What bothers me is how she didn’t care at all how hungry or thirsty her friends were feeling. She chose to get back at them with the very thing that would bother them the most.” I paused. “I sure don’t want to raise a kid who doesn’t care about others,” I said. “How in the world can I teach kindness and empathy?”
My colleagues looked at me as if I’d forgotten my own name. “With books,” someone said slowly.
Of course. With books.
Later that day, my friend Franki Sibberson, who’d been part of our conversation, sent me the link to her blog where she often highlights books that are useful teaching tools. The link included a whole list of titles I could use to teach about kindness and sharing.
After reading the blog, I took a quick trip to the library, where I gathered a nice stack of books to read with my daughter. All of them related to understanding the feelings of others. She especially enjoyed Marla Frazee’s The Farmer and the Clown, Loren Long’s Otis and the Scarecrow, and Bob Graham’s How to Heal a Broken Wing. While we read through them, we didn’t talk explicitly about empathy—we just read and talked. I let the conversation drift naturally. Over the next few days, the books gave us the avenue to discuss how it feels when we are left out, why revenge isn’t an appropriate response and how sometimes it’s best to just let things go.
Books can be our best teachers. Not only about empathy, but also concern, compassion, celebration, anger, frustration, joy, and companionship. Relationships and feelings are complicated and can bring confusion to young learners. With the right combination of books, we can launch conversations to help guide them through—and make better choices along the way.
This week we look at the good, the bad, and the ugly with peer learning. Plus more as always — enjoy!
Contributor, Choice Literacy
Jennifer Schwanke taught middle school language arts for six years before moving into administration at both the middle school and elementary level. She enjoys thinking of more effective ways to present literacy to students at these vulnerable ages. You can follow her latest thinking on literacy and leadership on her blog.
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Ruth Shagoury helps teachers explore tensions in their classrooms and relationships with others by using a poem in this professional development activity:
Dana Johansen has tips for getting students more engaged with the peer editing process:
How to Peer Edit is the subject of this video lesson from Ruth Ayres:
Laura Weakland shares her top ten children’s literature picks for teaching children about caring for others:
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Tara Barnett and Kate Mills find the young learners in their classroom have mastered the art of turning and talking only with close friends. They provide practical suggestions for expanding the circle of peer response:
Katrina Edwards is horrified when a student response reveals cultural gaps in her first-grade classroom library. She researches possibilities for expanding the diversity of texts, and shares an annotated bibliography to download linking different cultures and curricular possibilities:
In this week’s video, Gretchen Taylor works from homework surveys to help her middle school students collaborate with partners to build annotation skills:
Mary Lee Hahn considers the use of Hot Glue Guns in her classroom, and moves from exasperation to appreciating the learning happening when we think kids are just messing around with peers and the tools we’ve given them:
New PD2Go: Linda Karamatic meets with two second graders who are reading the same book and supporting each other as they work to improve their reading accuracy:
This video and workshop guide fulfill Common Core State Standards RF.2.3: Know and apply grade-level phonics and word analysis skills in decoding words. and RF.2.4: Read with sufficient accuracy and fluency to support comprehension.
That’s all for this week!