Saturday, January 11, 2014

Put Yourself in the Center of the Circle

When I began teaching thirteen years ago, I was told by my cooperating teacher that I needed to be an actor: “You’re on stage all day. You need to show energy, enthusiasm, and engage others, even if you don’t feel it.” My cooperating teacher was right about a lot of things, except for her point about being on stage: at this point in my career, I know the spotlight should be on the students, and and I should guide them from the side, as needed. Which was why as I entered the center of the circle during our Morning Meeting group activity, I was very conflicted.

I didn’t feel like I belonged there. Another student should. So, how did I find myself in the center during the group activity Description? My students asked me to go, but why did I listen? I was caught off-guard and couldn’t find a reason not to go in the middle. Three students huddled together and wrote something on an index card. Then, they taped it to my back. I stood up, shuffling within the area of the circle, so each student could see what was written on my back. Everyone, but me.

Description is like 21 Questions, the person in the middle will ask a question, and the members in the circle can answer with a yes or no. Occasionally they will tell someone, “that’s not a good question.” We modify the activity so that the person asking the question has three to five minutes to figure out the word on his or her back. Keep it quick.

The words on someone’s back connect to where we are in the curriculum. I use this as our jumping off point, or anticipatory set, for when we get to the topic mentioned in Description. The two words written and guessed prior to me standing up were: Andrew Jackson (where we are in Social Studies), followed by pizza (what Maniac Magee is allergic to in the Jerry Spinelli book we’re using as mentor text).

I began by asking if the word taped to my back was a place. (it wasn’t). Thing. (no). So, I knew it was a person. As I asked question after question, the students laughed, giggled, smiled, and all raised their hands. They were engaged, and I felt good.

I got the answer correct within the three to five minute grace period. The answer related to an inside joke we shared this year. It was unimportant. What was important was the feeling I had being in the center of the circle. I realized that it’s okay as the teacher to sometimes put yourself in the center of the circle. It drove up the energy level for the balance of our morning. When I guessed the word correctly, the children let out a loud cheer. It was almost deafening. I wanted to phone the teachers to the right and left of me and apologize. I didn’t want to interfere with their instruction.

By allowing myself to be in the center I connected to the students differently: I understood why they enjoy this activity, how challenging it is thinking of questions that give information, yet can only be answered with a “yes” or “no”, and to have all eyes focused on you. That can be pretty uncomfortable.

I still made sure to let the students guide the learning. They chose the word, they answered my questions, and when I seemed puzzled, they provided support: “You’re on the right track, Mr. Saide,” one said. “Go back, and think about what you know so far,” another stated. “That’s a good question, Mr. Saide,” said a third. Their positive language was a reminder that they know how to present themselves when talking to others.

As the rest of the morning unfolded, I realized how lucky I was to be a teacher in this room, with this group of kids, and what a superb moment I just shared with them: they had showed initiative by asking me to go to the center of the circle. This had never happened with any other class in the seven years since I integrating Morning Meeting into the day. Students guided my questioning approach when needed, and followed the Morning Meeting guidelines they created as we participated together. They acted as I’d taught them to.

At some point, you’ll have an opportunity to go to the center of the circle. Maybe, you’ll have a lot of opportunities. Every once in awhile, take it. You may just like how it feels.