This package held a compilation of pictures I'd taken years ago- so long ago that the little first grade subjects in the pictures are about to take their 5th grade state tests and then leave us for middle school. I ripped open the large envelope before even putting my bag down and stood in my doorway flipping through the happy pictures of my kiddos investigating seeds, baking cupcakes, taking part in centers, reading books to stuffed animals, and playing at recess. They were an incredible class.
We'd named ourselves The Bloomers that year, after totally bonding with Leo, The Late Bloomer. If you are not familiar with Leo I highly recommend you find your way to the nearest children's library and meet Leo who can't do anything right when compared to his friends. His father worries about him, but his mother keeps reminding his dad that "a watched bloomer doesn't bloom". And then, at the end of the book, in his own good time, Leo blooms.
It's one of my favorite children's books of all times. And the perfect comparison for our class. That year I had a large percentage of children with special needs, along with a large percentage of children who'd been retained in kindergarten or were in their 2nd year of first grade. It was an old bunch- and although we weren't academically advanced we were quick on our street sense. This was the year I had two children from the middle east- one from Pakistan but who'd also lived in Iraq, and one from Iran. They frequently got into heated debates over whose country had nuclear weapons.... always a fun way to start morning meeting.
The class, with its quirky personalities, quickly bonded and truly took on the name The Bloomers. The whole year become dedicated to blooming as a team. It was an amazing classroom community.
So much of a community that they kept having difficulties on the playground. Not with each other, but with the 4th graders who shared the playground with us. There were some 4th graders that year in the special education program who seemed to seek out my first graders at recess. It may have been to pick on them, but most likely it was because they felt more comfortable with smaller children. However, my children were so street smart and weary that they'd quickly defend one another from any "attack" they believed to be happening against a fellow Bloomer. One day a gang of my first graders managed to de-shoe one of these 4th graders (not one with special needs) and throw the shoe over the large fence around our playground- right into poison ivy. There was frequent ball-stealing, (some of this was because I had kids with wicked soccer skills and the 4th graders would get upset when my 6 year olds stole the soccer ball from them fair and square). Once it even escalated to rock throwing. My six year olds, throwing rocks at the big kids. Oh yes, I was so proud.
None of this was ok. Sure the 4th graders were starting it, but my kids were not just defending themselves. They were retaliating like a small gang. They'd taken the idea of community a bit too far.
After weeks of long lectures from me and the principal, class conferences where we discussed positive problem solving behaviors, lost privileges, a class book called "we don't want bullies on our playground", and some agonizing time with heads down on tables, I realized nothing was working. The behavior wasn't changing. So, after a chat with the guidance counselor, one day I decided to skip math after recess. Instead we held a class meeting and wrote a letter to the 4th graders about what was happening. I can't remember the exact wording (I so wish I'd taken a picture) but I think it covered the fact that we knew we weren't making good choices at recess, but we needed them to help us because we were smaller than them. I think we gave specific examples of what we could do to share the soccer ball, and how we'd promise to not hit or kick them, if they made sure they would not hit or kick us.
The discussion about the letter within my classroom was amazing. For the first time my kids really took responsibility for a problem that I thought we'd already covered in every way possible. The difference was- this time, instead of me lecturing them, I was including them on solving the problem. We were also acknowledging that they were not the only ones at fault- which allowed them to see it was a problem to be fixed instead of something they were getting in trouble for. Instead of being lectured they were able to examine the situation with new eyes.
Then, we made an appointment with the fourth grade teachers to come read our letter to them. We quietly made our walk over there, and I tried not to make this feel like a reward- they were, after all, still in trouble for fighting. I planned to have my class just read the letter and then leave. But one of my students had a different idea.
After we stood in front of the 4th grade class and read our heart-felt letter, one of my little girls loudly said, "Yeah!" and cleared her throat. All 4th grade eyes turned and stared at her.
"You need to think" she said, projecting her small voice to the back of the room, her chest puffing out like a bird, "when you look in the mirror in the morning, you need to say to yourself, 'Who do I want to be today? Do I want to be somebody who bullies little kids? No! Do I want to be that person? You need to wake up and realize what you can do. This is your life, and you have to make these choices. You. Only you can decide who you are."
We were silent. This little one had some of the weakest English skills among our friends, yet somehow, today she found the words- all the words- for this lecture. She even whipped out her finger and shook it at the 4th graders.
"We're just little kids" she continued, "And you're so big. You don't even know how big you are. You need to decide how you'll be"
It was the most inspirational speech I'd heard in a long time. I immediately wanted to be a better person myself.
I have no idea where her speech came from. She'd always shown a flair for the dramatic in the classroom, but this was something new.
I can't say we never had recess problems again, but they significantly lessened after our peace-conference with the older kids. Both parties- my class and the 4th graders- were now working together to prevent recess scuffles. We were finally on the same page.
Four years later now The Bloomers are the big kids- the ones who have to share their playground with the younger students. They are patrols, helping first graders get to class, and proudly walking through our hallways as though they own the school.
Luckily I have photographic evidence of how small they use to be, and plan to share it with them at graduation, just so they can appreciate exactly how far they've come.