• Michelle Bickhaus

Thank God it’s Monday!


It’s not a phrase we hear very often, if ever. But it’s the earnest plea searing the minds of a great portion of students who are living out a hellish existence at home with parents who are violent and/or negligent. It’s the refrain shared by so many students who go hungry during the weekend or lack the attention and nurture kids need from parents and parental figures. These kids long for safety and security. They crave attention and support. They spend their weekends and evenings on edge, frightened, exhausted, hungry, sad, angry, and confused. They don’t find the safety and love they need until they walk into our classrooms.

Brenè Brown, Research Professor at the University of Houston, explains to Krista Tippett that when she works with teachers, she tells them, “You may be creating the only space in a child’s life where he or she can walk in, can hang up their backpack, and hang up their armor.”

Just imagine how that must feel. Imagine being 8 years old and spending your weekend on high alert because your parents left you alone with your 3-year-old sister while they went out in search of their next meth high. How hungry and exhausted you must be! And finally it’s 8:00 on Monday morning. Finally, you can let down your guard and relax in knowing you are safe and cared for. Is it any wonder that you sleep all morning? It shouldn’t surprise us that you’re irritable because you’re hungry. It also should not surprise us when you can’t concentrate on your math lesson as you sit and worry about whether or not your little sister is safe in your absence.

This is the reality our kids face. This is the reality that we as teachers of these vulnerable children face. This is what we cannot forget as we engage these defenseless innocents. Even when they are 16-year-olds screaming obscenities at us, we must remember what happened to them to get them to that point.

I’ve learned that we must first love this segment of our student population until they are ready to learn. Their trauma has rendered them unable to process or think at a level required for critical analysis of text, so instead of re-teaching, segmenting, modifying, chunking, etc., we need to relax and love them. We need to create opportunities for laughter. We need to let them be children. Play games. Read to them. Even if it’s a roomful of 17-year-old boys who tower over you, they really want to play and be loved like the 4-year-olds at the neighboring preschool. It’s through the play and nurturing activities that you’ll be able to help them relax and eventually access the parts of their brains that will finally allow them to listen to and/or read a text, make inferences, apply prior knowledge, make comparisons, and all of the other challenging work they just can’t, yet, manage.

It’s difficult to strike a balance between providing academic rigor and making allowances for those who aren’t ready for that rigor. It requires the patience of a saint to provide for all of the needs of the traumatized child day after day, and still not see the manifestation of any kind of progress. I fall short so often. I’ve shed buckets of tears in frustration and sorrow when I’ve implemented my plans, and the students about whom I care so much persist in yelling, refusing, and breaking my beleaguered heart. I’m left with only one choice: to keep trying and to remain faith-filled that one day, even if I never see that day, students will remember something they experienced in my class, and make a healthy decision because of it.

So what does this look like? What is the practical application? You don’t throw out the academic rigor and play games all day. I maintain my high expectations, but I always start with games. It’s the games that help the kids drop their defenses. It’s the games that get them smiling. It’s the games that get them laughing. Games like Honey I Love You or The Human Knot will have everyone doubled over in laughter! It’s the perfect mood-regulator, and an ideal way to get their brains ready for a challenge.

I’ve also recognized that my students do their best work when it’s personal.

I guess it’s because they know themselves (as best as they can under their circumstances) and it’s not as hazardous for them to express personal experiences as it is to potentially reveal their lack of knowledge about other topics. I’m not saying that they are less knowledgeable; I am saying that they are more sensitive about “looking dumb”. They are afraid to take academic risks and reveal any perceived deficits because they lack that familial and parental support that undergirds students who are members of a healthy family unit. For them to write a children’s story about an experience they’ve had with a pet is much more accessible than to ask them to write an essay about the way pets keep us happier and healthier. You can access the latter, sometimes, after the former, but at least you’re much more likely to get them to write about their personal experience than something in the abstract. Building, then, on those experiential activities opens the door to the possibility of accessing more critical analysis.

One activity my students really enjoyed was an adaptation of project I found in Jul/Aug/Sep 2017 edition of Somerset Life called I Am Creating What I Most Need to Find by Nichole Rae (pp 98-101). It’s a wonderful project that allows students to express themselves and to reflect on positive affirmations.

Supplies:

*Decorative Tape

*Ephemera: patterned paper; old book pages; maps; colored papers

*Glue Stick

*Inkpad: I used bronze but you can choose your favorite or offer options.

*Inspirational word lists – students created their own

*Scissors

*Stamps: variety; alphabet

Technique:

Begin with a blank index card. Cut or tear miscellaneous papers to fit the background of the card, and attach them with a glue stick. Explore using smaller pieces and create a patchwork-style background. Once your background is covered with paper, choose a rubber stamp and stamp onto the card. Try stamping multiple times on the card in different places. Add your I AM affirmation using alphabet rubber stamps. Use decorative tape to add additional color and patterns to your card. Try tearing a wide horizontal piece into two thinner horizontal strips to create rough edges.

We used these cards to decorate our door but the author’s intent was to create a “deck” of these beautiful, positive affirmations from which one could choose every day to focus on. I think that’s a great idea and would be fun to keep this as a continuing project for a quarter or even longer.

These positive affirmations are an important tool in the work we do to help students heal from the effects of the negativity and trauma they’ve experienced. They are a step in the direction of aiding students to feel that they are valued and worthy of love. Exposing our students to these types of fun, affirming, and creative experiences on a regular basis will meliorate their feelings of insecurity, and when they feel safe, they can begin to learn.

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Directions for The Human Knot game:

Have students stand in a circle, facing inward. Tell everyone to reach their right arm toward the center and grab someone else’s hand. Make sure no one grabs the hand of the person right next to him/her. Next, have everyone reach their left arm in and grab someone else’s hand. Again, make sure it’s not the person right next to him/her. Now the fun begins@ The kids need to work together to untangle the human knot without letting go of any hands. The goal is to end up in a perfect circle again. They can go over or under each other’s arms, or through legs if needed. Encourage them to do whatever they want as long as they don’t break the chain in the process. For some extra fun, turn on a timer and see how long it takes them to get untangled.

Directions for Honey I Love You game:

Students stand in a circle, facing inward. One person is “It” and that person stands in the center. The person who is “It” faces someone in the circle and says, “Honey, I love you.” The aim is for the person who is “It” to make the one in the circle smile. If that person does not smile, “It” moves on to the next person but if that person does smile, they are the new “It”.


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