It has been a very interesting year for me. Our school underwent some enormous changes with the implementation of RtI (Response to Intervention). For those who are not familiar with RtI, children are assessed in their language arts skills and then are grouped according to their ability. These children then switch classrooms for instruction.
My first reaction to such a change was, "NO! Not in first grade! These kids need consistency! Heterogeneous grouping is gone! How are we going to get kids of various levels to work together, help each other? How are we going to create a feeling of community with them switching off to different classrooms?"
Since then, I have seen both the merits and pitfalls of RtI. My colleagues and I try to do our best to creatively navigate the program's shortcomings (this is another blog for another day).
The beginning of the year was rough. Our schedule was stripped down to having only 15 minutes in the morning for Morning Meeting (minus the 5-10 minutes it takes to take attendance, lunch count and settle the kids). Again, my first reaction, "NO! Not in first grade! This is where we set the tone for the day, the week, the year!" This is the block of time devoted to teaching children how to greet each other; learn each other's names; learn how to listen when someone else is speaking; learn to respect each other's feelings; learn how to resolve conflict independently through role play. Also, as I am also a certified yoga teacher, this is the time when I teach children how to breathe when they are stressed, how to switch their attitude when it is not serving them or others, how to create their day through visualization, and how to calm and center their bodies (I can write a blog on this alone too).
What my colleagues and I discovered was that our students were fighting more with each other, had virtually no conflict resolution skills and were spiraling down a path of tears, temper tantrums and rudeness to others. How were these children going to be as they got older if they didn't learn these skills now? We were all feeling frustrated by the short time we had to teach our reading groups and the even shorter time we had for Morning Meeting to teach social skills.
So we decided to take matters into our own hands and suggest to the administration that we extend both our Morning Meeting time and our reading time. (It actually worked without much disruption at all to the rest of the day. It was even, dare I say, logical. We were supported by the administration and I am eternally grateful for that. I am also grateful that I work with such a flexible team that was willing to shake things up mid-year. So now I had a full 30 minutes at the start of the day to teach social skills as an isolated subject to be reinforced throughout the day and an hour and a half for my reading group.
The schedule change took some adjusting to for both the teachers and the students, but we all agree that it is the best move that we could have made. I was now able to teach these conflict resolution skills and give kids the centering and calming tools that they need. After only one month I see them beginning to use what they are being taught (we still have a way to go). They are becoming better listeners (to both the teacher and their fellow classmates), learning and exhibiting empathy and are beginning to apply the centering approaches when they are upset or anxious. I have even had a phone call from a parent, applauding the change that she is seeing in her child and how her child is passing some of these lessons onto her!
The reason for writing this blog is two-fold: (1) to stress the importance of teaching social skills in an isolated setting to be reinforced throughout the day (my colleagues and I saw the peril of not doing this firsthand) and (2) to thank my administrators for working with us when we saw that we needed to change the schedule without being told "Let's wait until next year."