Major changes at the last minute

Excerpt from my teaching diary

The traffic sign over Highway 101 displayed an unwelcome message: “Left 3 Lanes Closed at Willow Rd Seek Alt Routes.” I sought an alternate route off the freeway, and arrived at church half an hour later than my planned arrival time, and only twenty minutes before class began. The goal of today’s lesson plan was to tell the children a little about the history of the flaming chalice, the unofficial symbol of Unitarian Universalism, and the lesson plan called the children to make flaming chalice of their own out of very small flowerpots. I went to where I knew we had a stash of very small flowerpots — and there weren’t any flowerpots there. Uh oh.

Now I had fifteen minutes to come up with an alternate crafts activity for the lesson. I realized we had some tracing paper, and we could make “stained glass windows” with chalice designs from the tracing paper. Eric, my co-teacher, arrived at that juncture, and I told him what I planned to do. He set up the classroom while I scrambled to print the chalice designed on the tracing paper. I got to the Main Hall, still feeling a little discombobulated, three minutes before the children were dismissed from the Sunday service to their classes.

The last time I taught in this class two weeks ago, we had four girls. This time we had one girl and two boys. All of them are charming children, and I was looking forward to the class. But within a couple of minutes, I realized that the chemistry of this class was quite different from the individual members of the class: they were very squirmy, had a hard time focusing, and fed off each other’s squirminess.

I lit the chalice, and we said our opening words together; the children had a hard time focusing on that simple activity. We went around the circle and the children had a chance to say one good thing and one bad thing that had happened to them in the past year; the children had a hard time focusing on that as well. Eric bailed me out on this last activity, by having the children drop a marble into a glass of water after they shared a good thing and then a bad thing that had happened; that helped them focus.

We went outdoors to check on the narcissus bulbs that the children had planted last week. As soon as I opened the door to the fenced-in play area, the children ran pell-mell as fast as they could to the little greenhouse where the bulbs were; then they tried to lock themselves inside the greenhouse saying, “No grown-ups allowed!” I walked in and said that of course adults were allowed, and Eric and I asked the children to check to see if the bulbs (which were beginning to sprout) needed water. The soil was dry, so we went to get a watering can; but it was so hard to get the children to focus, and at last I wound up watering the bulbs myself.

It was time for the story. The children ran pell-mell back to the classroom, and they locked the door behind them: “Let’s lock the adults out!” But I had a key, and immediately got in. I told them in no uncertain terms that they were not allowed to lock adults out of the classroom, that it was not safe or polite; they wilted, and sat down around the table quietly.

I read the story from the curriculum to them. I wasn’t sure that a story would work its usual magic, but it did. Or perhaps it was simply that they had been testing limits, and after I was very firm with them about behavioral standards, they were able to stop testing limits and they settled down.

In any case, as soon as I started reading the story, the children became calmer, and more focused. When the story was done, I showed them three pictures of flaming chalices: the current symbol of the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee (UUSC), a flaming chalice that looked much like the Unitarian Service Committee’s symbol from the Second World War (the era of the story), and a drawing of the chalice that’s in our Main Hall. Then I showed them the picture from the book. “I saw that already,” said the boy sitting next to me. “I’ve been sitting next to you the whole time!” I asked the children if they could find a flaming chalice in the picture. They all pointed to the flaming chalice symbol on the side of the truck delivering food to war refugees.

Since they are first graders, I doubt they have any real understanding of the historical roots of the flaming chalice symbol; but perhaps one or two of them picked up on the fact that the flaming chalice is a symbol for something important. Looking back, I wish I had related the story to the words we say at the beginning of each class: “We light this chalice to celebrate Unitarian Universalism, the church of the open mind, helping hands, and loving hearts”; for this story was clearly about the helping hands of Unitarian Universalists. But I missed that opportunity.

We began working on our flaming chalice “stained glass windows.” I showed the children what it looked like when you colored on tracing paper and let light shine through it. They seemed to grasp the idea (no doubt more than one of them had done this activity before), and happily began coloring. We chatted while we worked. Eric and I talked a little bit about how the flaming chalice symbol became a three-dimensional symbol; the children were quiet while we talked, and perhaps they absorbed a little of what we said.

The children worked happily at their stained glass windows. One boy finished quickly, and started another one. Time passed quickly by, and it was time to go. We hung our “stained glass windows” on one of the classroom’s windows so we could see the sun shining through. We picked up the markers and put them away (the children were very good at that). Then we hung them up on the bulletin board with some of our other artwork.

By this time, one of the children’s mothers had arrived. We stood in a circle, holding hands, and I reviewed what we had done today with the children. We said good-bye, until next time.

Questions for conversation

What do you do when one of the activities you had planned for a lesson doesn’t work out? What fall-back activities do you have in your teacher’s toolkit?

When you arrive in a classroom unprepared (and let’s face it, it happens to all of us), and feeling discombobulated, do you find that you have more behavior problems than usual with the children in your class?

4 thoughts on “Major changes at the last minute”

  1. I have taught at the college level, which is a much, much easier assignment — even with much larger classes. Occasionally I did have to deal with computers and experiments that did not work as expected, but I could laugh along with the students and improvise.

    I have nothing but admiration for those who teach younger children, including parents, for what must often seem like a thankless job.

  2. I teach at the college level too, and I think when and if I arrive unprepared (so so rare, dear brother, but you knew that), I am more focused on my worries than the dynamics of the classroom and in that space little things can bloom into bigger messes.

    At our age level, we have cell phones, and hormones, and drugs and alcohol, and BFF worries, and OMG I’m pregnant, the occasional random act of violence (let’s hope not please), among other things. Some days I really would rather teach first graders, even slightly testy ones.

  3. Yes. YES! Coming to the classroom less than fully prepared seems to always leave the door open for issues with behavior. Yes. And sometimes not, and sometimes a terribly well planned lesson doesn’t prevent the stew of a sunny day and wiggly children which makes a disaster of the lesson. But what I’ve told the teachers in our program is that the lessons are really a tool that we provide for them and that their real charge is to make a connection with the children in their care. If the wiggles are too much (and it doesn’t sound like yours were) then we have an “Energy Break” box with different quick activities that will help get everyone on board. And a walk is always a good lesson. As long as you’re sure they will not BOLT! Sounds like you had a wonderful day with a wonderful group of young ones!

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