Old Habits Die Hard

The following conversation took place between me and a student during writing workshop today:

Me: Find a place in the room that works for you as a writer and get to work.

Student: Can I sit on a floor chair on the carpet?

Me: Yes.

Student: Can I sit at a different table spot than where I was first thing this morning?

Me: Yes.

Student: Can I sit on the chairs in the classroom library?

Me: Yes.

Student: Can I sit at your desk?

Me: Yes.

Student: Can I sit in the hallway?

Me: If you will be able to work successfully out there, yes.

Student: So really, I can sit anywhere?

Me: YES.

I am not exaggerating. I cannot begin to count the number of times that I have told my students that this is our classroom. That there are multiple spaces to work because I want them to choose the spots that work best for them. That they can move spots as many times as they need to during the day. That there is a variety of seating options because I want them each to work in a spot that feels comfortable to them. That they can sit. ANYWHERE. that works for them.

And no matter how many times I say it, my students still continue to ask for my permission to sit in a spot that they think must be an exception to the rule.

Old habits die hard.

It seems that the first few weeks of the school year often involve some changing of old habits. The things that our students walk into our classrooms believing that they must do. The ways of teaching and learning that our students believe are simply the way things must be in school. And while I am constantly amazed at just how long it takes to break some of these habits, I know that my students just need time. I need to show them that I really do mean what I say. I need to prove to them that I really do value their ideas. I need to help them to believe that what I believe is that there is no one way to do anything that works for every learner in our classroom.

They just don’t know me yet. I have to give them time. I have to let those habits fade away only when my students realize that they are not needed here.

Here are some of the habits that I notice that my students are having an exceptionally hard time letting go of:

  1. They seek permission for everything: I understand that we have drilled into our students’ heads that they need permission to do just about anything in school. I just forget how hard it is to undo all that drilling. On the very first day I explain that my students do not need to ask me to do the following: eat snack, go to the bathroom, get a drink of water, get something from their lockers.  And from the very first day, here are the things that the continue to ask me for permission to do: eat snack, go to the bathroom, get a drink of water, get something from their lockers.  I appreciate their thoughtfulness, but I also am saddened that they think that I mistrust them right from the start.  We do have a system for all of these things. A way to let me know who is where. A way to make sure that the entire class doesn’t leave at the exact same moment. The kids know the system, mostly it involves places a giant rubber duck on your table spot to show that you have left the room. And yet. Still. My kids continue to ask.
  2. They worry about what is good enough: In writing, the most popular question is, “How many sentences do I have to write?” In reading they ask, “Does this book really count as reading?” In every aspect of our day, my students worry that the work they are choosing, the work that feels right to them, the work that fits their needs at that moment, they worry that work just isn’t going to be good enough.  They worry that their writing will be too short. They worry that they are reading the wrong kind of book. They worry that instead of getting to know them, to know where they are and then pushing them gently to new places, that I will instead try to catch them, get upset for not doing the right thing and then give them a consequence because they didn’t guess correctly what I deemed worthy. They do not believe that what works for them is good enough for me.  They do not believe that I will get to know them and know what they need and help them get there from wherever they are right now.
  3. They believe I am trying to catch them doing something wrong: I sat down to confer with a student about what he was reading. I knew that he took home the third book in the Legend series over the long weekend. I noticed that today he was reading a historical fiction graphic novel, so I asked him if he finished his book over the weekend.  He immediately jumped up from his seat, ran and got the Legend book and told me that he was sorry and that he would go back to reading right away.  I was so confused at what had happened and so it took me a minute to realize that he thought that my question was a way to catch him doing something wrong and make sure he got back on track. There I was trying to make a connection with a child, trying to show him that I remembered what he took home to read over the weekend, trying to show him that I was so interested to know his thoughts on the final book, and all he could think was that he was getting in trouble for reading a graphic novel.  When I figured it out, I had to chuckle to myself. Then I told him that I was thrilled that he was trying one of our new graphic novels and that I had just been dying to know what he thought about this last book in the series.  He looked at me skeptically and as I was getting ready to walk away, I heard him ask quietly, “So is it okay if I keep reading the graphic novel?”
  4. They think that a teacher’s rules are more important than what works best for them: My students are still afraid to abandon books when they don’t like them. They are afraid to tell me that a writing strategy doesn’t work for them. They are scared to respectfully speak up and let me know they need a break when I have been talking for too long and they know that no one is listening to me any more. These are things that by the end of the school year, I take for granted. These are the things that I assume they know that they can do and I quickly realize what a terrible assumption that is. So they just don’t do them. They sit there and do what they think I want them to do, even when those things clearly do not work for them.

So we have a lot of work to do. We have a long road ahead of us to travel. I know that we have time. And while I wish that we were already there, while I wish these habits would find their way right out of our classroom, I know that my students need more proof that it is really okay to abandon them. So i will continue to gently reassure them. I will remember that it is not their fault that they don’t believe me. I will remind myself that we were the ones who did this to them. We created a school system that counted on these habits, that thrived on these habits. And now, we have the job of slowly trying to reverse those messages and ask them, beg our students, to trust us and believe that we trust them.


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