Diary of a First-Year Teacher: An Experiment in Teaching Compassion

A 22-year-old educator in rural Mississippi takes us inside the wild world of teaching in this weekly column.

Giving students an opportunity to write about compassion was a success for our first-year teacher. (Photo: David Leahy)

Sep 25, 2012

Each week, an anonymous first-grade teacher will share her confessions, musings, struggles, and successes during the first year of her teaching career in rural Mississippi.

The first few days of school, I used writing projects as my catch-all, last resort, when my plans were through and there was still an hour left in the day. I was not proud of it, but it was better than playing Simon Says.  

I would give them a prompt, pass out paper, and hold my breath. Yet each time to my surprise, it went swimmingly well. Students were totally engrossed in their writing. A chaotic afternoon class would turn into a quiet, well-behaved classroom.

However, as I became more competent in lesson-planning, our free time for writing faded away. Instead, we were doing activities and games for our guided and independent practice during my lessons. Yet I felt like I was fighting my students during these well-planned lessons, like I was on an infomercial trying to sell the activity.

More: Diary of a First-Year Teacher: Out of the Woods?

I’d have their attention briefly, until someone did something funny or doodling on an assignment was more interesting than completing it. However, when I gave them an opportunity to make something—a picture, a chart, or a piece of writing—they were totally focused and used their learning to make work of which they were proud.

On Friday, I had my students write about compassion, based on our discussions of the story we had read this week. It was the last hour of the day, and I was very nervous that they would rush through the assignment and we would have to resort to another game of Simon Says. But the result was quite the opposite. They poured over their writing for the entire hour. They diligently dove into their writing, eagerly made corrections, and proudly checked their work with me.

My students wrote, “My sister helped me clean up. She showed compassion. It helped me feel happy.”; “Jason help me with my drawing. It make me feel happy. He show me compassion.”; and “Today Kymya helped me clean up the cafeteria. And my mom helped me when I was falling. And so they showed me compassion. It made me feel good.” I was taken aback. Not only were they creating complete pieces of writing, they were also expressing their emotional intelligence. I had found the solution for Friday afternoons!

I was struck by the commonality between this writing activity and the success I found in having my students make drawings and charts. In all of the activities, they were creating. My Friday success hit upon the truth that humans love to create. We love to make something that no one else has before. We love to create things that represent us. We take ownership of our work, and we learn something about ourselves in the process.

Now, I don’t assume my six year olds consider these things when they are drawing a picture, but the joy they experienced in creating allows for learning to take place. In fact, it is beyond a solution for Friday afternoons: I believe basing my learning techniques on creating will not only improve my classroom management and student’s enjoyment, but it will also help their learning and the ownership they take in their learning.

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