Teaching Kindergarten: Let Them Talk

When I first started teaching, I was afraid to let my kids talk too much. Or too loud. Or too long. Or too “funny.” I was afraid that other teachers would think I didn’t have control over my classroom if they walked by and heard a lot of noise in the room. I guess I was afraid that I would lose control if my kids were too loud.

Once I gained my footing and my confidence in the classroom enough to look past the basic safety, academic, and management components of my day, I began to question the need for silence during many parts of the day.

Now I have to point out that I do understand the need for quiet and voice control in many situations at school. We need to be quiet in the hallways because we could disturb other classes if we are noisy on our way to lunch. We need to be quiet in special places like the library and computer lab because other people use these areas to study and they need quiet in order to concentrate.

But I had to ask myself, Why are we being silent during our morning work? Why are we being silent when we put our papers in our mailbox? There were times during the day when I realized I was demanding silence, even quietness, when it wasn’t exactly necessary for learning. In fact, the silence and quietness was possibly hindering their learning in some ways.

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A few years ago, I was part of a team that studied the new English Language Arts College and Career Ready Standards for my school system. We discussed in detail the need for more rigorous vocabulary instruction, which I totally agree with. Our school uses a robust vocabulary program in which we teach wonderful words like confidence, ability, talent, wilting, and so many more. The students love learning and using these new words. But kindergarten teachers see so many students who don’t even know simple words. Words like friend, baby, help, above, below. How can we get these sweet kindergarten children to build a mental word bank with robust, meaningful words when they don’t even know how to express themselves in the simplest ways?

We let them talk. We let them talk a lot. Yes, it’s loud sometimes. Yes, the noise is busy. But in my experience the noise is helping them to become cool little citizens–and isn’t that our goal as teachers?

So I sat down in the quietness of my silent, coloring five-year-olds and asked myself this question: When can I let them talk more?

The first place that came to mind was “Morning Work.” How many of you get to work and walk down the hallway with a finger over your mouth, eyes darting side to side as you walk to your office? On Mondays, do you put your things away silently, without talking to your friends about your weekend? The things you did, the food you ate, and the places you went?

We don’t do that! Teachers don’t do that. We are very sociable. When I get to school each morning, I greet people with a “Good morning!” or “hey!”. I have to give a full, detailed description of my weekend activities to my friends. And I listen to them recount their weekend. We take turns speaking and listening without realizing it. Why wasn’t I teaching my kids to do that? Sure, I was reading stories to them and pausing every few pages to say something like “Turn to your partner and tell them why you think this is happening. What do you think will happen next?” But seriously? Do we do that? In movies? Does someone pause the movie every few minutes to say “Let’s stop and talk about what’s happening so far. All of the mustards find a ketchup and partner up. Discuss and then we’ll start back, okay? Now you be mustard, and you be ketchup…”

So I decided to start with real conversations in the mornings. I changed my morning routine from “Morning Work” to “Morning Activities.” I divided my students up into twos or threes and each morning after unpacking and greeting one another with “good mornings” and “heys”, they go to the board and find their morning activity, which could be playdoh, partner computers, reading and puppets, drawing, or–my favorite–home living.

The top of my Morning Activity Chart. Students unpack and check the chart to find their activity. I place the student's picture beside the morning activity picture. Each afternoon, one student goes and rotates the activity pictures in a special order for the next day.

The top of my Morning Activity Chart. Students unpack and check the chart to find their activity. I place the student’s picture beside the morning activity picture. Each afternoon, one student goes and rotates the activity pictures in a special order for the next day.

Morning activity suggestions: partner computers, partner reading, playdoh

Morning activity suggestions: partner computers, partner reading, playdoh

Home Living, game pads, phonics games

Home Living, game pads, phonics games

And, yes, they talk. They talk a lot. I listen to them and my heart feels content knowing that they are learning how socialize like a true community–and the bell hasn’t even rung yet. I do tell them to talk quietly, and we practice for a few days at the beginning of the year talking between a whisper and a yell. I have found that in the mornings, my students are very quiet. They talk about practice the night before, their bus friends from the morning, and what they had for breakfast (The home living conversations are the best- Girl: You be my son and sit here and rock this baby while I make supper. Boy: No, I’m a business man. I’ve got to go write some stuff at my office desk.).

Another time during my day that I found I could add some talking time  was when someone came to my door to speak to me, or we had about two minutes before we needed to line up and be somewhere, or something was wrong with my projector/screen/radio/anything-and-everything and I needed two or three minutes to fix it. I used to play quiet mouse during this time, or say “Everyone on silent while I fix this.” But I have found that if I simply say, “Turn just your head and whisper in your friend’s ear for two minutes while I talk to this important visitor,” my kids actually turn and whisper to each other. I don’t have to police them and fuss at them for not being silent, and they get extra oral language practice.

A third time that I let me students talk is during creative writing time. Now I do understand that some teachers may disagree with me on this point and I’m totally okay with agreeing to disagree here. Teachers have different personalities and teach in different ways. Here is why I started letting my kids talk during writing workshop…I have found that the majority of my five and six year old children have had success with verbalizing their thoughts aloud before and during writing. If you come into my room during writing workshop, you may hear some of the following “noise”:

 ” Can you tell what this says?”

“Guess what I’m writing? My friend went to the beach with me last week. Look at us swimming here.”

“How do you spell polar? /p/…/o/…/l/…/r/”

“You should label your mom in that picture. I like it.”

And that’s what the kids are saying, not the teacher!

I could go into how we converse in morning work stations and in math…oh, math, my love!…but that in itself is another blog post for another day!

The point of letting my students talk  is not to make school a more “fun” place, but it does make school more fun. The point is not to have to fuss less at my kids, although I direct them to lower their voices much, much less. The point–the reason–is to develop oral language and social skills, and that’s what my students are doing by using their words.

Let them talk! Preschool, early elementary teachers, parents of young and old: what other times can you think of to let them talk more? Share with us!

 

 

* I realize that there are times in our day and life when we are required to be silent. As the school year goes on, we “practice” being silent for things like tests, speeches, and even fire/tornado/lockdown drills. I have not found that the practice of letting them talk more has hurt their ability to be silent when I want them to. In fact, their ability to be silent and listen when Mrs. Givens has an important announcement seems to be enhanced. I wouldn’t be sharing this with you if I didn’t think it worked!;)

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In the Classroom: The Power of Routine

It was inevitable. My voice was leaving me slowly but surely. The crud that had been going around my classroom had made its way to me, and my voice was sounding more and more hoarse as a result. I knew it was heading towards a whisper.

My kindergarten kids went to PE and when they came back, I remarked, mostly to myself, that my voice was “going away”.

All chatter and activity ceased and they stared at me.

“But what will we do if your voice goes away?” a sweet boy wailed.

“Well,” I whispered matter-of-factly, “We will do what we always do.”

What we always do. The routine.

When our day is going so totally wonderfully, we follow the routine.

When our day is a hot mess, we follow the routine the best we can.

When someone checks in late, we welcome him or her and continue with our routine.

When there is a fire drill or tornado drill, we stop the routine to practice, and then we come back in. And we follow the routine.

When someone gets sick, we fix them up, take a sanitizing break, and then continue with our routine.

When I have a substitute, we follow the routine.

When I don’t feel like it, I follow the routine anyway, and then I ALWAYS feel better.

See the pattern here?

Routine is so important in the classroom. Knowing that expectations and procedures are going to be mostly the same gives children a sense of structure and security like nothing else.

At the beginning of the year, most of my kids ask me over and over throughout the day, “When is lunch? When is snack? When do we go outside? When can I go home?”

They want to know the routine. They want the assurance of what’s to come.

One year I posted a picture schedule for a particular student who needed a visual of our daily routine. I didn’t realize at the time how much the picture schedule would impact my entire classroom management system, which would, in turn, impact my teaching. Gone were the “When do we…?” questions. Gone were the “Is it Library Day? Do we go to Computer Lab today?” questions.  Instead, I referred to the pictures of our daily routine, and I implemented it. Every day.

I simply took pictures or printed clipart to represent our activities for the day, put the pictures in order of our routine, and stuck a magnet dot beside the pictures. Our Helping Hand gets to move the dot as we complete each activity for the day. If we are doing something special, like Library, I post a star at the time of the special activity.



I know this probably sounds like a no-brainer to most seasoned teachers, and there is no magic trick to making your daily routine. It’s as simple as it sounds. You do what you say you are going to do in order pretty much at the same time daily. And then,  the magic happens when you stick to your routine.

I am realistic. I realize that things come up to disrupt the routine. I realize that some days your students will be reading like rock stars, and you are not going to stop them just because the clock says it’s time for math.  I realize that sometimes Children’s Theatre is going to come busting up into your school and totally mess up your routine (but you can get back on it the next day!). I know that one day it will be snowing outside, and you will stop and take your kids outside to play and “catch” snowflakes with black construction paper (for all your Northerners, snow in Alabama is certainly a reason to stop everything!). But for the most part, I have learned that in order to have better management, teaching, and more learning, it is imperative that I stick to my routine.

I mean, my students don’t even tell time yet. But they can tell you exactly what we do and the order in which we do it.

Remember that day my voice went away? The rest of the day went relatively smoothly, with my gesturing to the daily picture schedule and the students simply doing the routine.

Sometimes I see that things are not working so well in the order that I have them, and I change the routine. Although a rare occurrence, once I change our picture schedule and give several reminders, class time begins to flow in a smooth stream once again.

The key to making a successful routine is finding out what works best for you as a teacher and for your classroom atmosphere from year to year. Since I teach Kindergarten and First Grade, I usually try to set up my schedule as a pattern of sorts.

We sit and listen, then we get up and “do”. We sit and listen, then we get up and do.

I’ve had several wonderful teacher friends ask about my daily routine, so I will share my current year’s (Kindergarten) daily schedule with you! J

Welcome Routine- I make it a point to be at my door each morning to greet my kiddos with a hug or a high-five, and then they come in, unpack,  do their counting baskets (a blog on counting baskets to come soon!), and do their Morning Activity.

Morning Meeting– We meet together and go over our Calendar, the Daily News, and any special notes to our daily routine and picture schedule. So this the “sit and listen” part of my pattern. J


Literacy Stations- Now it’s time for us to “get up and do”! After quick reminders of what the day’s tasks are at our Literacy Stations, we disperse and get busy reading, writing, using technology, and working with the teacher.

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This student’s card tells him the order of his Literacy Work Stations.

Reading Vocabulary and Comprehension– We have a shared reading activity where specific comprehension strategies and vocabulary words are taught, used, and solidified.
Phonics and Sight Word Practice– At this time, we take part in some type of “Reading Strategy” practice. Sometimes this looks like a worksheet (that we do whole group) that gives us a chance to use our phonics and sight word strategies, sometimes it looks like partners going over sight words and decodable words/books together.

Recess- Every day. Rain or shine. Indoor or outdoor. We have recess. It’s a non-negotiable 15 minutes where we get the “ants out of our pants”, learn to make-believe (recess outside is on our front lawn instead of the playground- students are encouraged to use their imaginations with games and dramatic play, and get some exercise. Great ideas for indoor recess can be found on youtube!

Handwriting– This quick five to ten minutes includes instruction on correct letter formation and directed drawing.

Writing Workshop– My favorite, favorite, favorite! Kindergarten students are not too young to write! The works of genius that come out of this time never cease to amaze me. In Kindergarten, students work mostly on narrative stories, opinion pieces, and informational articles. I could go on and on about this wonderful part of our routine, or you can just read more here! J

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Music and Singing- At this time, students sing seasonal songs together while one or a few go to wash hands, use the restroom, and get their lunchboxes ready for lunch. This time of day runs so smoothly after a month or two, but takes lots of direction at the beginning of the year in Kindergarten.

Lunch

PE– of course, this portion of the routine depends on the master schedule.

Story Time- During this portion of the day, I usually read a chapter book to my students. We have fallen in love with characters like Junie B. Jones, Wilbur and Fern, and the Boxcar children during this lovely time of just reading for the pure enjoyment of books.

Counting Strategies – We begin our math class daily with counting aloud. Depending on where we are in the year, and where we are as a class, we count to 50, or to 75, or to 100 by ones. We count by fives and tens. I pick a number and we start there and count forwards and backwards to another number. We look for patterns on the 100 chart as well.
Daily Data- Each week, we work on student data that starts with a Question of the Week. On Monday, we answer the question and construct the data by putting our names on Venn Diagrams or T Charts or graphs of some sort. On Tuesday, we tally the data. On Wednesday, we write about the data. On Thursday, we show the data in a new way. On Friday, we make addition and subtraction equations out of the data information.

Counting Basket- Our helping hand, who was chosen during the Morning Meeting time, gets his or her counting basket and shows us how to count correctly. This is a great, quick assessment for me to see what counting strategies are being used by students in my class (more on Counting Baskets in a soon-to-come blog post!).

Math Journal-Once we’ve established the number of items in our Counting Basket, we use that number to work in our Math Journals. At the beginning of the year, we show different numbers in a variety of ways (numeral, number word, tallies, drawings, symbols). We learn to break teen numbers into tens and ones and we learn how to construct ten frames. We make patterns and shapes and equations. My students amaze me during our Number Talk/Math Journal time! More about Math Talks here.

Math Stations- After a quick discussion of our daily tasks, we break apart and work on math manipulatives, writing about math, technology and math, and small groups with the teacher. More about math here.

Science/Social Studies- During this portion of our routine, we do Science experiments, read informational texts, and make thematic arts and crafts.

Snack- Yummy! Everyone loves snack time! Mine is about as short and sweet as it gets! J

Rest- Today’s rest time in Kindergarten doesn’t look like nap times of old. We are doing well if we get about 25 minutes of rest time in a day! I still have several sweeties that love to sleep, and they look forward to their power nap. The rest of my Kindergarten friends listen to alphabet music or watch reading and math power points during rest time. What do I do? Well, I run around like a crazy woman getting mailboxes ready for pack up, cleaning out lunchboxes that were leaked into, answering emails, and getting materials ready for tomorrow’s routine.

Pack Up/Afternoon Meeting– during this time, we reflect on the great points of our day. We talk about some parts that we hope will go more smoothly tomorrow. We also talk about any special things that will be part of our routines tomorrow.

It’s a fast-paced, move-and-groove, keep-on-going day, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. It’s our routine. It’s what we do, and how we succeed.

Sometimes I get asked, How do you know when you need to change your routine?

I am not a fan of change, as you can see by this entire post! J But sometimes, I see when things aren’t working so smoothly, and I know it’s time for a change. If I have a certain time of day where behaviors that are undesirable seem to be on the rise, I look closely at the routine and think about what should change. And I tweak and tweak and tweak until the behaviors work themselves out.

I also change my routine after Christmas in Kindergarten in order to add more handwriting and phonics/sight word work.

When you are having a bad day in the classroom, get back on your routine!

When you want to go outside and play all day because it’s 75 degrees, stick to the routine instead, and you’ll be glad you did!

When your voice starts to go away, stick to the routine and let the routine do the talking for you!

By the way, I did end up taking the next day off when I lost my voice in order to go to the doctor. The substitute teacher made a point to write to me and tell me that my students basically “ran themselves” that day, going by the picture schedule, although they were concerned that I had lost my voice.

The next day, when I returned, all of my kids were excited to learn where I went to “find my voice” again. J They were eager to tell me about their day with a different teacher. We took a moment to talk about our special day apart…

And then we went back to our routine.

 

*Teachers! Share with us. What routines work best for you?

 

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Teaching Kindergarten…I’m Through With Time Out And Pulling Cards

Or moving pins, or giving conduct checks, sad faces, stars, whatever you want to call it.

I’m through with it, and I have ten years of reasons to share with all of you cringing teachers right now! I know what you’re thinking. Her class is probably a circus. It’s a zoo. She’s crazy. She must be tired.

And the truth is, after ten years,  yes I am tired.

I’m tired of trying to keep up with “who did what” at the end of the day. I’m tired of feeling frustrated when the one kid keeps losing all of his cards and doesn’t even care that he pulled them all. I’m tired of sending the same girl to timeout every day, only to have her sit there and stew and plan her revenge on me.

I’m tired of sending the same notes home to the same parents, recounting all the wrongs of the day that their child dared to commit.

So this year I decided to stop doing it. Why it took me ten years to come to this decision, I don’t know. I think for the first years of teaching I did it because every teacher I knew, no matter what school they were at, had some type of system for consequence that involved card pulling, moving stars, moving pins, moving clips, changing colors, or getting “checked”. After a few years, I started seeing some holes in my system (like the ones I mentioned above) but I kept the system because I am a creature of habit. I find comfort in the norm, in the routine. And I had my routine down pat so I didn’t want to change it!

However, this year after the kids went home on the first day of school, and I was reclining in a sea of unopened school supplies, notes from parents, and a few stray plastic straw wrappers from juice boxes (those things are like ninjas–they stick to everything and resist brooms at all cost!), I realized that I had forgotten to go over “moving stars” that day, which was my system for consequences. I’ll do it tomorrow, I thought.

The next day, I didn’t go over moving stars. I didn’t bring it up the third or fourth day either. Once or twice, my mouth started to form the words “You need to move your star…” but then I replaced the words with the desired behavior. Instead of “You need to move your star for rolling around on the rug (after I’ve said to sit up HOW MANY times?!?)” I said “You need to look at your friends, notice how they are sitting, and be like them, or you’ll need to practice later.”

And guess what? I haven’t missed moving stars or pulling cards for one day! Not once!

As for time out, I had already been phasing that out anyway. I am a strong believer in the saying Practice Makes Perfect. In my class, instead of sitting in time out, we simply practice the desired behavior. If a student is running in the hall, then the student practices walking in the hall instead of sitting in a corner looking around. What if you can’t be in the hall watching your student practice? Then have him or her practice walking on a line in your room, or when you’re out at recess. I usually “practice” for about 2 minutes at first. That’s usually all the time it takes for most students.

Do you have a student that can’t keep her hands to herself on the rug while you’re reading? Then have her practice sitting with her hands in her lap when everyone else goes to stations for about one minute. Is a student being rude to his friends? Then have him stand beside you and watch his friends who are communicating nicely for a few minutes. Point out which friends are saying nice words. What about the kid who thinks the lunchroom is a party zone? Practice. Get a clean tray and utensils from your lovely lunchroom ladies, take it back to the room with you, and have the child practice sitting on bottom, feet on floor, facing the tray. Coach them while they practice. Tell them they are doing a good job practicing and that this is how they will act at lunch tomorrow.

The reality is that most kindergarteners don’t “misbehave” because they are out to get their teacher. Their actions are because they are five years old. They run in the hall because they’re five and the hall is a wide track to them, beckoning them to sprint through. They don’t stop to think This could hurt someone. They need us to teach them, and sometimes they need to practice so they’ll remember. They stand up and twist around in the lunchroom because it does resemble a wild party zone at times, and they’ve never seen anything like it. I’ve never seen anything like that place. Many of them have never eaten from a tray, had to sit there even when they’re finished, and had to do it all in about fifteen minutes. They need us to teach them. They need practice. And they need time to get better at it. They need our patience.

So what is my new system? Well, we have one rule in my class:

Be Nice: Nice Hands, Nice Feet, Nice Words

This takes care of it all. Nice hands keep to themselves and don’t hurt others. Nice hands raise in the air when you have to say something. Nice hands stay off the wall in the hallway. Nice feet only walk in the halls. Nice feet keep to themselves. Nice feet go to help a friend who is hurt. Nice words are kind. Nice words are quiet in the school. Nice words are silent when the teacher says she has an important announcement. We can all be nice.

If a student forgets to have nice hands, nice feet, or nice words, they practice for a few minutes. 

It works.

If a student has to practice several things at school, I write a quick note to mom and dad telling them that their child is starting to make progress in their practice areas and I suggest ways they could practice at home. I don’t have to keep up with who did what, how many times they moved their star, or how many cards they pulled. Children don’t have to look over at the cards and see their dirty, much handled cards in the midst of the pristine, never touched cards of other children who’ve not had to pull cards. Children who practice start to actually see that they are improving and they believe that they are capable of being nice at school.

It works.

In my ten years of teaching, there have been some occasions when I had to take children to the principal’s office. I try to wait as long as I can to do this. I’ve always felt like the moment I take a child to the principal, the child now realizes that I can’t “handle” them myself, and I’m giving some of my authority away. However, there are some instances when the learning and safety of others is in jeopardy, and I feel like I need to remove the child from the situation. These times have been few and far between.

Since I’ve gotten rid of time out and card pulling, I have enjoyed my days at school so much more. And I don’t know if it’s just in my mind, but I really think that my five year old friends are truly enjoying themselves, even if they have to practice!:) After all, isn’t kindergarten about learning to come to school?

I’d love to know what you think! What do you think about practicing vs. time out? Feel free to talk about your classroom management plans in the comments section, as long as you remember to Be Nice!;)

*Note: I wrote this three years ago! I’ve been ” practicing” instead of pulling cards and issuing time out for three years.

It works.

I wouldn’t go back for anything! 😉 

Some teachers have told me after a few months that they get discouraged because kids are still having to practice, and haven’t they practiced enough?

My response: Some of your kindergarten friends will need practice until the last day of school. Learning to be at school is a HUGE part of kindergarten. There are some students who will need to practice new behaviors for a long time.

I practiced playing the piano for ten years, and honestly, I still need practice. I always will.

Athletes practice all the time to get better and better at their craft. Years. 

So why do we think kids should have perfection in behavior after a week? 

Practice takes time. And effort from the student and the teacher! The only change that I’d make to the above article from three years ago is that instead of saying Practice Makes Perfect, I now say Practice Makes Progress. And it’s such an honor to be a part of a child’s progress in learning and in life. 

 

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When People Are Mean

My youngest son Peyton is such a likeable little guy. He’s funny, intelligent, and social. He’s a wonderful wordsmith, if I do say so myself (I’m a little biased, of course). He loves sports, mostly talking about sports, and he says he wants to be a sportscaster when he grows up, which would put all of his talking and word skills to good use. 🙂

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He likes to make friends and he sincerely looks for the good in most people.

Until last year.

It started almost at the beginning of the school year.

“Mama, _________ is having trouble at school. He’s not listening to the teacher.”

We were driving home from school and he was genuinely concerned for his classroom, and this child who was not listening to the teacher.

Now I was tired. First-days-of-school-kindergarten-teacher tired. I don’t even remember what my initial responses were to Peyton’s concerns, but I know that I gave some kind of generic response that may or may not cover bases when your child asks you about a kid who could be considered “bad”.

After awhile, though, it became the norm for Peyton to lament about this one student in his room who just seemed to go out of his way to make…everybody…miserable.

“He said a cuss word.”

“He breathed in my face. On purpose.”

“He lost all his cards.”

“He yelled at me.”

“He went to the principal.”

“He made the girls cry.”

“He called me an ugly word.”

“He pushed me down and kicked dirt on me.”

Now, on those last two, ‘ole Mama-zilla may have come out, except that I knew from the rest of Peyton’s stories that his wonderful teacher was promptly and appropriately addressing each situation. While it bothered me that this kid was messing with my kid, I realized that Peyton was not the only target–everyone was–and I trusted his teacher to take care of him.

As the reports kept rolling in day after day from Peyton, who seemed to have a photographic memory of each day’s events, I started to notice a change in my son.

It was almost as if he relished  thought of “telling on” this kid who was bent on going in a different direction from the rest of the class. And while I understood that yes, this child was difficult; yes, he was defiant; yes, he was different; I also began to see that he was very unliked.

By everyone. Even my sweet little boy who’d always looked for the best in others.

My responses of “Did you tell your teacher?”, “What did the teacher do?”, and “Well, you just need to ignore him,” were not working.

So one day, I simply said to Peyton, “You need to pray for him.”

Why didn’t I think of that first? Why don’t I think of that first when people do things I don’t like? When I’m tested, when I’m tried? When someone does something that hurts my feelings, that is so totally unfair and just plain mean and we all know it? When someone is mean to my baby boys, why don’t I pray for them first?

Instead, I stew. I fret. I stay awake and replay words and what I should have said. I mentally compose what I’ll do the next time I see that person or their parents.

Recently, I came across this gem of a verse in James chapter 15.

“…Pray for one another, that you may be healed.” (v. 16)

Okay, the obvious “church” answer for when you can’t get along with someone is to pray for them. However…the last section of that verse is the part that stands out to me.

That you  may be healed. 

Not that THEY would change. Not that THEY would be nicer to me. Not that THEY would realize the error of their ways.

When we pray for others, we are the ones who change the most. Our hearts are softened and tuned to the voice of our Father. And our Father reminds us that all people are His children, lovingly crafted and created by Him. Who knows what plans He is working in their lives at the very moment we cross their paths? Who knows what seeds He is planting through us, our actions and reactions to difficult situations with difficult people?

So my whole family started praying for the  guy in Peyton’s classroom. And Peyton still reported the mishaps, though they kind of started tapering off. Then one day, my little boy said, “I don’t know if anyone has ever been nice to him.”

And my heart stuttered.

My boy the wordsmith, who had been praying for his classmate, had gotten a heart-change and so simply stated what was really wrong here.

His soul was more tuned to the Savior, and he heard and passed on what my Father had been trying to tell me all year. “This is My child. Love him like I do.”

So we decided that Peyton would say something nice to the guy every day. Just one thing every day for a week, and we’d see what happened when someone was nice to him.

On the first day, Peyton told us that he said, “I like your shoes” to the boy.

“What’d he say? What’d he do?!?” Parker, my oldest, asked. He’d gotten into this whole story with the rest of us.

“Well,” said Peyton, “He said nothing. He didn’t even look at me.”

For the next two days, Peyton said a few superficial compliments to the kid, such as “I like your shirt” or “Those are neat jeans.” He never really got a response at first.

For one, we realized that Peyton did not even have his attention. I actually recognized two things here: that my son was not really used to getting someone’s attention to say things that could be considered different or important or unusual and also that this little man was not used to people complimenting him. On one occasion, I think Peyton yelled “You’re a good runner!” as the boy ran by, and he obviously didn’t hear the words. In fact, another child beside Peyton turned to him and said, “Thanks!” 🙂

I realized that this is a good life skill that all children could use some practice in…

1. Getting someone’s attention appropriately. (Example: “Hey, ___________.”)

2. Maintaining eye contact.

3. Giving them a compliment. A real one.

So you can believe the next week that Peyton went back to school armed with his new skills and more prayer, ready to be nice to someone who had been difficult.

The first day, he walked up to the other child’s desk and said, “I like the way you drew this picture, it looks really good.” The child looked at him and said, “Me?”

Peyton confirmed, and the kid smiled. He smiled, bless his soul.

The next day, Peyton told him he was a good singer. (I guess they’d been singing?) He said, “Thanks.”

On one of the last days of school, the boy was selected as the class leader or helper for the day. Peyton went to him and said, “I’m glad you are the leader today, ____________.” The boy smiled at him and said, “I wish you could be the leader, too.”

You would’ve thought that Peyton had won a huge award, and in a way, he did. I don’t say all of this to brag on my son, although I am so proud of him.

I say this to point out that praying healed us. It healed my son from bitterness, frustration, and a judgemental heart when someone was being mean. The prayers healed this Mama’s heart, too, from worry and it helped me to realize that I don’t have to hover like a helicopter, ready to swoop down and rescue my kids when someone is unkind to them.

Mean people are a part of everyone’s journey. Sometimes we encounter them. Sometimes we are the mean ones.

I am convinced that the solution to meanness is prayer.

Sometimes the prayers don’t seem to visibly and immediately change the situation, but they will always change us.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Part that You Don’t Want to Read Out Loud

Remember when you were in grade school and your teacher did the dreaded Popcorn Reading fiasco? The one that was supposed to be a “better practice” than Round Robin reading?

Oh, the lovely basal readers. I can still remember the way the pages crackled when we opened them. In early elementary years, my teachers would employ the Round Robin style of reading, where each child in the room–in order–would read a paragraph of the story out loud–in order. Well, educators found out one day that many students were not comprehending what was read during this practice because kids were too busy counting paragraphs ahead to see which one would fall to them for reading aloud. Then kids spent the rest of their time practicing “their” paragraph silently instead of listening to their peers struggle through the story. Thus, no comprehension…who knew?

So teachers turned to the hot mess of Popcorn Reading when I was in junior high school. Oh the memories. I can testify that there was no comprehension here either. Students either lived in terror that they would be called to read the next paragraph about unknown STD’s and body functions and big words or they quickly crammed the next paragraph while their peer suffered through the current one. Still no comprehension.

I remember being called on at one point for Popcorn Reading in junior high school. It had to be the longest paragraph I’d ever seen and it was all about stuff I’d never heard of before. Even though I was a good reader, I had no background knowledge of the bodily functions that were so thoroughly laid out in the text, and amidst the twitters and whispers of my peers–and my own realization that I was making a mess of the vocabulary–, my voice started shaking warily and my forehead started sweating profusely…and I started running out of breath.

It was the one paragraph I prayed to not have to read aloud, and it was suddenly thrust on me. There was no comprehension that day. Only anxiety, embarrassment, and sweat.

Whether you had to participate in Round Robin, Popcorn Reading, or–blessedly–your teacher thought of more authentic ways for reading and comprehension, you all have a paragraph that you don’t want to read aloud. Or maybe a chapter. Or a whole book.

And so do I. We all do.

And it has nothing to do with Biology, Math, or History. It has to do with us. With our lives and our own choices.

No matter if you think your life has been grace-filled, full of blessing, or filled with sorrow, there are parts that you don’t like to relive. You can’t fathom ever having to read those paragraphs aloud…your palms start sweating, your breathing gets erratic, and your head starts swimming.

There are parts of our stories that we think can never be shared. We think they are too dark, too dirty, too messed-up, too ugly.

Image result for everyone has a chapter they don't read aloud

I have one myself. Probably a few! And, I have to admit, there is still no comprehension present in certain situations. I’m too terrified of what others would think…I can hear twitters, and whispers, and I start to sweat. No reading aloud. No comprehension.

WHY? I dare to ask the Author. The One who writes my story. How did that chapter even get in there? I don’t understand how I got to that situation, Lord…

And the Author…He whispers, in His infinite wisdom, in His gentleness, in His love…

Because you took the pen.

Oh, what joys and experiences and peace that I have missed! All because I took the pen from the very Author of my life. All because I thought I could write a better story for me than He could.

It’s hard, sometimes, giving that control back to the Father. Letting Him be the Author. It’s easy to say that I want Him to be in control of my life, but it’s another thing entirely to actually GIVE that control over to Him. As a matter of fact, I can’t even do that on my own strength. Sometimes I don’t even know that I’ve snatched it right out of His hands, until I hear that still small voice whisper to my heart.

Beloved, give Me the pen.

 

And I look down, and there in my white-knuckled grasp is the pen. The control that I longed for that has suddenly scribbled all over my pages and muddied them up. And suddenly, I don’t want the pen.

So I offer it up the One true Author of creation. The Author of my soul, of my life.

And He lovingly goes back over my scribbles and mistakes and makes them into a purposeful, lovely story ready to share with others.

Even the parts I didn’t want to read aloud. The parts that make my voice wobble and my eyes tear up. Those parts become some of the most important.

You have chapters like that too, don’t you, friend?

Give the pen back to the Author. It can be scary, I know. But He will make those chapters into such beauty that you won’t even recognize the ashes that lived there before.

And He may call on your heart to share that particular chapter with someone who is just waiting and needing to hear it. And suddenly, that chapter…the one you never wanted to read out loud? It will become the highlight of your story. One that you’ll want to share again and again.

That’s what the Author does. Give Him the pen.

 

“He will give a crown of beauty for ashes, a joyous blessing instead of mourning, festive praise instead of despair.” Isaiah 61:3 NLT

 

 

 

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When You Grew Up in a Small Church

First off, I love all kinds of churches. I have sung and spoken in a variety of churches across the board. Large ones, lively ones, quiet ones, and tiny ones. I’ve sung in churches with the coolest sound and light technicians, and I’ve shared in congregations where I’ve done my own sound from the pulpit. I love all kinds of churches.

I get a sick feeling when Christian brothers and sisters try to do the whole #mychurchisbetterthanyours thing. As the body of Christ, we are the church. We are one body worshipping the One True King, our Father.

My husband became a Christian and grew up, both spiritually and physically, in what would be considered a mega-church. He has some of the most wonderful memories there. Chris and I met when we were teenagers, and I loved going to his church with him. The activities, the worship music, the Word that was preached–it was awesome. The church of his growing-up years has reached innumerable people and places around the world with the message of Christ because of their wonderful blessings and resources. They are a beacon in our community and our state.

I did not grow up in a mega-church, although I attended one in my college years. The church that I attend now was actually my home church growing up. With the exception of some years that my dad was the Minister of Music at other churches and excluding the times we have been sharing music and words with other church families, I have been at Mt. Zion Baptist Church on Corner Road every Sunday morning, Sunday night, and Wednesday night when the doors opened.

And I know I’m not alone in this. All across America, people attend small churches. These churches dot the landscape. Their spires and steeples reach toward heaven, pointing to the Father of a united body of believers. Inside their walls are stories of redemption, of tears, laughter, and–yes–tradition.

Tradition does not have to be a scary word in churches today. As long as we are not slaves to tradition, the values that shaped our church history are still blessings to us. We can still follow the Holy Spirit’s leading and prompting and honor some traditions of our past.

Even if you attend a large church today, or a new, un-traditional church (which is awesome–there are wonderful ones in my area!), chances are you have been a part of a small church body at some point in your life.

My church is growing. As a matter of fact, I don’t even think we are a “small” church at all anymore. While we are no mega-church, there are new people and new programs being prayed over every week.  Some of the things that shaped my thoughts of “church” when I was a child are not done at my church anymore, sometimes because we are simply growing into a bigger congregation.

For those of us who were raised and guided up in a small-town church, the following things may bring back sweet, sweet memories; they may bring a laugh; and they may still be happening in your church family today!

Here are 10 things that I remember when I think of growing up in my small-town church:

1. The congregation sang Happy Birthday to you.

At the beginning of the month, the pastor asked all those who have a birthday in the month to stand up. When I was tiny, we even got to go and stand in front of the church and put our offering in the special church-house offering bank. Then the congregation would sing Happy Birthday to us. Hey–we’d even throw in a round of Happy Anniversary as well!

As we’ve grown, we now simply stand on the first Sunday of the month and the congregation claps for us when it’s our birthday/anniversary month. I stood last Sunday for my birthday, as a matter of fact. 🙂

2. You called adults Brother or Sister before their names. 

I’m sure someone much smarter, wiser, and just more knowledgeable than me can explain where this custom comes from. We still call our pastors and ministerial staff “Brother” before their names. I’ve even been called “Sister Paige” several times in the past, at my church and many others.

Like I said, I’m not sure that I could explain why we do this, but I think of my Christian family as what they Bible says we are: brothers and sisters in Christ. Therefore, we call each other so. While my church family doesn’t call each and every person “Brother” or “Sister” formally, we think of them as family in our hearts, and definitely treat them as loved ones.

3. You know all of Robert’s Rules of Order.

From the Church Business Meeting, of course. In other congregations named the Church Conference, this practice is how many churches make decisions. And we don’t just come into the room shouting out opinions and preferences…we use Robert’s Rules of Order. How many of you remember holding your hand up or yelling out “aye!” to pretend-vote as a child and thinking you were really doing something special? 😉

All those in favor, let it be known by an uplifted hand.

4. You got married and had the reception at church.

Many couples now opt to have their wedding/receptions at gorgeous venues that celebrate nature and seasonal offerings, but if you grew up in a small-town church, you may have chosen a different route.

The bridal tea, the pantry party, the rehearsal and dinner, the ceremony itself, and the reception was all held in one location: your church. Plus the fellowship hall. Which brings us to…

5. You use the fellowship hall for EVERYTHING.

Bridal teas, baby showers, birthday parties, anniversary dinners, graduation parties, you name it. If you need a spot to celebrate, the fellowship hall is your place. Our church, though we are growing steadily, still has a very functioning fellowship hall that we use all the time. It’s such a wonderful resource whenever we need it.

6. Nothing can excite your hunger like a church potluck dinner.

This was definitely something that my husband was not used to when we got married. He never could figure out my need  to be up front in the line when we had an after-church fellowship. I mean, you can’t miss out on Ms. Ruth’s chicken casserole or Ms. Peggy’s chocolate cobbler, okay? And if you’ve got to stand your ground in line, so be it! 🙂

Seriously, though, there is just something so special about sharing a table, sharing a meal, and sharing fellowship with your church family. My church still “fellowships” over many things, like Thanksgiving, Christmas, church plays (finger foods after the musical), Summer Ice Cream socials, and special speakers and preachers.

7. You know exactly who Lottie Moon and Annie Armstrong are.

These ladies and their work are just part of your Christmas and Easter offerings. You also know about Home Missions, Foreign Missions, and the International Mission Board (if you grew up in a Southern Baptist denomination). You can recite the Royal Ambassador pledge for boys, the Girls in Action pledge for girls, and you have the badges to prove it. You know the pledge to the Christian flag and the Bible, and memories of Vacation Bible School come to your heart as you recite them.

8. You used to (and still may) call the Worship Service “Big Church”.

When I was a tiny child, we actually had a part of our service called “Children’s Time,” where the kids went to the front of the church for a lesson from the pastor. While all of our parents watched us. Then, we went right back to our parents in the pew.

We started a new idea almost 30 years ago called Children’s Church, where the young kiddos had their own Worship Service in another area of the church. From this tradition came the habit of calling the adult service “Big Church”.

Now, honestly, I don’t know if Big Church is a small-town church thing or if it’s just a Mt. Zion Church thing, but this almost-34-year-old still calls the Worship Service “Big Church”…and so does just about everyone else at church!

9. You remember a place called the Cry Room.

Ours has long-since been converted to a Sound/Media Room, but way back when, it was a small room where Mamas could take crying babies and still listen to the sermon without disturbing the congregation. Before Children’s Church, it was a place that many a child longed to go, but many a mama said “Nope. That’s for the babies.”

10. You were in a Youth Group.

Most teenagers these days do not identify with a term called “Youth Group,” which is perfectly fine. This term has been replaced with Student Ministry, Student Praise Team, or cool things like Studio 312 or The Encounter. I think those names are wonderful, and they are changing with our changing times, but I will always remember my time as a teenager in the Youth Group and Youth Choir. On school breaks, we even went on Youth Trips and Youth Retreats. Our leaders were called Youth Directors or Youth Ministers. We put the word Youth in front of everything! My memories with the Youth Group are some of the best ones of my life. The accountability, growth, and learning that I gained from my Youth Group shaped who I am today.

 

I know there are many things I’m leaving out. I could probably go on for quite a while about Sunday School assembly, going “visiting”, church picnics and festivals, changing the attendance numbers, putting money in the jar because you were running in the sanctuary, and church rallies. And I can’t forget singing in Psalty 1, 2, and 3. Probably 4. Many of you who are reading this still may take part in the things mentioned above. My church still does some of them, along with new traditions as we are led.

I wouldn’t trade my upbringing in my small church for anything. I knew every day–and still know–that behind the traditions, the sayings, the programs, is a loving family. Yes, a family. My church family loves me and has supported me throughout my life because they love the Lord.

No matter how much our building will change, no matter how many people will come and go, one thing will always remain the same: our primary focus will be to serve God together and tell others about Him.

old church

When I look at this picture of my church as it was over 30 years ago, memories flood my heart. I can almost taste the crackers and koolaide from my earliest memories, offered to me by the most loving hands. Hands that dried my tears in the nursery and guided me through the Scriptures as a child. I can smell the waxy crayons and paint that I used in an activity that someone spent hours planning in order to show me the Word in a new way. I can still feel the polished pews from the old building, the one that many men and women scrimped and saved to fund and build. I can see the excitement on everyone’s face and hear the cheers as we broke ground on our new Sanctuary, and then our Family Life Center over a decade later, and then most recently a Children’s Building. I can hear the hymns of the ages–that never grow old–as they are sung by saints gone on to Heaven. And most importantly, I hear the voice of my Father, through the love of my church family. He’s whispering to me…

You belong here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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A Year in Kindergarten

It is August. I look around my classroom. The floors are clean and shiny, the crayons are perfectly in order, every toy and game piece and manipulative is in its place.  The chairs are pushed in, the computers are working, and the bulletin boards look beautiful. It is peaceful and quiet and organized.

Somehow a miracle happened the day before. In between faculty meetings, grade level meetings, meeting with parents in person who couldn’t make it to orientation night, and taking phone calls from parents who forgot to tell me about this allergy or that behavior issue, I actually finished my day’s list (I found this list the other day in my August folder…this was actually a to-do list to get done in one day).

list

My room is ready, but am I ready? This was my twelfth year to teach Kindergarten and I still woke up on the first day of school with butterflies in my stomach. 

God has called me to be a teacher, and He will equip me to be a teacher. 

He will help me teach 20 kids where the restrooms are; what the difference is between a boys’ restroom and a girls’ restroom; why boys and girls don’t use the same restroom. He will help me keep up with 20 kids when they all need to go to the bathroom at the same time; when they don’t know if they have snack, lunch, or snack and lunch in their lunchboxes. He will help me when they don’t know where their bus is, and there are 25 buses to choose from in 100 degree weather. And when all of these issues are settled, He will help me teach them to read, write, sing, count, and understand numbers!

It is the end of the first day of kindergarten. I look around my classroom. The floors are scuffed and marked…and did someone REALLY write their name on the floor on the first day of school?Really!?! How was I not looking?!? The red crayons (I only give one crayon on the first day—“until we get used to using them” I say…and we must not be used to it yet–I mean,  someone wrote on the floor and all…) are broken, missing their paper labels, and they are not all in the crayon pouches like we practiced. There are toys, game pieces, and manipulatives on my table that were “found” and for the life of me, I don’t know where their place is. Even if I did know where to put them, I’m not sure I can get up from this kid-sized chair I’m in. My teaching table is covered with registration papers, last minute notes from parents, a lunchroom checklist, First Day of School pictures checklist, and my bus chart.  Though the room is quiet, my ears seem to be ringing with the noise and activity that happened just a few moments earlier. 

And we start over again tomorrow. 

Can I do this?!? Why am I doing it?

Oh, yes. It’s those kids. The 20 boys and girls that I love already. The ones who already love me, even though some of them don’t yet like me. To some children, I’m the one who is making them sit a certain way, walk a certain way, and talk in a certain way for the first time–even if they don’t want to! We usually start school on a Thursday in my county, and the kindergarten teachers always notice that on Thursday and Friday our sweet little ones come skipping down the halls with a bright smile on their faces, ready for some school fun. But on Monday…well, on Monday, the honeymoon is over. They realize that this school thing is permanent, at least for the next 10 months, and we see lots of tears.

Eventually, the tears subside and the summer gradually fades into the crisp, colorful days of autumn. Both the students and I fall into a new school year, a new routine, and a wonderful relationship that I cherish from then on. Kindergarten students are, for the most part, quick learners. They learn SO much in a short year. I see kids that come into my room who don’t know how to hold a pencil, sit in a chair, sit “criss-cross applesauce” (they look like a pretzel the first few tries), and walk in a line. I see kids who don’t know how to count, read letters, and sometimes I see kids who don’t know what their name is. Sadly, I see kids who don’t know how to accept a hug or a high five. I see kids who don’t know how to show love. By the end of the year, I need to have taught these little ones to write correctly, read fluently, understand addition and subtraction, and to have self-control in any situation.

What a big responsibility this is. It is overwhelming and it is an honor. 

God has called me to do this, and He is equipping me to do this.

The autumn season is a fun season. We learn about change and leaves and community helpers. We learn about letters, sounds, and sight words. We learn about counting and number sense. And then a few things happen that send a little stress each kindergarten teacher’s way. We do our first report card. We have parent-teacher conference day. We sometimes have an open house. We do fall festivals. And we do that thing called Dress Up for Halloween and Get Candy and Cupcakes and Goody Bags But Still Have a Normal Day of Instruction. It’s the teacher’s “favorite”. 🙂

By Christmas break, my kiddos and I have our routine down pat. I am a very routine-oriented teacher, so they become the same. We learn about Christmas around the world, and we celebrate together in our own special way. We’ve gotten so used to each other that I really miss them over Christmas break, and I’d venture to say they miss me too!

In the early days of cold and frosty January, they come back and I am waiting at the door. Something happens to kindergarteners over Christmas break. Teachers sometimes call it Christmas Magic. The kids come back and they are more mature, somehow more thoughtful, and even more eager to learn. We get the privilege and the joy of seeing the “light come on” for so many kids this time of year. And it is truly a joy and privilege to witness.

By the time we have celebrated the one hundredth day of school, passed out valentines and shamrocks, and hunted eggs, we are all pros, kids and teachers alike!

The end of the school year is a blur of springtime fun. Kite day, Field day, Fun day, and Game day are the highlight of most kids’ school year. They are having so much fun that some of them are surprised when the year suddenly comes to the end. Sometimes we have kindergarteners that cry on the last day of school when they realize that they are not coming back to this classroom again as a student.

And now, it’s the end.

It is the end of the last day of school. The floors are scuffed and marked, though the kids and I swept well. There are a few game pieces and toys still hanging around that don’t have a place, and for the life of me, I can’t think of where they go. The crayons have all been sent home. My teaching table is covered with flowers, gifts, and notes written by my sweet kindergarten friends, in their special spelling, telling me they love me and that they hope I have a good summer. Telling me that they thought I was a good teacher. Telling me they will miss me.

card

It is still and quiet, but my heart is still singing with the happy noise and chatter from the year that happened in this very special place. 

And then I cry. 

I cry because I miss them already. I miss their sweet smiles, their loud singing and laughing, their happiness, the way they need me, and their love. I miss their “fun-ness” and their jokes and their voices.

A few years ago, I realized that when I kept telling others that I loved kindergarten, I wasn’t always being 100 percent honest. I was reading 1 Corinthians 13, and I saw a list about love. “Love is patient. Love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.” (13: 4-7) 

If this is love, did I really love being a teacher? Was I really showing love to my kids all the time at school? For that matter, was I showing love with my personal kids, my husband, friends, and in my Christian walk? This was, and still is, a set of verses that constantly challenges and inspires me to love the way that Jesus loves me. There are days when it is REALLY hard to show this kind of love. When kids aren’t being nice, when pressure is building because of test scores, when parents are unhappy. 

But God has called me to love, and He will equip me to do it.

If you are a student of mine now or in years past, know that Mrs. Givens loves you. I have high hopes for you all. I thank God, and I thank your parents and you for making my job such a joy and honor each year.

And to my current kiddos, I’m EXCITED to do FIRST GRADE with YOU! 


Jesus Loves Me, Adapted by Paige Givens, 2014

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