The week before Thanksgiving, a colleague passed me  with the kind of eye-roll that experienced teachers reveal only when things are truly out-of-sorts.  The teacher who shared this expression did so with a characteristic smile and exhale that told me she understood where the misdirected behavior was coming from.  Even if she didn’t feel like it was under control, most of the world believed she had things masterfully balanced to unfold and expand learning just the way it should, because she did.

Later I stopped to ask her how things were going.  Her reply was, “Ya know… I was thinking about my class and this time of year, and actually, it was the Responsive Classroom newsletter, that made it make sense.  We need the break. Until then, I’m just going to….”  I chuckled along with her and applauded her detective efforts.  Her ability to put solid strategies in place to help everyone not just survive, but thrive, in the lingering days until the week-long break was clear.

I also secretly thought, “Gosh, my guys aren’t like that now. Pretty lucky for us…” But any teacher can tell you, we all have those days. And my “day” arrived the week after our vacation.  By day three, I was in diagnostic-mode.

December arrived with  stormy winds and rain, and threw a wrench into our field trip plans. So as we met with teachers and administrators to make last a minute decision on whether or not to transport children 30 miles away into a storm, my brain was also processing how this unexpected glitch would further interfere with the difficulties we were having with transitions and remembering to “do the rules.”  It clearly wasn’t going to help, or would it?

I had been noticing and journaling the deviations, searching for patterns or triggers. Not surprisingly, transitions were our downfall. When a class has trouble making a transition, there’s a domino effect. Signals are unheeded. Reminders ignored. We’re  late. Or unprepared (physically and mentally). Conflicts arise. Stress increases. The rules seem to erode.

As I noticed these changes, I began to comment more on what I noticed, careful to articulate precisely what I saw them remembering to do well, but not offering hollow praise (“Good job!“).  When children hear you noticing (“I see that you remembered to put all of  your writing materials away. Now you are ready to wash up for lunch.”), that also has a domino effect.  When it was hard (or impossible) to see what was working well, I reminded individuals that I had faith in their abilities and knew they could do better. I asked what they thought was interfering with the normal tenor or quality of work and play.  Not surprisingly, they often knew and were then empowered to make the changes themselves.

So on the morning we had to re-group and re-plan the day, I rifled through Susan Lattanzi Roser’s book Energizers! 88 Quick movement Activities That Refresh and Refocus.  earlier in the week, I had read about her game “The Laughing Handkerchief.” That was going to be our saving grace on this wet, wet morning.

I taught my third graders this game at our Morning Meeting,  They giggled, and cackled and roared and howled, and accepted that the much-anticipated field trip would happen in the new year.  I asked if they could guess why I picked that particular  new game.  The usual answers came up – “It’s fun!” “It’s new!”   But one deep-thinking almost-nine-year-old said, “well, in the game you have to know when to stop and do something else like the transitions we were practicing.”  He really was not a plant!

So here it was – defined simply but clearly.  Laughing like a clown (or Santa or mice or whatever) while the scarf floats but watching carefully so you know to stop once it hits the floor, is a lot like making transitions happen smoothly.  Another child pointed out it’s “like changing your energy from high energy stuff to quiet energy.  Like (deep)  breathing (exercises) and yoga stuff we do.” Yeah, yeah…they got it!

The connection between observing what’s slipping, practicing rules and routines and then engaging children so that they want to do their best was nestled in the “Laughing Scarf.”  We practiced the game for a few more days and have been pulling it out intermittently since then.  We even had a few other folks join us as we took a break from our holiday concert rehearsals last week.

The next several days will surely bring an increase in excitement and energy as the holidays and vacation approach. Similarly, the transition in January is likely to resemble a mini version of the first six weeks of school. But I know we can remind ourselves and practice the routines and expectations we’ve established, and that we can re-grip and move forward.

Besides being a good lesson in changing energy, voice volume, and tasks, the Laughing Handkerchief (Roser’s title) is hilarious opportunity to just let a solid belly laugh rip. And often, laughter is the best medicine.

For other ideas and energizers, check out these resources and ideas:

Energizers! 88 Quick Movement Activities That Refresh and Refocus

Handling the Holidays (Part 1)

Seeing It All Come Together

Keeping Routines Crisp

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