Learning to Breathe With My Sixth-Grader’s Teacher
(published with the permission of my son)
It is the day before my kids’ winter break begins here in Jerusalem. The house is quiet and I am chopping onions and carrots for soup. For the last two months, my son (I will call him S) has been struggling with some kind of stomach illness. He has missed a lot of school and he is most worried about having missed math because it is the subject with which he struggles. Also, his first-term report card will help determine what junior high he gets into.
So much depends on a good teacher. I’ve learned this time and again — as a student, a teacher, and a parent — and it still amazes me how true it is. I go to meet with S’s teacher and we sit down together in a classroom empty of children at the end of a school day on which S has been absent. The chairs are helter-skelter and you can practically still see the signs of movement in the odd angle of one desk to another, a jacket cast on the floor, pencils scattered on a desk, a locker door hanging slightly open. There are also rubber yoga balls in the corners of this very stuffed classroom and “pitot,” the rubber discs adults use in rehab to regain standing balance.
S’s teacher, Esty, is piloting a program that she has brought to the school in which the kids learn breathing techniques that they practice at the beginning of each lesson and whenever else she thinks they can use them. They practice the series before all their tests, too, and I’ve seen at the bottom of the first page of S’s tests, a small reminder to the kids to do the breathing independently before moving on to the next page. Esty also has them stretch and sometimes run outside between classes. The rubber yoga balls are available for kids any time they need to switch it up and get out of their small seats and the table they share with another kid. Apparently, kids are now used to recognizing when someone else needs a turn and they transfer the ball to the next kid at the end of the class session or whenever they are ready to get back into their chair. And the pitot they place behind their backs to help them sit up straight and focus their minds. There is one for every two kids.
If I were living in the United States in a strong school district or sending my kids to a progressive private school, these additions to classroom practice would strike me as pleasant, helpful, and responsive to kids’ needs. But I am living in Jerusalem, a poor city with an ever-shrinking budget for the needs of its young students. We send S to our local public religious school (you can choose religious or secular stream of public education). The biggest adjustment my American kids made when they moved here was recognizing that teachers here scream — a lot — for order in the classroom, and that managing more than thirty kids in a room seems to result in zillions of worksheets and hours of copying from the blackboard.
And so, in an overcrowded Jerusalem school with a pedagogy and plumbing straight out of the 1950s, Esty’s innovations strike me as nothing short of miraculous. A young religious woman with four kids of her own, Esty has brought these innovations to the school because she thinks they help kids concentrate and find some calmness. Your body and your mind work together, she tells them, and they can help each other. She tells the sixth-graders that they’re getting older now and that these practices are valuable strategies for life, especially when you feel stress or need to get back to a calmer feeling. And indeed, a few weeks ago, when I went in to say good night, S told me by-the-by that when he has trouble falling asleep, he usually tries the breathing patterns.
I sit down in this small classroom, where Esty teaches 34 kids for six and a half hours without an assistant. It is the end of a full day of teaching, but she is fully focused. We spend about 45 minutes talking. She wants to know what the medical situation is and when she asks whether it is all right to inquire whether I think there is an emotional component, I tell her that S feels a lot of stress about getting into junior high, that he does not feel confident, that he worries he is not a strong student. She looks at me as if I am crazy. In Hebrew (the language of instruction and also the language in which our conversation is taking place), she says to me, “You don’t understand that I see a different kid in the classroom. He’s a leader, all the kids like him and respect him, he is one of the boys who sets the tone, I seat him next to kids I know need help of many different kinds. There’s not a single class discussion where he doesn’t have valuable ideas to contribute.”
I explain to her that I’ve come in also to talk about a recent diagnostic test we have done for S. We’ve known for years that he is a kid with an exceedingly dramatic split between his strengths and his weaknesses; in fact a split this dramatic is statistically very rare. One result of this split is that S’s strengths are so strong they can sometimes obscure just how much work he is doing simply to stay in place in his areas of difficulty. When it comes to big ideas, to concepts, to conversations and stories and meaning, S is a gifted kid; he couldn’t be more capable when it comes to his capacity to analyze and synthesize what he learns through a narrative, and what he hears spoken.
But when it comes to visual and spatial thinking, or to factual material that is not embedded in a story, he may well be one of the weakest kids in the class if he doesn’t get support. He has very slow processing speed and poor working memory: it will take him at least a few second longer than other kids to process directions or to interpret a math problem. If the problem has more than two parts, he may well get lost in the middle. He reads more slowly and often needs to re-read words or phrases, even full lines, to take in meaning.
There is lots we, his parents, have learned over the years about his strengths and weaknesses, but the main thing S feels is: SLOWNESS. In a world where fast is smart, and being at the head of the class means having your hand up immediately and your worksheet completed first, it is really hard to be slow. So what that if you want to be an artist or an inventor or a philosopher, being slow may be a great advantage? S is hardcore fast on the basketball court, intuitively fast in grasping social dynamics, and races in Track for his class. He hates being slow in the classroom. Who can blame him?
I tell Esty all this — some of it we have discussed before — and immediately she takes in how much work S must be doing to do what other kids do without much effort. Reading two pages is more like reading six pages for him. (It’s taken us, his parents, years to internalize that it’s the truth when he says he’s exhausted after reading a chapter of a novel.) Doing a sheet with twenty math problems is basically a marathon. Any long assignment will get harder the farther he gets.
Esty gets out a little datebook/notebook, her “yoman,” a cross between a personal and professional journal. This isn’t the US where you can get an official IEP, an individualized education plan. Here, we have the teacher’s yoman. She pencils down S’s name and we start to list the things she can do to make life better for S.
I have a list of five suggestions from the private educational consultant we hired (a luxury of which I am acutely aware and appreciative), but before I get to number two, it’s clear that Esty is generating her own list and she might as well be S’s educational consultant. (She has already taken my copy of the evaluation and put it aside for reading later.) She realizes that if she is testing to see whether they understand a certain concept in math that he only needs to show her twice rather than five times that he gets it. She realizes that in long division, it will help him to jot down the acronym for steps before he begins, rather than just keep the acronym in his mind as yet another thing to remember. I tell her it may be the case he will get the entire process right in a complicated problem but then compute eleven minus four as six. She, in turn, notes down that for certain kinds of problems, a calculator might be useful.
We both recognize that a shorter test is much more likely to showcase what he knows but the fashion in schools here is for long tests of eight or nine pages. I suggest that if he takes a long test in two parts, he is much more likely to score highly because he will be less tired when he sits down to do part two and less stressed about how long it has already taken him to reach the midpoint. Esty intuits that if he is sitting next to his best friend who is super speedy, it can only have negative effects. She asks me what he would think about taking the test outside the classroom?
And the conversation continues, the two of us thinking together about how to support S without making him feel less capable than he is. I ask her how to talk about the speed issue with S. She looks at me again, very easily, and she says, “We need him to understand we’re not testing for speed. You can test for lots of things. There are areas where speed is critical. And then that would be the thing that matters. But in mathematical thinking we want to know that he has understood the logic. How fast he works isn’t really relevant.” If he needs to know how to do something really quickly or quickly enough, she will let him know, but for now, he should just catch his breath and so long as he understands what he’s doing, he should just take whatever time he needs to do that thing.
As I talk to Esty, I understand more deeply why S nominated her this year for an award from the Jerusalem Ministry of Education.
When I asked S about whether kids — eleven-year-old tweens, on the cusp of adolescence — laughed when Esty taught them the breathing patterns, he said, “No, not really. Everyone respects her.” That simple. But it was clear to me from talking to her, that she respects them. And that is why they respect her.
S told me something else, too. He said, “She always gives kids another chance. She never just kicks someone out because she doesn’t know what to do next, like other teachers. She wants everyone to succeed. If someone is acting badly, she’ll talk to them.”
Not revolutionary, I know. But there is talking and there is talking. After my conversation with S’s teacher, my own stomach felt better. My own anxiety — that I hadn’t even been fully aware I was feeling — began to ebb and I remembered yet again the difference it makes to every kid to feel you have an ally in your teacher. I found myself energetic, hopeful, in the way that being understood and heard can make you feel. And I remembered too what one mom in S’s class had said on the class WhatsApp group when we had found out that she would be their homeroom teacher: Esty, she wrote, is a teacher with “light in her eyes.”
Yes, she is. And the light travels. (Happy last-night-of-Chanukah to those celebrating)